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Light warning: While this post does not contain any of the explicit descriptions of dissection featured in the last two entries, it does, to borrow a phrase from This American Life, acknowledge the existence of cadavers and the events of anatomy lab. Also, my perception of acceptable dinnertime conversation remains off center, so please take that into account as you read this entry.

There is a special kind of fear struck into the hearts of medical students at the mention of the anatomical practical exam. Although this frustrating ritual of medical education has decreased in importance in recent years, it is still an important rite of passage for medical students. I call it a rite of passage because I question its direct vital importance to the learning of anatomy, despite feeling that the actual dissection of cadavers has been immensely helpful in my medical education. To be honest, I think the practical exam exists mostly as a means of motivating us to devote the proper time and attention to studying the cadavers, rather than being an accurate means of testing our mastery of anatomy.

At our school, the exams are held on a designated Friday afternoon. The class is divided up into groups, and each group (ranging from 30 to 50 students depending on the number of questions/stations available) is assigned a time. We are to

Seriously though, who even owns a clipboard these days?

bring a clipboard and a writing tool. Those who wish can change into scrubs, but no safety gear is required.

We arrive in the hallway in front of the lab, drop off our backpacks in the locker room, and stand around nervously. Eventually the anatomy professor emerges and hands us all pieces of paper with 60 blank lines. She instructs us to write nothing other than our names on the papers, but as soon as we enter the lab we can scribble whatever notes we wish. Once everyone is ready we file into the lab through the women’s locker room.

One of the lab instructors likes to spice things up. As we enter the lab there are jock jams blaring from an old boom box, and he’s wearing a bright orange baseball cap backwards as he jumps up and down. The man is in his late 50s at least, with a bushy white beard and an awkward, soft-spoken manner, so the first time I saw this I burst into nervous laughter. The other lab instructors and fourth-year TAs are also standing around in their scrubs and white coats, smiling encouragingly at our obvious anxiety.

We each head to a station. There are a number of cadavers, several models, and a number of computer screens with X-rays or CT images. Each cadaver has two stations, one on each side. Each station has a pin, an arrow or a string tied around a structure, and there is an index card nearby with a question or an instruction. There are several orange chairs positioned around the room as rest stations.

One of the professors gives us our instructions. They are the same every time: “Look at the number for your station and circle it. Be sure to write your first answer on that line. Don’t write your first answer on line one unless you are at station one. Check which number you are on frequently. You will have one minute at each station and there are a certain number of rest stations. Stay in order. Do not skip stations. If you get lost ask for help. If you do not know what structure is indicated, ask an instructor. If you ask anything else the answer will be, ‘use your best judgement.’” He says this last part with a sympathetic smile because he knows this is the most frustrating answer in the universe and the only way for the teachers to get through this exam in one piece.

Then he offers the usual advice: “First get oriented: are you on the front or the back? Which way is the head? Then identify the indicated structure. Next, read the card at your station and write the appropriate answer on the blank that corresponds to that station. Answer only the question on the card. Not all of the cards say ‘identify.’”

There are about eight televisions, the big boxy ones on metal shelves hanging from the ceiling like in public school classrooms. The screens are blue with a number in the center. When the instructor says go, the number starts at 59 and counts down silently to zero like you’re on a game show. Whenever the number hits zero, the lab instructor yells some variety of “rotate!” or “move!”

The instruction to “get oriented” seems obvious, but the cadavers are well draped. Mostly this is to protect them from drying out, a major problem, it turns out, once you remove a person’s skin. There is also a fair amount of obscuring done for the sake of difficulty. You cannot see faces, genitalia, hands or feet unless that structure is specifically being pointed out. The cadavers are also largely sans skin, so all the usual orientation clues are missing.

We are not allowed to touch anything either, which is frustrating given than all of our studying has required us to find the structures by digging them out for ourselves. If I’m used to locating the musculocutanous nerve by finding its origin at the brachial plexus, I had better hope they have positioned the cadaver so you can see the brachial plexus when they pin that nerve. It’s also harder to distinguish structures like arteries and nerves when you can’t feel to see if they are hollow or move the drape back just a bit to see if you can see what branches it gives off. I end up twisting and contorting myself trying to peer into body cavities without blocking the light, my nose and hair getting dangerously close to formaldehyde-soaked fabric.

One minute, as it turns out, is precisely enough time to settle on an immediate answer and then second guess yourself. In some ways it reminds me of physics tests from postbac, where it was better not to even try to check your work if you managed to stumble upon an answer. Just keep moving and don’t look back.

Spelling doesn’t count on these exams, which is good because the words ophthalmic and infundibulum will never cease to send my brain and fingers into spams without a spell check. We are strictly forbidden from abbreviations, however, which I find intriguing given how pervasive abbreviated language is in medicine and our school curriculum. (In two labs

Look at that judgmental expression. As if he could spell pterygopalatine fossa off the top if his head.

of brain anatomy alone we’ve already learned about PICA, and AICA, SCA, PCA, MCA and ACA.) They will also, apparently, take off for lack of specificity; it is the styloid process of the ulna, not the styloid of the ulna. There are also no points for being technically correct either; the identity of one x-ray structure was the adductor tubercle, and the fact that the arrow was also pointing to the medial condyle of the femur did not mean that was an acceptable answer.

Once the exam is over, we turn in our tests, file out, and, usually, head off to study for the written exam. By the time our tests are graded and accessible, we are usually well past the point of real concern. As good or as bad as it feels to see where you ultimately fall on the curve, the skills being tested in anatomy practicals don’t seem to correlate to anything particularly useful in medicine. “When am I ever going to have to diagnose someone without asking any questions or touching them?” one of my friends pointed out.

I will say, in defense of the anatomy practical, that studying for something “hands on” is completely different from studying for a written test. I could have pored over dozens of textbooks and memorized every division of every artery and nerve and never have really understood how it all fits together as well as I did studying it within a body. Some of my esteemed colleagues may disagree with me on this point, but I would argue that, although the exam may not have realistically assessed my understanding of anatomy, it was a powerful motivating force. I doubt that I would have ever learned so much or so thoroughly had that impending exam not driven me back to lab so many afternoons.


“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

You have probably heard that saying (or some version of it…I have a knack for butchering quotations) before. It usually applies to some part of a person’s life, although I’ve always felt that relationships were a particularly ripe arena for such behavior. We all have a friend, or are the sort ourselves, who fall for the same “type” over and over again and are continually bewildered when things don’t work out. Again. For exactly the same reason they didn’t work out the first ten times.

I’m realizing, as I dive into yet another unit of my education, that I have just such an insane relationship with medicine.

It goes like this:

I look ahead at the coming week, and inevitably I find something to get excited about. Perhaps we are going to be learning about cancer, or bacteria, or delve into pharmacology or the ethics of end-of-life care. It is medical school, so there is obviously going to be some medically related theme, and I, it turns out, am a sucker for wanting to know about medicine. (No big surprise there, otherwise there are a lot of questions you might be asking about how I ended up here in the first place.)

I get excited. And I make plans for how amazingly well I am going to study this subject and how intricately I am going to learn all of the details. And then the week begins.

The trouble is, medical school is hard. Just as surely as I will get excited about what we are to be learning, I will also hit a wall where I just don’t know that I can learn it all. Sometimes the concepts are complex. Often it is just the sheer amount of material piling up before me; lists of microbes and drugs and pathways that I swear are more numerous than neurons of the human brain. No matter how much I want to know the information or how interested I was the weekend before, no matter how convinced I was that this week was going to be different, I am overwhelmed and quite sure I will never learn it all.

Eventually the week comes to an end, often bringing with it some sort of assessment, and seemingly by the skin of my teeth and a bit of luck, I manage to do pretty okay. I curse myself because, well I’m perfectionist and even in a pass/fail system doing pretty okay makes me nervous. I tell myself that next time I am going to nail the material into my brain so hard I will carry it to the grave.

I look at the next week’s material. We’re learning about viruses.

I love viruses.

Seriously, how weird is this thing?
Source: Wikipedia

We are two exams into medical school, and I am starting to lose the ability to converse in a socially acceptable manner.

This was already a delicate situation. Since even before postbac I have become increasingly difficult to watch television shows with. I point out medical errors, incorrect logical assumptions and bad scientific methods pretty much as I see them. My parents think it’s cute. Everyone else has taken me off their movie-night guest list.

Now, however, the endless solo study hours are starting to affect my daily interactions. I ran into a fellow med student as I was leaving the library after a ten hour study session the other day and our interaction went something like this:

Her: Hey, how is it going?

Me: I…it…good…think it is. You are doing, how?

Her: ::nervous laugh:: I’m pretty stressed too. Uh…good luck?

Me: I words hard find. Sleep now. Bye.

That was a good day. After a particularly unproductive study session, with the weight of my worries and my backpack weighing me down, the slightest hint of sympathy is downright dangerous. I find myself telling perfect strangers about the genetics paper I haven’t written yet, or that the real problem with studying biochemistry is that all the enzymes have the same names. The guy I buy coffee from every day knows the structure of our exam questions and my roommate has heard several blow-by-blow accounts of classes I’ve found particularly frustrating. In my head I am thinking, this person doesn’t care about the stupid class exercise you did today. This person is a CVS employee who just wished you a nice afternoon. She would probably like to return to her magazine. STOP TALKING.  And yet the poorly syntaxed words spill out.

I always figured that the classic physician stereotype of not being able to talk to their patients came from the general personality type attracted to medicine. We’re folks who like to know how things work, and for the most part the content of our studies is geared toward the technical side of things. But now I’m starting to wonder there isn’t a certain amount of unlearning of basic communication that occurs simultaneously with stuffing one’s head full of facts. I’ve heard statistics on how medical training can dull one’s sense of compassion; perhaps one’s sense of coherency suffers as well.

On the other hand, it might just be me. And it might just improve, given a few more group study sessions and a week off to breathe.

In the meantime, let me know if my writing starts to nosedive into incoherent babbling. And be very sure you want a full answer to your question when inquiring how things are going.

What do you call the dude who comes in last in his medical school class?

Answer: Doctor!

I was told this joke when I was preparing for postbac. It’s funny, right? Because no one wants their doctor to be that guy. We all hope we’re getting treated by a genius who never misses a needle stick and can diagnose you as soon as you walk in the door. We don’t want to think about our doctors missing questions on exams or struggling to understand the basic concepts of disease.

I think that’s part of the reason I get a funny look when I tell people that medical schools are pass/fail for the most part. (The first two years, anyway.) No one wants to think about their doctor as someone who just barely scraped by with a 70; we’d at least like to think of them striving for that A.

source: Yoga Retreats.

There are good reasons for the pass/fail system, though. By and large we medical students are competitive bunch, and that particular quality is only reinforced though extreme curves and weed-out classes in pre-med. That kind of competition has an ugly side. There is a pretty significant difference between a doctor who made it to the top of her class because she is intelligent and hardworking, versus one who made it by being vicious. (Although, I won’t lie, it makes for great television.)

Beyond that, most of the medical schools I seriously considered attending seemed to take the attitude that, by virtue of being accepted into their program, we had proven ourselves. We all had the capacity to become physicians, and there was no need to put us through the wringer just for the sake of establishing our right to be there. Once you’ve made it to medical school, you’re clearly a smart, driven person. Now it’s just a matter of making sure you’re a smart, driven person who knows how to practice medicine.

Of course. there are degrees of excellence, so in case you’re worried that all doctors are considered equal, keep in mind that the second two years of medical school are graded, and students must pass  two numerically graded board exams before they can be considered for residency. There is another board exam after the first year of residency, and regular board certifications throughout a doctor’s career.

And, if I might just add, having just clawed my way through my first real medical school examination, passing medical school is nothing to sneeze at. It isn’t the same thing as passing high school or a college course. These tests are designed to challenge us, we who fought our way to the top of the undergrad heap.

So to the dude who came in last in his medical school class? I will most certainly call you Doctor. I know very well that you earned it.

I don’t know that there are terribly many prospective medical students who read this blog, and I imagine those that do have plenty of advisors to guide them along the path toward getting into medical school. But on the off chance someone might gain some aid from what insight I’ve gained over the past year, here are a few tips for applying to medical school.

Submit your primary application ASAP

I talked about primary and secondary applications in a previous post. The AMCAS application is the one that gets sent out to your schools. It includes all the basics; classes, personal statement, work history, letters of rec. You send your official transcripts to AMCAS once and they verify all your grades and classes before the schools even know you’re applying to them. This process can take up to six weeks (or so the organization says.)

It’s a first come, first serve business though. If you have everything in to them by the first date you can submit your application (June 1 I believe) then the turnaround on verification is about a day. If you wait even a week after that, suddenly that six weeks is pushed to the max. We weren’t even taking the MCAT until mid June, and scores didn’t come out until July, but some folks were still waiting on their AMCAS verification well after everything else was ready to go. It made a much bigger difference in interview invites than I think any of us could have guessed.

And by the way, it takes time to get transcripts sent, not to mention a personal statement and the fact that the application requires you to type in by hand every class you have EVER taken post secondary school (including AP courses.) Plus you’ll have to write a short paragraph about your three most important extracurricular activities, which was pretty excruciating. This is not an application you can run off the night before it’s due.

Apply to a wide range of schools

I have no idea what algorithm they use for deciding to invite people for interviews. All told I had interview invites to a few reach schools, a few right-in-my-grasp schools and two safety school. I was flat out turned down by several schools that had significantly lower average GPAs and MCAT scores than my average, as well as a slew where I felt right on the mean. Why? I haven’t the foggiest. Meanwhile several reach schools not only interviewed me but interviewed me early.

I was always going to apply to the in-state public schools (your chances of getting into an in-state school are wildly better than getting into an out-of-state public school and mildly better than a private school) but aside from that, there was a great deal of arbitrary decision making that went into selecting which schools were on my list. I can’t help thinking that if I had been pickier, I might have had a far emptier dance card come application time.

Of course there was a mild correlation with how quickly I returned by secondary applications which is why….

Turn your secondary applications in ASAP, but don’t skimp on them either

Secondary applications are obnoxious, I won’t lie. You’re asked the same, stinking questions over and over again in slightly different ways so that you have to write out a brand new essay (or tweak the hell out of an old one) each time. By the tenth time I had to come up with a creative way of explaining how I was a diverse student or come up with a reason why I wanted to attend that specific school, I was starting to question how much I really wanted this school to like me after all. We were told to send in our secondaries within 48 hours of receiving them, but it was weeks before I even looked at many of them.

In the end, though, the first four secondaries I turned in were the first four schools to invite me for interviews. In one interview I was told that my essay had been one of the best they had read and afterward they felt they had to talk to me. Meanwhile the schools that I dragged my heels on or that I lazily submitted reworked versions of previous essays didn’t give me the time of day. Secondaries count. Don’t forget it.

Apply to in-state public schools; be wary of out-of-state public schools

All of the in-state schools I applied to invited me for interviews and invited me early.

Meanwhile, an out-of-state public school from the state I had lived in before the postbac, a medical school whose hospital I had volunteered at and whose campus I had lived literally across the street from, was the first school to reject me. (And no, score-wise it wasn’t a reach.) The only other out-of-state public school I applied to not only declined to interview me, but apparently forgot they had even sent me a secondary application. Ouch.

The trends I noticed applying to medical school were based on my own experience and a few close friends. Hopefully it can help give someone the jump on the whole application process as the cycle begins again. Most of all, if you are applying, remember to cast a wide net. Luck plays a bigger role in who makes it to medical school than most of us would like to admit.

The trouble with financial aid isn’t really the debt.

Okay, that’s a lie. The trouble with financial aid is all about the debt. But the complexity of the debt just adds insult to injury.

My first real experience with financial aid was for the postbac program. I had a teeny tiny government loan from

Pictured: Me for the foreseeable future (source: The Medical Student Blog)

massage school, but my undergraduate school was paid off free and clear (thanks mom and dad.)

The thing about student loans is that you can’t just get one lump sum to take care of things. You fill out FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid aka Taxes II: This Time It’s Personal) and the government comes back with a smattering of limited options that may or may not cover the cost of tuition and living expenses. All of these are offered on a gradually increasing scale of soul possession.

Subsidized loans are the best; they mean that you have a low interest rate that doesn’t start accruing until after you graduate. Of course the government recently got rid of these (or cut them back drastically) because they don’t want us to have nice things.  (Bitter? Me? You must be joking.)  Next up are unsubsidized loans (higher interest rate that accrues during school) and then grad plus loans, which have the highest interest rate. They don’t offer these to postbac students because technically they aren’t graduate students.

If your collection of federal loans don’t quite cover tuition and living expenses (for example, if you’re attending a program that doesn’t count you as a graduate student), you can always take out private student loans.

I am relatively confident that financial aid officers are forbidden from knowing anything actually useful regarding private loans. At least every time I emailed any of the schools I was planning to apply to for postbac I was immediately referred to their website. Seeing as I, being an intrepid young internet user, had already perused their website at length, I would email back politely restating my question and pointing out that their website fell short. After that I usually received an email that basically equaled, “I dunno…ask the bank? Just check with our website to make sure you get the right bank.”


If you do get a private loan, it goes through the school. They extract their tuition from you and send you a check for the remainder if you’re taking out loans for living expenses. They do this on a semester basis.

In postbac, over the summer they divided my loan disbursals between the two summer sessions (Chem 1 and Chem 2). Only they also decided not to divide the tuition payments in half. So for the first month and a half, the school had paid itself the majority of the entire summer’s tuition but was hanging onto the money I needed to buy food and pay rent…just because? When I pointed out that I kind of needed that money for important living purposes they offered to lend me (with interest, of course) an extra $2,000 to tide me over. No financial aid, I don’t need more loans. I just need the ones I already signed my soul over for.

Fortunately, because medical school is such an extreme financial burden, they hire financial aid officials who actually know their shit and they actually put together a package for you rather than sending you out into the wilds on your own. You still have to fill out FAFSA, and most of them want tax records from you and your parents, but at the end of it all you get a bunch of numbers tied up with a bow matching the cost of attendance (which includes living expenses.) They also have advice on how to limit your loans and information on a the many different payment plans you can use in residency and beyond.

That doesn’t mean everything is all set, though. Even though most medical students are well past the drinking age, financial aid still takes their parent’s income into account. I am finally (at almost 27) considered old enough that I had no EFC (expected family contribution) to contend with, but younger students either have to count on mom and dad to fill in the gap or tackle the grad plus or private loans.

Do you have a headache yet? Because to top this all off, every school is different. They all want FAFSA (no problem) but different schools have different extra forms they want you to fill out. They also have different need-based loans and scholarships as well as merit-based scholarships. And keep in mind that every loan coming from a different source (school, bank, government) is a separate organization that you’re going to need to keep track of as you move through medical school, residency, and beyond.

All of this so that I can spend the next four years of my life studying harder than I have ever studied before and then spend the next ten to twenty five years paying monthly payments four times my current rent.

Screw it, maybe I’ll just give up and join the military.*

source: Le Regard Cretois

*Please look to future entries as to why the military and the National Health Scholars Program are not part of my medical school payment plan.

I have begun the next step of the medical school application process: interview invites.

Here is what happens every time I get invited for an interview.

First I gasp. Then I cheer out loud. Anyone nearby gives me a strange look. Then I call my mom and excitedly tell her that I’ve been invited for an interview.

Following the celebration, I go to the school’s website and try to see when I can arrange to have the interview. I realize that whatever day I could pick to have the interview on will be extremely inconvenient in one way or another. I start to calculate the cost of traveling, of taking time off of work, of negotiating a place to stay. I panic.

I call my mom again. I tell her I am panicking and explain everything that is wrong with the entire medical school interview process. She reminds me that in the scheme of things, it will be worth it.

I hang up. I sign up for a date, email people about a place to stay, tell my boss which days I need off and book flight reservations.

Two days later I am eagerly checking my email in hope of finding another invitation waiting for me.

I have not actually attended a single interview yet, but I am already exhausted. Forget medical school, just applying is going to burn me out.

I’ve feared it, I’ve bemoaned it, I’ve ignored it — but the time has finally come. I’m going to start studying for the MCAT.

MCAT, for anyone who might not have been obsessing about this for the past six months, stands for Medical College Admissions Test. It is required for admission into every reputable medical school in the U.S. In an age where the GREs and the SATs are increasingly disparaged as in inaccurate measure of intelligence and are slowly disappearing from undergraduate and graduate applications, the MCAT exam continues to haunt the dreams of pre-meds nationwide.

There are four parts to the exam; biological sciences, which include biology and organic chemistry, physical sciences, physics and inorganic chemistry, a verbal section similar to the SATs or GREs, and a writing section that is graded separately on a bizarre scale of J-T. Each of the other sections is scored out of 15 points, for a total of 45. As far as I’m aware the maximum score is mythical; most students who get into medical school score in the 30s. One former postbac scored a 42 a few years ago and it’s still spoken of with a reverent tone.

I’ve never been much of a fan of standardized tests. I barely slept the night before I took the national exam for massage therapy, and that was pass/fail. The MCAT is like the mother of all final exams; the anxiety of every chemistry, organic, physics and bio test combined with a splash of fear that my verbal skills will desert me in my time of need. Let me put it to you this way; if I were offered instead to be jabbed with hot pokers for the four hours of the exam and be assured a reasonable score I’d probably do it.

Since the start of the program, the MCAT has existed in the back of my mind as a vague worry, but the full-fledged fear didn’t kick in until we were sent home with our study guides right before winter break. You know those three hundred page paperback SAT/LSAT/GRE study guides? That’s what I was expecting. Instead I was sent home clutching a four-book boxed set; the kind that comes in a cardboard case so you can keep them all together and then wrapped in plastic so none of the volumes can slip out.

The moment I returned to my apartment the study guide went up onto my bookshelf and remained there, untouched, for the duration of break and the start of semester. Other students talked about peeling the plastic wrapping off or starting in on a section or two; my study guide and I just eyed each other distrustingly as we went about our business.

Sadly, though, my days of obliviousness had to come to an end. Spring break arrived and with it the last of obstinacy. Before leaving on break I steeled myself and ripped the plastic from the cardboard case. Figuring my course load would be enough to keep most subjects fresh in my mind, I extracted the chemistry and the verbal reasoning volumes and slipped them into my backpack beside lab manuals and textbooks.

It’s strange; going into the postbac I felt as though I were signing my life away. Even though I knew it was just the first step on a much longer journey, I didn’t really consider the fact that it would someday be over. Now I’m two months away from the end. Terrifying as studying for the MCAT may be, it’s exhilarating to realize how much closer to my goal I’ve become.

I have a new ultimate challenge.

Last semester it was physics. For every hour of study I devoted to biology or organic chemistry, I gave three to physics problems. Every upcoming exam filled me with fear, every passing grade felt like a dodged bullet. When my final grade came in, higher than my wildest expectations, I was giddy with relief. The battle felt epic; the victory was sweet.

Now, though, physics is a known quantity. Sure, the material is new and just as mystifying as it was before, but I’ve become accustomed to the sense of bewilderment that colors most lecture classes. Having survived the final exam last semester, the smaller midterms seem less intimidating and my panic less acute.

Obviously it was time for a new challenge. And so it has appeared in the form of organic lab.

Like physics, organic chemistry lab is considered one of the pre-med weed-out classes. It is notorious for class averages in the 50s, with an epic final exam and lab reports a minimum of thirteen pages single spaced. When the undergraduates talk about the class there is a hint of fear in their voices.

We postbacs, however, get special treatment. Our organic professor is part of the program; he knows us all by name and teaches us separately from the undergraduates. We have no final exam and our lab reports are recommended to be about three pages long. When we pass by the undergraduate lab we see dozens of students frowning over their equipment in utter silence, while our TAs play music and have promised to get a beer with us after class sometime.

Which is the irony of this class being my new source of stress; there is really nothing stressful about it. Everything that makes the class a brutal, terrifying obstacle course for undergraduates has been removed. Friday afternoons should be fun; I already like organic chemistry on paper, it should be great to watch those principles enacted right before my eyes. Potions class, like in Harry Potter, one student called it. And it would be exactly that if it weren’t for the fact that I am completely terrible at doing actual organic chemistry.

We’ve had four labs so far and not a single one has gone off without problems. In the first lab my lab partner and I washed our equipment before we used it and the residual water interfered with our results. In the second, our substances refused to dissolve no matter how much solvent we added. The third gave us great results that we were later told absolutely could not, under any circumstances, be accurate. Our most recent lab yielded  no results at all, aside from a strange reddish sludge that our TA proclaimed, “Very interesting,” in a tone of voice suggesting he instead meant, “How the hell did you mess this one up?”

I’ve come to dread Fridays. No matter how much preparation I do ahead of time, nor how well I think I understand the concepts, the minute I step into the lab I feel I have surrendered all control. The magical organic lab fairies will decide whether or not I end up with a product, and apparently they’ve taken a dislike to me. The TAs and the professor assure me this is normal and how organic chemistry often goes. If that’s the case it’s a wonder more organic chemists haven’t blown up their own labs in frustration.

Don’t worry, I’m not planning on blowing anything up. With my lab luck it wouldn’t work anyway and I’d probably singe my eyebrows off in the process. But I remain disappointed to find that, while theoretical organic chemistry is one of my favorite science subjects, o-chem PhD is not in the cards if my MD falls through.

This week brought the event I call the “exam double header.” Physics on Thursday, biology on Friday – but wait, there’s more! This time around we have an organic exam the following week. (It was supposed to be on Monday, but our professor took pity on us and is letting us choose a different day of the week to take it.)

As the stress bears down, all of my hidden (or not so) neuroses rise to the surface. My nails are bitten to the quick, my sleeping patterns become erratic, and my humor becomes biting and uncensored.

I also become seriously superstitious.

Most of the time I am an extremely logical person. And as an extremely logical person, I know that my performance on an exam is in no way determined by the clothing I wear or  the desk at which I choose to sit. Yet, like competitors the world over, on the day of a particularly nerve wracking test (read: every physics test I have and ever will take), I find myself locked in to particular pre-test rituals.

If you were to ask me, even in the midst of performing these rituals, if I thought they had any effect on my grades, I could honestly tell you that, no, mostly my performance on exams is a result of a lot of hard work and a few test-taking strategies I’ve picked up along the way. Furthermore, there is no particular custom that I actually attribute any value to; it’s more a need to cover all of my bases than faith any any particular practice.

Psychologically this makes a lot of sense; humans have a habit of relying on ceremony when the outcome is uncertain. “No atheists in a foxhole,” right? Sports figures and fighters are renowned for having good luck charms. My reliance on objects and actions that are supposedly “lucky” are in inverse correlation with how much control I feel over the test I’m facing. Physics tests get the full treatment, but at this point I can face down most biology exams without too much pomp and circumstance.

Lest you think that I’m spending my pre-test mornings praying over an alter to the gods of mathematics, let me assure you that most of my rituals are small things. I listen to certain songs as I’m getting ready, choose a certain spot in the room to take the test. If I did poorly on an exam on a day when I wore a certain article of clothing or jewelry (and remember picking it out) I bypass it the next time around. I discard anything I feel might have jinxed me. A few times I brought along “good luck” charms to chemistry tests over the summer; after a mediocre grade on one final exam I started leaving them at home.

The funny part is that between tests these compulsions lose their power over me. I look back on my successes and failures over the course of the past year and at no point do I think, “Oh well that only happened because I did/didn’t honor my good luck ritual.” Yet the moment that pre-test anxiety hits, I cling to them as the faint assurance that everything will work out somehow.

There are two major tenets to my pre-exam ritual. The first is not to tell anyone the exact make-up of any ritual. (I’m taking a big risk with this blog entry, you should know.) The other is hubris goes before the fall. And thus is my conundrum, for I fear that the moment I leave my superstitions by the wayside I will finally discover their power.