It’s easy to understand how pre-medical students can constantly feel overwhelmed by a sense of competition here at Penn. Just imagine it: squeezed, cramped into uncomfortably small seats, your laptop perched precariously on a wobbly desk, you scan the room and the anonymity of your Biology 101 lecture overtakes you. This feeling of anonymity is cultivated by intimidating, 300-person lectures and the common knowledge that your grades will be curved to a B- or C+. Oftentimes, these grades aren’t even reflective of your understanding of the material—truth is, they may have more to do with your peer’s performance than your own.
In one case, pre-med junior Jennifer Deng was on the wrong side of the curve in her Physics 101 class. By the end of the course, she had a 91 percent average and felt that she had worked hard and earned her way to an A. However, at the end of the semester, an email from CIT GradeSender unkindly informed her that she had received a B for the class. The average was just too high.
Pre-meds understand all too well the anxieties created by a curve that ties grades to the performance of the class. In curved introductory science classes, it is easy to find yourself furtively looking around at classmates, hoping that they found the exam just as difficult as you did, and feeling relieved when the mean for that organic chemistry exam was a low 60. Concerned about this competitive trend, the MedX program conducted a survey last spring to assess the pre-med atmosphere at Penn. Unsurprisingly, over 80% of the more than 200 respondents of the online survey described the pre-med environment at Penn as “overly competitive.”
However, it also became clear that many of the pressures pre-meds face are a result of misinformation. Pre-meds have incorrectly inflated impressions of the GPA thresholds for medical school, see lab research and scientific publications as a must and are often unaware of the flexibility to explore alternative majors beyond the common pre-medical choices of biology, chemistry or biological basis of behavior.
Even outside the classroom, there is an implied “extracurricular curve” of sorts. Pre-meds often feel a pressure to engage in a set of activities—such as lab research, volunteering and shadowing—regardless of whether these activities are required for medical school, simply because their peers are involved.
Embedded within this peer pressure is an underlying arms race to outshine fellow pre-meds in extracurricular activities to secure scarce medical school spots. The difficulty with this “extracurricular curve” is that even when students are nudged into activities that medical schools demand, the ability to explore new areas and interests—an important goal of an undergraduate education—is often severely restricted. This lack of freedom, combined with the stress of outshining others, is toxic. It reduces the pre-med process to a funnel where a diverse array of students with varied interests is progressively narrowed to a thin stream of similar med school applicants.
It’s true that the practice of medicine is highly demanding and requires a complex balance of empathy and aptitude. However, the intensity of the pre-med environment not only leads students to value GPA and MCAT scores over a strong understanding of the material and social interactions with peers, but it also discourages them from pursuing the field at all because of factors like the dreaded Chemistry or Physics 101 curve.
Throughout this process, it can be easy for students who would otherwise make great medical professionals to lose sight of why they are pursuing careers in health care and abandon it altogether.
Regardless of whether the slope of the academic curve is addressed, we feel that the competitiveness of pre-med culture can be ameliorated in a number of other ways. For example, in introductory science classes, students arrive at recitations with different backgrounds in the subject—some have taken the AP while others have minimal experience with higher-level sciences. Thus, TAs are left with the difficult task of teaching to different levels of understanding. If recitations were separated on the basis of prior experience with the subject, they could become more useful, productive and insightful for all parties.
Additionally, why not have more group projects in pre-med classes? The medical system demands medical collaboration in diagnosing and treating patients. In fact, we are seeing a shift toward more integrated approaches to care across medical delivery systems. Increasing the use of group projects would increase collaboration in the pre-med experience and reduce the impersonal feeling of a 200-person lecture.
In dealing with issues like the “extracurricular curve,” misinformation needs to be attacked and debunked. This means disseminating more accurate information and increasing exposure to resources like the pre-health advising office. As a club, the MedX Program is hosting an NSO First Year Friday event, “Xposing the Myths of the Pre-Med Culture,” to help under and upperclassmen gain some more insight into the medical school admissions process. We encourage anyone thinking about the pre-med track to come this Friday to get your questions answered by the pre-health office, a current med student and upperclassmen.
Above all else, addressing the culture will require students across the university to push themselves to avoid allowing the pressures of curves and extracurricular activities to funnel their experience into a narrow set of activities. From picking a major to participating in extracurricular activities, we should base our choices not only on what will make us better health care providers, but also on what interests us. Culture starts from the bottom-up and this means that we, as students, have the power to change it.
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