Fitting in the Box

For the past week I have had flashbacks to the end of high school and the agonizing process of writing a paper worthy enough that a college would allow me to attend. ­­I have been helping my good college friend brainstorm different ways to draft her medical school essay demonstrating her desire to become a doctor. My friend was trying to seek the optimal way of distinguishing herself from other applicants. She was worried about the cliché that she was entering the profession “to help people.” That was one of her motivations, but she feared that many applicants would have the same goal.

My friend had many examples related as to why she was interested in medicine and wanted to be a doctor. However, at first glance her vignettes appeared unrelated and disjointed. After some serious brainstorming, we determined that they had the central theme of crying. She used crying to as a thematic link to create a cohesive paper.

She sent the personal statement to her mom, sister, our high school English teacher, and some of our friends from college to give feedback and constructive criticism. Everyone loved the statement, as it captured my friend’s intellectual and general curiosity, her sincere desire to help others, and her insightfulness that medicine is wonderful but by no means a magical cure-all profession.

Her health policy mentor was not that impressed. He was concerned that medical school admissions officers would read the essay and consider the crying theme as “too feminine.” Upon learning that my friend was going to rework the entire essay to fit into his concept of the ideal candidate, I was indignant that she should abandon her sincere analysis of why she was choosing medicine. Was I mad because this was a man critiquing my friend’s piece? If a woman had said it was “too feminine,” would I have been equally upset? What the heck does too feminine even mean!?!

As I watched her essay go through five more revisions, I saw my friend bend over backwards to try and appease everyone’s opinion of who the ideal candidate should be, what characteristics they should possess, and aspirations they should have. Some readers thought that she should demonstrate her detached analytical ability. Others liked her ability to show empathy toward patient care. My friend became increasingly reluctant to finish her essay as each new reader had a different mold that they wanted her to fit into.

Watching her agony led me to think about why, to be accepted, we need to pander to who others want us to be. We shape our image to conform to what we think other people are looking for. My friend was struggling with how to stay competitive with such an enormous applicant pool that all want the same thing and are all extremely qualified. The difficulty was imagining what the competition might write about, so as to write something different, and simultaneously imagine the ideal qualities of young physicians-in-training as medical school admissions people might see them.

Fitting in and being accepted as one of the team is a skill we all have to learn. As we transition into new and unfamiliar spaces, we feel the pressure to revision our self-concept. Different groups shape our identity and our priorities through selection.

Some of my friends struggle with the concept of “being fake,” the idea of changing our outward actions to fit the mold of what others feel most comfortable around. It feels unauthentic initially to “put on a face” for new groups. However, I recognize this as a necessary measure we have to adopt to make forward progress getting to know anyone. When we show a commonality with others, even if it at first feels insincere, it facilitates the opportunity to connect and bridge our differences. We need the ability to see things from others’ perspectives so we can share our humanity. I believe that human beings have the capacity for multiple genuine faces.

Thus, reflecting on my initial reaction to her male mentor’s comments, I could more objectively understand why he critiqued her work. Although I disagree with how his criticism was framed, he was able to share the perspective of how a gendered reader might view the essay.