Hitting a Nerve

A legacy of unfair admissions


There’s been some recent news about medical schools gradually dropping the long-established practice of legacy admissions. This is where people related to successful alumni and/or big donors can get preferential admission, possibly over more qualified people.

All of us likely experienced this from one side or another, though realistically I haven’t thought about it years. My kids went to the same state school I did, but I’m pretty sure I had nothing to do with their being accepted. I never gave the school a single donation, nor did I call anyone there to try and get them in. Not that anyone would have known who I was if I’d tried. I’m just another one of many who went there, preserved only in some filing cabinet of transcripts somewhere.

I’m all for the legacy system ending, though, for one simple reason: It’s not fair.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

If someone is qualified, great. They should be admitted on their own merits. But if they’re not, they shouldn’t get into medical school just because one (or both) of their parents went there, or is a VIP, or paid for a new library wing.

The reason I’m writing this is because the recent reporting did bring back a memory.

A long time ago, when I was in college, I hung out with other premed students. We knew we were all competing with each other for the same spots at the state medical school, but also knew that we wouldn’t all get in there. That didn’t make us enemies, it was just the truth. It’s that point in life where ANY medical school admission is all you want.

Pete (not his real name) was a nice guy, but his grades weren’t the best. His MCAT scores lagged behind the rest of us in the clique, and ... he didn’t care.

Pete’s dad had graduated from the state medical school, and was still on staff there. He was now on the teaching staff ... and on the school’s admissions board. To Pete, tests and grades didn’t matter. His admission was assured.

So it was no surprise when he got in ahead of the rest of us with better qualifications. Most of us, including me, did get in somewhere, so we were still happy. We just had to move farther and pay more, but that’s life.

I really didn’t think much about Pete again after that. I was now in medical school, I had a whole new social group, and more importantly I didn’t really have time to think of much beyond when the next exam was.

Then I moved home, and started residency. During my PGY-2 year we had a changing group of medical students assigned to my wards rotation.

And, as you probably guessed, one of them was Pete.

Pete was in his last year of medical school. But we’d both started in the same year, and now I was 2 years ahead of him. I didn’t ask him what happened, but another medical student told me he wasn’t known to be the best student, but the university refused to drop him, and just kept setting him back a class here, a year there.

Maybe they’d have done the same for anyone, but I doubt it.

I never saw Pete again after that. When I looked him up online tonight he’s not listed as being a doctor, and isn’t even in medicine. Granted, a lot of doctors have left medicine, and maybe he did too.

But the more likely reason is that Pete never should have been there in the first place. He got in as a legacy, taking a medical school slot from someone who may have been more capable and driven.

And that just doesn’t seem right to me. It didn’t then and it doesn’t now.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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