I recently read this article by William Deresiewicz called Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League and thought it was well-written and fascinating. Even though it didn’t directly apply to premeds, I thought the points addressed by Deresiewicz are things that premeds should keep in mind.
Let me first say that I do not agree with everything that is said in this article. To do so would essentially prove the author’s point. Nevertheless, I would highly encourage reading this article to anyone who is interested in becoming a physician because it hits a couple of key points that I completely agree with.
When speaking of institutions like Harvard, Stanford, Williams, and other elite universities, Deresiewicz said this:
“Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
I believe that this statement is the heart of this article. And unfortunately, it may very well be true. As a college student at UCLA, I was so tempted to put my head down and bull through college so that I can get to the next step: medical school. As a freshman, I looked around my chemistry classes of more than 400 people and asked myself, “These are all the people I have to compete against?” When I got my first B- in more than 7 years after my first quarter at UCLA, I balked. How could this happen? I was too used to success. I had become, as Deresiewicz would say, an “entitled little shit”. (don’t know if you want this LOL)
Our generation is great at figuring out the “what”. We are smart, talented, and driven. As Deresiewicz mentions, if we are asked to memorize something, we do it easily, like trained soldiers. We treat our premed classes like they are a race to memorize everything in our way. But this methodology is a one-way street to developing tunnel vision, ready to accomplish the next goal at hand. And what is at the end of the tunnel? A prize that we think we crave, even though we are not exactly sure why. Then, when we don’t get the prize, we kick and scream and complain that it’s not fair.
If you are a college premed, I’m sure you understand what I’m talking about. I’ve been there. You may loathe your research position, but you do it because the majority of medical schools look for people who do research. You pull an all-nighter to study for a final and you curse the professor after getting a B in the class. Some of you are not entirely sure you want to become doctors, but you chug down the premed route anyway. I mean, what else are you going to do?
“Experience itself has been reduced to instrumental function, via the college essay. From learning to commodify your experiences for the application, the next step has been to seek out experiences in order to have them to commodify. The New York Times reports that there is now a thriving sector devoted to producing essay-ready summers, but what strikes one is the superficiality of the activities involved: a month traveling around Italy studying the Renaissance, “a whole day” with a band of renegade artists. A whole day!”
According to Deresiewicz, as we lust after the “prize” that is at the end of the tunnel (in his example, it is a college admission, but in the premed’s case, it is admissions to medical school), we turn experiences into weapons and commodities. We serve others because it will look good on our application. We travel abroad because we think it’ll be a unique experience that will help us stand out from other medical school applicants. Often times, we forget to stop and think and ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?”
||Read: Develop Compassion Before Medical School||
What happened to experience for experience sake? What happened to service for service sake? Why does everything have to be a means to an end rather than an end in itself? Deresiewicz’s argues that we can be so obsessed with being in the top 1% that we often forget what makes us truly unique: being ourselves.
I don’t think elite universities are evil places, nor do I think premeds are bad people. I’m actually fairly confident that premeds are not bad people because my medical school classmates are awesome. But, unfortunately both elite universities and premeds have the bad reputation of simply looking out for number one (play on words: don’t tell me you haven’t checked US News to see which college and/or medical school is ranked first; spoiler, it’s Harvard). With that being said, let’s learn something from Deresiewicz’s essay and make a change.
High schoolers, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to Harvard. College premeds, I’m not saying that you should stop doing research. What I am saying is that in everything we do, we must take time to examine our motives. Wanting to go to Harvard Medical School because it’s ranked number one in research on US News is not a good reason to go to Harvard. Trust me, that’s why I applied there and now I feel pretty stupid. Let’s not be controlled by society or external pressures, instead let “affluence, credentials, and prestige” be what they truly are: secondary outcomes that come as a result of pursuing the primary. Let us pursue truly important things such as self-discovery, confident humility, serving our follow man, genuine passion, robust intellectual and emotional curiosity, self-expression, relationships, and love. Hopefully by doing this, we can become doctors who value our patients over our promotions.