Although your pre-med friends may seem like they’re always studying for an organic chemistry exam, there is much more to medicine than science. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor of the History of Technology Deborah Fitzgerald wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe in which one of her former pre-medical students noted how being a physician didn’t just require medical knowledge. The student told Fitzgerald that “MIT biology prepared me for medicine. Literature prepared me to be a doctor.”
Those who have taken the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), including myself, can tell you that, yes, mastery of scientific concepts is significant, but knowing how to read passages is more important. There is an entire MCAT section on critical analysis and reasoning skills that navigates passages from history, philosophy and literary analysis.
Some pre-meds feel as though they need to have the perfect GPA and MCAT score, in addition to performing thousands of community service hours, shadowing a dozen doctors and participating in 15 clubs. And peer comparison between other pre-meds who feed into that culture doesn’t help: you don’t have to search long on Student Doctor Network forum to find threads including: “I got a B in Physics…are my chances blown?” Perhaps the need for perfection and insecurity about anything less is just a stage through which pre-meds often go.
The world is more just than numbers neatly confined in a lab setting or an Excel spreadsheet. Fitzgerald also wrote that “the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale.”
One of my professors, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology Melvin Konner, told our Foundations of Behavior class that the greatest thing you can learn in college is how to appreciate ambiguity. Pre-meds are no exception to that sentiment and I wish I had heard it when, sophomore year, I staggered into an organic chemistry lab just looking for good results and thought I had failed when those results didn’t come. I would have told a younger me that there were more things to learn than those face-value results, and that those other avenues were far more important.
I fit the hypercompetitive, cutthroat, number-obsessed stereotype at various points in my college career, and I still do to some extent. It’s how many of us conditioned ourselves to survive. It’s not uncommon to hear someone, especially a pre-med, groan when they talk about Emory’s humanities, arts and performance (HAP) courses or the continued writing general education requirements (GERs) they still need to take.
The humanities courses I have taken helped me both to appreciate that ambiguity and to grow out of the toxic pre-med culture. In an English class, I learned that the condition of life is a “terrifying” one of anxiety and uncertainty. In both my English classes and heavy sciences, I learned to critically interpret data and evidence to support my hypotheses. In my creative writing workshops I learned that, in Fitzgerald’s words, “life itself is rarely, if ever, as precise as a math problem, as clear as an elegant equation.” A creative writing class with Professor of Practice Hank Klibanoff taught me that a story and the answer are always complicated, and don’t usually fit into our preconceived and oversimplified narratives. And it was in all these courses that I learned how to read and analyze passages for my MCAT.
As course registration rolls around, I urge you to take advice I would give a younger version of myself: you need the humanities to not only be a good doctor, but to grow as a person.
Ryan Fan (19C) is from Stony Brook, N.Y.