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Getting Into Medical School: Help For Parents

Created 10.04.09 by Jessica Freedman, MD
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Your son or daughter wants to get into medical school. Of course, you want to help, but how? Many parents, including those who are physicians themselves, are overwhelmed by the medical school application process. They want to guide their young adult children but also want to allow their “kids” to work independently and don’t want to do too much hand holding.

So, what do you, as parents, need to know about the medical school admissions process to help your premedical student to succeed? This article reviews some basic material to help parents and their children make wise choices that will help them to gain acceptance to medical school.

Know the facts, but try not to add more pressure to the cooker

It is important for parents to know what is required of their children to gain admission to medical school. This means knowing the premedical prerequisites and the activities in which students should be involved. But it also means understanding how to help without adding more stress.

Achieving this balance often depends on the relationship between parent and child. It is essential, however, that parents understand that their children are young adults who will someday soon be required to make independent (and very important) decisions. Since a career in medicine requires maturity and independent thought and decision making, parents should encourage these qualities while remaining involved in their children’s lives.

Consider carefully what college to attend

Many premedical parents ask me where their child should attend college. The most common question is: “Should my child attend a prestigious college where ‘As’ are more difficult to earn or go to a college or university that is considered less prestigious but where high grades may be easier to earn?” The answer to this question is not easy.

What is most important with regard to medical school admissions is academics. A high GPA (3.9) and a strong MCAT score (above 30 with a good distribution) are the most important factors for an application to be considered for review by an admissions committee. I have seen people who went to outstanding colleges but earned 3.3s or so who had difficulty gaining admission to medical school. Thus, students with similar MCAT scores but with higher GPAs from less prestigious undergraduate colleges may receive more interviews (and thus more acceptances) than the student who went to a top ranked college but had a lower GPA.

Help your child choose best major and courses for them

The emphasis in medical school admissions now is diversity. So, beyond the basic premedical prerequisites, students should major in what interests them most. Majoring in something other than biology or chemistry would be looked upon favorably by admissions committee members. It is always wise, however, to take upper level science classes regardless of the student’s major to demonstrate academic excellence in the sciences. I also suggest that all premedical students take biochemistry and, if possible, statistics; Medical schools like to see these courses on transcripts.

Think about the activities in which your premedical student should participate

Just as with their courses, students should become involved in activities that motivate and interest them. While everyone knows that medical schools “like to see” research, community service, and teaching, first and foremost, all applicants must have clinical and shadowing experiences. Also important is that students do not become involved in extracurricular activities at the expense of their academic success and that they do not accumulate a list of activities just for the sake of doing so. In-depth involvement is preferred over a long list of superficial activities and will likely lead to stronger letters of reference.

Put together a good “team” to help your son/daughter gain admission to medical school

This team should consist of professors, mentors, extracurricular leaders and premedical advisors. Remember that you cannot be everything to your child and that having other people to provide support and guidance throughout this process is helpful. I find that many “kids” like to have other objective authority figures to help advise them.

Think seriously about some time away from formal academics

Many applicants now take a year away from formal academics before going to medical school and apply during the spring of the senior year rather than the spring of junior year.  Some parents are uncomfortable with this idea, but it can be difficult for students to get “all of their ducks in a row” in time to submit a successful application at the end of their junior year of college. Applying in the senior year also allows applicants to have an extra year of grades on their transcript, which can be important for many applicants whose grade point average (GPA) tends to trend upward from the freshman to senior year. I find that some applicants who are not successful the first time they apply often fail because they and their parents did not understand how much work and organization is required for a successful medical school application.

Understand that the medical school application process is long!

As parents, it is important to understand that the process of applying to medical school requires a tremendous amount of endurance and perseverance. Many parents of my clients who are physicians lament: “It wasn’t this complicated when I applied!” Indeed, as medical school admissions have become more competitive, the process has become more laborious and expensive.

The application season officially begins when the student starts thinking about composing and submitting his or her primary application in June. But, students must also take all required courses and the MCAT and request letters of reference and transcripts in addition to composing an excellent application. Then, after the primary application is submitted, students must fill out secondary application essays for many schools and go on interviews. Some applicants may not know what school they will attend until they “get off a waitlist” in August. Thus, the application season may last for more than a full year.

Medical school applicants tend to be a highly motivated group who hold themselves to high standards. Sometimes, in an effort to make sure their kids stay on track, parents ask questions constantly, do GPA calculations, plan curriculums and seek out summer activities that will bolster their child’s application. There is a fine line between helping and hovering, and I find that this added pressure can sometimes backfire.  The premedical race requires agility and careful judgment, and parents play an important role in helping premedical students to reach the finish line.

Jessica Freedman, MD, a former medical admissions officer, is president of MedEdits (www.MedEdits.com), a medical school, residency and fellowship admissions consulting firm. She is also the author of the MedEdits blog, a useful resource for applicants: (www.MedEdits.blogspot.com).

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Comments

  1. Rishi says:

    Though I’m not a parent, I’m sure this will be incredibly useful to current and future applicants! Great job approaching this topic from many different (and important) aspects, Dr. Freedman! :-)

  2. KEN says:

    The best thing any parent can do for any child applying to any graduate program, whether it be medical, dental, PhD etc. etc. is to say to your son or daughter “Son, (or daughter) Just do the best you can and let us know if there’s anything we can do to help. Your mother and I are both very proud of you and will be no matter what happens.”

    Repeat that statement q 3 months.

    That alone will take care of 99.9% of all issues.

  3. VOR says:

    If I can’t talk my children out of going into medicine, I’ll give them some helpful tips on how to get in and leave it at that. Parents who feel they have to assemble “teams” to help their children get into medical school are delusional.

  4. Madea says:

    I wish this information had been published on this site last year around this time! My child was going through this arduous process and I sure could have used it (along with a forum on SDN for parents experiencing this process!). Good info, though.

  5. MS2 says:

    Wow, Ken, couldn’t have said it better myself. In undergrad I saw a bunch of my friends go through this with parents who were trying to push them into a career that they really didn’t want. Most parents would do better to abide by the motto that less is more. Carrying your child through this process because he isn’t motivated enough to do it by himself is setting him up for failure down the road when you aren’t there to pave the road for him.

  6. np says:

    Put together a good team? I don’t think that parents should be putting together anything for a pre-med child. If they want their child to succeed in medicine, they need to be able to take initiative and make the contacts themselves!

  7. JMS says:

    I have tried to remain supportive but not pushy to my child which is definitely a fine line! Once I couldn’t talk him out of med school I became 100% supportive and have told him that as long as this is his dream, I will be there to help him anytime he asks. The most important thing is that while a parent can encourage and even help in finding resources that can help, only the student can follow thru and make things happen.

  8. AndruBrown says:

    Great article!

    Cannot emphasize enough the importance of:

    ”In-depth involvement is preferred over a long list of superficial activities and will likely lead to stronger letters of reference.”

    Too many students volunteer in activities just for the sake of volunteering. They will inevitably come off as ”empty” experiences during the interview.

  9. T says:

    Coming from a current medical student, the best advice for parents is to STAY OUT OF THE WAY! Don’t keep trying to give advice and suggestions, let us students handle these things on our own. Don’t try to influence what college we should go to “because you know best” or try and choose our major for us. This is our time to do things for ourselves for once, and please do not interfere. We know how to handle things in our own lives.

  10. well written article. you cover all the important aspects that many parents may overlook.

    I think that “Help your child choose best major and courses for them” is the best advice. I see parents force biology and other sciences on student (and backfiring). With other majors, students are more able to balance out their courseload of difficult classes and become more involved in other areas.

  11. Parent says:

    As a parent and a high school teacher, I’m shocked that parents would have anything to do with their child’s major in college or “assembly a team” for them in college. Let the child figure these things out. I don’t want my doctor calling mommy when he/she is about to cut me open for surgery!

  12. Keith Sutyak says:

    What many of you seem to forget is “experience”. Our kids need the benefit of our experience in helping them plan their careers, and yes, even to get into medical school. The application process is largely a bureaucratic mash of gobbledygook. I’d much rather have a kid that uses his brain to resolve scientific inquiry, than be a drone capable of submitting umpteen forms in triplicate. Intitiative!? Initiative is demonstrated through the ungrad course load, constituency and GPA. Initiative is inherent in just the aspiration to become a doctor.

  13. sandy says:

    Parents must realize that medical schools want to market themselves on the US News and World Report.

    Therefore, they want a 3.9 GPA. They don’t care from where if there is a high MCAT score to go with it.

    It is all a marketing campaign to get good numbers published in MSAR.

    Therefore, it is better to go to a small no-name school, get high grades, study your heart out for the MCAT and get in.

  14. timothy b. smithers says:

    I found this entire article irritating. Parents should have LITTLE to NO ROLE as to whether their son or daughter has an interest in medical school (..other than maybe educating them on the rigors/sacrifices involved, if the parent “should happen” to be a doc). Removing all parental influence could only help them make the right choice. Cause really now, who’s got to put in all the hrs??..and place the patient first, regardless of how one feels getting a call at 4am?? Who has to tolerate all the beurocratic/political BS associated with most residency programs?!? My point–>>the sacrifice never ends…..not in today’s climate. So you best damn like what it is you do.

  15. David says:

    Now that I am through this “process” with my son who was ultimately successful in his aspiration to get into medical school, I think the answer lies in the “middle” path. Being a “helicopter” parent will not allow your child/adult to find their own life’s path. On the other hand “keeping your distance” and not using your parental life experience to help a floundering child/adult to get through a needlessly challenging and emotionally draining process is also not in their best interest. Part of the problem with the “process” is that you are not supposed to make any “mistakes”, but your child can learn from those “mistakes” which help build character and fortitude. Most patients want an intelligent, caring and compassionate individual for a personal physician. They do not want a robotic resume. Nonetheless, in an unfair medical school application system where many qualified individuals are routinely discarded, a concerned parent can be a child’s best advocate. By the way, I can tell you from personal experience that getting into medical school is only the beginning of an arduous process. Residency selection, board certification and job hunting all take their toll and parents have a supportive role to play in those processes as well.

    1. Roseanne says:

      Thank you, I have felt very alone as the mother of student who has just finished second applications for med school. There is such a fine line between “hovering” and helping. When you are the parent of a smart, driven child there is not a lot of sympathy out there from other parents. The process of Medical School application is a mystery to those of us that have never been through it. I know my son has made some mistakes and that he may well have to go through the process again next year but I plan to be much more informed and better able to help him.

  16. R.K. says:

    Seriously, more parents need to read this article. I majored in Biology (when my true passion was Psychology) because I was “advised” by my parents to do so and I seriously regret that decision. I mainly majored in Biology out of fear of being disowned by them but I wonder now if I would have been better off (and happier) distancing myself from them and just doing things that I like to do and not doing things just to please them. Parents out there, please don’t force something onto your children. They will either resent you or possibly do harm to themselves.

    1. Karisa says:

      I definitely agree. My son is still very young, but he has told me he wants to be a pediatrician since he was two. I am here hoping that I will be able to help and further encourage him now and always, but if he tells me in ten years (or at any time) that he wants to be something else, I will not force anything upon him. I am sorry you felt pressured by your parents. Just remember, it is never too late to do what you truly love…and if your parents have a problem with that, they are the ones that have to live with losing their child. But speaking as a parent, I know that our love is unconditional…and I have a feeling your parents agree.

  17. Karisa says:

    I am doing some incredibly early research for my child that has wanted to be a pediatrician for several years now. I know I will keep the information from this article in mind for future reference, as I believe you can never have too much knowledge…especially when hoping to help your son/daughter achieve something they really want. Thank you for the help. It is greatly appreciated!

  18. bfedwards says:

    Hmmm. Dr. Freedman seems to have forgotten that no one should undergo the rigors of medical training and undergo 7 to 10 years (11 + for specialty surgeons) of extreme delayed gratification without displaying an intrinsic desire to reach and master that goal. Mommy and Daddy have no business in determining their offspring’s outcome at this stage of the game. Either the applicant has the will and ability to navigate the maze or he/she does not. I have tried to teach far too many “entitled” medical residents and fellows who seem to care more about maintaining their curtailed ACGME hours than optimizing their education. Sure they test well; they just can’t optimize the patient care. They have no gestalt and likely never will. The result is the curriculum development of “shared responsibility” for the delivery of medical care. I hate to tell the medical schools’ curriculum directors, but a lawyer and up to 12 others will hold the physician personally responsible for the patient outcome. Schools of Medicine and parents do no favors to society by limiting the meritocracy of medical training.

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