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A Profound Question from a Harvard Medical School Director

Few things are more satisfying than watching your children serve the Lord and make good decisions as young adults. Paula and I have two sons and we are enjoying this blessing. We do so understanding that many wonderful parents are heartbroken over the rebellion of one or more of their children. Though we have had our “issues,” we know that we have not walked-in-the-shoes of many godly parents. I feel the need to acknowledge this before you read about the journey our youngest son, Luke, is now traveling.

Luke is exceptionally bright and is applying to medical schools, and MD/PhD programs, at many of our nation’s finest schools. It was his experience at Harvard University in December of 2015 that I want to tell you about. Both of Harvard’s medical school programs invited Luke to interview for admission. The program in which he is most interested focuses on medical research, meaning that most of the graduates will spend their careers working to find cures for various maladies, in addition to practicing medicine.

This research-based MD program at Harvard had 1,100 applicants, 170 of whom were invited to visit and go through an interview process. The application each student submitted was extensive. They wrote more than a dozen essays on various topics, in addition to providing all of the standard information that you might expect. The first surprise for me was that the director of the program, a world-renowned medical expert, who also directs a large program in a Boston hospital, reads all 1,100 applications. Moreover, he writes a 500-word essay on each applicant, summarizing what he has learned from their application and recording his thoughts. He does this each year for every new batch of applicants. Amazing, to say the least. But it made me think about the effort I make to truly know people (like our wonderful NWBC pastors). I thought back to churches I pastored and thought how helpful it would have been to have had such a process to help me know, really know, every member. I can’t tell you how many funerals I have performed, when in the process of talking with the family, I learned amazing things about their loved one. I often thought, “I wish I had known this about them.” This Harvard medical director says that each applicant deserves the attention that he personally gives to each individual.

After writing the essay on all 1,100 applicants, the program director personally selected the 170 to be interviewed. These 170 each spend one hour with two professors, for a total of two hours. Luke told us that each professor thoroughly knew his record and application information. Their questions were specific to him. One of the questions that both asked was, “We’ve never heard of Oklahoma Baptist University. Can you tell us about it and explain why you went there?” One professor said, “I’ve never been to Oklahoma, but I know it’s a lot more religious than the Boston area. Can you work with people who don’t believe like you do?” He had some very interesting conversations with them, as well as the two other professors he spoke with from Harvard’s other medical program. In one interview the professor inquired about the nature of “truth,” asking whether we can really know what it is true, and, if so, how does a person discover “truth.”

But it’s the last step in the interview process that I found most interesting. The program director interviewed all 170 applicants – for 10 minutes. That’s it. Just 10 minutes, but the students were told that these few minutes could make-or-break them. After a minute of the director telling about himself, he asked one question before giving the student the opportunity to ask one question. It was the question that this program director asked that I found most interesting.

Before I tell you the question, consider if you were the one posing the question. What would you ask? If you were interviewing someone for a job, and you could only ask one question, what would it be? If you were trying to assess the spiritual growth of another, or of yourself, what one question might work best?

The question this world-renowned medical expert asked, when trying to discern who to admit into one of the most elite medical schools in the world, was this: “Tell me how you have personally changed in the last two or three years?” He clarified by saying, “I’m not asking how your goals have changed, but how have you changed as a person in the last two or three years?”

As I considered this question, I have come to understand that it is an exceptional question for assessing the spiritual growth, or lack thereof, in an individual. Even as I consider what I want to accomplish in this New Year, it is a good question to consider. How have I changed? Am I open to changing? Am I doing the kind of things that will help me to change, and change in good ways? Also, how do I want to change? What do I want to become? Knowing what I want to become is the first step to becoming. “I want to become more generous,” or “I want to become more grateful,” or “I want to become more content.” How about, “I want to better live by faith, not by sight.” “I want to be liberated from a heart full of fear and be filled with hope and love.”

Luke doesn’t know about Harvard yet and won’t until March. But he has several other schools that he has or will speak with. We just learned today that one fine medical school has already admitted him into their MD/PhD program, the beauty of which is that he wouldn’t have to pay for medical school. The school would actually pay him to attend and to assist them in their medical research.

We don’t know where the Lord will take Luke, but the journey is teaching him, and us, some important lessons. I don’t think any of us will soon forget the “one question.” It even contributed significantly to our family Christmas conversations!

How about you? How have you changed in the past two or three years?

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