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Balancing Passion & Obligation: Matching What You Love with the Application Requirements

Updated: May 7, 2020

A friend and fellow medical student is writing a book (I’m an editor on staff) that inspired me to share this idea with you. More to come because as pre-medical students, medical students, and professionals his perspective on success is BRILLIANT. So full transparency, these ideas are an absolute collaboration of the minds!

As students pursuing the rewarding career of “physician” you face the “obligation versus passion” debate early on in your journey. It usually goes something like this:

I met with a health advisor yesterday that said I MUST volunteer, do research, be the top of my class, get clinical experience, work as an EMT, … INSERT ANY NUMBER OF THINGS.

Which, if you are anything like me, is overwhelming when looked at as a checklist of requirements. So, I urge you to take a slightly different approach. By working with our staff, your mentors, and the greater community - do learn EXACTLY what is required of the application to medical school - but then do something a little crazy – don’t do anything you can’t align to one of your personally-driven passions and interests. Sounds simple right? It is. But what is not easy is the tendency to get caught up in what you have to do without keeping in mind why you want to do it. The medical school process is organized in a way that gives advantage to students who can communicate exactly why they will fit into the world of (student) ‘doctorship’ AND how their personal story and experience explain and support that.


Yes, if you don’t accumulate the experience in the above explanation, you will make yourself less competitive because taking part in those activities provides evidence that supports your argument that you want to be a doctor and will be a good one. There IS a system in place that you as an applicant have to navigate, but there are better ways to do it. I’ll use “research” as an example below.

Research is a good example of something we are told is required to get into medical school – its not required and I know plenty of people who never did it. But the reason it appeals to medical schools is such that conducting research develops a problem-solution-investigation mindset that will benefit your intellectual development as a physician. It will be the role of your explanation, application, and interview to inform the benefits you acquired from research (or any other activity) and why it fits you and your passion for medicine. BUT if you cannot stand pipettes, and the idea of having to pour blotting gels every day gives you a subtle gag-reflex. Don’t do it. What? Don’t do it. (IF you love science research, do that obviously)

But if you are hell-bent on doing research think about the following: Are you a literature major, music, history, or science? What do you love? Do research in that. Let your success in science classes, clubs, or elsewise speak for your capacity to navigate the academic side of medicine. You are more likely to stand out for the unique things about you than those that overlap with 99% of applicants who do things “because they have to”.

Example: a former high school teacher I know did his research on the impact of relationship development on academic success of students grade 9-12 and the correlation it had on leadership attributes. In his undergraduate studies he did research in cancer cells and the pathways that were altered in drug resistant leukemias. In every single one of his interviews he got asked about his research in education, not his scientific research. Not that his science research wasn’t important, but the rest of his story aligns with his teaching, non-profit development, and focus on community. Disclaimer, if your story is very science oriented and started with losing a science fair but then truly aligning yourself with science the same is possible for you. It just has to make sense.

So, Passion and Obligation. Your goal is to find passion in your obligation. This idea transcends everything you have to do. It is based on the idea of understanding WHY something is appealing to admissions groups, HOW you can best go about doing so and loving it, and then WHAT you will do to accomplish it. The hardest part is being honest with yourself about what is best for you and understanding yourself. The second hardest part is being effective in how you communicate it. Let’s tap into my creative side. Your application and presentation of yourself is a puzzle. It has pieces of different shapes, sizes, and orientations. When you align what you love to what the process requires of you your puzzle pieces fit together seamlessly and when it’s done it looks just like you. But if you do things that don’t match up or you can’t explain, your puzzle might still fit together, but it will likely have some colors off, some pieces missing, or look like you took pieces from different puzzles and threw them together. I don’t think you would post the latter on Instagram, would you?

Need a process?

1) Understand what the application will ask you to talk about, what medium and modality will you have to explain yourself?

2) Take some time making a T-chart of things you love doing, are interested in, and then those that you do not like.

3) Write your 1-2 sentence self-thesis statement about why you want to be a doctor.

4) Align points 1 and 2 to do things you are passionate about and meet the obligation.

5) Record your experiences in a document or journal and connect how they fit into your “thesis”

6) Revise, revisit, and have others check your progress.

Chase LaRue is a first-year medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a former high school science teacher in rural North Carolina. He loves sharing the lessons he learned about the 5 gap years he took, how he formulated his story, and helping students reflect on their own experiences.

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