Opinion | Columns

Application season doesn’t mean we should let go of our true selves

February, I’ve found, is a life-or-death sort of month for two very different species of Columbian. For the resident investment banking hopeful, an anemic trickle of offers and rejections has been splitting the ranks since late January, making some dreams, breaking most. February also marks a fork in the road for the perennial throng of premedical students, who are now forced to decide between hunkering down or backing out from the annual million-man (and -woman) med school march.

Investment banking and medicine are two sectors that, in terms of respect, couldn’t sit farther apart—the former being caricatured, vilified, and demonized probably more than any other professional field this side of the century, and the latter, classically admired. That said, the past few weeks have brought some forced proximity: While prospective Lions of Wall Street come out of weeks of interviews—often in the double digits—with vacant eyes and wilted psyches, panicked pre-meds rev and rack their brains, trying to puzzle out how they’ll sell themselves to ever-stingier medical schools. 

As the spectacle ramps up, it becomes difficult to refrain from pointing out the nasty and glaring commonalities. Today’s truly selective disciplines pride themselves, as they should, on rigorous, outright agonizing screening practices. But the standards and expectations in play are so heavily normalized that they force candidates (victims?) to shear, to package their very identities into marketable products. From I-banking to law or medical school, the game is the same. We spend so much time living and breathing the archetypes outlined by potential benefactors that we lose sight of ourselves.

It is natural, in any serious selection process, for there to be some discrepancy between the candidate and the person. Picture, if you will, the ideal med school applicant or hedge-fund hopeful: immaculate GPA, assorted high-echelon memberships with bloated student groups, a year or two spent in the clerical slog of “preparatory” placement, and maybe even a tinge of multi-ethnic flair to tantalize the powers that be. Even for the uninitiated, this exercise does not strain the imagination—big-name firms and institutions make their preferences painfully clear. And while it’s true that wearied recruitment panels appreciate a splash of eclectic color here and there, a pinch of creative flair to supplement the analytical machine, we still see swathes and swathes of eager students shuttled into the same cursory coursework, the same stale experiences, the same “transformative” struggles, until the line between professional development and assembly-line résumé stuffing wanes very, very thin.

Then there’s the most familiar and artificial fixture of every application and interview: “How did you become interested in X?” The plot-driven chronicle question is always the toughest and most discomforting, and I don’t think I would be alone here in admitting some degree of autobiographical flatness. My own reasons for pursuing a career in medicine and science are not all that unique, not inherently sexier than those of the next candidate, and definitely not pithy enough to divulge in unprocessed, unembellished form.

[Related: Ari Schuman on the self-reflection the Premedical Advisory Committee application requires]

I’d imagine an even greater difficulty for I-banking hopefuls, when they find themselves scrambling to piece together a compelling narrative for why they’d like to break into a profession that is notorious, nowadays, for its base crookedness and promised neuroses. For this lot, there is no “For as long as I can remember...” storyline. No child looks up from beige blocks and Muppets specials to say, “Gee, I’d really like to spend my future twilights hunched in the caustic glow of a Bloomberg terminal” (or maybe some do—these are strange times). A friend of mine, who recently found employment at Credit Suisse, explained it to me like so: In banking—as in love and war—all’s fair. The sweeping personal narrative that gets regurgitated to interviewers is almost always a cut-and-polished fabrication, but it becomes so practiced and well-trodden that the fabricator starts to buy into his or her own propaganda.

Are we really much better in our medical or law school apps? The paths that bring us to these vocations are usually long and meandering, and more often than not, they involve some degree of discontent, of unresolved regret, of puffed-up ego, and of hidden romanticism. Recruiters do want to see some struggle, some remorse, definitely some provisional growth. But there are right and wrong answers to every question, and no one makes the cut by way of exposing the ugly bits. Every person needs to be trimmed a tad, prettied up, varnished with all the right histories, before he or she can parade the brand of “viable candidate.” It’s a slippery slope, especially under the weight of slow and protracted selection processes—the kind that hundreds of Columbians bravely submit themselves to around this time of year.

Ultimately, the sting of compromised individuality can only really be felt post-acceptance, years down the line. The perennial model of this comes—no surprise here—from Wall Street. We’ve all heard those heartwarming legends of wool-dyed salary addicts defecting, against all reasonable advice, from the world of big finance to, for instance, start a non-profit, make a late foray into medicine, or astound with great art and literature. Lost ambitions can be reclaimed, old eccentricities picked back up, even after they’ve been stifled during the career scramble. Still, it’s probably a good idea to think preemptively and to make sure that we hold onto those craggy flaws that might make us weaker applicants, even as we bend over backwards to chase picturesque jobs and hefty paychecks.

Kevin Bi is a Columbia College junior majoring in biochemistry. He serves as an executive board member of the Columbia University Wind Ensemble. Primate’s Per-spec-tive runs alternate Tuesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

Excellent analysis. I say this as a former Columbia pre-med who is now a physician.

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