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Admissions Angst for Future Physicians

By June Shih

Number two pencils. Teacher Recommendations. The Personal Essay. The Interview.

For students who stressed about their applications to Harvard College four years ago, applying to medical school can seem like a frightening case of deja vu.

Except it's worse. This time, Mom and Dad aren't around to hold your hand. This time, you'll have to make your own plane reservations. This time, you'll have to wake yourself up for the 5 a.m. plane, arrange ground transportation to the medical school campus, and, of course, make sure you have clean clothes for the interview.

Meanwhile, back on campus, five centuries of Chinese history will pass in Foreign Cultures, while you're off in Los Angeles explaining for the eighth time why, exactly, you want to be a doctor.

According to the experts, it's much easier to get into medical school than it was 10 years ago. But students applying this year say the process doesn't seem less stressful. Many, like Jeffery S. Powell '91, planned their schedules this fall with a tough application process in mind.

"This is the first year that I'm taking classes pass/fail because I knew I wouldn't be able to devote as much time to classes as I normally would," says Powell, a biology concentrator.

For applicants, the sheer volume of applications is a formidable task in itself. Leverett House pre-med tutor Cheryl L. Dorsey says the average student applies to 12 schools, and many apply to more.

For instance, Powell is applying to 16 different schools, Ann Goh '91 is appying to 18, and Cathy Petti '91 is applying to 19. And as Judy Melinek '91, who sent out 14 applications herself, notes, those numbers don't even approach the records.

According to Melinek, some students are applying to 20 and 25 schools. The Quincy House record, she says, is 50.

Powell says all those applications mean a lot of time, much of which is spent on meaningless busywork. "There are always small errands to run and forms that need to be typed up and sent in," he says.

Horror Stories

Pencil pushing, however, is not even the biggest source of anxiety. Unlike most colleges, the bulk of medical schools require on-campus interviews with students whom they are seriously considering.

There are, of course, the horror stories. Melinek says she heard about an interviewer at the University of California-San Diego who asked an applicant if she had any friends. When the applicant answered "yes," describing her friends in the House, the interviewer shot back, "I don't mean acquaintances, I mean friends."

For Craig L. Katz '91, one of the tougher questions was a hypothetical one. The interviewer pretended he was former President Franklin D. Roosevelt '04, and said he had just suffered a series of small strokes at the Yalta conferences. The interviewer asked Katz to diagnose him, and then make a decision on whether or not to publicize the diagnosis.

"Interviewing is an emotional time, but [premeds] wouldn't sit through it or go if they didn't want to do it," says Katz.

Still, applicants agree with Dorsey's estimate that the horror stories are more "lore as opposed to truth."

"Interviews are pretty basic," says Steve M. Kawut '91. "It just seems that some interviewers get to the real you more effectively than others."

"Most interviewers know that they are putting you on the spot...and are quite docile and helpful," adds Katz, who has already had eight interviews.

Frequent Fliers

What actually irritates the applicants are not the picky questions, but the ordeal of travelling around the country for interviews.

"Interviewing is very easy...the annoying part is the travel," says Alice Peng '91.

"I've gotten to know the travel agents at Crimson Travel very well," says Powell, a veteran of nine interviews.

Actually, Powell has been one of the lucky ones. Because he has no classes on Friday, he has been able to avoid missing too many classes.

"Most people I know have missed quite a bit," he says.

But the travel can be important for building first-hand impressions. Powell says what he saw at one medical school convinced him that it was not the place for him.

"They were so stressed there that the guy I stayed with had already developed an ulcer. He bought a fish tank to calm him down. That definitely gave me a negative impression of the school," he said.

Kawut says he thinks campus visits are important, because they allow applicants to see the kind of students different schools attract. Kawut, for one, says he hopes to avoid "geeky pre-medish student bodies" and is looking for "diverse, human and interesting" ones.

The travel has other benefits, too. As Powell says, "I've gotten to see places I've never seen before."

But such extensive travel can be costly, and that's only the beginning of the financial burdens. Application fees, which run from $60-100; Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) prep courses, which cost around $600; postage and other miscellaneous expenses can add up to a hefty $2000 in total expenses per student.

Schools will waive application fees for needy applicants, but most students end footing the whole bill. So it's little wonder that many pre-meds say tuition is one of, if not the main, criteria for selecting a medical school.


Still, many applicants say the hardest part of the application process is the wait.

The process can begin as early as July, when students begin sending applications. But the deadlines range from October to January, and many schools do not notify until the spring. So that leaves most applicants with nothing but wait and worry for several months.

Dorsey says she tries to reassure nervous applicants: "I tell them to remember that number one, they are Harvard students, 95 to 98 percent of students [from Harvard] get into a medical school," says Dorsey.

But Goh says she is far from reassured when people tell her that she will probably get in to certain schools. "I don't know what `probably will' means," she says.

Some, like Melinek, say they are not too stressed about which schools accept them. They say they are determined as ever to become doctors.

"I'm going to be a doctor no matter what--even if I have to go to the University of Guatemala," Melinek says.

Others, however, say they are eager to put the whole process behind them.

"Everything feels pretty vague by now," Goh says. "I'm waiting till this whole process is over."

"I try not to think about it," Peng, a biochemistry concentrator, says. "Next semester, I plan to take, if possible, no science courses."

Why Bother?

So why go through such hassle just to experience more stress-filled all-nighters as medical students?

"I grew up with medicine--a natural extension of my existence," Melinek says. "I'm doing it because I consider it the most challenging profession.

It's something that stimulates me emotionally." adds Melinek, who calls other challenging professions just "intellectual bubble gum."

"Dealing with life and death situation gives me the sensation of constantly being alive," she says. "For me, the most real you get is medicine. You're dealing with the most basic parts of humanity."

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