College students and graduates looking to enter the medical profession often ask: what does it take to get into medical school? To many, the answer seems complex and mysterious. Some students are baffled by the criteria that medical schools use to select applicants. There are even rumors of the perfect applicant who did not get accepted. The person with very high MCAT scores, near perfect GPA, and extensive experience that applied to many medical schools and did not get a single offer for admission. These rumors have helped fuel the notion that getting into medical school is a mystery; that in addition to hard work and dedication you have to crack the ‘admissions code’ to get an offer from a medical school in the United States.
The reality is somewhat different. Having advised many students applying to medical school, we are here to tell you that getting into medical school is more straightforward than you may think. We have never seen that perfect or near perfect applicant not get in. When someone does not get accepted, there is usually an obvious reason. And to get into medical school, there’s no mystery code that you need to crack. Just do all the right things that medical schools are looking for and you will stand a very good chance.
So what are medical schools looking for and how does one become a competitive applicant? To answer this question, it helps to understand the psyche of the admissions committee. Try to understand how they think and get a sense of the criteria they use to select applicants. Admissions committees are comprised of medical school faculty, the majority of whom are physicians or scientists in a field related to medicine. To understand their psyche, it helps if you put yourself in their shoes.
Imagine that you have been assigned to sit on a committee and select 100 individuals to enter medical school among a pool of 5,000 applicants. How would you go about selecting the top 100 people who would be great medical students and would go on to become great medical doctors? The question can also be posed in the following way: what data points in a medical school applicant’s application would you use to predict success in medical school and as a future physician?
For starters, medical school is academically rigorous. It requires learning a lot of information in a short period of time and performing well on examinations. Even after medical school, as a practicing physician, you must stay up-to-date with the latest medical science by continuously learning. Therefore, one of the most important data points you would want to look for is one that indicates an applicant’s ability to succeed academically in medical school and thrive intellectually as a future physician. Admissions committees believe academic performance before medical school would be the most reliable predictor of scholarly success in medicine. If someone has achieved a high GPA during their college career or in a post-baccalaureate program and scored well on the MCAT, they are likely to also excel academically in medical school and after.
Another important factor that predicts success in medical school and as a future physician is an applicant’s demonstrated commitment to medicine. Once again, put yourself in the shoes of the admissions committee members. You have a large pool of 5,000 applicants, among whom you have to choose 100 for your medical school. You want to find those who would be most passionate about the work they’re doing, they would enjoy it, and they would thrive in the profession.
How would you go about finding those applicants? What data points would you look for in their application? After all, someone may have a high GPA and a high MCAT score, but that doesn’t tell you anything about their commitment to patient care and their interest in pursuing medicine. If someone has not had direct exposure to medical care, it would be hard to know if they are truly committed. This is why medical schools seek applicants who have previous experience working or volunteering in clinical settings. These activities show dedication to clinical medicine. Within clinical medicine, some experiences are more telling than others. For example, the person who has spent 400 hours shadowing in both hospital in-patient and clinic out-patient settings and observing physicians directly, would have more insight into the medical profession than the person who only has limited exposure in just one setting or hasn’t directly worked with physicians. Thus another important data point medical schools use to evaluate applicants is previous experience in a clinical environment.
Academic performance and clinical experience are two important data points that provide information about applicants to medical school. But medical schools look for other criteria as well. We encourage you to step outside and look at the process objectively. Put yourself in the shoes of those who are on admissions committees and ask what other criteria would be important and what data points could provide information about these criteria. If you take this approach, you will feel more confident as you make progress toward becoming a competitive applicant for medical school. You will see that the process is quite straightforward. And finally, don’t forget that as you embark on these various activities, the most important part is to grow and to learn every day.