For the last month, whenever someone has asked me, “What are you up to?” I’ve always given them the same reply: “I’m studying for the MCAT.” God only knows how many conversations I’ve defaulted to that lazy small talk.
Sitting for the MCAT is a notable event that many students study several months for. It requires a significant amount of time and effort to prepare for, more than most things a college student does at any given time. It makes sense that I think about it a lot.
Perhaps I shouldn’t think about it so much. When I’m on my deathbed I won’t be thinking about this test. And an unhealthy obsession over school and jobs and careers and the elusive goal of “professional success” is symptomatic of an unfulfilling life.
Every time I am given an open-ended conversation starter like, “How are you?” or “How is your semester going?” I automatically, albeit subconsciously and unwillingly, inform them that I’m taking the MCAT soon. This test is no longer a thing I sit for and then leave behind. For better or for worse, I now define myself as an MCAT test-taker.
What a sad life to lead, where a standardized test not only dominates my time, but also my thoughts away from it. Where it creeps into my social life and haunts my everyday interactions. Where I am compelled to sneak in that one sentence to everyone from close friends to casual acquaintances.
I’m sure I’m not the only one on this campus anxious about his or her upcoming MCAT or LSAT or GRE or interviews or grad school applications. We are Penn students and we care about our future careers — that’s why we go to a university like this in the first place. We all want the best chance at success we can get. You certainly won’t see me complaining about that or trying to get in anyone’s way.
But there is a tendency among the students of this campus to never leave school or careers behind. Or to obsess about OCR or some internship or club elections or every 0.01 fluctuation in our GPAs. Hence, our reputation as an overly pre-professional school. A school so ridiculously hyper-competitive that our student-run clubs have multiple interview stages. A school so cutthroat that there have been 12 suicides in the past four years.
If I am an MCAT test-taker before anything else then I must admit I have my priorities in the wrong order. If there are any pre-meds out there who spend more time thinking about medical school admissions than thinking about healing the sick, then you also have your priorities in the wrong order. If there are any pre-law students out there more excited to go to a T-14 school than to fight for truth, justice and fairness, then you also have your priorities in the wrong order. This list can go on forever.
I imagine many on this campus were obsessed with SAT scores and GPAs and having the perfect combination of extracurriculars as they were applying to Penn. But in retrospect, how often do you think about those things now? Do you plan on telling your grandchildren the heroic story of how you got an A-minus instead of a B-plus?
You, by virtue of being a Penn student, are already professionally successful. How many high schoolers spend their days dreaming of attending a university like this? Still, I imagine that all across this campus we are dealing with the same problems we were before — a chronic and lingering feeling that we are not good enough, that we do not measure up in the dimensions of life by which we judge ourselves.
The lesson I am trying to impart to you, after God knows how many practice passages and flashcards, is that professional success, while a good thing to have, is not a worthwhile goal on its own. It is merely a means to an end. A fulfilling life, one with meaning and purpose and pride, uses academic skills and extracurricular experiences for some higher calling. Perhaps that won’t get you the highest GPA or score or into the best firm, but you’ll feel a lot better when you get there.
JOE THARAKAN is a College senior from The Bronx, N.Y., studying Biological Basis of Behavior. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Cup O’Joe” usually appears every other Tuesday.