It’s them, not you: the journey of applying to medical school

I hopped out of the elevator and looked at my watch. I was 20 minutes early. My heart was pounding in my ears, and my brain felt suddenly disconnected. I was standing outside of the office of a prestigious surgeon in a prestigious hospital, waiting to be interviewed for a spot as a medical student in a prestigious medical school. I checked my watch again: 19 minutes early. Being early is an art, instilled upon me as a child when I was 5 minutes early to birthday parties. Being too early, however, is a nuisance. I decided to occupy a small corner in the hallway to pass the time, smiling politely at exiting patients who note my full suit accessorized with subtle breathing exercises. I peer out of the small window next to me, my eyes darting around the mosaic of white coats and blue scrubs below me. Maybe one day that will be me, I thought. Elevator noises mimicked my emotions: up and down, up and down. The pressure of this interview was paralyzing. Imposter syndrome had already started plaguing me about a month prior — when I got rejected from eight schools in only one week — with many more eventually trickling in. I wanted this opportunity so badly, but I feared never being worthy if I actually got the chance. Either way, the coin flipped, I would have to reconcile sharp feelings. 

I take a deep breath and straighten my suit; it is finally time to be politely early. I walk into the office, and before I can utter a word, the office assistant already knows why I am here. She escorts me into the massive corner office, while relaying that the surgeon was running a little late due to a case. I am greeted by 24 award certificates — I counted — hung all around the office perimeter. Hefty degrees adorn the center of the room, and neat stacks of surgery textbooks grace the mahogany desk across from my seat. I am in the presence of a legend. It’s like having a court case with God to plead your entrance into heaven. 

One hour and two firm handshakes later, it is over. As I gather my bag and coat, the surgeon turns to me again. I fear the hint of a verdict. Kind words fill the room — compliments that I can’t believe belong to me. I express my gratitude a million times before he interjects with a somber tone. The surgeon cites his experience with the process, explaining that decisions are often entangled with politics and connections. There is a suffocating silence in the room now. The last words he said to me were, “I will fight for your application. It won’t be a reflection of you if you don’t get in.” 

As the elevator doors closed, I was embraced by a sense of foreboding as to what type of letter I would receive. As a child of war refugees, the harshest lesson I ever learned was that the American Dream is not a well-rounded meritocracy. It was the most painful rejection I ever received in my entire life. The shame was exacerbated by being so close: I didn’t just lose the championship game, I lost by a missed shot at the buzzer. 

Reflecting back on the ordeal of applying to medical school, I remember the compulsive grammar checks on my primary application and the near bankruptcy from submitting secondary essays. While there is an abundance of advice on the details of applying, there is limited support for the emotional burden that results. The application cycle is a bizarre, humbling process. You will never know why one school decided to interview you over another. Some interviews will feel effortless; you may confidently walk out only to be rejected a few weeks later. Some interviews will be an unsettling nightmare, but you may still get the golden ticket. 

My best advice is to apply broadly to a variety of schools. Research different mission statements and curricula, on top of the stats that often seem to drive our decision-making. Applying is expensive and time-consuming, so it is wise to narrow your list as much as possible. However, I would invest in yourself and apply to a couple of schools that may seem out of your reach; yes, even if your premed advisor rolls their eyes when you tell them. I have witnessed the most unpredictable things happen both in my cycle and those of my peers. Shoot your shot (in a fiscally responsible way). 

Adding on, choose wisely who you share this journey with. The process is competitive, and it can bring out the worst in people. I would suggest picking a few close friends, ideally those who are not premed. It is an addicting trap to compare yourself to other friends or classmates applying, especially since you will probably overlap in which schools you are applying to. You will already be stressed- there is no need to compound it. Curiosity is dangerous, and a sense of privacy during this time is an understated gift. 

Lastly, remember that the only thing you can do is try your best. You worked hard to get to this point. The numerous prerequisite classes, the grueling MCAT, the hours spent shadowing, and volunteering: They all led to submitting that primary application. Whether you get admitted into a “prestigious” medical school, your last choice, or none at all- congratulate yourself for having the grit to make it this far. Whatever the outcome, remember that it won’t always be a reflection of you if you don’t get in. 

Vanya Vojvodic is a medical student.

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