February 9, 2024

The One Factor That (Almost) All Failed Applicants Have in Common

“I want to go to law school” was the fiction I told myself throughout college.  I had been following the law school trajectory since I was four years old. In high school, I was captain of the debate team (future lawyers of America), but in college, I spent more time on my acappella group and teaching test prep than I did studying.  My grades alternated between A’s for the classes where I showed up and D’s, F’s and W’s for the ones I didn’t.  And yet, I persisted in thinking law school was a good idea.  Law school, which requires the discipline to study when no one else is watching you, discipline that I never had.

Like many young people, I didn’t see myself clearly.  And had I actually applied to law school, there’s no way my application would have been compelling.  In addition to my up-and-down grades, I would not have been able to talk honestly about my strengths and weaknesses because I wasn’t sure what they were.  Looking back, I'm glad I didn't go to law school, but if I had started the quest of self-improvement earlier in life, I probably would have saved myself a lot of wasted time.

When I sit down with someone who didn’t get into medical school or graduate school, they usually don’t know what it was that went wrong.  Sure, they might have an idea, but the one common quality in almost all of them is failing to see themselves - and the way they came across in their application - clearly.

So why is it so hard to perceive yourself accurately?

There are a host of challenges that all humans face: the Spotlight Effect, where you think that people are paying more attention to your behavior than they really are.  There’s Self-Serving Bias, where you take credit for positive outcomes but blame outside events for negative ones.  Our poor self-perception comes out in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where individuals with low skill at a task often overestimate their own abilities.  And all of this is compounded by Confirmation Bias, where we search for information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

Accurate self-perception is particularly difficult for young people, though.  For one, your brain doesn’t fully develop until your mid-20s, especially the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, planning, and self-reflection.  There’s also the obvious culprit of the limited life experiences of most young people.  You haven’t done enough or met enough different people to know how you compare.  And at least among high-achieving college students, the pressure to be successful from families and our society can lead them to believe that their self-worth is tied to their achievements and can often distort perceptions about which professions are okay and not okay to pursue (to be clear, this wasn’t my problem; my distorted self-perception mostly related to immaturity and maybe undiagnosed ADHD).

Failing to see yourself clearly can keep you from getting into your best schools.

Consider the following:

  1. The best applicants come across the same way in their essays, in their letters of recommendation, and in their admissions interviews.  In other words, you want to know how others perceive you so that you can stay consistent across these stages.
  2. Many applicants don’t know which experiences to highlight in their resume or work/activities (hint: play to your strengths, whatever they may be).
  3. Applicants who don’t know themselves often vacillate in how they come across, particularly in an interview.  They often try too hard to seem a certain way, hoping that they can fake it.  But most good interviewers can spot that pretension, which hurts their chances.

But perhaps most importantly: if you don’t know yourself, you’re not going to see the mistakes you will inevitably make.  Like those with low skill in the Dunning and Kruger studies, you don’t know what you don’t know (about yourself).  

“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom” said Socrates.  It’s also the beginning of the road to acceptance.

  • Rob

P.S. We are in the process of building out the Pathfinder Med School Course - a FREE series of online courses to help students master their applications. Read about it here!

Rob Humbracht is founder and CEO of Passport Admissions and lead author of The Savvy PreMed. He is also CEO at ReelDx and Co-founder of HEAL Clinical Education Network. FOLLOW HIM ON LINKEDIN.