In all Elis, an inner premed ambition

When you hear the term “premed,” what comes to your mind?

That awkward, lanky student stumbling out of the library past whooping revelers at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night? The faceless inhabitants of large lecture classes somewhere up a distant hill? Are premeds the quintessential resume-fillers who volunteer in hospitals for the benefit of medical-school admissions committees instead of out of the goodness of their hearts? Are they the students who consider 94 to be a disgraceful failure if their friends scored 97? Or are they those who believe that life is one giant homework assignment?

Most people, of course, recognize these stereotypes as extremes.

Deep down they would admit to knowing countless students preparing for medical school who have many academic and extracurricular interests outside the sciences and who even enjoy a party or two on the weekends. In other words, there is no simple, all-encompassing, archetypal “premed.” Nevertheless, the stereotypes do tell us something about our ideals of a proper education.

The label “premed” is often used pejoratively because it suggests an overriding concern with grades, above the “character-building” aspects of the college experience. One is reminded — especially given the racial undertones of many characterizations of premeds — of the arguments in favor of admissions quotas for Jews from the 1920s to the 1960s: Jews might do better academically, but they would surely dilute the noble, sturdy spirit of the traditional “Yale man.”

Characterizing academically driven students as narrow-minded, soulless individuals or standoffish members of ethnic minorities is fundamentally wrongheaded. Everyone at Yale faces the danger of falling into a meaningless scramble for higher, more stable, academic standing. And everyone confronts the danger of the smug laziness that refuses to recognize long nights in the library as potentially character-building.

The purported “premed way of life” often makes other students uncomfortable because it forces them to hold up a mirror and ask themselves: Are all of their activities undertaken for the sole purpose of bettering the world? Is having a clear picture of one’s future always a bad thing? Are certain kinds of ambition really more “genteel”? Are premeds simply more honest about their concern with tests and grades?

All kinds of students struggle to answer these questions in a way that allows them to remain true to themselves. But the premedical system does give rise to special pressures. The sciences require more introductory courses and raw absorption of material. Premeds are often considered less serious than science students who plan to devote themselves to research and may be less likely to receive individual attention from professors. The fact that many tests are graded on a curve encourages intensified competition among friends. The MCAT looms with terrible inevitability.

It is true that some premeds respond with a mixture of resignation, cynicism and conceit. A student who drops the premedical curriculum can be considered weak and unworthy. An otherwise intelligent individual may be dubbed “a dumb humanities major.” Premeds may facilely ridicule the lack of single verifiable answers in non-scientific disciplines as inferior.

The possibility or desirability of a radical reform of medical-school admissions and science curriculum appears to be a perpetual debate. In the meantime, students on both sides of the premed/Other divide can start by altering our mind sets.

Numerical benchmarks of achievement and personal growth are not necessarily incompatible. All Yale students face the difficulty of finding a way for these two goals to complement each other, and premeds often face a starker choice.

I call for more talk: talk about the roots of ambition at Yale — instead of resorting to stereotypes about some of its side effects.

Rachel Bayefsky is a junior in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.