Premeditations: To Go Direct, or to Not Go Direct: Should I Take a Year Off? That is the Question!

Here’s a question we’ve all surely been premeditating for quite a while. Should I apply directly to medical school during senior year, or wait until after graduation, when I can perhaps supplement my academic and extracurricular performance with some feat of achievement in the “real world.” After debating it thoroughly myself and seeking the advice of countless direct and non-direct applicants, I think the individualized route still best. No one can say for sure whether you are more likely to get into the medical school of your dreams, or whether your career as a doctor will prosper more if you reserve a year post-graduation helping out the poor and needy in Somalia. The myth that taking a year off automatically qualifies you as a more mature candidate is simply not true. I once read somewhere that medical schools were beginning to look favorably upon applicants with families, but I think that’s going too far. What matters is not tailoring your experience during your year(s) off according to the sometimes fickle preferences of admissions deans, but rather asking yourself: would taking a year off and doing research/volunteer work or traveling truly leave you with no regrets by the time you officially step on the ceaseless treadmill that is the US medical profession.

Examine your enthusiasm for med school

Last year, one of my Chem 27 TF’s got into Duke University’s highly prestigious medical school. When questioned about his decision to apply direct, he replied unblinkingly, “Why the delay? Med school is too fun to miss out.” Now before we make haste to brand him a Martian dispatched to Earth to brainwash the Harvard premeds, we might pause to think about the attractions of the medical profession. Extensive medical knowledge of the human body, hands on experience with dissections (distasteful to some but highly fascinating to others), exposure to world-ranking physicians through shadowing and hospital volunteer work, and finally at the end of the long cycle of training, the authority to help patients in need themselves. Premed cynics would find these attractions hard to deny. More often, we are inspired to take on the challenges posed by this profession because of a family member’s illness or extremely inspiring high school or college clinical research. The phenomenon of not being to wait until medical school truly exists. Proof: I am applying direct and I can’t wait to go to med school.

Examining your motivation to do volunteer work, research, or travel in your year off

            A year off does not mean sitting on your couch and flicking the remote control at regular, disciplined intervals, hoping to absorb priceless knowledge from the Discovery Channel. Watching a year’s worth of NOVA episodes does not qualify as an enlightening experience or highlight on your resume, no matter how much quantum physics you end up learning while munching on Doritos. Although this sounds highly cliché, inevitably med schools would like to see you gain some travel experience (preferably in a country you’ve never been before to demonstrate your courage and enthusiasm for exploration), or volunteer experience (whether in a hospital/nursing home setting, or in a third world country in need of aid), or research experience expanding your thesis results and carrying your findings in senior year further.

Let’s examine each of these options separately. The couch potato situation will inevitably cause irreparable damage to your application. Now what about traveling abroad? Most scholarships like Fulbright require you to either study, teach, or do research in your time abroad. Although this does not preclude simply merely sight-seeing and being exposed to the different cultures, in general med schools like to see that you have done something meaningful with your time in that country, unless, of course, you embark on a world tour, or you are like Laura Dekker and sail around the world in 366 days exact (http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/celebrities/137861008.html) , just in time to return for your next med school interview. More than simply studying abroad, med schools probably prefer you to take up a humanitarian cause, such as rebuilding the earthquake-shaken debris in Sichuan, tsunami stricken Japan, or war-torn Sudan and Somalia.

If you don’t feel up for the task of volunteering in a foreign country, especially facing the challenges of subpar living standards, the spirit of volunteer work and humanitarianism can still be carried on back home in the US. Some Harvard volunteer groups extend membership to alumni. Mihnuet, for instance, welcomes post-grads on its trips to nursing homes, especially since those post-grads are more likely to be familiar with the residents and staff there. PBHA programs such as CRANC (the Cambridge Rehab and Nursing Center) frequently have graduated members who lost their junior status as a Harvard undergrad but not their attachment to the residents. These volunteer groups can actually be more rewarding than volunteering at a large hospital like MGH, where young volunteers frequently get relegated to reception and secretarial work.

The least exciting route, besides perfunctorily greeting patients at MGH, is often continuing with your existing research in lab. With the senior thesis already a major milestone, it is often difficult to produce something truly original and groundbreaking beyond your thesis conclusions in the course of one year. And don’t forget that you’ll be writing application essays and flying to different states for interviews in the midst of labwork as well, so experiments are often difficult to run continuously on a day to day basis. That’s not to say important discoveries haven’t been made by post-grads in university labs before. It’s just that science is a slow process, for the grad students who devote decades, rather than a mere year off, to their neverending projects.

I realize now that I’ve neglected mention the simplest choice of all, getting a job after graduation. A brief stint at a consulting group or pharmaceutical company or even a short software engineering internship may make all the difference in your perspective of medical schools. Who knows, maybe after finding the delights of a stable nine to five job with a sizeable paycheck already in your wallet, you may decide that you really are too faint of heart for the cadaver dissections. But that’s beside the point. Real life experience is always desirable on a med school CV and for personal growth as well.

For Those Who are Applying Direct

I think the challenges for people applying direct nowadays is that too many people are not applying direct. It’s a simple matter of peer pressure and often has little to do with what you truly want with your medical career. Not only do med school interviewers question your eagerness to transition directly into the medical studies because it has become so common to explore a bit after graduation, it also becomes more difficult to convince yourself that you are making the right decision, albeit a bit more hastily than some of your friends. But I think that overlooks one very important point, a genuine interest and passion for med school itself. Although I might not be all that thrilled to review organic chemistry all over again in excruciating detail, I am genuinely looking forward to anatomy and clinical practice, to donning that white coat in the opening ceremony, to taking on all the challenges that make a med school student proud of being in their profession. And I have enough friends who applied direct and ended up at amazing medical schools and are happy with their choice not to wait.

Anji Tang ’13

Gorgeous or Grotesque? Art and the Human Body

Beginning with the Ancient Greeks, there was something beautiful humans saw in their own bodies—was it vanity?  Curiosity?  Or a desire to understand the self?  Certainly, the Greeks crafted sculptures celebrating musculature and athleticism, well reflected in a copy of the Diskobolos, or Discus Thrower, in front of Hemenway Gym.  Centuries have passed, and the body has been minimalized and abstracted to an almost unrecognizable Reclining Figure, a Henry Moore work we may often pass with little regard on our way to Lamont.   Even so, we still find art capturing an aesthetic quality of the human form—pieces reflecting an external beauty, as well as parallel works depicting components that are less conventionally beautiful.

Granted, not all pre-meds may find themselves drawn to Greek statues or Medieval prints, let alone read an article mentioning art.  But for most pre-meds, there’s something about the human body we find appealing as a subject of study.  Perhaps it’s that same desire to understand the human self, expressed by the Ancients.  We share a similar fascination with the unique forms and lines of the body…and while the simple mention of “dissection” may conjure images of gore, premeds gravitate towards it.  Traditionally less-than gorgeous parts of the body provide an odd sense of fascination—while tumors and lesions are far from visually-appealing, premeds tend to derive an attachment to the grotesque.  In this respect, we are much like the artists who immortalized both the traditional and bizarre aspects of the beautiful.

Wandering through the fourth floor of the Sackler, I found myself drawn to a curious set of prints.  The subject wasn’t particularly novel—just the way the images were presented.  Most depictions of brain dissections take care to focus simply on the skull and the brain, but these prints began with an image of the cadaver’s head, before proceeding to peel away at the skin, remove the bone, the jaw, and finally excise the brain.  Considering the times (particularly the Catholic Church’s banning of human dissections as desecration), the images were fascinating with the striking blend of external flesh and internal organs, flaps of dissected skin loosely hanging, falling dangerously near the dead man’s eyes.  In contrast, our contemporary drawings seem rather mild, rather detached from the actual humanity to the point of treating the brain as an entity of its own.  Perhaps the print reminds us to consider the whole, rather than just the part.  Medicine deals with the whole patient, rather than a single aspect.

Granted, not all pre-meds may find themselves gravitating towards the Sackler Museum, and even if they do, perhaps not the relatively two-dimensional, black and white works on the fourth floor.  Yet beyond simple appreciation, art reflects practices in medicine.  In hoping to be future physicians, we take great pride in the powers of observation—noticing symptoms of illness in a patient, finding pathological irregularities, and matching up these notes to the patient as a whole.  In effect, we base our knowledge on what we see—a sort of realism.  In this regard, the artist-scholars of the past were not much different.

While they are housed in an institution for art, they are much more than just historical bits of ink on parchment.  From the prints of dissections to an interactive book bringing to life the body systems on a page, these etchings and engravings form the basis of modern anatomy; they show the very nature of detailed observation with a bit of educated speculation!  Certainly, there are prints of skeletons with far too many bones and an engraving of a Hercules with twice as many muscles. Yet, even these “flawed” works give a record of the scientific advances made, immortalized by printers and scholars.

Krystal Leung ’15

November Showcase

Dear fellow premeds,

November is right around the corner, and with the changing month come new articles by our new writers and editors! To whet your appetites for all things scientifically and medically related, here are a few things that November has in store!

How to “Tranquilize” a Premed:  We’ve all heard people say it and we all know people believe it with conviction – premed students are hyperstressed. Stay tuned for methods on how to keep premed students cool, calm, and composed! – Jeanie Nguyen

Gorgeous or Grotesque?  Perceptions on the Human Body: For most pre-medical students, there’s likely something about the human body we find appealing as a subject of study, whether it may be the unique forms of shape and anatomy, the ability to comprehend how they function, or the prospect of healing their flaws.  Yet while we are drawn towards some traditional sense of aesthetic, dealing with disease borders more on the grotesque—an inevitable sentiment of repulsion blended with an odd fascination at the sorry state of sickness.  While art may not be within every premed’s realm of interest, if you happen to venture to the fourth floor of the Sackler Museum, you’re likely to find a similar interplay—a linkage of the grotesque and the beautiful perceptions on the body. – Krystle Leung

What to Expect for Medical School Interviews: As many of you fellow premeds are preparing for interviews either this cycle or upcoming cycles, there are various tips and tricks to be aware of when going to medical schools. What do you wear? How should I prepare for individual schools? What questions should I expect? What type of interviews are there? We’ll address these commonly asked questions and some subtler issues within this piece! – Chi Zhang

Jeanie Nguyen

HPS_Jeanie Nguyen.PNGJeanie Nguyen is a sophomore residing in Mather House, concentrating in Neurobiology and working in the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory. Besides working on problem sets and keeping up with trashy reality television shows, she’s an exercise enthusiast as well as a Lakers fan. You can learn more about her life by reading her blog on the Harvard College Admissions page.

Sydney Green

Sydney Green is a junior is Leverett House, concentrating in History of Science with a focus in Medicine and Society. She is currently the Co-Coordinator for Harvard Peer Health Exchange and a member of the club basketball team. Originally from South Florida, she often craves naps on the beach. In her spare time, she loves watching all things ESPN, baking, and cross-stitching.

Krystle Leung

Krystle Leung School Picture.JPGCurrently a freshman in Thayer Hall, Krystle Leung hopes to concentrate in Chemistry at Harvard while perhaps engaging in additional studies in French and healthy policy.  She is involved in the Asian-American Christian Fellowship and Quiz Bowl in addition to serving as a freshman representative for the Premed Society.  Her remaining free time is best spent creating art/crafts, particularly through origami, whether it be crudely hewn from Post-its in her dorm or composed as a part of larger project made during Art Society sessions.  Even with the more scientific focus in her studies, she enjoys being able to blend science with her love for the arts, leading to a somewhat quirky aspiration to finish constructing a model fullerine out of square-paper modules.

Written Works

Sharely Fred

253007_10150258725280616_500995615_9143188_6252388_n.jpgSharely Fred is a freshman in Thayer Hall concentrating in Neurobiology. She is involved with Health Leads and Stage and works at the circulation desk of Lamont Library. Sharely enjoys dancing, swimming, and going to the movies in her spare time.