by Sanford J. Brown M.D.



You can get into medical scool COVER



This book is a compilation of letters from people struggling with a choice: whether or not to pursue a medical career. The questions they ask are at once direct and personal. Their concerns are immediate and real. They are, for the most part, on the verge of deciding to devote a part of their lives to an enterprise that may prove ultimately unsuccessful-gaining admission to a medical school. Some are already involved in the pursuit; others soon will be. They write asking for advice.

Advising these readers, I soon decided, is a great responsibility. Some people are strong applicants; I happily tell them so to allay their fears. Others are borderline; I stiggest ways for them to parlay their strengths and downplay their weaknesses. Some appear to be outright poor candidates. These present the most difficulty because I do not want to be unduly encouraging, and thus unfair. Yet there are physicians practicing today who were told they had no chance of getting into medical school. I know because I was one of them.

My story is personal but pertinent and since I am allowing other stories to be told in this book perhaps mine should be, too. I hope it will prove somewhat inspiring to those of you who have been advised to plan for alternative careers following medical school rejections. For I still believe that, if you are aggressive enough, you can gain admission to a medical school.

When I decided that I wanted to become a physician I had just graduated from college. I had been an English major and had taken not one premed course. Naturally, I hadn't taken the MCAT-I hadn't even heard of it. I didn't know any science professors I could ask for recommendations. My undergraduate GPA was 2.96. I had no experience working in a medical environment. Is it any wonder that when I finally found the premedical advisor he told me to forget it? I would have, too, if I hadn't been obsessed. That was fall, 1968. Less than one year later I began my freshman year of medical school.

In retrospect it seems incredible even to me. Yet, when I think about it, my approach to the problem of how to convince a medical school to accept me was perfectly sensible. My success at it was in part a tribute to my rationality and in part a tribute to my good luck. The luck I didn't worry about; it was beyond my control. However, I took a lot of care to be rational.

n 1968 I was a totally unqualified college graduate wanting to go to medical school. Well, perhaps I wasn't totally unqualified. It's true I didn't have any premedical coursework or experience, but I did have confidence. Why? Because I had edited my college literary magazine my senior year and almost single-handedly put all 128 pages of it together. To me it was a monumental achievement and although it didn't satisfy any premedical requirements it showed me that I had the tenacity to complete a task. And getting into medical school was going to be one gargantuan task.

That summer I decided that it was important to work in a medical environment. I didn't want to do it to impress a medical school of my sincerity; I wanted to do it to convince myself that I was on the right track. Deciding to become a physician was a bit of an epiphany for me and I wanted to be sure I could trust my revelations. Luckily I had a friend who worked as an assistant administrator at a large metropolitan hospital. I called him to ask if there was anything that I could do to gain medical experience. I was ready to be an orderly, a lab-runner, anything. My friend had an idea. Knowing I had been an English major he asked me if I would like to write a health publication on lead poisoning for their out-patient clinics. Childhood lead poisoning was becoming epidemic and there was then no preventive information for parents. I said, "When can I start?"

I was hired with the undistinguished title of "clerk," paid $2.00 an hour, and left to my own devices. Six weeks later I had managed to complete my project and, in the process, was able to check out most of the hospital, which was so large that they had separate emergency facilities for men and women. I met physicians, medical students and patients. I observed clinics and wards. I made home visits with medical personnel. It all served to strengthen my resolve; I made plans to return to school in the fall to begin premedical course work.

In the meantime the cartoon coloring book on lead poisoning I had written and designed and a friend had illustrated was becoming popular in the clinics. The finished product was somewhat primitive; text was typed onto the illustrated pages and then photocopied and stapled. It was a low-budget operation from beginning to end, but it worked. It even received some media coverage in the local papers. Later, it would accompany my applications to medical school to give credibility to my attempt to project myself as a different type of applicant. Medical schools, I came to learn, welcome the non-traditional applicant to add depth and diversity to the incoming class. However, admissions committees must be convinced of that applicant's ability to survive the basic medical sciences. They pay careful attention to performance in premedical courses and on the Medical College Admission Test. Here was my next challenge.

Doing well in premedical courses was somewhat worrisome for me. After all, I had majored in the humanities. I had only met my university's minimal science requirement for graduation-one year. I had taken oceanography and astronomy, neither of which gave me any premedical credits. They were known as science courses for non-science majors-mickey-mouse but interesting, and non-intimidating. Fortunately, they were offered by the physics and biology departments as well. Naturally, I signed up. As far as I and medical schools were concerned mickey-mouse biology was Bio 101-102, period. Grades were all.

Chemistry was a different kettle of fish. There was no chemistry for non-chemistry majors. Chem 101 included biology majors, budding chemists, engineers and premeds. It had the reputation of being absurdly difficult, for its purpose was to separate science majors from the chaff. Realizing that anything less than a grade of B would effectively eliminate me as a contender for medical school, I enrolled in introductory chemistry in night school at a local community college. Even that wasn't easy, but at least I had a fair chance.

While waiting for my premedical courses to start I made a trip to the local hospital to seek part-time employment. By this time I was coming to enjoy the hospital environment. Again, I was ready to accept any kind of work. Luckily, I was hired by the Department of Social Services, which consisted of one full-time woman worker, to do part-time medical social work. My lack of experience was no obstacle; she was willing to train me. She wanted a student and I wanted a job. It worked out perfectly.

I divided my time between the department of physical rehabilitation and the cerebral palsy clinic, and I came to see patients differently. Rather than focusing on disease, as I was later taught to do in medical school, I was made to appreciate the impact the disease had on patient and family. Initially, I would do the "intake interview" and then discuss my impressions with my supervisor. Invariably she would show me how unaware I was of what was really going on. It was humbling. But, eventually, I began to get better at it. I also learned how to do direct service, finding my way through the bureaucracy to get canes, wheelchairs, braces, home health care, educational instruction and other concrete things that patients required.

Meanwhile I decided to apply to medical schools for the following fall. I admit I really did this just to energize my interest in my premedical activities. I had no expectations of being considered a serious candidate anywhere. After all, I still had not even completed my first semester sciences. I had taken the "old" MCAT and done well on the general information and verbal sections. I was in the 50%ile in mathematics and the 25%ile in science. But I considered this a surprising score, since I was competing with science majors. With two months of introductory biology I had outdone 25% of them. I was impressed. Yet I had no illusions about medical schools. As far as they were concerned I had nothing academic to show. Nevertheless, all they could do was say no, and at least I would have had the experience of applying.

I applied to seven medical schools, most of which were in my home state. I was rejected by five of them quickly, including the one attached to the hospital where I had done my health education project. The sixth school waited a little longer to reject me. The seventh requested an interview.


Sometime in February, 1969, I boarded an airplane and flew to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to be interviewed at what was then the Marquette University School of Medicine (now the Medical College of Wisconsin). Little did I know then that my extracurricular work had impressed a member of the admissions committee and he wanted to know me better. I had two interviews; one was perfunctory, the other more interesting and intimate. It went overtime, and when we were done I believed I had an advocate on the committee. God knows, I needed one.

The next three months went by without any response from Marquette. What was up? I had no idea, except that I felt I was fast becoming a mailbox junkie. In the meantime I had completed first semester biology, chemistry and physics, earning all Bs and started second semester of the same. By the end of second semester (again, straight Bs) I had heard nothing more than that my application was being processed and they would notify me as soon as possible. I hadn't been accepted, I hadn't been rejected and I hadn't been put on a waiting list. Now I had a decision to make: whether to take the masochistic organic chemistry course that summer and be done with it or postpone it for the fall. I opted for the summer. That wav I wouldn't be tying up the whole next year and, if Nlarquette was still considering me for the September class, I would have fulfilled all requirements.

My next decision was where to take it. Being keenly aware of my aversion for cutthroat competition I avoided the course at Columbia, Harvard and Berkeley. I selected the University of Minnesota, and on the way out to Minneapolis I conveniently revisited Milwaukee. There I learned, from my advocate, that the admissions committee was still not convinced that I could do medical school work. They were holding a place, waiting to see what grade I earned in organic. That was it. Do or die.

Minneapolis was positively delightful that summer and the course was civilized. There were five morning lectures and three morning labs. We were out by noon every day. I was competing with premeds, but also with pre-pharmacy, pre-nursing, and chem majors. On the great Bell curve I made another B, proving at least my consistency in science. Fortunately this was sufficient to allay the fears of the other committee members and on July 26, 1969, I received notification that I had been accepted into the freshman class at Marquette. Of course I had to complete the second semester of organic, which I did, earning another B. Medical school began four days after my course ended.

I do not mean to suggest that it was all downhill from there. Now I was forced to compete with all those premedical science majors that I had so assiduously avoided during my college career. These characters had already been exposed to many of the first-year medical school courses in college-anatomy, histology and physiology, for instance. All I had done was run the obstacle course of the basic premedical requirements. These, it turned out, had minimal relevance to first-year medical school. How I survived that, however, makes for another story.

Where my sympathies lie must be obvious. Thev're with students, like myself, who have taken a non-traditional route to medicine. Medical schools still accept a preponderance of science majors with high GPAs and MCAT scores. But they accept people like me, too. And if me, why not you?




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