March 13, 2022

DO | A Pre-Med Reckoning

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The famed pre-med track is a popular route for undergraduates all over the country, even at a more tech-leaning school like Cornell. The periodic mass exodus of students from Baker Lab 200 should hint at the sheer number of Cornellians hungry for a shot to have those acclaimed two-letter initials appear after their name. And also to help people, of course. That is the priority here, after all. 

Medicine as a career is unique in its combination of financial prestige and altruistic reputation. Compared to computer science or business majors, pre-meds are usually far more hesitant to confess that they’re in it for the money, as such an admission would directly conflict with the ideal image of a pre-med student: one whose only wish in their pursuit of medicine is to help patients. Pre-med LinkedIn profiles are treasure troves of pretentious 20-somethings pretending to have found true love in molecular genetics or healthcare policy, when in reality they’re just good at memorizing cell biology diagrams and want to drive a Tesla. 

Medical school admissions standards are of no help to the narcissism factory that is the pre-med track. A heavy reliance on GPA in applications means that it’s actually in most pre-med students’ best interests to withhold study resources from their peers to increase their own scores while keeping the curves nice and forgiving. Students are essentially allowed to uphold the same rat-race mentality that they had in high school, except on a much larger scale and while surrounded by valedictorians and Science Olympiad winners. 

While getting into medical school is by no means easy, the pre-med track offers an attractively well-established template for success. The so-called “pre-med checklist,” — which usually consists of a high GPA and MCAT score, volunteering, leadership positions, shadowing and research experience — allows students to forego the discomfort and risk of academic self-discovery in favor of a set of predetermined boxes.

As a pre-med myself, I’ve had to grapple with my true motivations for pursuing a career in medicine. Am I just complacently wandering down this path that I arbitrarily designated for myself when trying to decide the proper angle for my college admissions essays? Is Cornell’s “any person … any study” motto wasted on me if I refuse to imagine a world in which I’m not pre-med? Am I falling into the same trap of filial piety that so many other Asian-Americans seem to use to justify their pursuit of these high-brow fields?

Throughout several mini-crises about my choice of major, the pre-med in me still persists. Thus far, medicine has served more as a carrot on a stick than a true end goal — some abstract motivation to get me out of bed and into the lecture halls. I’m admittedly enamored by the prestige and rigor of medicine and by the thought of my parents bragging to other parents that their son made it as a doctor. But what attracts me to medicine most is its certainty. If I can pull it off, then my income, my reputation, my family’s satisfaction, my own pride — they are all guaranteed. 

While I’ve denounced the idea of passion as a career-determiner before, I still struggle to see a career in medicine as a source of personal fulfillment. I’m perfectly content pursuing a career I’m not incredibly passionate about, but I fear that the pre-med label has boxed me into a set of requirements and excused my own lack of scholarly exploration.

Ultimately, the pre-med track is a safe, relatively unambitious choice for me and many others at Cornell. If you have the intellect and can put in the work, then your route is very carefully set out for you. College can be distilled down to its most essential parts, without much of the intellectual curiosity of humanities majors or the computer science kids’ cutting-edge internships. The Organic Chemistry prelims are there for you to ace, the pre-med club executive board positions are free for the taking and the spots in the research labs are just one copy-and-pasted cold email away. 

As I slowly and dispassionately meander down the pre-med road, I fear a crisis awaits me. As atonement for my apathy, I will be struck down by Hippocrates himself and cast aside to be with the other ex-pre-meds who have STEM degrees but no idea what to do with them. If that happens, my four years at Cornell will have been little more than a pony show meant to convince myself and others that I have my future all figured out. As I move forward in my undergraduate career, I aim to loosen the iron grip that medical school has on my academic choices. Medicine will have to find ways to cater to my interests — not the other way around.

Noah Do is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]. Noah’s Arc runs every other Monday this semester.