I have to write a “perfect medical school personal statement.” I have to write about learning and growth. I want to show empathy and grit. Most of all, I must resonate with the medical school admissions committee reading my story.
The overwhelming consensus around Student Doctor Network, the forum of terrible but successful premeds, is: don’t make waves. Adcoms can be radical feminists or religious fundamentalists, born from wealth or recently sued out of their life’s savings, pro-life, gender skeptics, creationists, WASP or second-generation Asian-Americans or Sikhs, or anything under the rainbow. Theoretically, any topic would be allowed until I turn on the TV, flip through different news channels, and let the outrage pour in. I do not want my life’s traumas in the wrong hands, but this could happen.
These thoughts were a pressure-like sensation around my temples on the day of my interview. This is the most competitive organization on campus, largely because of the massive premed population at my college, so I was happy to get an interview. Even if that interview was on an upper floor of an empty medical building under renovation, the lengths of the entire hallways were covered by massive white tarps from the floor to the ceiling. I ducked through several tarps to find the elevator and followed an eerily quiet hallway, passing by many empty waiting rooms and almost missing the room. After thousands of steps in my heels, I could feel wounds forming at the back of both feet. I gingerly peeked at my feet. Ooh, they are bleeding. I tucked my feet back in and smoothed my pencil skirt. I was ready when they called my name.
A short Middle Eastern girl with long, curly black hair led me through the door. Upon entry, I was immediately struck by the dim, flickering overhead light casting an orange glow over the room. The girl sat down next to a tall Asian guy behind an average teacher’s desk that nearly filled the entire room. I sat before them and introduced myself, shaking both of their hands with a business smile. I handed them the required paperwork. The lights were flickering at an unpredictable cadence.
“Tell us about yourself,” the girl prompted me with a smile. Yes, ma’am. I am a junior biochemistry major. I commute from home, where mom cares for my grandfather with Parkinson’s, and my sibling and I help. He is not on hospice care yet. I am a certified nurse assistant and will be there for him when he is.
My interviewers took turns. The tall Asian guy asked me about my motivations to be in the prospective school. I discussed my interest in emergency medicine and my admiration for the emergency department. I first encountered it as a caregiver to a psychiatric patient and returned as a volunteer. It was part of my healing process, but I loved the department and took every opportunity to bleach every waiting room seat to maintain my excuse to be there. The guy interviewing me nodded with encouragement. I thought things were going well.
I was not prepared for the next question. The girl asked, “What is the hardest experience you’ve ever had?” I blinked. Are they allowed to ask me that? In my head, I raced through my most painful memories. I hesitated for a split second when I knew. These people were my age and probably liberal, but I hadn’t told many people, let alone know many people who would respond well. But one thing I knew was that as someone who had survived this, I could not lie about it. Part of me still felt shame, I was still having some difficulty sleeping, and loud sounds still made me skip a heartbeat, but most of me knew that my worst experiences were the only ways to explain the sense of strength I feel today.
“It would be when my XXX developed schizophrenia. He had no one, but it was alarming to watch as he would not allow anyone else to convince him to get help. I took it upon myself to keep an eye on him and help him get through the trial-and-error of finding the right meds. He went into psychosis one time and messed me up pretty badly. He raped me. My IUD became partially expelled through my cervix, and I could not stand straight and walk for a few hours. It had to be removed.
He was psych, so it wasn’t all his fault. But enough was enough. I made sure he had the psychiatric help he needed and walked away. But that was definitely an experience that taught me about my tolerance and ability to survive and flourish despite things I did not ask for and cannot control. I did not drop out when I cared for him or after everything. I’m here now, applying to your school.”
I saw their smiles fall as I sat in the flickering semi-darkness and told them the painful truth of my college life. The girl was gripping her wrist with her other hand, and I could see the Asian guy was at a loss for words. Abuse is an uncomfortable subject in general, let alone in an interview. It opens up many questions from the reader to the narrator. Some of these questions might feel insulting to ask, but they need to be asked so they can be addressed, and my interviewers would not have the time or nerve to ask. Because clarity was not sought, things remained awkward. Did they think I might be too unstable for emergency medicine? Did they think I needed therapy instead of a job? Did they believe me when I asserted my strength as a survivor? Did they blame me for getting in bed with crazy?
Awkwardness is all it takes. Maybe just a smidgeon of stigma. Needless to say, I did not get a second interview. The interrogation left me thinking about acceptable types of trauma for a while afterward. But as hard as it is for me to speak out, I am proud of my growth throughout the violence and throughout my recovery. It makes me feel brave and a little wiser to know who I am under immense pressure. I never again applied to the school.
The Student Doctor Network recommends avoiding discussing abuse in the personal statement and discussing a story of grit and empathy. But what is survivorship without grit and empathy? How can one possibly understand human nature without skin-crawling, hair-raising, gut-wrenching brushes with it? When asked about my hardest experience, they hoped I had already constructed a mythology about myself, canned and ready to go. A myth that follows all of the conventions. One that I could give in many different personal statements. But erasing my history is to perpetuate the silence around sexual violence. Avoiding my bravest, worst, and most formative moments in a conversation about empathy and grit is a denial of reality. Medicine is just a bunch of scientists facing the fragility of humanity. If a doctor does not know strength when they see it, they probably also forget to ask the patient for some additional history.
The author is an anonymous medical student.