I’m sitting in a bustling restaurant on the Upper West Side between two first-year medical students. It’s revisit weekend at the med school that I’ve decided to attend, and I have a moment where everything just hits me at once. “OMG, this is really happening. Hard work really does pay off.” I feel an immense rush of gratitude for the opportunity to be there and an incredible sense of fulfillment after so many years of putting in hard work and not knowing what would happen.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back a year. I was in the last weeks of my senior year in college and getting ready to start the AMCAS process. I’d written and rewritten my personal statement countless times and would continue to until I submitted the application in early June. I’d taken the MCAT and done well enough so that I didn’t have to take it a second time (what a relief). I’d prepared the materials needed so that my college pre-health office could submit a committee letter on my behalf. And the last big step was putting together the list of schools that I’d be applying to.
When I first found out that applying to 15 schools is the average, and that many of my classmates were planning on applying to 20-30 schools, I went into panic mode. When I applied to colleges, I applied to only 4, but what had been indoctrinated into me and other pre-med students was that med school was a whole other animal. Everyone made it seem like getting into med school was statistically impossible. It was harder than winning the lottery. Harder than meeting “the One.” And even harder than any Orgo question that I’d ever encountered. We were told that there was no sense of security and absolutely no guarantee of anything when applying to med school. You just had to make your application as strong as possible, apply broadly, and hope for the best.
Now that I’m on the other end of things, I can safely say that this is not the entire truth. It’s true that getting into med school is difficult because there are many qualified candidates and a limited number of spots. But you know how you guarantee that you don’t get in? By going into the process with a negative attitude. By acting like someone you’re not. By subscribing to the checklist model of doing things that you think will make admissions offices happy.
Believe me when I tell you that I know how hard it is to be true to yourself when you feel like you have to fit some kind of mold. Every pre-med knows the struggle of that. But doesn’t it feel so much better when you engage in experiences that excite you and push you in the right direction? It’s way better than pipetting for 3 hours straight when you have no interest in the lab work that you’re doing or desperately seeking leadership positions in clubs that you don’t really care about.
A year ago, as I was putting together my list of schools and reading through MSAR, I was happy that I did the things that I loved and maybe even more importantly, abandoned the things that drained me. But I was also absolutely terrified because I didn’t know if I had done enough. If I was enough. And everyone had their own pieces of advice. Put this in your personal statement and not this. Talk about your experiences in this way and not that way. Apply broadly. That’s good “pre-med strategy.” I know that they all meant well, but it’s so easy to lose your own voice when everyone’s telling you what to do. In the end, I took the advice that sat right with me and ignored what I felt wasn’t authentic to my experience.
One thing I wish I hadn’t done was what everyone else did, too: apply to 20 med schools. But when you’re at that point in the process, the uncertainty looms in your mind so much that you just want to do all that you can to give yourself the best chance. You lose confidence in yourself. What I really wanted was to stay in New York City, particularly in Manhattan. I’d spent an amazing four years doing undergrad in the city, and I knew that I would be unhappy anywhere else. But the words “There’s no guarantee” were always running through my mind so I applied to all 6 med schools in NYC, 5 in upstate NY, 2 on Long Island, and 7 others scattered around the Northeast. Every pre-med knows what things are most important to them in picking a school. As you can tell, for me, one major factor was location.
So when the secondaries started to come in, all twenty sitting in my inbox patiently waiting to be opened up and edited and re-edited, I decided to honor what I really wanted. Why should I spend so much time and money completing secondaries for schools that I really didn’t see myself attending? So I only completed eleven of them: The 6 in New York City and 5 others just to give myself some wiggle room.
Then, the interview invites started coming in, and like you’ve read in Part 1, I initially said yes to them all. But as time went on, I went against what some advisors may say to do and started withdrawing my application from places. I went rogue in the best of ways, and I’m proud of myself for embracing the uncertainty and believing in myself no matter what. I chose to interview at just 4 schools: SUNY Downstate, Albert Einstein, Mount Sinai, and Weill Cornell. All wonderful places where I could envision myself thriving.
I held one place a bit closer to my heart than the others, but I never told anybody about it. Not my parents, not my friends, not any romantic interests, not my advisors. No one knew how I felt about Mount Sinai. I think I nearly even kept it a secret from myself. I was scared to have a favorite school because I didn’t want to spend months imagining myself there just to get a crushing rejection letter.
Mount Sinai was with me from freshman year, ever since the Senior Associate Dean of Admissions, Dr. Valerie Parkas, came to Hunter College to talk about the pre-med process. I know it’s unwise to put anyone on a pedestal, but to my 18-year-old eyes, she seemed like the epitome of what a great physician was supposed to be. Intelligent, easy-going, funny, and put-together in a way that wasn’t intimidating. After that first time, I kept encountering Dr. Parkas and Mount Sinai over and over again (even ending up in an elevator with her at Columbia!) and getting to know what made the school such a great place for someone like me. When she came back to Hunter College my junior year, she emphasized that the Mount Sinai admissions process was all about getting to know what the applicants are passionate about, what we’ve done with our passions, and how our future goals align with Mount Sinai’s mission. What she was saying was totally the opposite of that horrid checklist model, and it took a huge burden off me. During the application process, those words helped me to represent myself in a way that would symbolize what I loved and what I wanted to do in medicine.
As you’ve read in Part 2, I felt really sick the morning of my Mount Sinai interview. So sick that I had to get off the train and get myself together before continuing the journey uptown. By the time I had settled in to the admissions waiting room, I felt better but was still worried I might throw up at any moment (really not how I had envisioned things playing out). But somehow I got through that day in one piece, and the two interviews went well. A month later, I opened my email to see the words, “Offer of Acceptance to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai” in the subject line. There are no words to describe what I felt in that moment except to say that I felt an immense sense of joy, completion, and a silly kid-like giddiness that was such a contrast to the anxiety that was so often a part of these last 5 years.
Now I’m back to where I started in the beginning of this post: During revisit weekend, Dr. Parkas went around the lecture hall to shake every accepted student’s hand. When she got to me and said, “Hi, I’m Valerie,” I introduced myself, just a bit star-struck. As she moved on to the next person, I silently marveled at the full circle nature of that moment. From being a freshman in college and listening to her talk for the first time in a Hunter lecture hall to being 23 and shaking her hand as an accepted student.
I’m going to Mount Sinai in the fall. Someone pinch me.
About Slavena Salve Nissan
Slavena Salve Nissan moved to Brooklyn, New York from Baku, Azerbaijan when she was 6-years-old and comes from an ethnic minority known as the Mountain Jews. She graduated with a major in biology from the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College in 2015 and after graduation, worked as a medical receptionist. She’ll start medical school at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Fall 2016 where she plans to continue to explore the intricacies of her two passions: healthcare and art.
You can find her poetry, photography, and thoughts on social media @slavenareina on Instagram and Twitter.