By Dr. Lisabetta Divita
While the profession has changed over the past few decades, being a physician is a challenging and esteemed calling. As such, medical school admissions are quite competitive. Medical school applicants are required to complete the AAMC or AACOMAS applications, take the MCAT and fly out for interviews. Even with all of these requirements, sadly, many excellent candidates are rejected each year. This can be a blow to your ego but if you are determined to reach your dreams, your premedical preparation cannot begin too early—some important decisions are made in high school.
Premedical Preparation – Inside the Classroom
Your first major decision will be to choose a college that can provide you with a strong background in the premedical sciences. While some students may begin their college education at a community college, medical schools will be looking for a bachelor’s degree from a university. If you are going to start at a community college, make sure that your credits will transfer to a four-year college. Remember that you will be competing with other students for a few coveted medical school seats. The education at a community college may be excellent, but the people reviewing your application will want to know that those grades came from a college with a reasonably stringent acceptance policy.
Perhaps surprisingly, your undergraduate major does not need to be in the biological sciences. Sure, many pre-meds will be biology majors, but they will be sitting next to history majors, economics and philosophy majors on the first day of medical school. In fact, medical school admissions officers like to see candidates with diverse backgrounds. Major in something that you truly enjoy because those are the classes that you can ace.
While the college major is not important, there are a number of courses that are required of everyone applying to medical school. At a minimum, applicants will be required to take two semesters or three quarters each of biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry and one semester or two quarters of physics. Each of these semesters or quarters must be combined with a laboratory associated with the class. Students are also required to complete a calculus course. Special emphasis is placed on these eight courses and seven labs. In fact, on the medical school application there is a separate space for the grades from these courses apart from the rest of the college grades.
A particular college major may not matter, but these pre-med courses are the equalizer. Most successful applicants will get (or nearly get) straight A’s on these courses. The overall grade point average for those applying to medical school is pretty high. Most admissions officers are looking for GPAs above 3.75. Can you get into med school with a lower GPA? Of course you can. However, the better you do in your classes and in the pre-med classes, the better your chances of being accepted.
The other equalizing factor is the Medical College Admissions Test or MCAT. Unfortunately, this score may be used to “thin the herd” so you will need to achieve the highest score you can. The MCAT has three main sections: Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences. The Physical Sciences section contains questions covering college general chemistry and physics courses. Likewise, the Biological Sciences section contains questions from biology and organic chemistry. Verbal Reasoning follows a format similar but not identical to the Verbal sections on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). There is also a Writing Sample section on the MCAT, but this score is not as important as the other three sections since it does not factor into your overall numerical MCAT score. Each of the three sections is scored from 1 to 15, making the maximum MCAT score a 45. While there is no magic cutoff number applied by all medical school admissions departments, a good rule of thumb is a score of at least 30.
Grades in classes and exams are important because they are an easy numerical way to sort through hundreds of applications from qualified candidates. Getting into medical school is not only a matter of grades and scores, but these scores can get your foot in the door so that that the rest of your medical school application is considered.
Premedical Preparation – Outside of the Classroom
Grades and standardized exams are only one part of the medical school application. You are essentially putting your entire academic life into a single application package—a package that will be heavily scrutinized. While good grades and scores will require a huge amount of time and energy to achieve, they really only get you in the door. It is the rest of your medical school application will set you apart from the competition. Once you are in the door, an important part of your medical school application package is what you did outside of the classroom.
There are two big mistakes that premedical students seem to make when it comes to extracurricular activities: either they load up on a number of relatively meaningless extracurricular activities just so that they can list them on an application or they feel that extracurricular activities are a time-waster that could be better spent studying. Both of these mistakes can be enough to get you rejected from medical school. The far better option is to pick one or two extracurricular activities that you believe in and work to make a real difference in that organization.
The concept of extracurricular activities can be foreign to study-frenzied pre-med students, but the reason that medical school admissions officers look at meaningful participation in extracurricular activities is because it gives them a good idea of the nature and dedication of the applicant just by seeing it on paper. From the applicant’s perspective, it is always good to work outside of yourself—depending on the extracurricular activity that you choose, you may get personal rewards that go beyond a line on an application.
Choose a cause you can really get behind. Just like the choice of a major, it is the strength of your conviction and dedication that will carry you rather than the name or type of organization. It will not seem like a time-waster if you are making a difference. Find an extracurricular organization and run for office. This level of responsibility will help ensure that you are giving your all and will also look better on an application than a simple membership. When you do list your extracurricular activity, make sure to highlight your accomplishments during that time.
You should be volunteering in some capacity from the time you enter college, if not earlier. A good rule of thumb is to volunteer at least three hours a week for each year you are in college. The people that review your application will look for your volunteer work and expect to see it. If it is not there, it could count against you in the admissions process.
Unless you go to college in an extremely rural area, your local hospital will have a well-organized volunteer services office. You simply go to this office and look over a list of volunteering options and pick one that interests you. These options are usually for a few hours a week and include anything from greeting friends and family in the emergency department to helping anesthesiology technicians in the surgical center. Finding volunteer opportunities in this way is easy and the jobs really do help patients and healthcare workers.
For more motivated students, you can try to find less well-established volunteer opportunities. Perhaps a position at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter is right for you. There are countless ways that a person can help. Just like with extracurricular activities, choose a volunteer activity that you truly believe in so that volunteering is a pleasure and not simply an obligation.
Most medical schools are looking for some sort of research experience on your application. Your premedical laboratory coursework does not count. Admissions officers are looking for time that you spent in a real lab. The biological sciences departments of most colleges will have faculty doing basic research. If your college is affiliated with a teaching hospital, there may be some faculty participating in clinical research as well. Colleges and universities are proud of their researchers. They will have literature and Web pages that describe each researcher’s work. Start by reading about the work that is being done on your campus.
There are some rules that apply to essentially all research faculty: 1) They are passionate about their research, 2) They love telling people about their work, 3) Their research is less well-funded than they would like it to be, 4) They would welcome a pair of hands to help them conduct research. Taken together, this means that any motivated premedical student should have no trouble finding an unpaid position in a laboratory on campus. Approach one or two faculty about the possibility of working in the lab and tell them you are interested in learning techniques and performing research. Also let them know you would ideally like to work on your own project. Mention, too, that you will work for free. If you do well, there may be some grant money around to provide you with a small stipend later. Part of your payment may even be co-authorship on a scientific journal article!
By understanding the preparation required for applying to medical school, you will be better positioned to be successful in the application process. This was just a brief summary outlining the preparation required to obtain successful admission to medical school. I wish you luck on your health professional school application and good luck if you are on to your to health professional school!
About the Author
Dr. Lisabetta Divita is a physician, medical writer/editor and premedical student mentor.