Monday, January 4, 2016

This ain't 1991.

Do you ever have these moments where you want to fix everything? I mean, fix the things that could potentially be fixable if you and like a whole, whole, whole bunch of people galvanized to make it better?

Yeah. Like that.

I have feelings like that a lot. Sometimes it's a really big and nebulous thing. Other times, it's more concrete and smallish. That is, until I really start to flesh it out. So then I'm just sort of left with this problem that I think I may have some ideas to help with solving. But simultaneously this tiny undercurrent of angst because I'm not.

Sigh. This sounds rambly, doesn't it? Like, I'm sure someone is like, "She goes a bunch of weeks without blogging and this is what she posts?" Or maybe that's too self-important a position to take. Perhaps you, too, are busy and don't fully give a shit whether or not I blog every day or every month but still think this sounds cryptic and tangential.

Okay. Fair enough. I guess I'll give an example of my latest "thing" that I'm thinking about (in terms of problems that need solutions.) And since you already can see that I'm feeling rambly, I advise you to read at your own risk of utter confusion.


Okay. So check it: 1991 was the year I applied to medical school. I drove to Auburn, Alabama from Tuskegee, Alabama and took the MCAT on my 21st birthday. I remember that part well because on my way home, I stopped at the State Store and bought a pint of some kind of alcoholic beverage. Not so much because I wanted to get drunk, but more because I could buy a pint of something--using my legit state-issued over-twenty-one identification, that is. Anyways. Luckily, I did pretty well on it on that first go (the MCAT, not the pint of liquor.) That fall, I began hammering out my med school applications for what I hoped would be my future career.


Now. 1991 was a hell of a lot different than 2016. See, back then, you literally "hammered" out applications--on a typewriter. Sure did. I typed my applications out and mailed them via snail mail. Yes. Via the United States Postal Service. Some human received my envelope, tore it open with a letter opener, and read it. They looked at my picture and read my personal statement. My letters were skimmed and my meaningful participation in student leadership was noted. And all of that was coupled with my academic performance and MCAT scores for a more complete picture of my potential as a medical student at their institution.

I got plenty of interviews. And though I was a good candidate in terms of merit, I wasn't necessarily out-of-this-world academically. But coupled with my total package of service and leadership? I was a very attractive potential med student--if I do say so myself.


But this? This is totally, totally different than the way things are now. Now? Everything is electronically-based. Applications are just a few clicks away and one universal form goes everywhere. That means it's easier to to apply to more schools. And for the schools, it means way more applicants from way more places.

Now that? That part isn't really a big deal and is probably a good thing mostly. But what is tricky is that now that it's computer based coupled with more volume, that human-being-looking-at-the-real-you component is removed. Or, at least, super diminished. That is, unless you jump the first objective academic merits hurdle--then, and only then, will your chances of getting your stuff looked at become highest. Which makes it MUCH harder to get into medical school (or any super competitive school without a slam dunk GPA, MCAT and, just maybe, alma mater.

Oh--and let me clarify something on the alma mater part: A 3.9 GPA from anywhere? You're golden. A 3.5 is more complicated. That said, that 3.5 GPA will be looked at differently if it is from Princeton or Harvard. I mean, it just will. Does it mean you have to go to an Ivy League school to get into medical school? Definitely not. And would I trade my HBCU undergraduate experience for anything in the whole world? No way. But it's probably fair to say that certain schools might get a person more wiggle room than others in the numbers game.

Okay. So here's why I'm talking about this: There's not a month that goes by that I don't receive an email, in box message or call from a friend, a family member, a friend of a family member or even just some acquaintance-of-an-acquaintance asking me to speak with someone who is applying to medical school. Now. If they are young? Like a freshman or even a first semester sophomore? It's great. Really, it is. But usually, that isn't who the person is.


Often it's someone who is a college senior or who has already graduated. Maybe they look like me, but not always. But what does seem to be very common is that there is this critical information that they needed long before the call was made to me that they never received. And that information is simple:

This ain't 1991.

It breaks my heart to hear someone say their GPA from non-sexy state university or teeny-tiny-college-that-we've-heard-of but-the-admissions-committee-hasn't was "pretty good" and that they "could've done better on the MCAT." So I ask, of course, what "pretty good" means. That's when I learn that usually that's anything from a 3.0 to a 3.4 cumulative grade point average. Which, I know, I know, to a lot of folks reading this sounds great. And to me, I'd agree that this would sound totally great--were this 1991.

But, it ain't. Nope.

See now? Now with it all computer based, the easy clicks that you used to apply with less difficulty are also happening on the admissions end. A few mouse clicks helps medical schools easily filter out the "pretty goods" from the academically exceptional ones. GPA under 3.5? Click. MCAT under 505? Click. So the fact that you were SGA president or a volunteer at the Humane Society or a dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance theater before college? Sorry about that. Thanks to your academic numbers, I'll never see it. Or your lovely headshot that your mom helped you narrow down and select.


So yeah. I find myself hearing these earnest young people and feeling like a damn dream killer. I listen and make a few suggestions but deep down what I really want to say is, "You need to go back to your freshman year and start over. You need to be pressed to get a great GPA from day one, especially if you went to a school that isn't the first ones people roll off of their tongues when listing the very top-tiered institutions of higher learning."

That brings me to this solution. The solution would be for a bunch of doctors to go to colleges--particularly some of our smaller ones --- and talk to freshman from the very start. We need to show up and give that speech that Debbie Allen gave the kids at the Performing Arts High School during their first days.

"You want to go to med school? Well med school costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sweat." 

And honestly? I'm not even joking. That message needs to reach aspiring doctors waaaaaay before they cross into their junior or senior year of college. The caveat, of course, is if you already were knocking it out of the park all along. Then there isn't such an urgency.

But what's messed up is that a 3.4 GPA is really not bad at all, man. It isn't. But for medical school? It pretty much sucks. Unless, of course, you know someone somewhere who can help open a few doors or you have your sights set on less competitive schools. But remember--even those schools now have more applicants in their pool due to the click-click-click culture, remember? And a lot of folks are hungry, man. Hungry to get into medical school and now they are clicking the schools that in the past they didn't.

So yeah. Asking can you shadow a doctor in their office or in the hospital? Totally cool if you're in high school or you're an already high achieving college student. But for the person who hasn't been so serious all along? Don't bother. Following me or any other doctor around won't do much more than frustrate everyone.

Man. I feel so horrible for saying all of this. But it's true. Someone needs to yell it, scream it, tell it--it's true. And see, we need to either figure out how to re-humanize the application process or get the word out to everyone that there is no goof-off margin any more in college for those who wish to go to medical school. Additionally, even if you didn't goof off, unless you go hard from the very start academically, no one will ever get a chance to see your great qualities beyond that. It's jacked up but it's true.

So anyone with a kid starting college or who just got there that wants to go to professional school? Here's my PSA: Go hard from day ONE. Make connections. You must be exceptional in person and on paper. Or at least make enough meaningful connections with people who can advocate for you enough to get your application in front of someone who'll actually read it should it fall below the bar. But remember that, even with connections and prayers, being "just above average" academically could get you shut out of what you aspire to do.

And you know what? You won't even be able to take it personally. Because it won't be personal. In fact, it won't be personal at all. Nope.

Oh--and before someone says it--yes, I know that there is a story of someone somewhere after 1991 who overcame all of this and got into the very best med school in the whole world and did great. Just like someone somewhere dropped a quarter into a slot machine and won a million dollars. Just consider this some pragmatic real talk. And the earlier it reaches the right people, the better.

Yeah. I need to get this message out man. Because it ain't 1991 anymore. No ma'am and no sir.

Thanks for letting me ramble on this. I mean it. Oh, and sorry for the buzz kill.

Happy Sunday. And Happy New Year, too.


  1. Whoa! Thanks so much for this! This definitely reflects my struggly narrative from a couple of years ago as a less than 3.5GPA having, 1st gen, immigrant/non-citizen,who’d just graduated from an itsy-bitsy college in the middle of Maryland.
    What I appreciate most about this post, though, is that it you lay out these facts in a “you can make it, just with these credentials” instead of a “you’ll never make it” type of way. So. I will go ahead and send this post along to some awesome high schoolers that I mentor who have sky high dreams to pursue medicine, but none of the “feet on ground” knowledge of exactly what will eliminate ‘em from the pool of successful applicants. This will definitely help them to prepare and be aware. Thanks again!!
    Take care,

    1. Thanks for reading this and for your kind words, Grace. I felt mean writing it but it's information that I really, really wish some great people knew. I think if a lot of us hit the ground running from the start it would be easier. I could be wrong but I've seen enough to know that this information is true.

  2. OK... my kids are 5 and 7, so it's a little early. And I get what you're saying... but part of me wants to go back to 91. Because I feel surrounded by parents pushing GO Hard or go home - right now. Because if you aren't outstanding in 2nd grade, you won't get into the Gifted track, adn if you don't get into the gifted track you won't get into a good middle school. And if you aren't in the honors program in middle school, you'll never get into the college prep track for high school.... and so it goes.

    It isn't 1991, but geesh I wish we could go back in time.

    1. I feel you. But 5 and 7 year olds just need to love learning. This isn't so much a message about being pushed as it is expectation. The high expectations that our parents have of us need to shift over to the individual a lot sooner. Back in the day, we (okay I) worked hard so my parents would be proud. Somewhere around my sophomore year I began wanting to do really well for ME and my own future. My point is that I needed to want that sooner. I did get good grades early but more because of my parents' expectations.

      As for gifted tracks, etc. . .it kind of sucks but it is what it is. High achievement will open doors. And for the kids who aren't in gifted programs, they just have to outwork the ones who are. And you know? That was true in 1991. But the big difference is the computerized impersonal component. This is why the objective, on paper measures have to be on point. Without them? Our awesome, well rounded kids won't even get a toe in the door or a chance to clear their throats to give their elevator pitches. Nope.

      Sucks, right? But it's true. Totally, completely true.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you, Miss Valedictorian Summa Cum Laude younger sister of mine. ;)

  4. My niece didn't get into dental school the first time she applied so she went and did an intensive one year masters in biomedical sciences and knocked that out the park grade wise. She says the program was filled with prospective medical and dental students so I'm guessing this might help "cure" a less than 3.5 GPA?

    My son, on the other hand, chose not to apply to med school because of his less than 3.5 but still respectable GPA from a non Ivy. He said his grades in chemistry specifically would never get him in. I guess he was right though I do think if you want to do a thing, you find a way. As my niece did. So I'm thinking his true path is something else.

    This is some real talk right here and I'm going to forward it to a bunch of folk. We need to hear the whole truth, so thanks for telling us the way it is now.

    1. Post bac programs like what your niece did are awesome. Also the Howards and Meharries of professional schools are good at humanizing applicants. I'm glad she was persistent.

      Your son should also know that life experience is also a big, big plus for many schools. Being a coach and an EMT could greatly bolster his application and make him very attractive to many medical schools. Especially if he studied for the MCAT and did well. This really isn't an absolute thing--it isn't. It's more some real talk that I wish folks knew and considered. I hope it doesn't sound too Debbie Downer.

    2. It doesn't. It sounds like you care.

  5. I was lucky enough to attend a summer enrichment program for minorities at The Medical College of Ga. It was called SEEP. It was designed to give minorities and other underrepresented groups( we were all black, one hispanic(me) and one poor rural white girl) who were high school and early college students. We were given the exposure to the medical school entry system we might not otherwise be privy to. We stayed in the dorms at M.C.G. all summer, had a food stipend, and took Histology, or Physiology...and were shown the ropes of "what it takes to get into medical school." It gave me the confidence to go up against that high, white male dominated wall. It was the 1980's. I wonder if the program still exists. The best part for me...was that I was immersed in American Black Culture during that time. It was a rare opportunity to have the tables turned a whole summer and experience what it's like to be outside your comfort zone culturally. It was a great experience and helped shape the kind of doctor I am today with a very culturally diverse patient population.

  6. great post- we had a college student shadowing my team yesterday, and she was asking me for advice on how to get into medical school... she didn't seem to like my "do really well in college and really well on the mcat" answer. i will send her this. thanks! (a peds resident)

  7. Great post. I know I'm a bit late to the party but I definitely understand what you are saying. I was sixteen when I started reading your blog (over five years ago) and I definitely considered medical school at the time. There were quite a few stressors for me at the end of high school and in the end I decided to pursue criminology (criminal justice) instead. And I loved it. I've graduated with straight As in that, and although the system in New Zealand is different to the US, I would be close to a 4.0 GPA. I'm writing this from my San Francisco hotel room and I start grad school in six weeks. I made the right decision for me. Time sure does fly!

    NZ Lucy


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

Related Posts with Thumbnails