The Well-Performing Slacker

When people ask me what I was like in high school, I always say I was the well-performing slacker.

Even if I did well enough, was I ambitious? Nah, I don’t think so. For me, someone becomes ambitious by setting challenging personal goals and achieving them.

I didn’t set any goals for myself, I just did the bare minimum to do well – teacher’s rounding an 89.5 to an A was my best friend. But it’s not that I didn’t like school. I loved the discussion based classes and learning about new stuff. But unlike some of my classmates who were freaking out about standardized tests and applications and getting into an amazing college. I just didn’t give a shit. I was perfectly happy going to my state school – college just seemed another mandatory learning that all of us do (not going to college isn’t really an option for Indians).

I don’t think any of my teachers liked me compared to my more perfectionist, college-focused classmates. I probably seemed lazy (especially when I stopped bringing a backpack to school during my last semester of senior year).

But things changed once I graduated high school. I started wanting to set challenging goals for myself. FYI: I got into a combined program at the end of my sophomore year and I’m starting medical school in a week.

I know my parents were pleasantly surprised. And I’m sure my teachers would have been to. Looking back to how complacent I had gotten by the end of senior year, I honestly am.

It’s true, like Steve Jobs said, you can’t really connect the dots till you look back. So after reading about the 4 tendencies, I now know why I wasn’t ambitious in my education/career, I realized I was a questioner – I needed my own answers to why I should achieve certain goals before I wholeheartedly accomplished them.

The Questioner

What changed for me during college is that I started to actively try to find answers to my questions.

I always hated the feeling of not knowing the purpose of what I was doing.

And I hated the feeling that the pre-med process felt like a mindless checklist to tick off as complete.

For me to succeed in my quest to become a physician, I needed my own answers for why med schools value the main criteria: GPA, MCAT, Shadowing, Volunteering, Research, Leadership, and Letters of Recommendation.

I realized that the best way to answer these questions was by creating the following mental scenario:

Scenario: Imagine that you are an on the admissions committee several years in the past, before the current criteria was used to select students into medical school. When the admissions committee saw the first applicant who really excelled in a specific criteria, what characteristics stood out?

For example, research: A generation ago, most applicants didn’t need research experience to get into medical school. now it’s become a norm. But, this criteria wasn’t picked randomly, when the first undergrad student who really excelled in research applied, he/she must have wowed the admissions committee so much for X,Y,Z reasons. Because the characteristics were so prized, future competitive applicants also pursued research. Eventually, research became an integral part of the pre-med process.

For me, these explanations de-checklist the pre-med process. Admissions committees aren’t just randomly adding more requirements to make it more competitive. Each criteria is added logically, and serves a purpose. Understanding this purpose, gave me the drive to ambitiously succeed. If you’re a questioner like me, this might help you too.

These are my reasons why the basic pre-med criteria is essential.

GPA:

  1. You have the commitment to follow through on your coursework. Whatever you have on your plate, you accomplish.
  2. Showcase proficiency in a subject – You’ll never be an expert in a topic by acing a pre-med course, but what you will show is that you can understand science. Med schools being so heavily based on the basic sciences, you need to show that you can understand those.

MCAT

  1. Standardize the assessment of your knowledge in the pre-med courses – There is so much variability between teachers, courses, and schools to accurately compare a grade on one student’s transcript to another. Because individually assessing your competence would be extremely inefficient, the standardized test is the next best indicator.
  2. Objectively test a certain level of your analytical skills – The MCAT uses prior knowledge from your pre-med courses, to create questions that are just one step outside your level of expertise. The only way to solve these questions is to logically and analytically use your prior understanding of the basic content to deduce the answer. This is extremely useful, because in medical school and as a physician, you’ll never have all the information before providing a diagnosis and treatment, therefore, you will have to use this same strategy to effectively provide care.

Shadowing:

  1. Dedication to making informed decisions
  2. Patient interaction: Can you deal with gross anatomy, difficult conversations, depression, death?
  3. Understand why you want to treat, heal, and educate patients.

Volunteering

  1. Understand the subtleties in life that contribute to your happiness
  2. Providing your best work even when financial payment isn’t involved
  3. Depending on the activity, can indicate the ability to communicate with underprivileged & diverse individuals, who potentially are the majority of your future patients

Leadership

  1. Experienced communication, dedication, & organization towards achieving a group goal. Teamwork is essential in healthcare
  2. An opportunity to showcase creativity by creating a new service, product, event, within an organization. (ex: a cappella song writer or bioethics competition founder)

Research

  1. Ability to critically take skills and knowledge to the unknown area of science
  2. Creatively produce a research method and insight which showcases ingenuity
  3. Professionalism and work-ethic

Letters of Recommendation

  1. You gain “believability” when other believable people say you’re believable
  2. Essential for medical schools to get a sense of an applicant’s personality and character without the cost of interviewing

The Poker Analogy

Once I understood the reasons why these criteria were valued, med school admissions didn’t seem so unrealistic. It didn’t feel like it was a checklist that I just had to mindlessly check off. Rather, it made sense.

A circle brings up an analogy of every point on the edge being equidistant from the center – implying that each part of your application is equally important. But, some things are clearly worth more than others. You can’t reasonably expect to make up for awful GPA and MCAT scores by having exceptional research.

Instead of being well-rounded, I think poker is the better analogy.

For instance, in poker, you wager money in 3 different instances. The buy-in, the blinds, and the actual wagers. The buy in is a huge amount you have to prove you have just to play the sit at the table, the blinds are smaller amounts that are still mandatory, and the wagers are really how you win or lose the game.

In the same way, the pre-med criteria follows the same logic.

Buy-in: GPA/MCAT

Blinds: Shadowing/Volunteering

Wagers: Leadership/Research/Letters of Recommendation

Unlike criteria being equally important in the “well-rounded” analogy, the poker analogy means that each criteria has its own weight, and some are necessary to get your foot in the door to be considered, but don’t guarantee success. That’s why it makes sense that even with a 3.8 GPA & a 39 (523) MCAT, 6.9% of Asians don’t get into medical school.They probably didn’t meet the rest of the criteria – allowing other applicants with slightly lower GPA and MCAT scores, but with higher success in the “wagers” to get into medical school.

So rather than seeing the pre-med process as a checklist that you have to mindlessly check off, see it as a long-term project with huge flexibility and creativity built in to a lot of the major decisions. With every project comes a general scorecard you can use to track and benchmark your own progress along the way to ensure your own success when it’s time to apply!