Medical school admissions: Patience is a virtue

For patients, being patient can be the most difficult part of receiving health care. For some, this ends in the waiting room, but others, unfortunately, anxiously await insurance approval, test results, surgery, transplants, and sometimes — even death.

However, in medicine, patients aren’t the only ones who need patience. It’s important that physicians learn to be patient as well; something that is much easier said than done for many type A pre-meds. However, from the minute they submit applications to medical school, candidates begin to learn patience and how it is a virtue. Indeed, the application process is notorious for keeping applicants waiting.

Medical schools operate by a rolling admissions process in which students may hear back anytime within nine months of submitting their application. Therefore, a medical school applicant may hear back mere weeks to many months later that they were either granted an interview, were not granted an interview, or (everyone’s personal favorite) that the decision whether to give him/her an interview would be made later (on-hold).

This means that students will subsequently have to wait days to months to interview and then even longer to hear a “final” admission decision, which may, in fact, be that no admission decision has been made yet (decision deferred) or (most commonly) that their application has been added to the waitlist. Many schools actually use the waitlist as a softer way to reject students that were initially granted interviews, evidenced by the fact that several to zero students are taken off the waitlist at these programs. Unfortunately, these students are left compulsively checking their emails for a letter that will never come.

Perhaps this waiting process will lead matriculated students to be grateful for the spot they receive, subsequently motivating students to learn and view the rigors of a life in medicine as a gift. This outlook could be advantageous for students embarking on an arduous training process, followed by a demanding career. Moreover, such a process necessarily selects applicants with the dedication and perseverance to endure these waiting periods.

Furthermore, patience is a crucial quality for time-pressed practicing physicians, as it is undoubtedly needed for navigating the day-to-day complexities of the health care system. Patience becomes even more important when interacting with patients, especially those experiencing hardships. These situations demand patient compassion: taking the time to listen, providing additional explanations, and giving patients the time to process their situations. In this way, patience becomes central to providing proper patient care.

Conversely, subjecting applicants to excessive waiting periods may be an unnecessary source of additional stress and anxiety for aspiring physicians. Stress and anxiety are not benign and are associated with significant social and physiological drawbacks that must be considered before subjecting applicants to this process.

For instance, applicants may develop unhealthy coping skills or avoid social environments due to fear of explaining being waitlisted or rejected. Further, such stress early on in training may contribute to high burnout rates, career dissatisfaction, and high suicide rates observed amongst physicians and those in training. For these reasons it is important to ask, would a system without extensive, ambiguous waiting be a more humane alternative to the current system? After all, if medical students are expected to be compassionate, shouldn’t the medical education system lead by example?

Joshua Newman is a medical student.

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