During the last year of medical school, eager students mail their applications across the country in the hopes of securing postgraduate training. I work at a large university hospital as one of the chief residents, with a desk buried beneath these applications. We have just completed the interview season, and after poring over the files of 600 well-intended students with good hearts wrapped in blue suits, I have taken on the far-off stare seen in combat veterans and high school teachers during a grading period.
Every one of these gilded manila dossiers sings of overachievement to the point of indistinction. Each applicant has five discoveries published in major medical journals. They all play piano, dance the Lindy Hop and practice an obscure martial art, when they're not too busy composing free verse in any one of several foreign languages. None admit to resenting their parents. Not one of them has spent time in prison or dislikes nature.
But as high as each of these wonderful people may soar, the landing is just as ugly. The crash back to Earth arrives as the dreaded one-page declaration of worth: the personal statement. Medical students endure four years of intense schooling, during which the limitless mysteries of the human body appear as either A, B, C or D. After years of measuring one's progress with multiple choice exams, how is a person to approach the alien task of self-expression?
What results is a pile of well-intended, earnest and thoroughly unoriginal paperwork. I have categorized the essays here with the idea of offering future applicants the chance to simply choose one of the seven statements they're likely to turn in.
1. My Dead Relative. "I can still remember the day we raced [insert relative's name here] to the emergency room as he clutched his chest in agony. That was the day I vowed to fight coronary artery disease for the rest of my life.
2. My Great Relative. "I grew up in a waiting room. Dr. Everschmidt, my father, scheduled me for 15-minute visits once a month for vaccines and quality time. Allow me to return the favor to children of my own."
3. Boo-Hoo: My Awful Tragedy. "Many people have tried to tell me that a triple amputee cannot practice medicine. Well, these naysayers remind me of the pessimists who told me I would never obtain a black belt in Shotokan. The same grit and determination which led me to break planks of wood with my nose will see me through any challenges that residency may throw in my face."
4. My After-School Special: The touching story of an eager medical student and his cranky, terminally ill patient. "Old Ms. Crabapple was famous on the seventh floor for her rotten attitude. With her metastatic lung cancer, she thought she could pretty much tell people what to do. She once even yelled at a doctor, refusing his order for an enema! I was afraid of her, but after we had a chance to sit and talk, I realized she was a human being after all -- just an old woman frightened of dying. My own mortality is hard to imagine, so I simply sat by her side and held her hand quietly. Then she agreed to the enema."
5. My Dictionary. "In 'Webster's Unabridged Third International Edition,' the entry under 'obstinate' reads 'not easily subdued.' It may have taken me three tries to pass the boards, but you can be sure I'll bring that same grit and determination to the care of my patients, no matter how many times I have to try before I get things right."
6. My Interesting Patient. "After disimpacting him for several hours, I immediately recognized that there would be no pony at the bottom of this pile of manure, and secondly, that the bleeding cauliflower-shaped mass protruding from Mr. Lickspittle's anus was not, in fact, a hemorrhoid. In my few fascinating months on the hospital wards, I had never before dreamed that pneumonia could present as a perirectal mass."
7. My Ridiculous Metaphor. "To me, medicine is a jewel with many facets." "As a medical student, I am but a poppy seed on the everything bagel of medicine. With dedication and training, I hope one day to be the schmear." "Medicine is a flower ... it is a river ... it is a glazed ham."
Much as I may roll my eyes, I'm not above these categories. After putting away the last of the personal statements, I went to the department archives and dusted off my own manila folder. My testimonial is a No. 4, the After-School Special: a heartwarming tale of an angry homeless man who hated Jews ... until he met this one. Now stop crying. I got the job, didn't I?