I like numbers. They are definitive. There is no arguing against one value being larger than another.
I like them so much that I used to use them to describe myself and compare myself to others - scores on tests, grades in classes, overall GPA, MCAT score, number of activities, and years devoted to those activities. With these numbers, I thought I could show that I was a strong enough candidate for medical school.
Then I had to write my personal statement.
To do this, I had to step outside my quantitative comfort zone and think of myself from a much more qualitative perspective to convince the admissions committees that I was a strong applicant. It was unsettling to think of how there was no real definition of what made one statement better than another. In the end, it was like comparing oranges to apples since each one of us lives a much different life. So how would I know if what I wrote helped make me a strong candidate? This lack of certainty made writing my personal statement harder than any test I had ever taken.
For this challenge, each applicant is given just 5,300 characters to say anything they want that can show who they are, why they want to be a doctor, and why they would be a good doctor. There is no numerical grade that comes out of it, no solid way to compare one against another. If you look at this character limit and think that it is large, you will soon realize that it is incredibly small.
I did not want just 5,300 characters. I wanted to stand on top of a mountain and proclaim my love of medicine because my desire is so strong. Alas, that does not quite fit within the character limit.
But actually, I had a mountain to stand upon that fit the criteria. It was not a mountain you could find on a map but a mountain made up of my experiences, my personality, and my connections to the world. With these, I was built up to the person that I am - including my desire to become a doctor.
But how could I efficiently show someone how to reach the peak so they too could understand my perspective?
As I began to plan my route toward the peak, I took to the largest, clearest road in my memory and laid out my personal statement to fit. After a while, I reached a point where I could go no higher without a significant leap and was forced to go back and find another route. Yet, as I looked back down that mountain, what seemed like a straight road really turned out to be quite jagged.
Again, I proceeded uphill with a different route as I had learned from that first attempt. I made sure to look back down every now and then to see how rough path seemed to be and I went back if it seemed too hard to follow. Through this process, I became a much better at planning and my path became increasingly smooth.
Yet, the obstacles never ceased. I was tempted to stop before I reached the top, especially as my exhaustion grew.
Nonetheless, I persevered. I searched for new starting points and new whole paths. Sometimes, I would even come across recently familiar territory as I crossed an old path. Sometimes I would come across an area of the mountain that I had long forgotten. I explored a great area of the mountain in the process and reached a better understanding of it and thus myself.
The journey consumed me. I was constantly planning my route, assessing each rock and blade of grass that made up the minute details of my life. Whether I was falling asleep, working, or spending time with friends, I was assessing my future moves. I was so determined to find the best way to the top.
In the end, it was my friends and other connections who made all of the difference. They gave a different perspective, telling me what parts of my path seemed more important for me to cross and which ones had a challenging climb between. On my 45th attempt, this helped me - finally - reach the apex.
What a feeling! I then stood upon my mountaintop and looked out at the world, a sense of pride in my feat. I then looked upwards and saw an infinite realm of possibility ahead of me and was blown away with its beauty, excited to some day rise into this unknown space.
That was not the end to the elation, though. I then was able to invite medical school admissions committees to stand with me atop my mountain and look down upon the path I laid out to bring them there so that they could understand how I reached that point. In the end, I won over some with this uphill journey who wanted to know more about other parts of my mountain I had not yet shown them.
At times, I cannot help but think back about that month's journey and wonder what would have been different if I had not climbed as far as I had. Would proclaiming my passion for medicine have the same effect at a lower height? Would it still convince medical school admissions committees to look my way? How much lower would I have ended up if it were not for the help of others? Luckily, these are questions that no longer matter to me.
But if you are planning to apply to medical school, they should matter for you.
When it comes your time to apply to medical school, I hope you take this journey seriously. Step outside your comfort zone of definition that comes from studying science and embrace ambiguity. Take those 5,300 characters and strive to reach the top of your mountain, a place where you can proudly stand and declare your intentions with a solid foundation. Bring those who read your personal statement to the peak alongside you, let them look into the vastness above you, and understand and appreciate the perspective from where they stand.
Being pre-med means having a heavy focus on science and comfort within its defined ways. It is easy to then focus on the parts of the medical school application that give you solid numbers and rankings such as GPA and MCAT. But do not forget to embrace the opportunity that awaits within your personal statement to develop yourself as a person and strengthen your application. For this part, the diversity of applicants means there is not necessarily a definition of correct, and so you must simply have the confidence and clarity to have your story create a foundation from which you can tell the world that you will be a good doctor and they will whole-heartedly believe it.