Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
I was seated on a child-sized plastic chair along a wall in the classroom when the teacher summoned me to the front of the room. She handed me a sheet of stickers and, in broken English that was heavily accented, indicated that my task was to watch the approximately twenty children in front of me as they practiced their English vocabulary and reward those who performed the best. This was several weeks into my six-week adventure of teaching English in China during a gap semester after graduation; this was nine months after beginning my application cycle for medical school that remained an open-ended endeavor yet to discover its fate.
Children aged 4-5 years old sat around groups of tables before me and their eyes lit up as they spied the stickers in my hands; they sat up straighter and spoke louder because now they knew there was a reward at stake. I’d been enjoying watching one child who was paying attention and engaged in learning earlier, so he was my leading choice to receive a sticker. But then again, the boys sitting around him had also become laser focused and were putting forth significant effort, perhaps even more than the first child. From the front rows to the back rows roughly 75% of the students were performing well—well enough to earn one of the few stickers I had.
What was I to do? Who was I to choose? The teacher came nearer to me smiling, indicating that she wished I’d just hand out the stickers already. But unbeknownst to her I was confounded by how to single out the best among so many good options. After deliberation lasting a few seconds, to be honest, I ended up choosing kids among the 75% paying attention for very unsubstantial reasons. One little girl reminded me of someone at home in the States; another little boy just had a style about him that I liked. I knew even as I made my selections that I was using ridiculous criteria, but time restraints and the volume of students who I had to choose from forced my hand.
With my mind still engaged in my ongoing application cycle, I was quick to note the re-enforced lesson in cold, hard reality that was before me. The lesson that I and all other applicants from this cycle learned months ago: despite being “good enough” on paper, the application cycle sometimes feels like a numbers game with a heavy dash of randomness and luck. I mean no disrespect towards adcoms and interviewers (who have a tough job!) and I do appreciate the time spent reviewing our applications; however, at the end of the day, I can’t help but imagine the times when ten great applications are side by side and they can only choose one. Do they make decisions based on criteria, personal preference, and “feeling” as superficially as I did? Probably not. And they certainly have more information on us to use in making decisions than I had on those children. But cutting down 4,000 applicants to 600 interviewees or again shrinking 600 interviewees to 150 acceptances still must require some dose of subjectivity. It must require excluding some number of qualified applicants.
When you are the chosen one, it feels incredible. When you aren’t, not so much.
Instead of being further discouraging to me, the reminder that sometimes life is just a numbers game and the luck of the draw was an encouragement on that morning in China. A lot of us already understand this before even beginning the cycle (which is why some applicants now apply to 20+ schools), but it’s easy to forget in the sting of rejection email after rejection email after rejection email. This cycle, I was waitlisted and rejected a lot, as were so many of you. On bad days, sometimes I give into the defeating self-talk that the rejections at my dream schools were because I just wasn’t “good enough.” That because school X rejected me, I wouldn’t be able to have a career in academia and research or fill-in-the-blank. That the work I had done in the past few years wasn’t validated because it apparently didn’t impress the adcoms enough.
The truth is, though, that there are many reasons that we get waitlisted or rejected. Sometimes our application is, as we most fear, simply too weak. Sometimes we make a bad school list. Sometimes we botch a secondary or an interview. But sometimes, we are great applicants and non-acceptance from a school where we would be a great fit is just a casualty of the numbers. We should be careful not to view ourselves too highly when we have weaknesses to address, but we should also be careful not to get too discouraged when a rejection might be the outcome of a choice where someone had to name winners and losers among several qualified applicants. If you had an appropriate GPA/MCAT for the school you applied to and you felt like your interview went incredibly well only to later receive a waitlist or rejection, then this message might be for you.
In the kindergarten class in China that morning I could only give a few kids stickers even though a bigger percentage of them would have been worthy candidates. But as I looked at the remainder of the group, still sitting tall with minds straining to be attentive, my heart was encouraged. Sticker or not, these kids’ talent and potential weren’t defined by the fact that I hadn’t chosen them. Applicants, our talent and potential are not defined by the fact that a program didn’t choose you this time. I know that we all know this truth already, but if you’ve been riding the same emotional roller coaster I have over the past year, it couldn’t hurt to hear it again.
Don’t play the victim. Don’t view yourself unrealistically if you do have a weakness in your application (utilize your advisors!). But don’t let a vague rejection email crush your spirit when you’ve created an application that you are proud to own. Adcoms have tough choices to make, but so do we. We must believe in our own potential and be our own biggest supporters if we are going to make it in the tough field of medicine. Go buy your own stickers.