Applying to Medical School

What Are Medical Schools Looking For?

Many pre-meds often ask questions like:

  • What do medical schools look for?
  • What do I need to do to get into medical school?
  • What extracurriculars are best for medical school?
  • How important is _______ (GPA, MCAT, research, volunteer)?
  • Do I need to _______ (shadow a physician, go on a medical mission trip, volunteer at the hospital, etc.)?

Yet these questions actually miss the fact that medical schools are interested in what you have done, mainly to determine who you are as a person. Instead of looking for a specific list of goals and activities, pre-meds should be trying to determine what qualities medical schools are looking for in their students.

So what are medical schools looking for in potential students?


1. Medical schools want students who will excel academically.

At the absolute minimum, the admissions committee must be convinced that you are adequately prepared academically to learn and memorize all the necessary information to become a doctor. Admissions committees use the GPA and MCAT scores because they have a strong correlation with the academic performance of students, especially in the first 2 years.

Generally speaking, GPAs above 3.8 and MCAT scores 515 or greater are desirable, while GPAs below 3.5 and/or MCAT scores below 505 are red flags.

Does that mean having a low GPA and/or MCAT score will automatically preclude you from getting into medical school? Absolutely not!

If you fall into this category, your most important job is to convince the admissions committee that you are capable of mastering all the material necessary to become a doctor. Likewise, a high GPA and MCAT score tell admissions committees that you are most likely very well prepared to handle the coursework – but not necessarily that you will be a good doctor.

2. Medical schools want students who know what they are getting themselves into.

Becoming a doctor is a long and expensive process – over 85% of medical school graduates have an average of over $200,000 in educational loans. Once accepted, a medical student also represents a hefty investment of time and resources by the medical school. It is absolutely imperative that pre-med students know that medicine is the right career path before starting medical school!

How do you determine whether medicine is the correct career path for you? Shadowing a physician and volunteering in a clinical setting.

The goal of these activities is for you to get a better and complete understanding of what it means to be a physician. While shadowing a physician and volunteering in a local hospital are not necessary per se, they are highly recommended because they are the easiest ways to observe and learn what it really means to be a physician.

The closer you can get to seeing actual doctor/patient interactions, the better. Volunteering at the hospital gift shop does not allow you to see and learn firsthand what physicians do and is therefore not very useful. Programs such as Care Extenders are especially valuable because they allow volunteers not only to observe but also to provide healthcare.

Sharing how you contributed to a patient’s healthcare and found it fulfilling is more convincing than sharing how you observed someone else provide healthcare – which is still more convincing than having done neither.

3. Medical schools want students who are motivated by the right reasons.

While there are a huge variety of reasons to go into medicine, there are certain “right” (or “wrong”) reasons that are looked upon favorably (or unfavorably) by medical schools. Most “right” reasons can be broadly categorized into the following groups:

  • The need to help others.
  • A love of the sciences.
  • A love of learning.
  • A past situation where medicine heavily impacted yourself or a loved one.

The “wrong” reasons are, in a sense, the extrinsic reasons – for example, those driven to medicine by parents, cultural pressure, money, or some other external force. Most pre-med students will be driven by some sort of combination of the above reasons, including the “wrong” ones. This is perfectly fine, as long as the “wrong” reasons are not your primary reasons.

How do you show your motivation to medical schools? Through academic classes, extracurricular activities, research, student organizations, hobbies, skills, and a compelling personal statement.

If you love the sciences, then pursue it by conducting research in a lab, presenting data at conferences, writing articles for a science journal, taking advanced upper-division classes in interesting subjects, or participating in a science journal club.

If you love to help others, volunteer at a soup kitchen, tutor elementary or high school kids, become an RA, or help someone abroad learn English. The key to making these as persuasive and genuine as possible is to pursue activities that you are truly passionate about.

On a more practical note, longevity (length of time involved) and breadth (how involved you were) are the keys to showing what activities are near and dear to your heart. It is much more convincing to say that you love to help others if you have been volunteering at the soup kitchen for 4 years and are an officer of the group A Helping Hand rather than volunteering for just one summer and being a “member” of a service group.

4. Medical schools want students who will contribute positively to their school.

In many ways, the first 3 qualities can be seen as the “minimum requirements” that all pre-meds should have. Having those three will prevent an applicant from being screened out.

But in order to get that precious acceptance letter, you must convince the admissions committee that you have something to offer to the school that no one else does (or does not offer as much of).

How do you know what medical schools value in their applicants? Research! Go to their website, read their brochures, call their admissions office, and do whatever it takes to figure out what they want.

Each school will value different qualities, and it’s up to you to figure out what the school you are applying to wants. Luckily, there are some high-yield factors that many medical schools value.

Some of these keywords and qualities that appear on multiple medical school websites include leadership, innovation, teaching, serving, critical thinking, a passion for learning, and diversity.

Hopefully, looking at these key qualities shows that you cannot just join a “leadership club” or a “learning club” (do such things even exist?) and claim that you have the requisite quality. The best way to demonstrate these qualities is through your preexisting activities.

One important component of your application that the admissions committee uses to determine what “intangibles” an applicant has to offer is the letter of recommendation.

When you are volunteering at the hospital or conducting research in a laboratory, be engaged 100% so that it is obvious to your volunteer supervisor or research PI that you are passionate and dedicated. Show your leadership skills, your ability to think outside of the box, and your passion for learning so that others with more authority can vouch for what you are claiming in your application.

Putting It All Together

The secret to getting into medical school is convincing the person reading your application that you are a smart, compassionate, and highly motivated applicant who will make both their peers and medical school better for having known you. And this is easier said than done!

If you are just starting college, then get involved early and follow the various tips given here and elsewhere. If you are already in college and worried that you don’t have the time to shadow a physician for hundreds of hours and volunteer in a hospital while conducting research, don’t fret too much.

Pre-meds often ask us how many hours of volunteering and shadowing and research they need, as if fulfilling 1000 hours of volunteering and 100 hours of shadowing, and 500 hours of research with a great GPA and MCAT will guarantee an acceptance. It won’t.

Conveying that you are a certain type of person regardless of how many hours you invested in certain activities gets you in. You have to show that you are what medical schools are looking for.

Getting into medical school is by far a difficult accomplishment even for the most competitive applicants. Lucikly, MedSchoolCoach offers a plethora of services to ease that process for you.

Schedule a Free Admissions Advising Consultation

Be sure to check out the Medical School Chance Predictor by MedSchoolCoach prior to submitting your application to see what your odds are of getting accepted.

Sahil Mehta

Sahil Mehta M.D. is an attending physician in the Department of Radiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Founder of MedSchoolCoach. Dr Mehta is one of the world’s experts on medical school admissions having founded MedSchoolCoach in 2007. MedSchoolCoach provides admissions consulting to premedical students in the form of interview preparation, essay editing and general advising. In the past 10 years, he has had a hand in over a thousand acceptances to medical school.

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