Medical School Admissions, Explained

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As you well know, academics are a huge part of the medical school admissions process. This Academics Bucket is filled with items weighed by the medical school admissions committees when assessing your readiness to excel academically in medical school. These include: GPA, MCAT, undergraduate/graduate school strength, course strength, and major. I am often asked, “What GPA and MCAT do I need to get into Harvard Medical School.” I always answer, “It depends.” Many pre-meds think it takes a 4.0 GPA and 45 MCAT score to get into medical school. They are wrong. Pre-meds with 4.0 GPAs and 45 MCAT scores used my consulting services after they were NOT accepted to medical school. Sure, you generally need good grades and a decent MCAT score to get into medical school, but there is no exact GPA or MCAT score that guarantees admission. Medical school admissions committees look at a pre-med’s "whole package" when deciding who gets into medical school. Great grades and MCAT scores, a top-20 school pedigree, upper level classes, and a challenging or unique major are not enough to get into medical school. You need to be well-rounded and stand out among the other 40,000 applicants.

Pre-meds frequently ask, “Do I need research to get into medical school.” I always emphatically answer, “Yes!” But “research” may not mean exactly what you think. Research does not have to involve pipetting in the lab or creating mutant rats. Laboratory research is an excellent way to delve deeper into basic science and work with other brilliant scientists trying to solve a problem, but it is not the only type of research available to pre-meds. In the eyes of medical school admissions committees, research involves any activity that involves asking a question and then trying to answer it. You form a hypothesis and attempt to solve it. The goal of your research is to prove to the medical school admissions committees your talent for analytical thinking and problem solving.

When it comes to medical school admissions, community service refers to any activity where you are helping someone else. Medicine is a caring profession, and, through your community service experiences, you can prove your passion for helping others. Medical school admissions committees strongly prefer you show consistency and leadership in your community service activities. For example, it is more impressive to volunteer in the emergency department for four years and receive promotions from volunteer intern to volunteer trainer to volunteer supervisor than to participate in a one-week community health fair for underserved populations each year in college. When choosing your community service activities, think commitment and leadership. Similar to choosing research and extracurricular activities, you can think outside the box and be creative when selecting your community service activities. You don’t necessarily have to volunteer in a medical setting, though that certainly doesn’t hurt. You just need to help other people.

The word “extracurricular,” by strict definition, refers to any activity outside of the classroom. But in the context of medical school admissions, I use extracurricular to mean any experience that does not fit into the category of academics, research, community service, or clinical experience. Examples of extracurricular categories include: clubs, sports, arts/dance, hobbies, travel, and languages. Extracurricular activities are a great way to stand out in the medical school admissions process. This is another chance to be creative and follow your passions. Admissions committees may not remember that you had a 3.7 GPA, but they will likely remember that you climbed 50 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado over the last 5 years or speak fluent Gaelic or collect classic bicycles and auction them off for charity. Do not be afraid to follow your passions, even if they do not directly relate to medicine. Your extracurricular experiences will contribute not only to your medical school admissions chances, but will help you live a happy, well-balanced life. These are the activities that often continue through medical school and beyond and make you who you are.

Members of medical school admissions committees often say lack of clinical experience in the most common reason why pre-meds are not accepted to medical school. Does that surprise you? It initially surprised me until I thought more about it. Even more than academic achievement, research activities, and community service experiences, medical school admissions committees want to see that you know what it is like to be a doctor. Medicine is a grueling profession and certainly not the easiest path you can choose. Do you know what you are getting yourself into? Medical school admissions committees look for the answer to this question in your clinical experiences. The clinical experience category is less broad than the research, community service, and extracurricular buckets. It specifically refers to activities related to doctoring. Examples of clinical experience include: shadowing physicians, volunteering/working in a clinic, medical office, or hospital, performing clinical research, and traveling on international medical missions. When looking for clinical experiences, try to get a broad view of the medical profession and witness the day-to-day life of different types of physicians. It’s also a good idea to volunteer or work in diverse environments, such as an office setting, emergency department, and inpatient hospital ward.

I like to refer to application “skills” as application “art” because it takes tremendous creativity, writing, and interviewing skills to gain acceptance to medical school. Through the various AMCAS application sections, you have to create a story that helps you stand out among the other 40,000 applicants and convinces the medical school admissions committee why you will make an exceptional medical student and physician. You may wonder how to decide on your story. The key is to look back over all of your life experiences and see how they come together into a unified story that leads to a medical career. Have you dedicated significant time and effort to studying infectious disease in the laboratory and clinic? Then you can use these experiences to tell the story of how you want to become a physician-scientist dedicated to treating HIV patients. Have you played competitive sports your whole life and witnessed how orthopedic surgeons help patients and athletes get back on their feet after injuries? Then you can craft an interesting story discussing how you’d like to become an orthopedic surgeon who focuses on sports medicine and dream of becoming an Olympic physician one day.