Biohazard: The Toxic Pre-Med Culture At SCW

By: Sophie Frankenthal  |  February 13, 2022

By Sophie Frankenthal

The pre-medical, or pre-med, experience is notorious throughout America for its toxic, cut-throat culture, and unfortunately, Stern College for Women is no exception to this phenomenon. Despite being an institution that prides itself on its commitment to Torah values, in my experience YU’s pre-medical program is fraught with competition, elitism, and an overall disregard for others. The way in which such behavior directly contradicts our deepest moral convictions as students of a religious institution is, in my opinion, pathetic, and honestly, quite sad. Not only that, but it represents the antithesis of the profession that we aspire to undertake.

I believe that at the root of this toxic environment is a widespread belief amongst the pre-health students that their success is defined by their superiority over their peers. It is as if they delude themselves into thinking that success is a limited entity, and so if it belongs to their fellow student, it cannot simultaneously belong to them, or at least not at maximal value. And so, students resort to a variety of ruthless behaviors to secure an advantage for themselves, even if it comes at the expense of their friends.

I have personally witnessed students refusing to share their notes under any circumstances because they can’t stomach the thought that their work might enable their friend to succeed. I’ve even heard stories of labs (the “hands-on” component of science courses in which students conduct various experiments and investigations as a means of application of lecture material) in which students would guard the results of their experiments from those who were seeking direction in achieving their own (even in classes where professors encouraged teamwork). G-d forbid they provide help to the competition. Worst of all though, is that those students who are morally inclined, and are willing to share all these resources at the advice of their conscience, are resented by their classmates for “ruining the curve,” or, in actuality, for leveling the playing field.

I can’t blame the students for creating such harmful competition. In all honesty, I believe we all feel threatened by the inevitable pressure that comes along with the highly selective process of medical school admissions. The pressure we face isn’t only a passive product of the process, though. It’s a product of the entire system, and it starts in the very first year of pre-med studies.

A student’s first year on the pre-med track typically consists of introductory-level science courses, which students have termed “weed-out courses” because of the significant rate of students who struggle with the course material to an extent that forces them to question (and sometimes abandon) their medical aspirations. However, this reality is unfortunately perpetuated by various professors and members of the administration who feel that it is their responsibility to determine which students are capable of advancing in the medical field and which are not. I have heard accounts of professors insisting that only the top third of the class is entitled to an A (also known as the Bell Curve Method). This conveys the message that an A should be a measure of superiority rather than knowledge of material and its proper application. Many students have shared experiences of professors encouraging them to drop their course in response to one poor test grade or a simple request for extra help, rather than provide them with the tools to help them do better. One student revealed to me that she was advised by a faculty member to consider an alternative field of study, lest she tarnish the near-perfect acceptance rate of SCW students to medical school. All these instances demonstrate the faculty’s role in reinforcing (even if inadvertently) the toxic message that a student who is not at the top of her class cannot possibly be successful. If this is the case, it is no wonder that such an attitude has trickled down to the students.

This issue is further exacerbated by the prevalence of private tutoring groups. The existence of this service, while incredibly beneficial to the students who use it, fosters an air of elitism and exclusivity due to its lack of affordability. These tutoring sessions essentially act as an entire additional course in which material is reviewed, old and generally inaccessible tests are compiled and disseminated for practice, and a variety of tools and tricks are shared from personal experience. In addition to the clear disadvantage that such a situation creates for those students which aren’t privy to such a resource, the existence of such an exclusive service creates significant division within the premedical cohort. One student, who wishes to remain anonymous, described the in-group versus out-group mentality that is generated by this divide: “My fellow classmates, people I would have expected to help me, instead refuse to answer my questions, quickly shut their notebooks as I am walking by, and just make me feel unwelcome overall” (SCW ’23). Now, the hesitancy of the students who participate in private tutoring to share the materials they receive is understandable, given that they do pay for it. However, the environment it inspires is devoid of cohesion which makes it more difficult for students to relate to their peers and which makes them less inclined to help them out. In my view, our inability to support each other–the fact that we view our classmates as enemies rather than teammates– especially given the extent to which we, as Jewish students, value unity and prioritize giving, is absolutely heartbreaking.

Perhaps though one of the saddest elements of this predicament is the fact that we accept these conditions as status quo. We regard competition as a necessary and inescapable aspect of the medical path, and while it may sadden us, we fail to challenge its necessity. Our indifference to the horror of this reality is frightening and our normalization of such behaviors is the most toxic element of all. What is so telling of this indifference is the feedback I received from students who are pursuing a scientific career other than one in medicine. One such student, who wishes to remain anonymous, explained that “it was such a culture shock for me to transition from science classes in which everyone wanted only to help their friends and to ensure one another’s success, into classes in which the students are so competitive, that rather than trying to help their friends, some of them even hope that their friends might fail so that they can rise to the top” (SCW ’23).

We need to realize that such malicious competition is not normal, and that it is in fact unacceptable. We need to recognize that in achieving success, we need not compete with our peers, but rather we need only to focus on our own achievements. Our worth and potential as students, as candidates for graduate school, and as future healthcare providers is defined only by ourselves, not by how we measure up against others. If only we understood this, perhaps everything could change.

By definition, a healthcare provider must be an individual who demonstrates qualities such as empathy and compassion, as the entire essence of the job requires selfless dedication to the needs of others. Moreover, I am ready to guarantee that nearly every student in the pre-health track would say that their career goals are inspired by a desire to give to others and to positively impact lives. But we don’t need to be practicing doctors to fulfill these goals- qualities such as selflessness and empathy are applicable in everyday life, and that starts now. As the future medical professionals of this world, we need to start prioritizing the success of our peers in addition to our own. We need to recognize that we are all playing on the same team, that the success of others does not remove from our own, and that we all share a common goal. And the truth is, by helping our peers to succeed alongside us, we have a higher chance of succeeding in the long run- as compassionate professionals who are genuinely dedicated to the care of others.