Horrible Harvard

An interview at Harvard Medical School reveals the ice behind the ivy.

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

I was off to Boston for my Harvard interview. Despite a
biochemistry final in less than a week and a writing deadline I would barely
meet, I had accepted the invitation because they say the admissions staffers at the medical school “don’t appreciate” people who try
to reschedule. Some pre-meds in my classes actually medicated
themselves the night before, but I wasn’t worried. Past
experience had taught me that even in the toughest situations, I’d managed to
hold my own. I figured if I could survive as a development executive in
Hollywood, I could survive Harvard, too.

Harvard, it turns out, wasn’t that different from Hollywood. At 8 a.m. on a Friday, 15 applicants were seated around a huge,
oval conference table and handed what looked like a TV network’s press kit. While
other schools included course listings, curriculum information, research
news and financial aid forms in their packets, Harvard’s shiny folder
featured a brochure with the cast of “ER” smiling on the cover.

Before we went off to our respective interviews, the associate dean
asked us to take out a pencil. “I want each of you to tell me what you’re
looking for in a medical school, and I’ll tell you if Harvard has it,” she
smiled confidently. “And if Harvard doesn’t have it, should we just leave?” I
joked from the other end of the table, but she pretended not
to hear me. The other students smiled surreptitiously, probably because they
figured I had just hurt my chances of getting in. A fierce sense of
competition permeated the room, especially when the associate dean announced
that all admissions committee meetings would be taking place at the very
table around which we were seated. At this, the student next to me placed
both hands on the table, closed his eyes, and moved his lips in silent prayer.
He blushed sheepishly when he noticed me staring.

Like most schools, Harvard gives each student two interviews: one with a
faculty member and one with a student. “Student input is highly valued at
Harvard,” an admissions staffer announced to our group. “Your student
interviewer will be responsible for 50 percent of your interview evaluation.”
Throughout the day, it was stressed how seriously the faculty at Harvard
takes student voices. On the way to my first interview, however, a current
medical student saw me in uniform (black suit, white blouse, sensible
shoes) and asked if I was interviewing. “Yes,” I said, and I mentioned how
impressed I was by the fact that the faculty claimed to be so inclusive of
its students. “If you want my advice, don’t believe a word they say,” she said.
“But hey, have a good interview.”

I arrived at the neurosurgery suite and waited for my interviewer.
Then I waited some more. Half an hour later, I had just finished reading the
part in my folder about how Harvard’s interviews are “low stress” and “an
opportunity to get to know you” when I heard a clipped voice say, “OK,” and
I looked up to see a man with white hair and
a scowl on his face. Instead of introducing himself or saying “hello,” he
simply cocked his head toward an examination room to indicate that I should follow
him.

“Well,” the interviewer grumbled as he leafed through my file, “I don’t know
what to make of your application, and if I don’t know what to make of it, I
don’t know who the hell does.”

I remembered what the associate dean had said about the interviews being
“relaxed conversations,” and wondered if there’d been a mistake. I told him that yes, I have an unusual application, and I’d
be happy to go over it with him. His response was a grunt.

Throughout most of the interview, my interviewer stared over my shoulder and
mumbled “uh-huh” distractedly, as if preoccupied with a spot on the wall, or
the anatomy of the pituitary. It got worse when he actually spoke:

Interviewer: What was your undergraduate major?

Me: It was French.

Interviewer: Did you do a thesis?

Me: No, I did a term paper which was a cultural analysis of –

Interviewer: So they gave you Phi Beta Kappa and University Distinction but
you didn’t do a thesis? What kind of school does that, handing out honors
without a thesis?

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Me: Um, Stanford?

———-

Interviewer: If you could take a year off between school and medical school,
what would you do?

Me: Well, with all due respect, I’ve taken 10 years off. I’ve actually
already done what I would do. I’ve worked as an executive in the
entertainment business, I’ve been a writer, and I’m ready to make this career
change. I think that I’ve gained a number of skills in my professional life
that would translate well to the medical field.

Interviewer: I don’t see how anything in Hollywood could be relevant to
medicine.

Me: Well, actually …

The phone rings, the interviewer takes a call and he doesn’t ask about my career
again.

———-

Me: I was volunteering in a hospital and the oncologist and I were looking
at the cancer cells of a 41-year-old mother of two who was sitting in the
next room with her husband after they had just learned that she had lymphoma.
“I see toast,” he announced, and I gave him a quizzical look. “She’s
toast,” he replied. So that brings up an issue that I’ll have to grapple
with as a doctor — given the inexact nature of biological events, maybe we
shouldn’t pronounce death sentences this way. Because there’s still a life
to be lived, even if only weeks or months remain.

Interviewer: Well, if she’s going to die, she’s going to die.

Me: I know, I’m not saying that we should give her false hope, but I think
there’s something to be said for being treated as still living, rather than
already dead.

Interviewer: Why? It’s lymphoma. She’s dead.

Me: But if it was YOU with that diagnosis, wouldn’t you try everything you
could –

Interviewer: But it’s not me. I’m alive, she’s dead.

———-

Interviewer: I see that you’ve written your essay about the experience of
observing a surgery. I did my residency with the surgeon you mention. How
do you know Marty?

Me: My friend was his chief resident and I asked if I could watch. I don’t
know Dr. Weiss well, I was just there that one day.

Interviewer: What could you possibly have learned by being there for just
one day?

Me: Well, when I was deciding if I wanted to become a doctor, I spent a lot
of time observing doctors in various specialties to make sure that this was
what I wanted to do. I spent two years doing this before I was ready make a
commitment.

Interviewer: And you were only there for one day?

Me: In this instance, yes, but I’ve been doing this twice a week for two
years.

Interviewer: Uh, huh. OK, I think we’re through.

———-

When I told some current students about my disturbing experience, they
suggested that I appeal for a new interview. “But it’s a ‘Catch-22,’” one of
them warned, “because you’ll never get accepted with this guy presenting you
to the committee, but if you request a new interview, you’ll be labeled a
troublemaker.”

I decided to speak with the admissions coordinator about my experience before I left,
just to go on record. I explained that my interviewer didn’t seem to take me seriously, that he
seemed to have no interest in my background and that I felt he didn’t give
me a chance to represent myself fairly. She agreed that my interviewer has
“a dry style” and assured me that she would ask the dean to
weigh my student interview more heavily than the faculty one. When I got
back to L.A., I faxed a letter to my interviewer’s
friend, Weiss, asking if he’d make a call on my behalf. I didn’t think
he’d remember me from the day we met two years ago, so I was surprised to find
an encouraging e-mail from him a few hours later saying that he had spoken
with my interviewer, who had seemed “rather impressed.”

It wasn’t until I had been admitted to other schools that I learned that at the sanctified
table where the admissions committee meets, my interviewer had told the faculty members
assembled that I was “shallow,” “Hollywood” and that the only reason I’d
decided to become a doctor was that I once watched a surgery two years ago.

My interviewer also maintained that I had somehow “forced” Weiss to make
the call on my behalf, thus “proving” that I am indeed “Hollywood.” (If my
interviewer ever left the OR to see a movie, it was probably “Goodfellas.”)
The explanation, I learned, was quite simple: My interviewer is known for
harboring certain stereotypes against people — in the film business (“shallow,”
“pushy”), women (what about babies?), and older students (not born doctors).
My student interviewer’s report was never mentioned at the meeting, and my
file never made it to the next level, the so-called main committee.

That night I wrote an appeal letter to the dean of admissions, explaining
what had had happened, and asking to be reconsidered with my interviewer
removed from all discussions of my admissibility. In response, the dean left
me a message saying that I could come back to Boston to interview with him,
even though interviews had just ended, because “I wouldn’t want you to leave
Harvard like this.”

Friends told me that Harvard was simply protecting its reputation, that the
interview would be a sham, but I didn’t know for sure, so on four days’
notice, I maxed out my credit card and flew to Boston. The dean covered,
point by point, each area cited in my appeal letter, as if he had been
prepped by an in-house lawyer. Then, at the end of the hour and 15 minute “interview,” he said, “We only have 165 places in each class, and if
we could take all of the talented and qualified individuals, we would. This
makes our task very difficult.” My rejection letter arrived a few
weeks later.

Had I gotten into Harvard Medical School, I probably would have gone, but
it would have been for the wrong reasons. I’d have gone not
because of the program, or the people, but because I’d bought into the
fantasy that Harvard takes such great pains to perpetuate — a sense of
privilege and power not unlike the mystique of Hollywood. And once I had
encountered the reality — which, I hear, includes suicide attempts and
cutthroat students — I would have been disappointed. There are, of course,
positive aspects to Harvard Medical School. Having a student spend $600
in airfare and hotel bills, to protect its own
reputation, isn’t one of them.

I can’t really blame Harvard, though. Mythic institutions often get by on
their status — playing by reprehensible rules because no one
dares call them on it. Celebrated corporations
often use their reputations as shields protecting them from culpability. And
when a brand name becomes a refuge from which to misbehave, a motto of
“veritas” turns into nothing more than a cheesy advertising slogan slapped on
everything from brochures to sweat shirts to coffee mugs. But this sense of
entitlement — this inflated sense of self-importance — can be terribly
dangerous. Because once you buy into it, you, too, must live in the realm of
hypocrisy.

“I’m only doing this for the ‘H’ on my résumé,” a student told me when he
heard about my experience. Then he immediately became alarmed. “Are you
gonna quote me? ‘Cause if you’re gonna quote me, I’ll say I’ve never been
happier. I’ll say this place is like Disneyland, for Christ sake! I mean,
if anyone on the faculty hears that I’ve said negative things, even if
they’re true, I’ll be finished.”

“That’s OK,” I reassured him. “I won’t use your name.” When I hung up the
phone, I realized: I may never be granted the privileges that come from
having an “H” on my résumé,
but at least I’m free to tell the truth.

Lori Gottlieb's new book, "Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self," an L.A. Times best seller, has been optioned for film by Martin Scorsese. She is a first-year medical student at Stanford.

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