doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

You gotta play the game

When I was in high school, it was practically a mantra: “Take A.P. Take A.P. Take A.P.”

This referred to Advanced Placement classes, designed to teach the same concepts as a first-year college course. At the end of the school year, a standardized exam was offered to test your proficiency of the material. Based on your score (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest possible), you could receive college credit for the course.

Those of us students on the so-called “honors” track heard this mantra from teachers, guidance counselors, parents, and even other students. And so we bought into it. I bought into it, taking A.P. Biology, Chemistry, Spanish, U.S. History, and Calculus throughout my junior and senior years. I scored well on the exams, and earned enough college credit so that when I entered the University of Illinois in the fall of 1999, I was technically a second-semester sophomore – not a freshman – in terms of credits. I was able to bypass introductory courses and take more advanced (and smaller) classes, which was a major advantage at a huge university such as UIUC.

Pretty sweet. Or so I thought.

It turns out, however, that medical schools do not look favorably on A.P. credits. They want students to have taken the courses at a university. Which means that I will have to retake Calculus. Which, in my mind, makes no sense. It’s not that I’m afraid of Calculus – I got an A in the course the first time, and scored a 5 on the A.P. exam, so I am clearly capable of mastering the material. No, what doesn’t make sense is that I have already mastered the material and have to prove it all over again. And spend several thousand dollars (and dozens of hours of my time, and god only knows how much pencil lead and calculator juice) doing so, just to have that line item on my transcript.

So my A.P. credit is worthless. I busted ass – and when I say I busted ass, I mean BUSTED ASS, because Calculus isn’t easy – for jack. No, I shouldn’t say that; not for jack, because I did learn the material, and it’ll be easier the second time around.

But then is the whole A.P. thing a sham? A waste of time, a way for the College Board (the institution that sponsors the A.P. exams) to make money, a way for Cliff’s Notes to make money on review books, a way for schools to tout their students’ success, a way for students to boost their GPAs (many schools offer an extra GPA point for honors and A.P. classes) and to claim superiority over others who take fewer A.P. courses or who do not score as well on the exams?

Perhaps A.P. courses – and credit – are worthwhile for students who enter less competitive fields, or who do not intend on completing graduate level work. But apparently they are worthless for those of us who intend on entering medical school.

Which is frustrating, since taking A.P. courses was, in high school, the indicator of success and high achievement. And that’s what – I thought – medical schools wanted.

In an ideal world, medical schools would accept A.P. credits. If they have issues with the A.P. curriculum, they should take that up with the College Board. But this is not an ideal world, obviously. So it would be helpful for high school guidance counselors to let students know that taking A.P. credits doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you will get to skip out of that class in the future.

If I had to do it all over again, I would still take A.P. Calculus in high school. I learned a new way of approaching math, and when I take this course again this fall, I will be ahead of the game. But I’ve also learned that to get into medical school, you have to play their game. And it’s a frustrating one.

The immortality of memory

My grandpa, Alan E. Menhennett, who died recently. He is pictured here with my grandma, Harriet.

I started this blog with the intent of writing about my journey into the world of medicine. I want to write not only about my intellectual journey, but also my personal one. That means detailing the lessons I learn both as a student, and also as a ser humano – a human being. And no lesson hits closer to home than one you learn through your own family.

As some of you may know, my Grandpa died recently. Learning about death – so clearly a part of life, and especially part of the life of any doctor – is not pleasant. But we have no choice.

I do not pretend that I have figured out how to deal with the grief of losing someone who meant so much to me. What I do know is this: there is power in sharing our memories. I will paraphrase one of the ministers at my Grandpa’s service: “As long as we remember, [that person’s] life never ends.” Because we keep that person alive through our memories. (To those of you who know me well: YES, I actually agreed with a minister on something. Shocking, I know.)

Turns out I believe in immortality after all. Of a sort.

Along with a handful of relatives, I had the privilege of sharing one of my own memories of Grandpa at his memorial service. I will share that memory here:

Two things that Grandpa really impressed on me were the importance of giving, and the value of education. When each of us grandchildren was born, he and Grandma set up a fund for us. He wanted us to use the money to pay for our education. He was very firm on this. In fact, he basically said that the he would disown the first grandchild who used that money to buy a car. So, as the eldest grandchild, what did I do? I used that money to buy a car. And he must have loved me a lot, because he didn’t disown me.

Now, I did not do this to spite him – I bought the car after I graduated from college, and I had gotten a lot of scholarships and help from my parents to pay my tuition, so I didn’t need Grandpa’s money for school. What I did need was a car. And what his money allowed me to do was pay for my nice little Honda Civic – I named her Zippy, because I probably drive a little faster than I should – in full, in cash. No loan payments, no interest – something very fiscally responsible, which I think Grandpa would’ve approved of.

I still have that car, which I bought almost seven years ago, and it’s taken me a lot of places, from commuting to work to cross-country roadtrips. And starting this fall, I’ll be using my car to take me to and from school, since I’m returning to college pursue another degree. So in a way, I’m using the money to further my education after all. Which I know would make Grandpa proud. And Grandpa, when I get in that car, I will think of you. I love you and will miss you very much.

You can view my Grandpa’s online memorial and obituary by clicking here.