By Joel Butterly
At this point, you are probably already aware of how competitive medical school admissions are. For instance, you may already know that the most competitive med schools boast acceptance rates of nearly 3%—that’s almost half the acceptance rate of Harvard College. Pretty dire, right?
The truth, however, is that while medical school admissions are and will continue to be incredibly competitive, there are a number of steps you can take throughout college to distinguish yourself from the enormous pool of hyper-qualified candidates. Along with doing the typical extracurricular activities for med school like lab research, teaching experience, etc. the best candidates think outside of the box to make their extracurriculars stand out.
But this doesn’t mean you need to spend every waking hour trying to stand out. Instead, you want to spend your time wisely and deliberately—you can break it down to just a few hours every week. In this article, we’ll explore five ways to boost your candidacy for medical school.
1. Narrow down your activities to 2-3 key areas.
Think about pursuing a smaller number of extracurricular activities where you can focus, dive deeper, develop certain interpersonal skills, and explore a true passion.
Try to identify your specific passions and then spend your time expanding this passion into your various activities. Admissions officers are more likely to take a candidate who has matured and demonstrated clear passion for a certain activity, compared to a candidate who has jumped from activity to activity every few months.
Sustained involvement is key. And if you’ve been involved in a few activities or opportunities throughout the length of college, you’ll naturally have more experiences, patient interactions, and meaningful relationships to speak towards on an application.
2. Start something of your own.
We all know that leadership is a necessary trait to emphasize on an application. Nothing helps you stand out more than starting something original of your own.
For example, we had a student who started a water purification non-profit in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He partnered with the global health organization at Dartmouth and got private organizations to donate the water purification systems. He ended up getting into Harvard Medical School despite having a lower-than average GPA and MCAT. This student went above and beyond what a typical college student would have done in response to something like a natural disaster, and his organization still continues to impact people worldwide.
That level of leadership is objectively easy to understand. And while this doesn’t mean you need to start a non-profit to get into medical school, it does demonstrate the fact that starting something of your own shows clear passion, dedication to a cause, and leadership—whereas participating as a member of an existing organization does not necessarily hit the same mark.
Start a student group at your school, start a business, start a research project, start a fundraising initiative for your local hospital, start a volunteer branch of your club—just make an effort to start something.
3. Start networking early.
Strong, personal letters of recommendation can greatly improve your chances. Starting from freshman or sophomore year, you should consider reaching out to professors at medical schools you hope to apply to in order to see whether you could contribute something to their research. Don’t be afraid of rejection—that will happen most of the time, but it only takes one “yes” from a professor at a dream medical school to make a big difference.
Once you have narrowed down your experiences and focused on your main few, make an effort to establish strong relationships with your supervisors. While prestige or connections can matter to some extent, the quality of your letters of recommendation will carry the most weight. Your letters are the only time that these admissions committee members get to hear an objective third party’s view of you.
Because of this, your letters can make or break your application. Strong relationships are important not just for your letters (which should ideally include superlative and comparative praise as well as concrete examples of your qualities in action) but also for your network and connections as you move forward into the medical field.
Start thinking about letters of recommendation early in college, because relationships take time to build!
4. Make sure your clinical experience involves more than just the typical shadowing experiences.
Although shadowing may be an “overdone” extracurricular, it is still an important experience. To make your shadowing experience stand out, focus on finding a doctor in your field of interest, and work to build a meaningful relationship with this person.
Otherwise, try to boost your candidacy by doing things like getting certified and working as an EMT. If you’re 18 or older, you can do it relatively easily. Or volunteer at a local health clinic. The goal with clinical experience should be developing meaningful patient-relationships and gaining exposure to the breadth and depth of the clinical world.
To gain more hands-on experience, look into opportunities to work in clinical settings internationally where you can contribute more to the process than just by watching. When trying to go abroad though, make sure that you are going through a viable company for a longer than two weeks—two weeks is only enough time to make observations, not a true impact; shoot for at least a month-long experience. Here are some common groups that hold programs abroad:
- Child Family Health International
- Gap Medics
- Global Brigades (Student Group)
- MEDLIFE (Student Group)
- Peace Corps
- UC Education Abroad Program (If you’re in at a UC school)
5. Get interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary
Medical schools see a lot of candidates who have all done—and are interested in—the same things. Being interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary can be an incredible benefit when trying to stand out.
We’ve worked with students who studied environmentalism and its relationship to public health, who had extensive experience advocating local government for LGBTQ health rights, who worked in biotech consulting and applied to MD/MBA’s, who were concert pianists that researched music therapy’s impact on the brain, who were French Literature majors, and many more with specialized or nontraditional backgrounds.
Taking an angle—whether it’s specializing within a field of medicine or bringing in another discipline to your work or studies—will inherently help you stand out in the process.
About the Author
Joel Butterly is the Co-Founder and CEO of InGenius Prep, an admissions consulting company that helps students with their applications to medical school.