The countdown started on January 26th. Acceptance Day.
With great relief, one chapter of my life came to a close that afternoon. I was no longer a pre-med. Of course, I still had a full semester of Physical Biochemistry and other fun ahead of me, but the agonizing process that started in 2008, almost four years of undergrad with the application never fully out of mind, was over.
In many ways, it felt like the book wouldn’t open again until August 4th. The time between acceptance and orientation felt out of place, like a tangential plotline that wouldn’t really affect the story of my life, yet still needed to be listed somewhere in the table of contents. In an instant, part of me had checked out of college. I would continue to work hard in my classes for the joy of learning (in the interesting classes, like Environment and Development in the Third World, and Women of Color Feminism) and out of stubborn perfectionism (in the boring ones, like Organic Chemistry Lab). But pre-meds have the importance of perfect grades drilled into their heads so often that over time, the purpose of school becomes nothing more than the acquisition of those grades. And I was finally free of that unhealthy cycle.
All that mattered was counting the days. My last semester of undergrad did its best to distract me.
Summer brought its own distraction: a two-month whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia. Unlike studying abroad, this trip didn’t bring any revelations, or work any significant transformations in me. Instead, it was travel for travel’s sake, to be places and see things without higher objectives than seeking adventure. Exactly what I needed, on the edge of burnout, before starting the hardest four years of my life.
But such periods of adventure don’t fit easily into the personal narratives you tell at interviews. This summer feels like a section of pages that have come loose from the binding of an old paperback, sticking out slightly no matter how carefully you place them back in.
Today is August 4th. The countdown has switched from days to hours. In five of the latter, I will be on a plane to New York, opening up the brand new chapter entitled “Medical School.” Unable to sleep, I’ve come to realize something.
Med school won’t be a glamorous period that mystically transforms us into physicians. It won’t be drastically unlike our current lives, and we won’t find ourselves to be unrecognizable on the other side of these four years. Instead, it will become just another part of the same daily struggle with life in which we have engaged for 22(ish) years, along with everyone around us. The challenges will be unique in some ways, but challenges arise in all areas of life, and will continue once we’re done. And to draw on the wisdom of my childhood hockey coaches, we’ll get out of it what we put in; it’s up to us to take the skills and knowledge presented to us and transform them into action.
We build up such high expectations as pre-meds, but we shouldn’t overestimate med school. Yes, we got here. We earned it. The white coat ceremony will be a recognition of all the sacrifices we made to join the profession. But that will probably be the extent of the breathtaking, transformational feelings. Despite the ceremony of it all, we probably won’t feel like we’re actually changing.
And that’s okay. Professionalism means not that we will stop seeing ourselves as kids, but that we will learn to act according to the demands of medicine, despite our inner childishness. Life isn’t about grand personal narratives that you can compress into sound bytes for your interviewers and secondary essay readers. The journey of growth and self-discovery isn’t linear, and it doesn’t have to make sense to the outside observer. And it probably won’t make sense to ourselves, either. So we’ll start new chapters, drink from the firehose, encounter more problems than solutions, generate more questions than answers, and discover how open ended the story really is. Even as we find ourselves getting corralled into interest groups and specialties and seemingly esoteric research projects, each step in a new direction will be a step forward.
The days will blur into each other, as they always do. The chapters will fall into place behind us as we keep turning the pages.