Arshdeep Kaur is currently a high school senior in Northern California. She has always loved literature and language, and any family member or friend will describe her as perpetually having her nose in a book, be it high fantasy or history. When not reading, Arshdeep enjoys teaching Punjabi at Khalsa School, playing kirtan, spending time with friends, and being nitpicky about grammar. Her other interests include writing, neuroscience, feminism, British television, and politics. She will be applying to colleges this autumn and intends to major in English, after which she hopes to attend medical school.
Arshdeep wrote this essay for her parents as part of a discussion about her academic plans and her goals for the future. In it, she describes why a humanities major and medical school is the right path for her.
After reading this compelling essay, we at Sikh Family Center couldn’t agree more!
Major Anxiety by Arshdeep Kaur
I am better off majoring in one of the humanities in college and then applying to medical school rather than majoring in biology. Now, first of all, I want to assure you that this is not me trying the “foot-in-the-door” effect. It’s not like I’m thinking that I’ll get you to agree that I major in sociology or English or such and then I run off and become a language arts teacher or a museum docent or something. I am totally committed to medical school and to a career in gynecology. Our goal here is the same. In fact, it is precisely because of that commitment that a humanities major is the best path for me.
Now, the stereotype of a medical student is majoring in biology, spending four years of college slaving over physics and advanced chemistry, volunteering at a hospital, doing some lab work, praying that medical schools accept them. That is the standard idea that people have about medical school applicants. But what’s worth remembering is that synonyms for “standard” are “unremarkable”, “run-of-the-mill”, “plain”, “doesn’t stand out”. And that is the opposite of what you actually need in order to succeed in a process that is as competitive as medical school admission. Going that same route “makes science into an obstacle rather than something that is an insight into the biology of human disease”.(1) The truth is that any major can enter medical school, as long as they take one year of biology, one year of chemistry, one year of organic chemistry, and one year of physics, and then sit the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Medical school admissions deans receive literally tens of thousands of applications each year. They can admit only between 100 and 200. The director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine says that she “is not looking for students who spent their undergrad years hunched over biology and physics textbooks” (4). 40% of the students accepted to the UPenn medical school now come from non-science majors. Admissions deans must look through stacks of applications and see the same thing over and over, and then they get to someone who majored in philosophy, who did a business internship, who studied abroad in Switzerland, and that name sticks. They see this applicant as someone who can offer something valuable to their school that the other applicants can’t. They want diversity. They want to be able to brag about the range of students they have. They want to create a student body that contains well-rounded individuals with many passions. Students who pursue those passions. As one Harvard English major who is also premed says, “I want to spend my college days reading Shakespeare; I want to spend my post-college life delivering healthcare to underserved communities. Why should I have to choose between them?” (6)
I agree it’s not just about appearing different. That might get you into medical school, but that doesn’t mean you’ll do well as a doctor. However, majoring in one of the humanities is also advantageous in that respect. Doctors need to be well-rounded individuals who look into every aspect of medicine. That means evaluating patient histories, understanding emotional and cultural factors, and knowing the interactions between medicine and society. Physicians need to “think critically, listen to and interpret stories, write a narrative, learn foreign lingo, diagnose conditions based on various clues and signs, analyze situations, and make critical decisions”.(1) This is especially relevant in my case, as I want to be a gynecologist. Dealing with women’s health means understanding the complex social pressures that come with it and the legal repercussions. Women’s health is argued every day in our nation’s legislatures. Thousands of women are without the specialized care they need. There are social stigmas surrounding the very idea of women’s health. All this needs to be comprehended and evaluated by a gynecologist before any decision about the woman’s physical treatment can be made. I will not need to tell my patients at what speed a projectile launched from an airplane will hit the ground if the force of gravity is x and the projectile’s speed is y and there is z amount of wind. But what I will need to do is assure them that I take them as a whole person, not just a list of health statistics, and use that knowledge of them to give them the best care possible.
However, you want the facts. And the facts support my thesis. Medical school acceptance rates for non-science majors are significantly higher than rates for science majors. 40% of biology majors are accepted, compared to 55% of humanities majors.(5) In fact, medical schools actively encourage students to take courses in the humanities to prove that they are “concerned with the human condition, not just the human body”(6). The MCAT tests not only scientific knowledge (which I would acquire through the premedical courses I would take) but also critical thinking and verbal skills. In fact, sweeping changes are being implemented in the MCAT starting in 2015 (I will take it in 2017) that will increase testing in multicultural/behavioral concepts and critical analysis. Non-science majors outperform science majors on every category of the MCAT.(4) And in medical school, non-science majors perform at the same academic level as science majors.(2) Non-science majors were also more likely to go into primary care fields.(2)
One example is the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan. This school is consistently ranked as one of the top in the country, and it values humanities so much that it has made a specific program just for admitting humanities majors. The director of this program says that “these students are able to excel in their passions and take advantage of college” (3). As Elizabeth Adler, one of the students admitted to this program, says, “The social determinants of health are so much more pervasive than the immediate biology of it.”(2)
Then there is the fact that majoring in one of the humanities means that I will have much more opportunity for personal growth and inquiry and an individualized education. Science majors deal with large lecture halls filled with 200 other students and professors who don’t have the time to give them individual attention; as one premed science major at Washington University in St. Louis says, the science classes are “large, competitive, and impersonal”(4). On the other hand, humanities majors enjoy small class sizes and close relationships with professors. That attention is vital for securing research spots, recommendation letters, and guidance.
Lest you think that I won’t be able to engage in the sciences as a non-science major, think again. It’s not like there is an x amount of money and x amount of students, so that each student is allotted a certain amount of resources. It’s more like x amount of money and x/500 students, meaning that no one is confined to any single department. Any passion and any interest can be pursued. That means I can major in English and do research on liver function and attend a lecture on calculus and write a paper on the position of women in Sikh society. There is no limit.
And that’s the point, in the end. I will not be limited. There are avenues here for me to expand my knowledge in all fields, to learn and research and diversify, to evaluate and understand society and its needs, and all of that makes me a better doctor.
(Arshdeep Kaur © All rights reserved. Reproduced on SikhFamilyCenter.org with permission.)