The medical school admissions phenomenon has created a tremendous problem in undergraduate education, one for which nobody has an answer. Although undergraduates don't necessarily know precisely how to brew the magic formula that will make them "ideal" candidates for medical school, they have all figured out the basic ingredients. So at UCSD (and elsewhere) there are hundreds of students devoting weeks, months, even years to packaging their images, trying to fit a mold, taking courses they don't like, performing activities they have no interest in, being people they don't want to be — anything to make their resumes look good.
The "pre-med nerd," as he is called, has a wretched reputation, and any UCSD instructor can draw his caricature: the pre-med nerd is driven by a sense of desperation, by the belief that life holds two options - medical school or the death train to Treblinka. His world is framed in the symbolism of stethoscopes and tongue depressors. His excessive emphasis on science courses (so as to score well on the MCAT) is coupled with virtual disdain for - or abject fear of - the humanities. His behavior is characterized by smarmy obsequiousness when in the presence of influential teachers and administrators. In sum, he has pledged mind, body, and soul to medical science.
"We don't want people like that," says Arnold Gass, the admission committee's faculty chairman. "Anyone who would be afraid to take literature, history, and other non-science courses ought not to be a physician. We're not looking for people who just take science courses. If you don't have the willingness to tryout your own mind, to expand your own capabilities, maybe you won't have the drive or the fortitude to continue to learn throughout a lifetime, and to apply yourself as a physician."
Rona Hu, a UCSD senior who will begin medical school at UC San Francisco next year, points out that nobody fits the pre-med nerd caricature perfectly. But the spirit of what she calls this "mythical creature" is alive and well at UCSD. "The pre-med nerd sits in the front row in his classes and asks questions all the time to display his knowledge;' explains Hu. "Usually he already knows the answer. He takes furious notes, carries a tape recorder, and uses one of those four-color pens so he can write examples in red, definitions in blue, explanations in green, and hints for the next exam in black. In a bio course, you'll hear all the pre-meds clicking their pens.
"Pre-meds are usually heavily into caffeine," she continues. "They drink a lot of Cokes and walk around campus with a thermos of coffee in their backpacks. They hang out at the biomed library. -If you go there late at night, you'll see some asleep with their faces in a book. Pre-meds like to wear scrub suits, and when they go to parties they like to drink out of laboratory beakers."
UCSD junior Denis Guttridge, a biochemistry major, had a severe case of the MCAT blues three weeks ago as he sat sipping ice water at TGI Friday's in La Jolla Village Square. The following weekend he was to take the arduous eight-hour test and he was scared. "This whole year has been devoted to MCATs," he says. "I only had one 'real' class in the winter, a bio course. The rest of the time I spent at Stanley Kaplan."
"Stanley Kaplan" refers to an eight-week course given by the Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Center. The nationwide company, which offers several other test preparation courses, has been in business for forty years, but in the recent past it has experienced a boom due to the increasingly competitive nature of graduate school entrance exams, particularly the MCAT. According to the local Kaplan office in Pacific Beach, about seventy-five percent of San Diego medical school applicants take the course, which consists of eight four-hour lectures and unlimited use of instructional tapes that review sample MCAT exams. "I knew people who would spend as much as six hours a day at Stanley Kaplan," says Rona Hu, "Some would go there and study in their beach chairs."
In many ways Guttridge, a tall, athletic fellow with sharp Gallic features, appears the ideal candidate for medical school. He grew up in Djibouti, a tiny former French colony on the east coast of Africa where, he says, his parents instilled in him a deep sympathy for the impoverished and a strong desire to alleviate suffering. He speaks fluent French, works in a hospital and in a lab, plays on the UCSD intercollegiate soccer team, and is "holding a 3.5 GPA." His unusual background, his varied activities, his humility ("It wouldn't be impolite if I didn't order a drink, would it?"), and the sincerity of his "Why I want to be a physician" speech would score high points in an interview. Bui at the moment he's primarily concerned with his "numbers," and he admits he's paying a price to get them. "You have to give medical schools what they want," says Guttridge in frustration.
"You have to sculpt an image of yourself, and create a kind of pseudo-person. I don't like having to do that. When I first came here, I used to let loose, go to parties and have fun. I haven't done that in a year. I've lost touch with what's going on in the world, I don't read newspapers anymore, I don't watch the TV news. On weekends I study from morning till night. We [other pre-meds] are all in the same boat. These past few months, because of the MCATs, people have been giving up everything to study."
Two months ago a young woman jumped off the eleventh floor of Tioga Hall, a student dormitory on Muir campus. She was a medical student at UC Irvine who had done her undergraduate work at UCSD. "Since that happened," Guttridge explains, "everyone has been saying, 'If you screw up on the MCATs, you might do that too.' "
Aspiring physicians at UCSD follow an undergraduate curriculum that gives the campus a nationwide reputation as a cutthroat pre-med mill. Several UCSD medical students commented that those in their class who did undergraduate work at UCSD tend to be different from the others. "They're just intense," said one student, a Stanford graduate. "UCSD graduates are already beaten by the system by the time they get into med school. They're already ready for the grind they're going to have when they get there. Maybe that's good, but I don't think they enjoyed their undergraduate years as much as I did."