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Guide to Medical School Admissions

Gain Admission To Your Dream School

Medical School Admissions Guide

Many students dream of one day being doctors, and that means applying to medical school. While some students are able to take advantage of BS/MD programs, most go through undergrad and then apply to medical school from there. This application process is long, complicated, and incredibly competitive.

In this guide, we’ll cover the steps to apply to med school, what these programs are looking for in applicants, and all of the steps you need to take to complete your application.

Where to Begin

Unlike law school or PhD programs, the path to medical school begins much earlier. This is because there are specific courses you need to take, and proficiencies you need to demonstrate, in order to be considered for admission. This is why the “Pre-Med” track exists at so many universities: to explicitly prepare students for medical school, and fulfill all of the course prerequisites.

These prerequisites do not require you to major in biology, though many pre-meds choose to do so anyway. So long as you have taken the required courses, you can major in whatever field you choose. Since many of the required courses also count towards a biology major, this is a common choice for students. It will not negatively impact your admissions if you study something else, and indeed can even be helpful in some circumstances.

The process of applying to med school is long. If you wish to attend straight out of undergrad, you will need to begin the application process at the start of your junior year. If you begin this process in your senior year, you will need to factor a gap year into your plans. Both methods are valid, and neither is necessarily better. It depends on how much work you wish to take on at once, and your own academic circumstances.

There are two kinds of medical degrees: MD and DO. MDs are conferred by allopathic institutions, while DOs are conferred by osteopathic institutions. All medical schools offer one or the other, though as of 2020 both types of students enter the same residency programs.

Students with either kind of degree can get jobs throughout the medical field. The MD programs are usually seen as more competitive and difficult, and the highest achieving students apply for MD programs. For this reason, many see MDs as the more prestigious option, and only apply to DO programs as a backup. This makes DO programs less competitive, but the stigma remains. Which programs you apply to should be based on your needs.

What Medical Schools Want

Medical school applications are very competitive. Indeed, the competition begins even before the applications themselves, with pre-med programs having multiple rounds of “weed out” courses to dissuade students who are not able to handle the academic rigor. This is because the demands medical school makes of its students are intense, and they want to be sure you are able to handle it before you are accepted. 

Admissions is looking for three core competencies when they are making their decision:

  • Personal: Do you have the empathic traits, teamwork and communications skills, and desire to help others that makes for a good doctor?
  • Intellectual: Do you have the necessary reasoning and logical abilities to make the right choices, and to withstand the academic rigors of medical school?
  • Academic: Do you have the necessary scientific background to understand what you are being taught?

In order to evaluate your potential in these competencies, admissions officers look at the following things:

  • GPA
  • MCAT
  • Essays
  • Extracurriculars
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Interviews

Each of these may be used to address several competencies. We will cover each in turn, to tell you what admissions officers want to see, and how you should demonstrate those traits.

GPA

Your GPA in undergrad is the single most important piece of your med school application. Your GPA is seen as a barometer for how you handle academic stress, and your level of intellectual potential as well. While there are no hard and fast limits or rules on what GPA you need, higher is always better.

A high GPA is not enough on its own to grant you admission, but a low GPA will automatically sink your chances. Other circumstances do impact how your GPA is interpreted, but generally there is not much leeway.

Admissions officers understand that not all colleges are the same, and a 3.6 GPA from Rice is treated differently than a 3.6 GPA from Texas A&M. Again, this is a fluid assessment, and much of it depends on the perception of the school you attended. In this way, the college you attend can greatly impact your chances of enrolling in medical school.

Schools also compare your regular GPA with your science GPA. The latter is the GPA you have when only counting Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Math courses. This is usually, though not always, a bit lower than your total GPA. 

While the rigor of your courses does matter, this is harder to evaluate than GPA alone. For this reason, many pre-med students avoid taking the most challenging courses for fear that their GPA, and admissions chances with them, will be harmed. While this is not an ideal strategy academically, we cannot fault students who do so, as evidence suggests their fears are based in reality. You should take whichever courses best suit you, and which will best support your end goals.

The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is a standardized test meant to measure your knowledge and preparation for medical school, and is required for all applicants. The test is administered up to 25 times per year, so scheduling it is rarely an issue. 

The test consists of four different sections, each lasting 90 minutes, with each scored separately. These sections are: 

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior

Two of these are meant to test your background in and knowledge of scientific concepts. One requires reading and analyzing intentionally difficult passages to demonstrate critical thinking skills. The final part covers psychology and sociology, so students can demonstrate their understanding of behavioral and sociological impacts on health.

Each section is scored between 118 and 132, with the scores then combined, and total scores ranging from 472 to 528. The median score achieved by students is 500. The score you need depends on how competitive of a med school you wish to attend, and how high your GPA is. A higher score is always better, but won’t make up for an abysmal GPA.

Most students spend a few months studying for this exam, and we recommend you do this as well. This should come prior to many other parts of the application. Students who wish to attend med school right out of undergrad will need to take the MCAT their junior year. 

You may take the test up to three times in a year, and a maximum of seven times total. If you scored lower than you would like, we suggest taking enough time to prepare properly before retesting. This can be impacted by your timeline for applications, some students choose to take a gap year to have leeway for this reason.

These form the main meat of your application. While your GPA and MCAT are what get your candidacy considered, your essays (and interview) are how schools learn who you are as a person and student, and evaluate whether you have the personal qualities necessary to become a doctor.

The first of these essays is the personal statement. This goes out to every school you apply to, just as when applying to colleges. Your personal statement is a page and a half long narrative about what drew you to medicine, and your relationship with and thoughts on it. 

What you end up writing about is up to you, but should reflect your own personal journey to medicine. The main challenge students face is writing an essay which covers all the needed ground without being cliche. The trouble is there are only so many reasons people have for applying to medical school, and admissions officers have heard many of these stories thousands of times before. 

In order to prevent your essay from being lost in an undifferentiated mass, you need to be as specific and authentic as possible. Avoid using generic terms and motivations, and examine deeply why your experiences lead you to apply to medical school. Why do you want to help people? Why do you want to use medicine to do so?

You have 5,300 characters to explain yourself, which roughly correlates to 500 words. Your personal statement should demonstrate the traits admissions officers want to see in applicants: a desire to help, the ability to communicate, compassion and curiosity, and a level of resilience in the face of pressure and adversity. 

When writing your own statement therefore, you need to consider which of these traits you best embody, and which of your experiences have best demonstrated them. If these experiences relate to the field as well, all the better. There is no such thing as a perfect topic or essay, but you can write a strong one, and that is often the difference between acceptance and rejection if your numbers are good.

As with college applications, each school you apply to will have a few additional essay prompts. These cover similar themes, and you will likely be able to reuse narratives and work between schools when writing these essays. Pay careful attention to the required word count of each however.

The most common topics these essays are on are: 

  • Why you want to attend that school specifically
  • Diversity
  • A challenge you faced

As with your personal statement, you should try to show off the qualities you have that make you a good fit for medical school, while also answering their questions fully. As these are similar to the questions asked of BS/MD applicants, we suggest you read our article on how to write those essays for guidance on answering these questions.

What you have done outside of the classroom is almost as important to your application as your performance within it. Your activities tell admissions officers about your passions and interests, and your commitment to the medical field. While there are no obligated activities, certain classes of extracurriculars are expected and encouraged.

The most common and important of these is clinical experience. This covers experiences working with or observing doctors, patients, and others in the medical field. This grants you first hand knowledge of what being a doctor is like, and exposes you to the realities of the profession.

Clinical experiences include:

  • Shadowing: This is the most basic experience, and entails following a doctor at work, observing what they do without interacting. Schools like to see that you’ve had experience shadowing several doctors across several specialties (2-4), so that you understand the breadth of the field.
  • Patient exposure: This is any work you do which brings you into contact with patients, such as working as an EMT.
  • Clinical volunteering: This is volunteer work in a medical setting. This frequently overlaps with patient exposure, but does not have to. 

Conducting scientific research is the next activity admissions officers like to see. This does not need to be medical, or even in the field of biology. Scientific research has certain ways and methods of thinking and acting which are important to learn, and medical schools want students who are already familiar with them.

There are many laboratories on college campuses that use undergraduates to assist with research, and many summer internships doing this research as well. In the best scenarios, you will end up with some minor publication credits to your name. While these don’t have to involve medicine or even biology, your research experience should be in a scientific field.

The final activity these schools are looking for is volunteering. While this can be in a clinical or other medical setting, it does not have to be, although health-related volunteering is a common choice. Being a doctor is about helping and serving others, and through volunteering, you demonstrate your commitment to this principle. This does not have to be medical in nature, although health-related volunteering kills two birds with one stone. 

While these are all expected, there are no extracurriculars which are inherently better, and it can be very valuable to have non-medical and non-academic extracurriculars as well. Medical school is incredibly stressful, and showing that you have a way of relieving your stress through activities is a good sign.

Finally, unique extracurriculars help make you stand out. Don’t worry too much about which activity you think admissions wants to see, you have no way of knowing that. Activities that make you unique or interesting are always good, even if they are not exactly meeting the specifications above. You should have extracurriculars from the three categories, but you can go above and beyond as well.

As with college admissions, your letters of recommendation are meant to give admissions officers a better sense of who you are as a person and a student. They also provide an outside perspective on your narrative, and help support your self evaluation.

You will need between two and five letters, depending on which schools you apply to. Most schools require three letters, but will accept additional ones as well. You should begin thinking about asking for letters early, and researching what the requirements are for the schools you will be applying to. We suggest you look for the following sources for your letters:

  • A science professor you took courses with and received grades from.
  • A non-science professor you took courses with and received grades from
  • A doctor you shadowed.
  • A mentor from an extracurricular.

Requesting up to six letters can be helpful, as this ensures that you have enough. Check the exact requirements of each school you apply to, to make sure you meet them. Do not send more than six letters to any one school. While great letters will aid your application, mediocre or neutral letters won’t do you any favors. Quality is more important than quantity here.

Some undergraduate programs offer committee letters as well. These are written by the pre-health advisor or a pre-health committee on your academic ability. We recommend you get one of these if your school offers one, as their absence will be noted. Don’t worry if your school does not offer these letters.

If you are applying to a DO program, they will usually require a letter from a DO physician you shadowed. These programs know they are less competitive and less popular than MD programs, and want an indication that you are serious about your candidacy.

You should begin thinking about recommendation letters and cultivating relationships with professors early in your college career. The longer a professor has known you, and the more they have to say, the better a letter will reflect your talents and abilities.

As with college admissions, we suggest asking for letters of recommendation in-person. Also do this well ahead of deadlines; many students will be asking these professors for letters, and if you ask too late then you will either be denied, or receive a sub-par letter. 

Again, as with college letters, you should only ask for letters from sources who know you well, and who will be able to speak about your knowledge, accomplishments, and potential. Further, you should only ask for letters from professors you have a good relationship with. While positive letters will boost your application, negative or even neutral ones can damage it.

Finally, after a letter writer submits their letters, you should send them a short thank you message. Your professors are asked for a great many letters, and have no real requirement to write them. Your gratitude does not need to be effusive, but should be genuine and recognize the effort they put in on your behalf.

Interviews

Once your applications are submitted, you will be asked to do an interview. This is the final piece of your application, and will happen after your other portions pass the first review. Medical schools won’t bother to interview students who are clearly unqualified, but most applicants will do an interview.

The invitations for interviews are generally sent out on a rolling basis, as applications are reviewed by committee, with the students who make the cut getting invited to interview. Some schools do this piecemeal, while others do so in batches. 

Medical schools do interviews for a number of reasons, but the main ones are checking that you are as polished in person as you appear on your application, that you are comfortable with speaking to people, and that you don’t have notable interpersonal issues which could impact your career as a doctor.

While a career in medicine does involve fixing people, a large part of that is being able to talk with and relate to your patients. This is often referred to as bedside manner, and is difficult to teach or learn. Therefore, the interview is used to get a sense of how you will perform in this area, along with evaluating you generally.

Thus, when doing an interview how you answer questions is equally important as what your answer is. This can be very stressful, so we recommend practicing answering the kinds of questions they will ask, and working with others to make sure you come across the way you want.

The most common questions asked in medical school interviews are:

  • Why do you want to be a doctor?
  • Why do you wish to attend this school?
  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What’s your greatest strength?
  • What’s your biggest weakness?

You can do practice interviews with your school’s pre-med advisor, friends who have already gone through the interview practice, or faculty advisors who are familiar with how these interviews work. We recommend intentionally stressing yourself out before the practice interview, to get used to answering questions while dealing with nerves. Learning to calm yourself and answer questions is an important skill.

Finally, consider questions you wish to ask your interviewers. These should generally focus on the practicalities of life at their school, what the culture of their program is like, and any questions you have about their program that you couldn’t find answers to in your research.

How to Apply

Just as colleges use the Common App, most American medical schools use a single application platform. There are, however, separate platforms for MD and DO schools. MD schools use the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), while DO schools use the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) application system. Texas medical schools have their own separate application.

These systems are fairly similar, and want similar information, so it won’t be much effort to apply using multiple of them, just a bit of extra work. You will begin by entering demographic and academic information, though you will also need to have your MCAT scores and official transcripts physically mailed to each application system’s headquarters. 

Next on AMCAS is the work and activities section, which functions as an expanded resume. You’ll have room to discuss your extracurricular activities and jobs in some depth here.

Your personal statement and letters of recommendation are also handled by this application. This works similarly to the Common App; once they are uploaded, they get sent out to every school. You can choose which schools get which letters of recommendation on AMCAS.

Once this is submitted, schools will send you secondary applications. These contain questions specific to each school, and are where you write supplemental essays. Since the questions don’t normally change from year to year, we suggest writing your essays ahead of time. 

You will be invited to interview after your secondary application is submitted. The time between submitting and an interview can vary, but generally if you are invited to interview by many schools right away, it is a sign of strong candidacy on your part. 

Medical schools practice rolling admissions, meaning they perform interviews and send out acceptances as the application window continues. For this reason, we recommend applying early, as you will have fewer competitors and there are more spaces available. If you apply too late, you will face stiff competition for the remaining spaces.

Applications for med school open in May, but you have begun work long before that. If you wish to attend straight out of undergrad, we recommend beginning planning, studying for the MCAT, and writing essays in the fall of your Junior year. If you are planning on taking a gap year, begin this process no later than fall of your senior year.

Paying for Medical School

Very few med schools offer financial aid or scholarships. Instead, most students must pay for school through loans. The schools which do offer scholarships generally reserved them for the highest achieving students, who they are eager to recruit.

Many students take on a great deal of debt in medical school. While you will get paid during residency, wages are very low, especially relative to the amount of work you will be doing. Some students work through medical school, but due to the rigorous demands on your time, this is not as common.

Medical School Admissions FAQ

Now we’ll answer some commonly asked questions about the med school admissions process.

Is leadership a trait I need to demonstrate?

Leadership is good to demonstrate, but this doesn’t mean you need to be president of an organization, or start your own. Admissions officers want to see your ability to take on responsibility and handle making decisions. Taking on positions of increasing responsibility and importance within an organization is a good way to demonstrate your leadership abilities.

Can I apply to med school as an older student?

Yes. All of the requirements are the same, but there is nothing to stop you from applying to medical school after a few years working. Since you will still need letters of recommendation from professors, we suggest taking some university courses prior to your application process.

Do I need to be a pre-med?

Technically, no. You do need to fulfill the prerequisite courses, but you do not need to self-designate as a pre-med to do so. We recommend you do however, as many colleges have additional advising resources for pre-med students. These can help you decide where to apply, match you with doctors for shadowing, and give you valuable networking opportunities.

When should I begin preparing?

This depends on what you mean by preparing. Generally, however, if you intend to attend medical school, you should begin preparations as soon as you start college. The number of prerequisite courses is high, and it will take time to do them well. The expectations for extracurricular performance and involvement are also high. The sooner you start involving yourself in scientific and healthcare related activities, the more time you will have to heighten your experiences. 

You can begin this later in your undergraduate career, but this will make things more difficult. We recommend taking a gap year or two in this case. This will enable you to take any remaining courses, and to fill up on the activities that admissions officers want to see.

What about guaranteed admissions?

BS/MD programs sometimes let students into medical school without a separate application or a MCAT score. We have another article discussing these programs. They are far more competitive than even med school admissions, but can be a good option for students who are certain of their career goals.

Can I participate in non-science or medicine related extracurriculars?

Yes. Indeed, showing you have a way to relax and handle stress outside of academics can be quite helpful in the admissions process. While you should still hit all of the extracurricular activities we list above, you can participate in other activities as well.

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