“Dear Kristen, Thank you for your application to our School of Medicine. The Committee for Admissions has reviewed your materials and based on your credentials has determined you will not be offered admission into our 2014 class.”
There’s no way to describe the disappointment that accompanies this letter besides saying: It sucks. And unfortunately, it may not be the last time I hear “thanks, but no thanks.” Whether in the form of failed tests or botched interviews, rejection can trigger doubts about our competence and capabilities. If we indulge our emotions, it can shake the foundation of our self-confidence and our intended life path.
Sometimes I wonder if the hundreds of hours spent studying for the MCAT and writing essays and the thousands of dollars spent on admissions fees and travel will be a wise investment or a fool’s errand. This emotional doubt and uncertainty brings to mind David McRaney’s idea of survivor bias: the impulse to ignore the losing side of an issue and only examine the winners—to look towards the most successful people in the room and try to deconstruct their choices. McRaney asks us to not simply dismiss the failures in our lives, but to make the most out of those rejections.
In my first year at Duke, I kept a running tally of the programs, scholarships and leadership positions to which I applied; my batting average by the end of the year was about .500. It was within the warm confines of this University that I recall my worst interview moments—the ones where the interviewer would lean back, smile nervously and nod politely—moments where I had completely derailed the conversation and could not find my way back. Once upon a time I thought of the interview as an indictment upon my character. But facing a very highly talented pool of applicants in many Duke programs has taught me the ability to hear “no” and see through it—to think about the possibilities and options that accompany that word.
One of the most painful parts of senior year was watching my friends go through the job process, watching them turn down opportunities before the opportunities turned them down. Worse still, was that when prepping my friends for interviews, I would hear them articulate the reasons why they didn’t deserve the position, why they felt others would be more deserving and whether they should be doing this at all. It was mind-boggling why an interviewee would try do the work of the interviewer, convincing themselves why they weren’t qualified for a job. But then after hearing “no” a few times, I found myself in a similar rut.
There I was in a room of well-dressed medical school applicants, waiting my turn when this thought crept into my mind: I am not as qualified as the other applicants here, I thought. This statement was particularly confounding to me because undoubtedly the other individuals in the room were highly accomplished, but I had no empirical evidence of their feats. I had not read their applications and invented this notion solely from my own unfounded insecurities. During the interview, I was hesitant to sing my own praises. Even my body language was different—shoulders hunched and leaning to the side. It was as if I was making myself small. I was uncomfortable with how to inform my evaluator about my accomplishments in a manner that walked the line between hubris and humility, and I found myself holding back. Essentially, I became my own worst enemy when I needed to be my strongest advocate.
Looking back at these experiences, I identified the fatal error I made in the application and interview process: I simply did not show up. And I don’t mean not physically being accounted for—though that in itself is a huge barrier to success. By showing up, I mean showing up for youself. If you cannot believe in your ability to be right for a position, you will have a very difficult time convincing others to hire you. You need to prepare for the interview, but it is the job of the interviewer to discern who fits best for a program—not yours. Your job as an interviewee is to show and tell for yourself. According to the NYU School of Business, you have seven seconds to make a first impression—don’t use half that time in uncertainty.
Rejection is awful, unpalatable news. I would not fault anyone for wanting to avoid it at all costs. And yet the costs of avoiding rejection are even higher. If I never applied to any programs, scholarships or leadership positions my batting average would have been .000. Further, if I only applied to the programs I was certain I would get into I would have missed out on a number of opportunities that have transformed my life, including my current employment position.
These letters from medical schools are difficult to take in; they hurt both the ego and the heart. But I understand with each decision I get one step closer to hopefully moving forward in a career of medicine. Rather than become paralyzed by rejection, I choose instead to live by these words:
If you are not failing, you are not reaching high enough. If nobody’s is telling you no, then you are not asking for enough.
Kristen Lee, Trinity ’13, is a Truman-Albright Fellow at the federal office of rural health policy in Rockville, Md. This column is the seventh installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written on the gap year experience, as well as the diverse ways Duke graduates can pursue and engage with the field of medicine outside the classroom. Send the “gap year-ers” a message on Twitter @MindTheGapDuke.
Correction: A previous version of this column misidentified the author as Sanjay Kishore. The author of this column is Kristen Lee, Trinity '12. The Chronicle regrets the error.