For the over 6,500 candidates who applied to Canadian medical schools this cycle, the term “admissions” has taken on a whole new meaning. For some, the word has become a kind of divine judgment — a determinative force defining the individual’s value or worth. For others, a long road of struggle has led them to acceptance of the next step in their career. To most, however, the word has morphed into a menacing dragon, which many have taken on the heroic responsibility to slay. It’s no wonder that young students from as early as high school begin to prepare for this trying journey — taking MCAT prep courses and finessing highly coveted research positions as flask cleaners and abstract readers. A glimmering treasure is guarded behind the medical school admissions process, and many of these ambitious young adults want a piece of it. I, too, want a piece.
But what really is the moral of the story when a high-achieving, hard-working student earns their spot in medical school? We can read into these tales of accomplishment through one of two lenses: outcome or process.
By focusing on outcomes, we appraise the value of actions and events by their end result. This line of thinking proves extremely useful where specific actions predicate specific results: If we put in hours of work at a full-time job, we will be furnished with a hard-earned paycheck every two weeks. However, as actions become nested in more complex networks of factors and effects, outcome-oriented thinking looks more and more like a guessing game.
Take cheating, for example. While it’s easy to see the direct effects of cheating on a test on the resultant grade, it’s far more difficult to know the effect it will have on the individual’s attitude and relationship with their peers, teachers, the academic system, and ultimately, society as a whole. Some will take a successful instance of cheating as permission to cheat later on — others will never dare to cheat again. The system might appear more fallible in the eyes of the cheater, and the cheater may be inspired to amend it — and so forth.
How does this translate to the medical school admissions process? More often than not, we are quick to judge a person based on outcomes alone — it is, after all, the easiest way to characterize someone. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if an unsuccessful applicant was deemed a failure by herself and her peers. We cannot write this off as an oversimplification. When an applicant has been told throughout their lives that they’re competent and well-respected by their peers, this kind of thinking is rather automatic. Yet, we know this branding of failure couldn’t possibly be all there is to someone who has the courage to pursue medicine.
What happens when we look beyond the outcome at hand? Many questions and doubts certainly arise are some medical students actually intelligent and hard-working, or are they really great at working the system? Are some unsuccessful candidates unfit to be doctors or simply unfit to be medical school students? The bottom line is that we are not able to make a holistic judgment about anyone based on one or a few outcomes.
A focus on process values many things outside of just the outcome, encompassing personal and moral growth, as well as emotional and intellectual maturity. The many successes and accomplishments that an individual achieves in pursuing a goal are not discolored by whatever outcome they obtain. The countless hours spent on the journey of self-growth are not squandered simply because the destination isn’t the one that was anticipated. Even when we don’t get what we want, we must pick ourselves back up and try again, stronger than before.
Process is forever ongoing; outcomes are situated at points in time. It’s unreasonable to remain fixated on an outcome that has passed, that is occurring, or that will come in the future. Surely these outcomes are important, but how important can one admission letter be compared to the lifetime of relationships built, impacts on the community made and life experience earned? If we really want to know just how valuable an acceptance to medical school is, then we will have to dive a lot deeper into what the individual has gained in going through the process. And more often than not, there is a host of treasure there waiting to be found.
Samuel Wu and Paul Lee are health science students and can be reached on Twitter, respectively, @samuelwu_ and @munillee.
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