In today’s culture, there is no greater sin than to be a phony. No offense to the lawyers out there, but Holden Caulfield said it well:
“Lawyers are alright, I guess — but it doesn’t appeal to me”, I said. “I mean they’re alright if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. And besides, even if you did go around saving guys’ lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys’ lives, or because you did it because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court when the goddam trial was over, the reporters and everybody, the way it is in the dirty movies? How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is you wouldn’t.” — Holden Caulfield, from The Catcher in the Rye
Perhaps the most difficult part of writing a personal statement is the beginning, that space in which you determine what you are going to write. I used to scoff at the idea of planning or pre-writing for personal statements. “It should be organic and authentic,” I would say to myself as I sat down in front of the blinking cursor, and I would proceed to type out anything that came to mind about career, life-goals, faith, aspirations, and ambition. It was terrible stuff and I inevitably found myself back at the blinking cursor on a blank page. For each personal statement, I must have found myself scrapping the entire thing at least six or seven times.
Certainly, good writing requires a lot of writing and re-writing; there is no shortcut to that. However, those applying to STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) who approach writing papers with a certain trepidation may feel especially handicapped. Even those who are grammatical and stylistic specialists find these aspects of the personal statement intimidating and may find themselves caught in a similarly frustrating cycle of edits that lack a sense of redeeming value.
What I found was that in wanting to sound authentic, I actually sounded like a phony. It seemed that the more honest and personal I strove to be, the more cliched and superficial my prose became. For whatever reason, it didn’t feel good enough to simply articulate what I wanted to become and why; I felt compelled to justify myself as well. In the many, many re-writes I did, I consistently noticed that my insecurities would bleed into my writing and that, though the expression of these was genuine and deeply personal to me, they sounded immensely superficial in retrospect (and to my external reviewers, editors, and admissions deans as well). The trouble was that, like Caulfield’s lawyer, the more I was concerned with not looking like a phony, the more trouble I had distinguishing myself from one. Continue reading “Writing a Christian Personal Statement: Part 3”→
My essay for admission to medical school was brutally honest. I talked about my low GPA, my relationship with my parents, my obsession with the problem of suffering, quotes from my personal journal, and how it was all driven by a radical faith in Jesus Christ (and images in my head of suffering children). It was my attempt at being really, really honest and was the product of many careful hours of meticulous revision. Note: Click here for Writing a Christian Personal Statement: Part 1.
It was also really, really bad. By this I mean that I was still admitted to medical school, but that the essay was so memorably bad that the Dean of Admissions actually mentioned it to me. During one of our individualized preparatory meetings he said, “When you write your personal statement for residency, you might want to consider making it less … religious than your last one.” I knew exactly what he meant.
I think a lot of my mistakes sprang from a sense of insecurity, both in terms of what I believed as well a vague sense of “calling.” Some of the anxiety and frustration in writing Christian personal statements came from the assumed notion that the degree to which I explicitly described my faith was the degree to which I had intensity, passion, and authenticity in my beliefs. And yet by definition, the process of applying to graduate school meant that I was contemplating major lifestyle changes. In my statement I wanted to communicate the intentionality, confidence, and idealism that I aspired to in anticipation of success, but in reality I was also writing from a place of insecurity and uncertainty. In the midst of this ambiguity in future planning and the imagining of myself in a variety of different futures, I had this desire to express my faith at the same time that I struggled with it on many different levels. I wanted to describe how important it was to me, but like any public demonstration of faith it became the imperfect expression of many conflicting and evolving emotions.
In such a setting, the decision to talk about faith and how it impacts decision-making seems like a natural virtue. However, not all thoughtful processes should or need to be heard. Though the love of Christ compels us, it should not be expressed compulsively and I realized that perhaps I did not need to feel guilty about that. My point of failure came from allowing my insecurity over faith to dictate its expression. Though I struggled internally to make sense of “everything”, I should not have been tricked into believing that the quality of my faith was to be determined or evaluated by anyone else than Christ alone. I was under no obligation to explain the inner mechanics of my decisions or my faith to an external arbiter. As Christians, we have already counted the cost and committed ourselves to the Savior. We have already thought Him worthy of worship through vocation, and that is why we struggle so much: because we love and cherish Him.
It was also unfair to believe that the emotional impact of my faith should viscerally affect our application judges in the same way that it did for me. Did I want them to be wowed by my piety and my humility? Did I want to impress them with my sense of self-sacrifice and duty? How can someone who does not know or treasure Christ consider my valuation of his worthiness similarly? The calculus is different, and to them our math may not add up fully and for that we should make no apology. However, we still seek to make Christ known, and these are valid outside of an individual’s conversion to faith. In the comprehensive Christian worldview in which Christ is Lord and sovereign over all, there are values that those who are agnostic to Christ can still share with us. If we truly believe that the call of Christ and His kingdom is to work out the redemption of this Creation, and that such work is rich and plentiful enough to perpetuate into eternity, then there will be room and space enough for resonance.
The problem then was not an overzealous declaration of belief but the underdeveloped description of how it truly undergirded and transformed everything. Our desire to pursue Christian discipleship through the lens of academia requires a thoughtful and meticulous framing of everything: finances, specialized interests, professorial mentorship, post-graduate intentions, community involvement and resurrection, and the relentless pursuit of truth and beauty. Somewhere in that exploration and shaping of intent is an opportunity to witness to the beauty of the Gospel in a way that anyone can understand, even if it only in part.
The work of the Christian Personal Statement, therefore, is not to explain a “unified theory” of our souls, but to construct a message that honors the sovereignty of Christ through the thoughtful alignment of secular goals with our personal beliefs. We intentionally and specifically describe that intersection to the best of our capacity, being careful to not overcompensate through emotional hyperbole and thereby undermine the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of its examination. More often than not, the problem with our personal statements is the same as the problem with modern evangelism: there is too superficial a treatment of the Gospel, speaking of it in terms that have not been “translated” into the language of academia and a form that is comprehensible to the reader. We have taken the easy way out, speaking only in terms that make sense to us and not in something accessible in a “heart language” other than our own. We assume people will understand us when we talk about Jesus even though He is still a stranger to them, and then when our efforts are regarded with suspicion or disinterest, we wear it as a badge of martyrdom.
There are times in work, faith, and life when our decisions to follow Christ will incur a cost. However, we must be careful to ensure that we have made every effort in full faith to bring Christ to others in a way they can understand, even if only in part.
Writing any application for a school can be difficult, and writing the Personal Statement can become the most challenging part of it. By the time you are preparing to submit an application, most of its elements are already fixed: your GPA, your MCAT or GRE scores, the activities you did (or didn’t do). The Personal Statement, however, is an open field of possibilities in self expression, and that sense of ambiguity lends itself to great liberty and/or great anxiety.
Admittedly, the title is somewhat misleading. A “Christian” personal statement shouldn’t technically be very different from any other personal statement. It still has to accomplish the same goals, which are fairly well defined in the context of applying for a graduate or professional school. As an example, an excellent source on the Medical School Personal Statement would advise you to focus on answering these questions:
What have you done that supports your interest in becoming a doctor?
After working 24 hours on call in the pediatric ICU, I was exhausted. I wanted to sleep, but friends had recently been reminding me of the health benefits of breakfast, so I dragged myself to a local diner for breakfast and sat at the counter next to a father and his little daughter. “We graduated from the booth to the counter,” he was explaining to the waitress, trying to hide his pride. The little girl looked shyly up, swiveling playfully on the rotating seat as she stretched up to rest her elbows on the countertop. I tried not to glance at them too much, but I was overwhelmed and fascinated by many simple things: the widening of her eyes at the stack of pancakes, the delighted silence as she chewed her way through the syrupy mess, the polite sips of tart orange juice from a well-worn cup.
The hospital tends to “stick” or creep into the outside world. That weekend I had been having nightmares, imagining what it would be like to suddenly find that my eight year old daughter was brain-dead, or my ten year old son was killed in a car accident, or my brother’s cold turned out to be leukemia.* Random and otherwise innocent sounds would make me think of beeping monitors and noisy breathing machines. It seemed difficult to completely extract myself from the hospital. Even when I went to the DMV, the inspector saw me in scrubs and asked, in an attempt to connect, “Do you work in the hospital? Have you seen dead people? … Are some of them children? That must be hard; I can’t imagine.” Continue reading “In Its Time”→
This dialogue is the most common conversation people will have about a career in medicine. The way we think about healthcare professionals tends towards the poignant and provocative: heroic paramedics and EMTs in ambulances, austere physicians and pharmacists and lab researchers in crisp white coats, dutiful and deeply compassionate nurses in a hospital ward, charming and encouraging therapists in the office. By and large, these images are positive ones of trust, care, and goodness.
These perspectives have a special resonance with the current generation because they reflect genuine and people-oriented views in an otherwise superficial and increasingly disconnected society. Today’s aspiring professionals are idealists, but many of them are also suspicious of systems, corporations, and financial interests. The rising workforce is relational and post-modern, seeking out “authentic” experiences and friendships grounded in elements that reflect something valuable, tangible, and indisputably good. It is therefore logical to prize healthcare highly as a career, for what experiences can be more raw, positively-minded, and relationally-oriented than the alleviation of suffering, the curing of illness, and the postponement of death? Continue reading “Helping People Is Not Enough”→
As a teenager, I was very shy and very awkward. Talking to strangers was a painful and anxiety-laden task, and I didn’t like to talk to strangers any longer than necessary. So when a pediatrician asked me, at a routine office visit, if I had any questions, I surprised myself by blurting out, “I want to be a doctor. How do I do it?” I had never seen the same pediatrician twice, mainly because most of them were residents-in-training. This one was caught off-guard by the question, so she rambled a bit. She talked about medical school and residency and fellowship, about job security and the logistics of working in a practice, about other things she must have been preoccupied with in the scope and span of her professional life, things that I couldn’t know. She finished talking and exited the room, leaving my mother and I to wait.
The two of us had recently been talking about my future career. She was a nurse, and though there were many positive experiences she would share at the dinner table with me, the impact of many negative experiences caused her to humbly and gently discourage me from going into the medical field myself. She would tell me how hard and how stressful it could be, how many of its demands were dirty, unforgiving, and intense. She was a similarly introverted person who chose the work for a very adult-like reason: it was good work that provided a good opportunity for migrating to America. She would tell me stories about her first day of nursing school in her home country, how the new students were led down to the large formaldehyde “pool” in the basement where an instructor immediately plucked out a dripping arm and began teaching. She told me that people promptly vomited and a third of the class dropped out that day, and that she strongly considered doing the same thing herself.
Medicine has changed in many ways. Though the hours and training have become more forgiving and humane over the years, other elements have actually become more noxious to the process: the ballooning price of education, uncertainty over major shifts in the landscape of health policy and insurance, the ever-increasing length of medical training, and the associated opportunity cost of lost alternative careers. This does not even begin to mention the fear of malpractice (not to be confused with the distinctly different fear of malpractice lawsuits), the burden of responsibility, the ever-mounting piles of paperwork, the erosion of patient-provider trust, the advent of the self-information (and dis-information), the loss of respect and autonomy in practice (and in relation to insurance companies). Any physician can (and perhaps is likely to) list an unending tally of reasons not to become a doctor in today’s healthcare environment.
It is therefore not surprising that it has become more and more difficult for aspiring students to describe why they want to become involved in healthcare, or even for current healthcare workers to describe why they continue to practice from day to day. At the end of the day, so much of it comes down to stories: abstract but intensely personal illustrations that capture the essence of an idea and what makes it so compelling even in the face of many practically demoralizing factors. It is why it is easier to describe and quantify the negative and yet so difficult to advocate for something positive and meaningful.
However, this is why there is something more to becoming a “Christian physician” than simply being a Christian and being a physician. We are created as both body and soul, as both the concrete and the metaphysical. Early church doctrine struggled to battle the heresy of Gnosticism because, as the Gnostics knew, there is something very appealing about the supremacy of asceticism and the idealized, intangible spiritual realms above that of the dirty, imperfect, and broken physical world we find ourselves in. And yet the message of the gospel is this: that God himself became flesh and took on physical form in the world, with all its impurities and imperfections, that we might have access to life:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. - Philippians 2
As that awkward teenager sitting silently in that sterile, clinical office, I must have looked pensive and puzzled. My mother watched me mull over the very grown-up words of a grown-up pediatrician. She looked at me directly, interrupted the silence and said, “David, she did not say the most important thing: you get to help people. And you help them when they need it the most.”
People often ask me what medical school and medicine are like, and I often find myself falling into adult lingo and babble. I babble about the cost of school, about the monetization of medicine, about the burden of responsibility and the terror of error. On my more cynical and jaded days, I will babble for quite a long time. But what I eventually aim to tell people is that the highest aspiration of the practice of medicine is to invoke and evoke the gospel: that through the physical engagement of Christ in our suffering, we have resurrection. In that, I find unending satisfaction.
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. — Philippians 3
[This is an introduction to a series on becoming a Christian physician.]