- Mar 3, 2014
People have asked for the last 15 years, “Vijay, how did you come up with pretending like you’re black to get into medical school? That was crazy, huh?”
Uh, yeah, it was. But at the time it seemed like a good idea. I had toed the line in school my whole life. I sailed through a prestigious prep school with great grades. Had always been a model student. But college? Well, it was like Disneyland — so many rides to take, so much fun to have. I joined a fraternity and committed a great deal of effort to fun. But about halfway through, I had an epiphany and it scared the crap out of me.
I wanted to be a doctor. Yes, it’s kind of a cultural thing, but I’m also totally American, grew up in Boston and even got my middle name from Jo Jo White, one of the Celtics stars. My immigrant folks loved basketball. But I wanted to be a doctor mainly because my mom was a doctor and she was universally loved by her patients. I was immensely proud of her.
One of my closest friends, nicknamed Boots — Indian-American like me — shared my dream.
But what happened to Boots next chilled me to my marrow. He began applying to medical schools and we both figured he would sail through, get many interviews and then have his pick. Boots was a year older and medical school was everything he had worked for since starting at the University of Chicago. His grades and test scores were better than mine because, unlike me, he actually studied. But when he applied to 15 medical schools, got only two interviews and was accepted to exactly zero schools, he felt like a college running back who thinks he’ll go to the Patriots in the second round and is stunned when he’s relegated to playing in the CFL.
I may not have studied all that hard in my economics and statistics classes, but I knew enough to realize that anecdotal evidence was not enough to draw valuable conclusions. I had to work the problem. I studied the statistics and data made public by the Association of American Medical Colleges and came to a surprising conclusion. The data suggested that an Indian-American with my grades (3.1 GPA) and test scores (31 MCAT) was unlikely to gain admission to medical school, but an African-American with the same grades and test scores had a high probability of admission.
While I wasn’t able to pin down the exact number, I reasonably calculated that African-American or Hispanic applicants had as much as a 30 to 40 percent better chance of acceptance than I. This number left me speechless — but it also started my wheels turning.
I ran across a newspaper article about Rommel Nobay, an Indian who lied about being black to gain admission into medical school. Nobay got caught because he lied about a bunch of other stuff on his application, such as being a National Merit Scholar — not because he lied about his race. Light bulb. I wondered if I could pull it off by being completely honest about everything except, of course, my . . . race.
I shaved my head, trimmed my long Indian eyelashes, joined the University of Chicago’s Organization of Black Students (a black friend ran it, knew my scam and got me in) and began applying to medical schools as a black man. I transposed my middle name with my first name and became Jojo, the African-American applicant.