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Premed and Me (frankly speaking) by Emad T. '14

MIT is hard, but MIT premed doesn't have to suck. Here's why.

Before committing to any major choice, I think you have to be ready and willing. As regards me and my decision to be premed, I had few doubts that I was willing. That decision had stayed alive from at least sophomore year of high school. Even with me diving head-first into studying for the MCAT (which demands quite a lot of time), I’m still willing.

But I didn’t want to be the guy who was estimating my position in the class, relative to how other friends were doing on exams and p-sets. I didn’t want to be the guy who inquired about GPAs, or put my resume or future application and someone else’s on balancing scales. The cynical, numbers and one-upmanship equivalent of the “Not necessarily being the fastest guy when a bear is chasing you, but only faster than whoever’s in last place” kind of deal didn’t jibe with me. And I guess it didn’t jibe with many other premeds that I know, because that preconceived notion of how my academic life would be like died out within maybe 3 semesters of MIT. It just didn’t happen here.

It’s a curse and a blessing.

The blessing part first: Even back in my old high school – a public school – some of my peers in AP courses rendered decisions on relative competence on the basis of at least 2-5 points on a test or exam, or whoever pulled out ahead, depending on whatever was most convenient. It was something that unfolded right after your graded work landed on the desk in front of you. And it was also unnecessary. Thankfully, I’ve never had that feeling here at MIT. I’m free to pursue what’s academically interesting or challenging, with nothing to answer to beyond my own standards and those of my professors. It’s liberating.

None of this changes the fact that applications still ask for and value grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities — and none apparently more so than med school applications. Herein lies the curse: if you’re not comparing your performance to something, how do you know what shape you’re in come your application season? More pertinent to what was going on in my mind: is it right to feel like any less of a premed when you’re doing X, but someone you know is (probably?) doing 27*X^3496024, and also W, Y, and Z, and still probably (maybe?) getting better grades than you?

It’s enough to make you feel like maybe, you’re out of your depth. It’s seldom (if ever) true, but it didn’t stop me from momentarily feeling that way.

Then I scheduled an appointment with MIT’s prehealth office. It was something that I had to do to stay on the premed path, but it’s also something that I was glad that I did. As it turns out, I wasn’t doing bad at all; I was on a good trend, actually. And my advisor even had very helpful advice on what to do next, which thankfully didn’t sound like “Start everything over, because you’re gonna need a lot of help to get to where you ought to be.” It was more like, “Keep it up. Study for the MCAT. And don’t forget to shadow doctors and research med schools.” I feel a lot more ready for what I want to do as a result.

So what might that mean for a future, perhaps hesitant premed that comes to MIT? I know the chief concerns are grades, finding things to do, doing well in them, getting leadership activities, volunteer experience, shadowing physicians…or basically, balancing all that plus the kitchen sink.

I won’t trivialize the requirements; they’re things I still take seriously. But there are a few, deceptively easy things have been helping so far. I focus on school when I have to, and retire to do fun stuff when I don’t – and when my brain refuses to get any more work done at a given time, in spite of some deadline coming up, I don’t fight the feeling and opt to cut myself some slack. I read textbooks and other books; I try not to fall off the face of the earth; I got a Netflix instant subscription I use to watch some really weird movies as a result. Knowing when to knuckle down and when to kick your feet up is a big help.

Most importantly, I found and did the things that interest me. For extracurriculars, that’s primarily mental health advocacy with MIT’s chapter of Active Minds; for classes, it was honestly just whatever looked cool, rather than whatever seemed to fit the bill for an application. I can’t stress how vital that is. That bit makes what I do an extension of who I am, which is easier to enjoy and justify to others than things I find to be a chore. You’ll want to do your best in what you like, anyway, so the rest kind of falls into place.

For what doesn’t, there’s a really nice prehealth advising office here. They’ll supply the logistics and the deadlines, then do some magical stuff behind the scenes so you don’t sweat the details, like making sure your letters of recommendation get done, or getting your personal statement some expert feedback. I haven’t used them that much yet, as my application process has just started to wind up, but they do offer a ton of very helpful resources, which Hamsika can attest to.

So if you want to be a doctor and are thinking of coming to MIT first, you’re not setting yourself up to do The Impossible, or even The Inordinately Stressful. (Okay, it still can be very stressful being a student here at times, but the premed track doesn’t have to magnify that to a super-unreasonable degree.) There’s a way to hack it here, given the right perspective, and I hope my own thoughts on it have helped you out, if you’re on the fence about being premed at MIT.