Let’s face it: There’s a ton of bad advice and wrong information online about what it takes to get into medical school:
- “Get involved in as many extracurricular activities as you can because medical schools want to admit well-rounded applicants.”
- “Try to become the president or assume another leadership position in every organization you join because medical schools want to admit leaders.”
- “You have to write about overcoming adversity in your personal statement.”
- “It’s impossible to write down everything important when describing your extracurricular activities.”
- “If you don’t come from a minority background, you can’t write a strong diversity essay in your secondary applications.”
And so on…
Yet, students continue to ask for peers’ guidance on sites like Reddit and Student Doctor Network, without knowing how reliable these sources are. What’s worse, the responses students receive typically only makes them feel more anxious. That said, premed anxiety is completely understandable given the dizzying number of requirements you have to fulfill to get into medical school:
- Achieve a strong science and overall GPA
- Obtain a high enough MCAT score
- Accumulate clinical shadowing, volunteering/community service, and patient exposure experiences
- Conduct impactful research
- Demonstrate leadership
- Submit outstanding application essays and recommendation letters
- Shine during your interviews
So how do medical schools admissions committees evaluate your applications?
You’ve probably heard that medical school admissions committees practice “holistic review” when evaluating applications. (If you haven’t, holistic review means that admissions committees consider all of your accomplishments, experiences, and contexts when making admissions decisions, rather than overly focus on one aspect of your application.)
In addition to competitiveness, the reason medical schools require so much of you is because each aspect of your application will shine a different light on who you are, as well as your fitness for medicine. Understanding how admissions committees view the various components of your application will help you make better decisions with regard to which extracurricular activities to pursue, as well as how to approach your written materials.
- Grade Point Average (GPA)
What it represents: As the summary of your academic accomplishments throughout college—and in some cases, a post-bac or Master’s program—GPA represents your ability to meet the academic demands of medical school.
What it lacks: Due to inconsistent grading practices across schools, it’s sometimes hard for medical schools to know how difficult it is for students to achieve a certain GPA at a certain school. For example, medical schools may wonder whether a 3.6 science GPA at a small liberal arts colleges is easier or harder to achieve than a 3.6 GPA at a well-known state university. Hence, the need for the dreaded yet standardized MCAT.
- Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)
What it represents: A common criterion to compare you to all medical school applicants. In other words, the MCAT provides medical schools with the opportunity to evaluate your academic promise relative to all other applicants because everyone has to take the same exam.
What it lacks: A comprehensive view of your academic fitness for medical school. The MCAT is taken in one sitting, with each attempt representing a snapshot of how you performed on a long multiple-choice test on a particular day. Despite the fact that many students feel their MCAT scores do not accurately capture their academic potential, medical schools expect you to meet or surpass certain score thresholds to be considered for admissions. The specific scores required differ from school to school and aren’t released to the public.
(*Note: If your undergraduate GPA is lower than you hoped, achieving high grades in a post-bac or Master’s program may help you show admissions committees that you can meet the academic demands of medical school. However, doing well in post-bac and Master’s programs will help less with overshadowing a low MCAT score.)
- Clinical Shadowing
What it represents: An opportunity for you to understand physicians’ day-to-day responsibilities and pressures. Moreover, shadowing will help you gain familiarity with various medical environments and specialties. Without clinical shadowing, medical schools would question whether you truly know if medicine may be the right career path for you.
What it lacks: Given that shadowing is a relatively passive activity (i.e., you follow a physician around and simply observe what they do), you may not have the opportunity to demonstrate your unique qualities to stand out as an applicant.
- Patient Exposure
What it represents: Direct patient interaction as a premed provides a glimpse into how you will provide patient care as a medical trainee and physician. Moreover, patient exposure is required because medical schools want to know that you’re comfortable working with people who are ill or injured.
What it lacks: While providing great medical care requires compassion, it also requires strong subject matter expertise. Therefore, schools want to know that you can juggle the academic demands of medicine—assessed via your GPA and MCAT score—in addition to maintaining good bedside manner.
- Community Service and Volunteering
What it represents: Commitment to serving your community without any guarantee of reward or acknowledgment. Medical schools value giving back, so you’ll have to demonstrate this type of care through your extracurricular activities.
What it lacks: Regardless of whether or not your community service and volunteer experiences are directly related to medicine, they do not offer any information about your academic promise. Moreover, students who jumped from one community service experience to another may harm their admissions odds because they haven’t demonstrated long-term commitment to a single activity.
What it represents: Your interest in and ability to advance medical knowledge. Moreover, multi-year research projects, presentations, and publications can help you demonstrate your academic promise, as well as your willingness to pursue a research career, which is especially prized at the highest-ranked medical schools.
What it lacks: Insight on how you will practice clinical medicine. Even if you anticipate working primarily as a medical scientist throughout your career, you will have to undergo clinical training throughout medical school and (likely) residency.
What it represents: Your willingness and ability to be responsible for others. Since physicians are meant to serve as leaders in medical settings, admissions committees want to see that you’re dedicated to serving your community and profession. That said, your leadership can be demonstrated through medical or non-medical experiences (e.g., church, school organizations, tutoring). Moreover, you should aim to pursue fewer leadership experiences for longer periods of time rather than more leadership experiences for short periods of time.
What it lacks: Similar to clinical shadowing, patience exposure, and community service and volunteering experiences, leadership experiences do not show medical schools that you’re cut out for medicine’s academic rigors.
Medical School Applications
- Personal Statement
What it represents: Whether or not you can convincingly articulate that you are committed specifically to medicine. Your personal statement offers a great opportunity to demonstrate which of your qualities—character, personality traits, attitudes—make you a great fit for a medical career, as well as your road to medicine. It’s incredibly important to demonstrate these qualities through vivid examples rather than simply stating that you’re ready to become a physician.
What it lacks: In-depth descriptions of your extracurricular activities, as well as whether you’re a strong fit for a particular school. Moreover, although your personal statement will allow you to share your story “beyond the numbers,” a great personal statement cannot overcome very low stats. However, a great personal statement, along with your other written materials, can certainly elevate your application from borderline to competitive, or from competitive to standout.
(Further reading: How to Conquer the Medical School Personal Statement)
- AMCAS Work and Activities
What it represents: Your ability to describe your commitment to various extracurricular activities, as well as your responsibilities, accomplishments, impact, lessons learned, and growth. When done well, your AMCAS Work and Activities entries will further support the qualities you demonstrated through your personal statement.
What it lacks: A bird’s eye view on who you are and your journey to medicine. The personal statement fills that role.
- Secondary Application Essays
What they represent: Most schools you apply to will send you their school-specific secondary application. The secondary application provides you with the opportunity to clearly convey how you align with a particular school’s mission, so it’s a good idea to thoroughly research each school before submitting secondary applications. The most common secondary essay topics include experiences with diversity, overcoming adversity, and why you want to attend a particular school.
What they lack: Similar to the AMCAS Work and Activities section, secondary application essays lack a bigger picture view on your journey medicine. Still, there is no better opportunity then through your secondary applications to demonstrate “fit.”
(Further reading: Tackling Medical School Secondary Application Essays)
- Admissions Interviews
What they represent: An opportunity to show admissions committees that you’re a socially adept person—not a weirdo. Through your interactions with administrative and admissions staff, medical schools evaluate whether you have strong enough social skills to navigate a medical career. Moreover, your answers to interview questions will help admissions staff gauge your thoughtfulness and fitness for their school.
What they lack: Information about your academic promise, including your ability to handle a medical school workload and write convincingly. However, if you make it this far, the medical schools you’re interviewing at have effectively communicated that your stats and story are “good enough.”
(Further reading: Use the Power of Psychology to Ace Your Medical School Interview)
There’s a ton to juggle throughout your premed years to get into medical school. Whether discussing academics, extracurricular activities, written application materials, or admissions interviews, none of your applications’ components are evaluated separately. Rather, the various pieces of your application fit together to tell a holistic story about the type of person you are, as well as why you’re uniquely fit for a career in medicine.
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is the Founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. He systematically helps medical school applicants get into their top-choice schools with as little stress as possible. If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love his free comprehensive guide on the medical school application process, Get Into Medical School: 6 Practical Lessons to Stand Out and Earn Your White Coat