When did reflective birthday musings became a CR tradition? I guess it was the big 3-0. That was my second summer in D.C., and this, amazingly, is my fourth. It’s also my last. In August I’ll be moving back home, to New York, to figure out what’s next. I haven’t started packing, but I’ve started tidying, and a few days ago I found my old lab goggles, which you see pictured above. I think I’ll keep them for posterity, as a memento of the post-bacc years. They served me well.
I guess this is the post where I tell you that I didn’t get into med school. I’ve known for a while now—since late January, really—but I haven’t had the heart to write about it. To those of you who were wondering, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long.
I’ve tried not to make this post a post-mortem on the details of my application process: what my GPA was, what I scored on the MCAT, how many programs I applied to and which ones, how many interviews I got, etc. It would be reasonable for anyone to ask me for these specifics; med school rejection hinges on certain well-established likelihoods, after all, and I’d imagine that my pre-med readers are curious. But aside from the fact that it’s hard to share such details with the world, how or why I didn’t get in isn’t really the point of this post. If you’d like to know more about my application experience because you’re considering the process or are in the middle of it yourself, please feel free to email me. I’ll be happy to share.
Before I go any further, allow me to disclaim: it’s hard for me to talk about my post-bacc experience and its outcome without getting emotional, and even sometimes a little maudlin. But I don’t regard this rejection as the end of the world, I promise. A lot of people get rejected from medical school every year, and now I’m one of them. Whether you’ve been pre-med or not, there’s a good chance that at some point you tried something that didn’t work out. It happens to all of us, sooner or later, in big ways and small. I’ve had disappointments, but this is the first time I got walloped with a big one. It was disorienting in all of the predictable ways, but it was also a tremendous learning experience.
I’m nervous about writing this post, but if nothing else, I hope it provides some comfort to anyone who’s feeling stuck in the wake of one of these inevitable life curveballs. More should be written about “failure,” if that’s what we want to call it. We read so much about triumph over adversity, persistence in the face of great odds, and unlikely successes. We don’t always read about what it’s like to do something and find out that you’re not very good at it, or to work hard and not improve, or to desperately want something that you’re nevertheless incapable of pursuing any further.
And that, dear readers, is the story I’m about to tell.
During my first post-bacc semester at Columbia, my advisor informed me that I’d have more to prove than an average pre-med because of my age and background. I’d have to hold myself to standards that were even more stringent than the already unforgiving “numbers game” that defines medical school application, she said. Her words were portentous, but I kept going in spite of them. I kept going through eight more rocky semesters, even as the academics grew more challenging and my sense of confidence, so robust when I quit my job and began this crazy process, began to falter. After I completed Orgo II, the class that I’ll always remember as my post-bacc nemesis, I lay around on my mother’s sofa, waiting for my final grade and contemplating whether I should return to school at all (you guys might remember; I blogged about it). When the grade came back—tarnished but not quite unrecoverable—I picked myself up and dusted myself off and returned to Georgetown for physics that summer. A year later, I’d made it through genetics and the MCAT and was busy applying to schools.
I would have made sense for me to stop at any point along the way, because that moment I had so often been promised as a post-bacc student—the moment in which I would supposedly start to feel as though I was becoming fluent in the unfamiliar language of the hard sciences—never really came. I told myself that if I dug in my heels and doubled up my efforts, it would surely be a matter of time before my natural agility in these classes emerged. I studied endlessly. I got tutors. I attended every office hour and every recitation. And while I’m certainly glad to have given my courses the effort they deserved, I can’t say it ever got much easier.
Looking back now and knowing the outcome, it’s hard to say why I persisted. I think a lot of it was sheer stubbornness, an inability to accept that there was something I really couldn’t be good at. I’d never had that experience before, the experience of working really hard at something and not improving. It wasn’t true for all of my classes, but it was true for some of them, and I found it maddeningly hard to accept.
Part of it, too, was reluctance to recognize my mind’s own natural inclinations. When my post-bacc began, I was determined to shed the idea that there are two types of minds, humanistic ones and scientific ones, and that I possess the former. I’d been prone to that kind of thinking in the past, and as my post-bacc began I could see how dramatically it had limited my intellectual growth (I’ll now always regret that I didn’t take the sciences more seriously as a high school student). I began to glimpse the fascinating connective tissue between the humanities and the sciences; I started telling my former colleagues that some of the same deductive skills one uses as a reader are actually quite applicable in biology lab work, and that the same analytical tendencies that behoove an editor are called upon each day in a class like Orgo. All of that is true; the world is not divided into “numbers people” and “word people.” But we all have certain intellectual inclinations, certain inborn strengths, and my post-bacc was a glaring reminder of what mine are.
But if the courses were a struggle, then it was a struggle offset by the joy I took in my volunteer work and my job as a physician’s research assistant. That’s the real reason I persisted in spite of unlikely odds: I really, really wanted to be a doctor. And all of my exposure to the daily practice of medicine seemed to affirm how much I’d ultimately enjoy it. Like many hopeful medical students, I assured myself that classes like Orgo weren’t a good indication of what lay ahead. I told myself that my future curriculum would be less abstract, more applied. And of course I comforted myself with the idea that after my first two years, I’d be given a chance to shine in the clinical setting. At that point, I reasoned, empathy and passion would finally work in my favor, and medicine would welcome me into its waiting arms.
For the record, I think it’s true that things would have gotten better after my second year of school; that, anyway, is what most doctors have told me. But I think that one of the worst errors of judgment you can make as a pre-med student is to assume that the training is irrelevant, and that the end result (clinical practice) is all that matters. The training is incredibly long, and how well you’re suited to it matters a great deal. Sure, the pre-med curriculum is pretty far removed from clinical experience, and I think it’s a shame that classes like Orgo II discourage so many applicants each year. But even if you’re tempted to dismiss the significance of Orgo or physics entirely (and I don’t, by the way), the fact is that hard science and standardized testing will be a recurrent and significant part of a very long education.
As you’ve probably gathered, I’m not reapplying. It’s much harder to admit this than it is to tell you that I didn’t get in. Because rejection, while painful, is a neat little story that places you in the victim’s seat. And while it would be easier to describe my med school process this way—as an ordeal in which “the system” shut me out unjustly—the truth is that it’s incredibly common for pre-med applicants to have to reapply one or even a few times before they get in. I’ve chosen not to. There’s no way to explain or justify the decision except to say that I just can’t. To some degree it’s practical: I’m reasonably certain that numbers held me back, and I’m equally certain that my grades, no matter how average they may have been, reflect the best effort I had. Perhaps it’s time to stop fighting so hard to succeed in an endeavor for which I seem ill suited, and return to some of the activities that come more naturally to me.
But this is secondary to the real reason I’m not reapplying, which is an unshakable inner certainty that I’ve hit the end of the road with this pursuit. It’s taken me by surprise; early this fall, I told everyone, myself included, that if I got rejected I’d keep trying, year after year, until someone said yes. Yet as soon as it became clear that rejection was on the horizon, I knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to try again. It was one of the clearest instincts I’ve ever had, and even if I can’t explain it, I can’t deny it, either. Maybe it’s just a feeling I’ve created to excuse my own exhaustion and discouragement; maybe it’s my way of making peace with the fact that I’m giving up. Maybe the whole purpose of pre-med and its rigors is to identify people like me, who don’t want it badly enough to keep going even when they’ve been knocked down. If that’s the case, so be it; I’ll accept my station as one who’s been successfully weeded out. I know that I wanted this very badly—more than I’ve ever wanted anything—and I also know that I can’t go any further with it. It’s confusing, but there it is.
I’ve been instructed by family and friends not to use the word “failure” to describe my post-bacc experience, but I don’t mind. My post-bacc years were all about failure. I failed tests. I failed quizzes. I failed practice problems. I failed, at the beginning at least, to realize what I was up against. I failed to see the early signs of a partnership dissolving before my eyes in the midst of all this. I failed in all sorts of ways. But the great silver lining of my post-bacc journey was the realization that failure is not the end of the world.
I’ve been reading Kathryn Shulz’s charming book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. It’s about the experience of error more than it is the experience of failure, but these two are often intertwined, and the book has felt incredibly relevant these days. Shulz’s thesis is that we tend to learn more from our errors, from the process of recognizing mistakes and then processing them, than we do from being right. It’s not a novel thought—common wisdom holds that we “learn from our mistakes”—but as Shulz notes, it’s amazing how much time we spend avoiding being wrong, or admitting to our mistakes, in spite of this. We shouldn’t. “Wrongness,” she writes, “is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world….however disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are. ”
I can think of no period of my life in which I so often felt mistaken, humbled, or incorrect as I did during the post-bacc years. Things I felt reasonably certain of, ranging from the trivial (answers to a chemistry quiz) to the significant (my certainty that some med school or other would find me desirable, even if I’d had a rough go of things) to the profound (my confidence that I could be good at absolutely anything, so long as I worked hard at it) turned out to be wrong. It was good for me to confront these errors in judgment, and emerge on the other side. Most of us, especially those of us with perfectionistic tendencies, tend to avoid situations in which failure is strongly possible. I’ve spent my life gravitating toward experiences and opportunities in which I believed I could excel. I quit violin when I had my first recital and it became clear that I was just OK; I quit ballet when I realized that I wasn’t as graceful or as coordinated as the other girls; I quit fiction writing when I discovered that my skills were more editorial than creative. If I couldn’t be the best, or close to it, then why bother?
I think this sort of logic shows up in the ED thought process, too. “I have to be the thinnest woman in this room.” “I must be the most restrained, the most disciplined.” So much emphasis on superlatives. There is a desperate fear of being undistinguished, of being just like everybody else. (There is also that tendency to think in binaries that I’ve mentioned a lot lately: you’re either the best, or you’re nothing at all.) The impulse to be distinctive can be positive and productive; if channeled appropriately it can fuel ambition, creative pursuits, and authentic self-expression. But it can be monstrously destructive if it takes up residence in an eating disorder, and it can also be incredibly petty. I’ve given up on needing to be thinner than other people, and I’ve also given up on using food and diet as a means of feeling special or superior. But until quite recently, I took perhaps a bit too much satisfaction in feeling exceptional through my accomplishments or my performance (professional, academic). And oh boy, did my post-bacc test me there.
For this reason alone, I’m glad I did it. After so many of the things I usually hitch my pride to—good grades, academic achievement, certainty of purpose—had started to erode, I was left with the task of making peace with myself. And after the rejections rolled in and my fears of not getting into school all came to pass, I had to maintain a sense of self-respect. I had to face the facts: I wasn’t very good at my post-bacc, and I didn’t get into school. In spite of this, I’m an OK person, and life goes on. If my post-bacc rid me of fragility in the face of failure, of an ego that was a little too tightly bound up in fleeting accomplishments, then I have no regrets. If It showed me that being wrong is not the end of the world, that, in the words of William James, “our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things,” then I count myself lucky to have done it.
The other important gift my post-bacc gave me was the capacity to cope with uncertainty, something I’ve never been good at doing. It became clear quite early in the process that I’d have no assurances or guarantees about what my next step would be for a very long time. (I wrote about this in both my 30 and my 31 posts.) Before I began my post-bacc, I worked in an industry I’d always planned on entering, in a position I’d held for a long time, and I lived in the same forty block radius I’d always lived in, surrounded by people who were for the most part remarkably like-minded. I loved that life, but I’ve also come to love a life that’s a little more unpredictable. I can no longer remember what it feels like to know exactly what I’ll be up to in a year, or five, or ten. And believe it or not, I relish the open spaces. Hoary though the sentiment may be, life really is an adventure, and I’m glad it’s keeping me on my toes as I move into my 32nd year (or is it my 33rd? I can never remember how that works).
I won’t pretend that this process has been easy, or that I’ve always been as philosophical about it as I sound today. For the record, I had a nice long obligatory period of self-pity. I spent my first month or so post-rejection wearing sweatpants and drinking wine and feeling generally pretty rotten. I cried and whined and sulked. But as a friend of mine pointed out, the devastation I felt reminded me a little of what it’s like to go through a particularly ragged breakup. You’re sitting at home, crying or drinking or yelling or eating chocolate (or whatever it is that you’re doing), and you feel as if the world has come crashing down around you. But at the same time, there’s a part of you—a solid, undeniable part—that knows you’re going to be just fine.
And I am fine, of course. I still have ups and downs, days in which something or someone will trigger a little spiral of bitterness or regret. But my life is as rich and blessed and interesting as it always was—except that it’s even richer now, thanks to the post-bacc adventure. The last four years were not easy, and I’ll never remember them as my happiest. But I’ll remember them as bracing and intense and fortifying in the way that all formative life experiences are. When I think back on it all–the sleepless nights, the library vigils, the way we (my fellow post-baccs and I) cried on each other’s shoulders–I can only smile at how weighty it all seemed, every test score and every exam. Every lab report. If only I’d known that the ultimate value of my post-bacc experience had little to do with becoming a doctor after all. I came to a new city and made new friends. I learned more than I ever could have imagined, about subjects I’d never really explored. I got to meet a bunch of fine future physicians, and for a short period of time I was lucky enough to call them my peers. I got a second undergraduate career, and with it the delightful and bizarre experience of living like an eighteen-year-old again. And, much to my surprise and when I least expected it, I fell very much in love. (I’m not moving back to New York by myself, by the way.)
As for what’s next, who knows. I guess the short answer is that my book comes out this summer, and I’ll enjoy watching it come to life. My best friend’s little sister gets married at the end of this month, and I’m eager to spend a weekend upstate, at my happy place. There will be two weeks at the beach with the boy in July, and I’m hoping they’ll be languid and lazy and sun-drenched. At the end of July, I’ll be saying goodbye to this city—this city that I’ve come to love in spite of the fact that I didn’t plan on loving it, in spite of the fact that I came here for a relationship that didn’t work out and an endeavor that didn’t go my way. And I’ll be returning to wonderful New York, where I’ll experience cohabitation for the first time (speaking of adventure!), and to figure out what the next big endeavor will be. I don’t yet know what it is, and it’ll probably be quite a while before I do. But that’s OK. There’s a Wendell Berry quotation that my mom sent me during one of the more difficult moments of my post-bacc. Maybe some of you know it:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve come back to these words, how they became like a mantra during this chapter of my life.
Here’s what I know: I didn’t do my post-bacc because I wanted an MD. I think that most pre-med students convince themselves at some point or another that no career will ever be as fulfilling as that of a physician; it’s what you have to do in order to push through the classes and the competition. I was no exception, and of course I was prone to romanticizing doctoring, too, especially in the early days. But I was wrong. Becoming a doctor was never really the point. What I wanted to do all along is to help people and heal them and teach them about how to love themselves (and others) through what they put in their bodies. So long as I can do that, nothing’s lost. This is the goal, and it’s what will guide my deliberations this coming year.
Thank you to everyone who cheered me on through this long and winding process. Thank you to the med students and pre-meds who commented and emailed me, to the orgo professors who offered me their help, to the readers who gave me kind feedback and sound advice when I was struggling, and to all of you for assuring me that getting into medical school was not the full measure of my worth. It’s taken me some time to see it, but you were right. Know how profoundly grateful I am.
And now, I’m off to celebrate 32.