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The gruelling path to medical school

Selling your soul for a stethoscope — it’s the pre-med way
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ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY
ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY

It’s not easy getting to a place you’ve never been before. For us pre-medical students with no map, GPS, or set path, it’s even harder. We can’t simply make a turn and hear, in a comforting monotone voice, “Your destination is on the left.”

We sometimes get lost in the journey, and not in the way Arthur Ashe — a US tennis legend — wrote about when he said, “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” We get so preoccupied with how we will get into medical school that we forget why we wanted to become doctors in the first place.

It’s easy to focus on checking off boxes. When someone on a pre-med Reddit forum says that the baseline for extracurriculars is thousands of hours of volunteer work, at least one research project, and a couple hundred shadowing hours, that’s somewhere we can start, right? We can make a checklist and work away at it.

However, during the process, somewhere between your hundredth shift at the hospital and your second literature review, you begin to lose yourself. You sell your individuality and your joie de vivre to become a slave to the relentless yet jejune expectations you set for yourself based on talk from your fellow pre-med students.

I might not be able to convince you — after all, I’m in the same boat as you — but the bonafide genius Albert Einstein famously wrote, “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”

This doesn’t mean your happiness depends on quitting school and running a quaint chocolaterie in a small French town, nor is this a sign to drop all extracurricular activities and quote Einstein in your personal statement. The process of getting into medical school was never supposed to be easy: it serves as proof that we possess the arsenal of skills we’ll need once we cross to the other side. 

Therefore, it shouldn’t be reduced to something as simple as ticking off boxes, no matter how gruelling the activities behind the boxes were. As future doctors, we are expected to change the face of medicine — how can we do this if we are forced to fit into a rigid mold?

The checklists are bad enough. Worse still is the maniacal obsession with sticking one’s foot in any door if there’s any kind of extracurricular activity on the other side. The pursuit of success is commendable; the restlessness is where the problem comes in. It’s this restlessness that is making us sacrifice our youth, our current happiness, and trading them in for sake of the rat race. 

The life of any student requires dedication and hard work. With the additional responsibility of preparing for the medical college admission test, the required dedication and work logically increases. Why then must we further bog ourselves down with hours of unnecessary and often futile extracurricular activities?

Don’t get me wrong — I am by no means encouraging you to apply for medical school with no extracurricular experience under your belt. Illustrations of personality and personal development are necessary to create a strong medical school application. However, joining every student society available at U of T often does not lend itself to this growth.

Our acceptance into medical school is not contingent upon a demonstration of our ability to work endlessly like a machine, picking up every opportunity that graces our path. The mission of a doctor is to care for people. For that, we don’t need to be tireless cogs in a wheel, but human beings. 

Therefore, you shouldn’t let the guy from Reddit’s checklist dictate your path to medical school; you already have what you need. We all know that extracurriculars should focus on quality over quantity. Some people equate that with spending more time on all of them, but you also need to show medical schools that you are an individual with a personality. What you can offer goes beyond good grades and the ability to follow rules. You are an individual with unique experiences and hobbies — bank on that. 

As pre-med students, we are undoubtedly familiar with the rigour and structure of the scientific world. For now, let’s limit the rules of the scientific world to our academic life; our extracurricular lives should be an art. Take part in activities that you enjoy and that will have a meaningful impact on you and allow you to grow into yourself, instead of into the lab-grown, ‘ideal’ med school candidate. For you, this may mean working as an assistant in an immunology lab, or it may mean joining every possible student association. For me, it may mean writing for The Varsity.

Happiness, Einstein taught us, is what we would achieve from a “calm and modest life.” But there’s more — and herein lies the secret to success. The simple life, as opposed to the relentless pursuit of success, not only leads to happiness, but it will also carry you to the day you take your Hippocratic oath. Selfishness is at the very core of striving for success, but good doctors don’t focus on themselves. If you shift your attention to becoming a better person and an asset to society, you’ll automatically be a better doctor.

There’s no formula to become a doctor. We cannot simply e = mc² our way into medical school — as Einstein taught us, it’s all relative.