Twelve Things People Wanting to Go to Medical School Someday Need to Know — and Often Don’t.

Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash

Eleven pieces of advice that can help you get to medical school someday — and one you should hear even though it may not.

Many of the hundreds of students I’ve advised at various points before and during the medical school admissions process weren’t properly prepared for it before we started working together. They spent a lot of time and money on a process that didn’t always go the way they hoped/expected because they didn’t know what med schools usually wanted to see from them if they were to be considered serious candidates for admission.

If you want to have a strong chance at a good outcome when you do apply, read this essay; keep it in mind on every step along your path to medical school; and remember, a strong application package begins years before you actually hit that submit button.

1. Your major matters but not in the way you think

Or to put it another way, you do not have to be a biomedical engineer, a physical chemistry major, or former rocket scientist to get into medical school. You don’t even need to be a science major of any type. In fact, applying as a non-scientist who made sure to take the necessary prerequisites can sometimes help you, particularly if, whatever major you decide on, you do something you are truly interested in!

The reasons for this are simple: medical schools, much as they try to be holistic, frequently fixate on a few key numbers to determine whether they want to send you a secondary application and, later, to decide if an interview is truly in order. As a result, taking the hardest most impressive major (to you, your friends, and family) may actually damage your chances of getting into your dream school — and, for some, any MD program, at all. Importantly, the same is true of unduly hard classes. If a “regular” class carries the credit you need, think deeply on whether taking that honors or “advanced” class is really necessary. Challenging yourself is laudable. It can also be problematic because your GPA could easily be lower than it would be if you took a program better suited to your interests, knowledge, skills, and capabilities.

Instead of over-challenging yourself in pursuit of being “impressive”, taking an “easier” major that truly interests you and doing well in it while either getting your prerequisites as part of that major — or on the side if you’re applying from a non-science major — may ultimately make you a more attractive candidate in the medical school numbers game.

Taking an academic program outside of the sciences may also help you understand and communicate with your patients better since the vast majority of people out there aren’t scientists and don’t think like them either. Whatever major you choose, be sure you are passionate about it and that you’ve thought through the potential pluses and minuses it carries (a.k.a. if you major in something that is objectively “super-hard,” be sure you understand the probable work-life balance challenges and potential risks to your statistical standing of taking a highly challenging program before making that commitment).

2. Speaking of the numbers game, your GPA and MCAT do matter.

Unfortunately, too many applicants don’t really know this or don’t want to accept this apparent reality. There are loads of data out there showing that a GPA of 3.5 and an MCAT of close to 510 is important for any random individual to have a level of confidence that they will get into medical school somewhere sooner or later. Some college pre-health advising offices overtly make note of the 3.5 GPA figure on their websites. Some medical schools have overt MCAT minima for application review as well. Some of these are as high as 507. Check the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) documents from the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC, described in greater detail below) to see which ones do have minimum scores in order to receive secondary applications — which are essential if you are to get an interview. Though less efficient than looking at the MSAR, you can also search the sites of the schools you’re interested in for their requirements.

I’ve known students with super-high GPAs or MCATs that compensated for low numbers and/or some other weakness, but low grades and scores together are usually trouble unless there is a really good — and therefore often potentially very unique reason for relatively poor performance in these areas. Even just low grades or just low scores are often problematic. A clearly defined reason for them somewhere else in the package is required if students with worrisome numbers are to get the attention, they often deserve because of who they are and the other things they’ve done and survived in their lives. As noted above, for some schools, those minimums are closely followed even if there is a story that explains even lower grades or scores than they are comfortable accepting.

Remember also that because you see one low GPA and one or two low MCAT scores on a school’s website, this doesn’t mean they came from the same person. Schools show the full range of scores and GPAs, but they do not (and cannot) break them down individually. Doing so would be a terrific breach of privacy. Don’t assume that just because your grades and scores are comparable to the minimum figures for these on a school’s website that you would be statistically comparable to some individual you created in your mind who had both the lowest score and lowest GPA posted there. Low scores or a low GPA are almost certainly balanced by something else in those individuals’ packages and don’t always appear in the same people.

Unfortunately, too many students don’t learn about these important factors in the decision-making process themselves as any smart potential applicant should. It is also the case that too many aren’t told how schools think about things like grade point averages and MCAT scores by mentors and advisors who should explain these potentially critical matters to them before they submit packages that will not be attractive to admissions committees everywhere.

3. You are responsible to know what you need to about the process, don’t depend on others to explain it to you.

Many colleges say it is not your academic advisors’ or professors’ job to tell you about the medical school application process and what will be expected of you. Many universities say this even though they probably should inform you directly what medical schools’ expectations are out of a duty of care if nothing else. There are reasons (not all good) for this policy as we’ll see in the next paragraph. That said, it is true that you are ultimately responsible to inform yourself as you prepare to apply.

As you research your options, remember: the jobs of departmental advisors, TA/TFs, and lab assistants (among others) depend on having a lot of students in the programs they work in. Lots of students around? Jobs are safe. Fewer in hand because they’ve transferred to other programs in which they can earn higher GPAs or explore other life alternatives? Jobs may disappear.

In some cases, there is policy that instructs people you may ask for advice not to give you all the information you need to make informed decisions. If advisers can’t or won’t tell you directly what their thoughts are on the odds of your getting into advanced training, it may well be that there is policy in place that directs them not to be as clear with you as they probably should be.

If you do choose to have conversations with advisors or faculty etc, (and you should most definitely have these discussions!) do your best to pay attention to how they say what they say rather than *what* they say. Often how the message is framed (IE do they use lots of words to say that it will be difficult for you to get into medical school under current conditions or do they say you should be able to get in in that many words). The more words they use, the more you need to do your best to listen to what they are trying to say to you without saying it directly, even if it’s something you don’t want to hear, particularly because there are always ways to improve your odds of admission a few years down the road — some of which I will discuss below.

In order to protect yourselves from these conflicts of interest, its important for you to get advice from people outside of the majors and career paths you’re considering before you make your choice so you can be sure to have as much reliable evidence behind your plans as possible — just as you will have to have objective data supporting your clinical decisions should you become a physician.

It is also important to remember that you are responsible for understanding that, ultimately, it’s the medical schools that evaluate matters so its incumbent on you to research, and be fully aware of, the priorities of the programs you’re applying to — even if you (and I) don’t like them at times.

If you want to know what you need to in order to be well informed about medical schools’ priorities, it is essential to:

4. Become Familiar with the data in the AAMC’s report on Medical School Admissions Requirements

To get the information you need on how the admissions process works at most medical schools in the US, make sure to get access to the American Association of Medical Colleges’ report on Medical School Admissions Requirements.

This report summarizes nearly everything known about the previous year’s admissions classes across all programs that are AAMC members. Speaking as someone who gets no benefits from suggesting you subscribe, the MSAR is *the* authoritative document on the results of the medical school admissions process. It is well worth the relatively minimal fees they charge to subscribe to it if it isn’t available through your college, pre-health advising center, or local library.

Knowing the data can save you a lot of time, money, and emotional upset. Do what you can to make sure everyone on your campus knows to seek this information out.

I say this because on the campuses with high admissions rates that I’ve been involved with, several things seem to support strong success where medical school admissions are concerned. On the best performing campuses, the students almost always know what is needed. In other cases, the campus sets a floor (whether formal or informal) on the GPA and MCAT scores they will allow students to have if they are to be assisted by campus advisors; advisers tell the students what their statistical presentation may mean in terms of their chance of admission, or all of the factors above come into play.

Campuses where fewer than forty percent of applicants are accepted anywhere, (only about 40% of applicants were admitted to at least one school before the pandemic reshaped statistics on admissions to health professions schools in general) are places where I have often found a lot of students didn’t know about this data and/or they weren’t encouraged to discover it for themselves.

The odds of medical school admission will grow even worse over the next few years due to what many are calling the “Fauci Effect.” I.E., the increase in students applying to medical school will be greater than the growth in available positions for those applicants.

If there is a school you really want to be admitted to, be sure you know what their averages look like and do your best to at least meet those numbers if you truly do want to go there. Even this may not be enough, being relatively close to their statistical expectations will be an important step in the right direction if you don’t have some other aspect to your application that makes them take a second look.

If you do have something in your life history that makes you stand out in some way, don’t be afraid to highlight this part of your story when you are applying. People like me can help you bring your special characteristics out in your application. Whoever you ask to work with you should also be able to help you figure out which schools may take the most interest in your special story and characteristics.

If your goal is simply to get in somewhere (which is generally the right one, by the way), you have a little less pressure to put on yourself, but you will still need to understand that, amazing though you, your friends, and your family think you may be, if you don’t hit those numbers (or have what the admissions committees will think is a great reason to admit you even though you don’t) your medical school dream may need to be either revised or delayed. If that needs to happen, it’s okay. There are ways to get a second bite at the apple. I’ll touch on some of those further on.

5. Medical schools like to see research.

The reasons for this are simple. First, as a physician you may well encounter something you’ve never seen before. Figuring out what it is will either require a referral to someone else, or it may well be that you will need to have the needed skills to research that mysterious set of symptoms to figure out what the problem is. As a result, showing you’ve done and successfully completed significant research (often leading to a published paper on which you are a lead author for example) is important to medical school admissions committees.

The second reason why people involved with admissions like to see research is because most medical school admissions committee members are also researchers. Yes, most take care of patients but they do many other things as well, not least of which is research.

The problem with this second reason is that relatively few MDs ultimately become academic physicians. The American Association of Medical Colleges says there are more than 577,000 MDs who are “active” in the United States. Some sources say there are closer to a million practicing physicians. Whatever the number is, it can be extrapolated from available data that a little less than 150,000 are academic physicians. Even so, it is these people, as well as committee members, who many of my students have told me are often researchers but may not have MDs at all, who make the decisions on who our future physicians will be.

Will a lack of research experience keep you from getting into medical school? No, but it usually helps you look interesting to — and connect with — the committee members (who will usually be your interviewers, too) who more often than not, care about more things in their professional lives than just practicing medicine.

Given its importance, make sure to start looking for ways to do research early. The earlier you do, particularly at larger universities where the opportunity-to-student ratio is often relatively low — the better chance you’ll have to do work that can lead to publications or posters and presentations at conferences, all of which are highly valued by admissions committees when they see your application resume.

6. Medical Schools also value service greatly.

Although research is very important to most schools — and the students who succeed in it will generally spend a great deal more time on it than they will on volunteering or student clinics — medical schools very much want to see service as well. The reason for this is not just that they want to see you are a good person.

As a physician, you will likely be working with people with all sorts of challenges in their lives that affect their health. Challenges ranging from physical and/or socioeconomic situations that may make it impossible for them to follow parts of the preferred regimen, to attitudinal ones that may mean they won’t or can’t be quick to follow your advice.

If you haven’t spent significant time around people whose life paths have been different than yours, service is often the best way to gain experiential empathy for how “regular” people live every day before you develop a professional responsibility for them as your patients.

Speaking as a person with two significant disability issues; as a Ph.D. in Genetics; and as a mentor to hundreds of people with careers in the health professions, if you struggle with skills like communication and empathy, being a practicing physician may not be the best thing for you — and medical school admissions committees are becoming increasingly aware of this.

Empathy usually comes through experience and is directly tied to improved outcomes in patients. For this reason, service work on behalf of people who aren’t like you in some way can be extremely helpful both to show you care for others and also to help you be sure you really want to be a doctor who, by the nature of your work, will almost surely interact with a wide variety of people whose ethnicity, socioeconomic history, educational achievement, and life paths are statistically likely to be very different from yours.

7. Social skills are important.

Medical schools do interviews for a number of reasons. One of the most important is they are a test of your social skills. Your social skills will be essential to your ability to communicate with your professors, peers, and patients. Effective communication is known to be a central part of physicians’ ability to help patients have good outcomes. Therefore, if you spend much of your time avoiding interaction with new people, many kinds of medicine may not be the best career for you.

Limited social and communications skills may well come out during your interviews. Practicing being around people — particularly those who are different from you in some way or other — will help you decide if being a physician someday is really right for you.

8. Leadership (or its potential) is something they’re looking for.

Medical school admissions committees like to think physicians will lead in some way or other as their careers go forward. They are often right since doctors frequently make the decisions about how to deploy the vast resources of our health management systems to help patients recover from whatever ailment or injury besets their lives or to support them in avoiding behaviors and choices that can lead to poorer health and lowered life expectancy.

They, therefore, seek people who have either led in some way or other, or who they think have the potential to do so down the road. So, whether its through student organizations, service opportunities, business or in some other capacity, take advantage of the chances that come in your life to take responsibility as an officer or leader in whatever activities/organizations you participate in.

9. Getting strong recommendations is essential!

Part of programs’ review of applications is the committee’s recommendation review. Letters are important because they are one of the few ways committees have to be told by others about your work ethic, the relationships you build and the impression you leave on other people — all of which are essential to your ability to work effectively with your peers, professors, and your patients in particular.

Letters are one of the things that you have partial control over: you can’t write them yourself, but you can affect how good they are by building strong relationships with your recommenders. Most of the time medical schools want at least two scientific/physician recs, with a third either in that area, from one of your service experiences, or from someone else who offers a unique view of “who you are.”

Some schools will accept more than the number of recs they say they’ll take on their websites. Many won’t! So, think through whose letters you’re sending in because if you don’t get the right set together or if you are counting on their reading all eleven letters you send in, you may well be wrong in that, potentially disastrously.

Some colleges help you count your recs by requiring you to submit letters that they put together into so-called committee recommendations. Some don’t. If you’re thinking about MD or DO training, and you’re still deciding where to go to college, finding out which colleges submit committee recs for their students can be helpful as these schools often, though not always, are relatively successful in getting their graduates into medical school of some kind or other.

Most people who write recommendations work from a base letter and then add a paragraph or two for each individual. Only rarely will they write wholly new letters for each person who asks them to put a recommendation together. It is usually these totally individualized recommendations that committees will see as outstanding.

Outstanding recs are often investments of months or years of time on both sides: you in putting in tens or hundreds of hours of high-quality effort to make a positive impression on your recommender, and your letter writer in making time for you as opposed to other students, employees, or volunteers. This is time they spend learning what your work ethic is like, whether you’re good about deadlines and personal discipline, what your personality is like, and how you interact with others.

By making sure your future recommenders know you well, those personalized pieces of your letters will be as honest — and hopefully complimentary — as possible. When they know you, the letter will be truly great! When they don’t, the numerous experienced readers on admissions committees may only remember that your letters weren’t all that memorable.

Or, put another way, strong, deep, thoughtful recs can carry people with “weaknesses” across the line. Vague, short, and undetailed ones probably won’t.

10. Small things do matter!

Small things in your preparation do matter. If a school says it wants 50 hours of shadowing a physician, they mean it. Forty-nine probably won’t do. This is particularly true for Osteopathic medicine programs. Even though they sometimes put a higher weight on “story” relative to many allopathic medical schools, when they say they want you to have shadowed a D.O. for a certain number of hours, they mean it!

Since most programs want shadowing, get started on finding opportunities to do it as early as you can, particularly because being around physicians will give you a better sense if you really want to be one — or at least help you see what work in specific specialties is like.

When schools say they want a year of a certain type of class on your transcript…you need to pay attention to that. Be careful about listening to people who say, “Our class gives you the knowledge you need to pass the MCAT even though it isn’t a full year course.” The course may well give you the knowledge you need for the MCAT…

The question is, will it stand up at the schools you plan to apply to even though it isn’t as long or doesn’t carry as many credits/hours/units as they say they want? Look online for information about whether schools will take “equivalency” classes or call one or two schools with clear statements that they want a year of organic chemistry or whatever before you sign up for that “condensed” class.

11. There are other paths than medicine to a career in health care.

Much as you may not want to be told this, there are a lot of other paths to careers in healthcare. Some are clinical, like work as a nurse practitioner, dentist, physician assistant or physical therapist, for example. Ask around and you will find many of these careers have a better work-life balance than careers as physicians do. They have less calls and fewer days when hours run long than many clinical medicine specialties, for example.

There are also options in public health, healthcare management, and more. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has information on the training, salaries, and expected future increase or decrease in positions for dozens of career paths in, and hundreds more outside of, healthcare, for you to consider if medical school is starting to seem like an unworkable option for you.

So, if your grades, scores or simply your interests don’t ultimately fit the science and other courses pre-meds must take and pass well, there are other options, many of which may ultimately be a better fit for you and your ability to build a personally and professionally fulfilling future than even medicine may be.

12. You can still become a doctor someday if you don’t have those numbers, haven’t done that research, or are missing time in service to others — but it may take some time.

If, however, you are determined to become a physician, overcoming numerical or experiential weaknesses in your application can happen because, as in №3, you have something else the admissions committees think makes your perspective and knowledge valuable. It may, however, take a great deal of time to figure out how to grow and prove that value to yourself and to those admissions committees, too.

I’ve known many students who had life stories that made medical school admissions committees think they were worth taking a hard look at even though their applications were relatively weak either statistically, or in some other way. Some became doctors by going to schools of osteopathic medicine where committees sometimes have somewhat different priorities in finding optimal future physicians than those at allopathic medical schools.

If the unusual aspects of your life story don’t come through in a way that draws admissions committees’ interest during your first application cycle, you can boost your case by retaking the MCAT, taking postbacs and/or earning many types of masters’ degrees, finding new and unusual service opportunities, and/or by talking with someone like me about how you present yourself in your essays and interviews.

It’s worth noting that admissions committees are often drawn to programs like Teach for America, AmeriCorps, the Fulbright, or Peace Corps. Many also like leadership, creativity, and innovation, so starting something new whether in service, business, or something else often interests them. If you started, or were a major part of, the service initiatives that have arisen around helping vulnerable people with tasks made more difficult by the Coronavirus (or other similar projects) definitely make sure to talk about this in your applications and interviews.

As you prepare for the application process it’s essential to remember: some people will get into medical school quickly. That’s great for them, but for many of you out there, being determined, smart, and willing to take the time needed to make yourself someone who by experience, knowledge, skills, empathy, and yes, numbers, can help you markedly increase your chances to get into medical school at some point in your life, even if its not on the first try.

Dr. Matthew Weed is a health professions school consultant. He has a rapidly growing set of resources on application to health professions school and speaks regularly on ways health professionals can optimize outcomes for patients with chronic illnesses and disabilities. Please feel free to contact him if you would like to work with him on your applications to health professions school programs.

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Matthew Weed

Yale, Harvard, Princeton grad. Blind and diabetic kayaker, skier, and speaker. Advocating for everyone to care of themselves and others.