By Glenn N. Cummings, Ph.D., Director of Health Professions Advising
“It’s a bit like high school,” a first-year student told me the other day. He’d barely had a chance to attend his first F&M class and already he’d noticed a cultural tendency on campus—not exclusive to F&M by any means, but prevalent here nonetheless. "Everyone's got their group." I responded, “So your high school had the jocks, the band kids, the drama group, that sort of thing? That’s the way it was back in the day when I was in high school. Everyone was identified by one activity or interest.” He pondered this for a moment. “I’m not sure anyone liked doing that, but we did it yeah,” he replied. “I was one of the nerds. Is it really like that here, too?”
I’m not the best person to answer that question, given that I have such a restricted view of student life from where I sit as the pre-health adviser. However, I can say that there’s at least one group, the “pre-meds,” who do spend their four years of college living with a label. As the new academic year kicks off, I’m reminded of how being “one of the pre-meds” is something that as many as 20% of the student body grapples with at one time or another during their college years.
Interestingly, there is a broad spectrum of attitudes toward the “pre-med” identity. Occasionally the enthusiasm for all things pre-med is so zealous, the pre-med role so passionately embraced, that I’m left wondering if they’re trying too hard to convince someone—their parents perhaps, or me, and/or themselves. But generally I believe that a positive attitude is admirable and may bode well for success; after all, you need to be motivated, and rallying behind the pre-med banner gives some students a reason to keep studying.
Across the vast middle of the spectrum we have the largest group, made up of those who don’t quite know how to feel about “being pre-med.” Please hear me: It’s OK to be ambivalent. If you are uncertain about your future then you are probably examining the pre-med path very thoroughly, testing it out through clinical experience, and taking your time to complete the requirements. You’re probably also someone who thinks more “pre-health” than “pre-med,” considering all of the health professions. These are good things! The risk of ambivalence, of course, is that if your heart's not in it, and you may not be devoting the time and energy to the coursework that’s needed for success. Please don’t hesitate to come talk to me about a personalized timeline for proceeding toward health professional school, since what is working for another pre-med may not be working for you.
Lastly we have the uncomfortable, downright dismissive group. “Oh, I’m not a pre-med," they say emphatically. I’m not one of those. I’m not sure where such a viewpoint comes from. Maybe it’s the result of having internalized comments made by faculty, who can sometimes feel that pre-meds are overly grade conscious and too focused on the professional lives they will lead after college. These students adamantly resist being labeled, and yet show up as seniors or young alumni ready to apply to medical school anyway, despite their earlier protests. I commend their broad view of themselves and am reminded of Walt Whitman’s famous line, “I contain multitudes.” An F&M education is all about exploring one’s multitudes, isn’t it? I only hope that you still come in for advising along the way. We won’t reduce you, I promise. I’m a big fan of Renaissance men and women.
The more graduates I see headed off to medical school, the more I do believe that there are some common traits you all share—whether or not these attributes huddle behind a label. If you have a strong desire to serve others and to alleviate suffering, then you may indeed be pre-med (and along with this must go a degree of comfort being around sick people). If you have an interest and proficiency in science, then you may be pre-med. If you tend to remain composed when taking on high levels of responsibility, if you’re willing to be a leader and you’re not afraid of making decisions, then you may be a pre-med. If you’re curious about the world and don’t stop analyzing problems until you find clarity, then you may be pre-med. I could go on. Suffice it to say, no matter how you feel about the pre-med identity, the personal characteristics underlying the label are nothing to shrug off or roll your eyes at. Don’t hide them. They’re some of the best human qualities out there.