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How many emails to her program director does it take for a postbac to complete the primary application?

Right now I’m going to say upwards of ten. The first three or so didn’t bother me much. By the fourth I was apologizing for my seemingly endless stream of questions. By now I’ve given up on apologies and have simply accepted that to apply to medical school, a person has to be comfortable with being a bit of a nuisance.

Medical school applications consist of a complex series of tasks that I’m relatively certain exist primarily for the purposes of dissuading the unwary from getting too far in the process. Some of the hoops are expected; personal statements, transcript requests, interviews. Some of them seem downright mean.

For example, there are two rounds of applications. The first, the primary application that is currently the bane of my existence, is run by AMCAS, the American Medical College Application Service. It’s a single online application accepted by nearly every medical school in the country. (Except for Texas schools for some reason. But since I’m not applying to any Texas school I’m not going to worry about it.)

The AMCAS application includes such delightful activities as typing by hand every single post-secondary school class I have ever taken along with class type and grade. This is in addition to sending them my official transcripts. It also costs $160 for the first school and $39 for each additional school to which the application is sent. My primary application costs over $700 right now. This is after I trimmed a good five schools off the list.

Then comes round two, the secondaries. One might think that receiving a primary application would allow the schools to weed out the few students who they would never consider accepting. Not so. Apparently medical school applicants raise quite a stink if they don’t get a secondary application, so the schools send them out to everyone. These applications tend to cost between $25 and $100. They’re more in depth; a series of short essay responses to questions similar to the type you might expect in an interview.

For all my complaints though, it’s pretty exciting. At midnight tonight I will submit my primary application to AMCAS and will have officially applied to medical school. It’s a small step on my journey, but symbolically it’s momentous. A year ago I could hardly imagine this day would come. Look at me now.

Edit: Apparently submissions don’t open until 9:30 AM tomorrow. Which is slightly less dramatic, but still exciting.


For the most part, I regard standardized tests as a necessary evil. Yes, we need certain measures of learning that put everyone on equal footing regardless of the rigor of their education. But few people would argue that exams like the SATs or GREs tend to favor rote learning over actual intelligence or creativity. I remember taking SAT classes, frustrated that the trick to doing well seemed hidden somewhere in the fee I had paid for the extra tutelage rather than any intelligence or commitment to learning on my part.

So it should carry some weight when I say that I think the MCAT is a pretty good standardized test. It actually measures something beyond one’s ability to spit out memorized answers. You need a strong background understanding of the subjects it tests, but the majority of the exam consists of passages explaining concepts. It is the job of the test taker to combine background knowledge with a critical examination of the material presented to answer the questions. Which, if you ask me, is a pretty good test for future doctors. They need to have strong background knowledge, but they also have to be adaptable and able to incorporate new information. Not only that, but they need to be able to be critical about new information, and the MCAT, at least superficially, tests all of these skills.

Except for the writing portion. Two three-paragraph essays that are assigned apparently to test how completely uncreative the human mind can be. I’m not kidding; the test is graded twice, once by a human being and once by a computer. Usually the two scores agree pretty closely with one another.

I spent a good portion of our review session trying to find a way to wriggle out from under the constraints of the essay structure. Could I include an example from literature? No. How about including some of my concluding paragraph in my opener? Not such a good idea. What differentiated the really high scores from the middle-of-the- road scores? Strength of examples and following the structure. The whole thing felt more like a fill-in-the-blank questionnaire than an actual essay.

What gets me is that this is completely counterintuitive to the goals of the majority of the exam. How backwards is it that the physical sciences portion of the test requires more out-of-the-box thinking than the essay?

The essays are graded on a bizarre scale that ranges from J-T and isn’t factored into the numerical scoring of the test. The average score for everyone taking the test is an O and the average score for students who matriculate is a P. I would dearly love to see their example of a “T” essay; the absolute best writing the MCAT graders could expect. Has anyone ever achieved this mythical score? Would the writer have simply mastered the fill-in-the-blank structure beyond all expectation, or would this perfect essay have thrown out the convention and set the computer grader smoking with its exquisite prose?

In truth the writing portion of the exam is barely a blip on the radar of the whole application. If I want to impress anyone with my writing skills, the personal statement is the place to do it. But it hurts my soul a little to write something so deliberately bad just to prove that I can string words together like beads on a chain.

Wake up. Realize it’s seven am. Go back to sleep

Wake up again. Read for twenty minutes because, oh right, you have time to read again.

Check email. Hope that someone has emailed with news of the perfect job. Find this is not so. Go back to sleep.

Get up. Make bacon and eggs for breakfast because, oh right, you have time to cook breakfast these days.

Check email in hopes that someone was just about to email you and ask you to come in for a job interview when you checked the last time. Again find this is not so. Frantically start searching job posting to see if there is anything new you qualify for.

Reread cover letter drafts and realize that all of the jobs you applied for yesterday had typos in the cover letters. Wallow in embarrassment. Fix typos. Apply to any and all jobs that might fall within your qualifications. Exaggerate slightly about research experience.

Watch TV.

Work on AMCAS application.

Work on AMCAS application while watching TV.

Complain to roommates how much you hate working on AMCAS application.

Switch to MCAT review.

Realize that you’ve forgotten everything you learned in Chemistry over the summer. Panic.

Check email in hopes that no one actually reads cover letters closely enough to notice your typos and someone has just now decided that you are the perfect candidate for that research position that sounded so awesome yesterday. Find that this is not so.

Give up. Pour a glass of wine and start making dinner because, oh right, you have time to cook again.

Waste time on the internet. Realize it’s nearly midnight. Worry about how tired you will be tomorrow. Realize that you’re done with the postbac program and that your bedtime doesn’t matter. Holy shit you made it.

Please Note: The following post contains some slightly disturbing imagery with very little context. I am currently seeking out further information, and will update as soon as I know anything.

There is a hall in the cadaver lab of the medical school that is lined with glass cases. Within the class cases are rows and rows of glass jars and in the glass jars are fetuses.

The doctor who was guiding our post-bac field trip to cadaver lab mentioned it in passing as the more organized part of the trip was coming to a close. A few other students and I wandered back to see.

There did not appear to be any particular organization to the collection. Some jars had labels with the size of the embryo, the date it had been preserved, or some disorder that had been observed. “Clubbed foot,” read one, the deformity readily obvious. Other had labels that seemed pseudo-scientific; “siamese twins” or, inexplicably, “monster.”

Most of the jars had no labels at all and seemed like the sort of collection one might find in the basement of an old farm house a few days before jamming season. They ranged in shapes and sizes and many had markings from their previous life as food containers. A Planters Peanut jar was located, as was one that used to hold mayonnaise. Some had blank labels or were turned away from view.

One student suggested that “monster” may have been a legitimate medical term at some point; the general sense I had was that these specimens were not recent. The few labels that did exist were faded and the lettering had clearly been done on a typewriter. None of them had the look of research tools that had been accessed recently.

Eventually one of the postbacs gave voice to what we all must have been thinking. “This reminds me of an exhibit at a freak show or a scene from a movie.”

“You know in Aliens when they’re trying to get Signorney Weaver to mate with one of the aliens and they show the room of failed experiments?” someone else commented. There was a murmur of agreement in the group.

“But isn’t there something wrong with that? That this is reminding us of a sci fi movie?”

No one had an answer for that. Vaguely unsettled we returned to the main room and focused our attention on the less creepy prospect of examining fully-formed human remains.