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Getting Past Rejection


The New Physician September 2004
Six years ago, my high school guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I still recall my automatic response: “I want to be a brain surgeon.”

And why not? At the time, I was first in my class, the star of the tennis squad and involved in more extracurricular activities than I could list—medicine just seemed the appropriate career. The sky was the limit, and the word “settle” did not exist in my vocabulary.

Fast-forward four years. By the time I was a junior at a top-10 university, I had formulated a series of what I thought were valid reasons why medicine was perfect for me: It is challenging, emotionally rewarding, beneficial to society and an incredibly respected profession. The next step was to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and despite its difficulty, I left the testing room confident that I performed well enough that, with my solid grade-point average (GPA), I would gain admission to a top medical program. I recognized the challenge in doing so and, therefore, attempted to pave a similar path to the one I followed in high school. I strove to stay one step ahead of my competition in several areas, including academics and extracurricular activities, and developed close relationships with professors and research colleagues.

Then came the reality check: My lofty MCAT score and an honors-level GPA earned me three acceptance letters, two spots on wait lists and two rejections. Throughout the application process, I recall being told, “If you receive only one acceptance, it is a reason to celebrate.”

Despite that advice and the praise I received for gaining admission to a number of schools, I was bewildered. What exactly happened? More importantly, what did I do wrong? Would these rejections from some of the nation’s most prestigious medical programs impact my future accomplishments? Was it worth waiting another year to reapply and perhaps gain acceptance to what I considered to be a top university? These questions persisted for the next several months while I wrestled with my decision.

Fast-forward one more year. Having taken one of the acceptance offers, I am now in gross anatomy class. I look around the laboratory and see a vast array of expressions. Some individuals display sad, worn faces while lamenting their rejections from their top-choice programs, and others realize that medicine was not the right career for them.

Fortunately, for myself, the experience has been an awakening. I am excited to learn about the human body. I realize that my decisions of the previous years were perhaps driven more by the prestige of a particular school or this profession than by true career goals. My true passion to become a physician, which is now taking shape, had been long overwhelmed by my desire to outdo the rest of the competition.

So, this story has a positive ending. Despite my flawed reasoning and bias toward conventional thinking, I find that fate led me in the right direction after all. In anatomy class, I become engrossed in dissections and study. The importance of such factors as the prestige of my school, my potential income, even the two letters that will someday follow my name quickly fade. Each day I enter the lab to learn from human beings who have given their most cherished possessions—their bodies—so that I may enhance my knowledge of human anatomy and one day apply that knowledge to ill patients. The honor to learn from these individuals far outweighs any prestige that an institution could ever bestow upon its students.

Each and every day, I realize that the decision of what medical school to attend was not nearly as important as the decision to enter medicine in the first place. Perhaps the rejections from my top-choice schools were actually subtle blessings because attending one of them may have simply perpetuated my previous sentiments. Nonetheless, in the first few months of school, I learned to displace my competitive attitude in favor of learning for the sake of learning. I read with the intention of understanding; I listen with the intention of hearing; and I work hard to become a better physician—not to be at the top of my class. I find the prospect of being an average medical student on paper and an excellent physician vastly more appealing than being an extraordinarily competitive, top-tier student and a mediocre physician.

There are hundreds of thousands of applicants to about 16,500 first-year U.S. medical school slots each year. Many will be rejected by all their schools, and others will be admitted, but not to their first choice. I hope that my personal experience influences just one of these fortunate individuals to appreciate his situation instead of questioning his success as I once did. An acceptance to any medical college is a door through which we may accomplish our dreams.

So when you do receive that coveted letter of acceptance, rejoice. Rejoice in the fact that you are able to dedicate your life to healing others and, in doing so, improve the health of society. For those of us already in medical school, we should appreciate our situations, whatever they may be. We should all be proud of ourselves for accomplishing such major feats, and we should help one another in the long, arduous and delightful journey that is medical school.
Sachin Bansal is a second-year at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.