By Christine Fader
Premed (and even high school) life can be full of rumors about medical school admissions. Some myths are overly optimistic and misleading, while others are discouraging and blatantly untrue. I hope I can help you by busting some of the most common myths I hear from students about the process of applying to medical school in Canada.
Myth #1: Canada needs doctors so there are lots of medical school spots
This myth falls under the category of overly optimistic. The issue of “not enough doctors” is a complicated one and doesn’t translate directly to lots of medical school spots. This can be especially frustrating for you as an applicant, because most people don’t understand this complex equation.
The reality is that there are only 17 medical schools in Canada. This is partly because of our population, the staffing required to supervise and train upcoming medical students, and the resources and space in hospitals needed to ensure medical students get a good education. Our relatively small number of schools compares to hundreds in the US and over 50 in the Caribbean. Medical school class sizes in Canada are usually less than 100 students, with a couple of exceptions (e.g. University of Toronto).
The good news is that you can apply to and go through medical school in either English or French. Of course, your fluency in each of these languages will affect where you can apply.
Out of 17 programs, if you want to study in English, you have 14 programs you may be eligible for. If you prefer to study in French, you have five programs available. Ontario has by far the most programs (six) and a centralized application process. Each province you apply to may have residency requirements. For example, to apply to the two Alberta programs, you may need to be an Alberta resident (as they define it) or be limited to the few spots allocated to out-of-province applicants.
If you are a Canadian currently living in the United States, be sure to check the residency requirements posed by medical schools, so you can be sure you qualify, if you decide to apply.
So, a decent number of places to apply, but there are thousands of applicants to these 17 programs every year. This means that the minimum posted requirements are often not enough to be a competitive applicant. This is part of the reason that Myth #2 comes into play.
Myth #2: I’m smart so I’ll be successful when I apply
In my experience, most of you thinking about medical school in Canada don’t anticipate how difficult it will be to get accepted. Statistics show that less than 15% of applicants are accepted the first time they apply.
But you likely still don’t believe you’ll be one of the unsuccessful 85%. That’s because amazing students like you are used to setting high goals and achieving them. That said, most of the incredibly hard-working, good students I have worked with over my 20 years of advising have applied twice or even three times.
I don’t tell you this to discourage you, but rather to help you understand that this “failure” to get in is actually not a failure. It is the NORM. I have worked with many students who had a very difficult time recovering from a medical school rejection, when–if they had understood from the outset that rejection is a very normal part of the process–they might have fared better. Often this is the very first time they have ever “failed” at achieving a goal they set for themselves, and it is understandably a tough blow. I believe that telling yourself (and those who support you) from the start that more than one round of medical school applications is the standard will help you.
Yes, you ARE smart. The overwhelming majority of applicants are also smart, motivated, hard-working and have many achievements. I believe that it takes more than that to be successful in this situation: it takes perseverance, and I know you can find that in yourself.
Remember: Not getting in is the NORM, not a failure.
Myth #3 – I have to major in science
It is natural that if you are thinking about medical school, you might enjoy science. In fact, as a potential future patient, I hope you do. However, you do NOT have to major in science in university to apply to medical school.
Most applicants come from university Life Sciences or Health Sciences programs, Chemistry, Biology, Psychology, and so on—perhaps because many applicants to medical school have skills and interests in health-related topics. However, there are also successful applicants from Fine Arts, Engineering, Geography, English, Film Studies, and other programs that don’t “look” like medicine.
Your degree doesn’t need to be science, but check any prerequisite requirements from medical schools to see what courses you might need to build in to your program, if you want to apply to the greatest number of programs. Usually, there are only a few, if any, prerequisites required (some science, some not) and you can build them into ANY undergraduate degree. I’ve also worked with masters and PhD students who went back and took undergraduate prerequisites in order to apply to medical school during or after their graduate programs. An English PhD grad who is now a family doctor, comes to mind.
Also, think about what university courses might help you do well on application pieces such as the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), as well as once you arrive in medical school. However, there are many ways to get this knowledge besides taking undergraduate science courses, so adapt a strategy that works for you.
You DO want to aim for programs that allow you to do your best academically, since cumulative grades are a major factor in getting through the medical school qualifying process. Think about what programs those might be for you and what “back-up” or “while-you’re-waiting-to-get-accepted” careers you might also want to consider.
Myth #4 – I have to volunteer in Africa to get in
Part of every medical school application is the “supplementary materials”. This can include an autobiographical sketch (list of activities from age 16) or curriculum vitae/resume, short answer or essay questions, and references/verifiers.
Medical schools say that they seek applicants with certain personal attributes and they look for evidence of these in areas such as extra-curricular activities, volunteer work and employment, research activities, awards, and more.
There are lots of myths I hear from my students about what activities are “best” to put on a medical school application. My experience reading applicant files and interviewing candidates as part of a medical-school panel was that there were no hard-and-fast rules about what was “best”. I saw successful candidates who had worked on the family farm or in the family convenience store, who balanced work and school with many hours contributing in their communities, who dabbled in research as a volunteer or summer student. I interviewed candidates who had experience working with seniors, infants, people with disabilities, cultural populations, fashion shows, social issues groups, athletics, or marginalized people.
Balancing good academic performance and contributing to your community seems to be key; how can you demonstrate this? What issues/activities have meaning for you and inspire you to get involved? This is the path to success, in my view.
Yes, some candidates had experience volunteering outside Canada in a medical clinic (Africa seemed to be popular!) but that was NOT the experience of the majority of candidates. Many students can’t afford these types of experiences, and it is definitely not a requirement to get accepted into medical school. Do the things that you need to do to survive (e.g. work in the family store) and think about all your activities through this lens: how did this allow me to grow and contribute?
Myth #5 – I have to take an MCAT course to be successful
Most medical schools in Canada require part or all of the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in their admissions criteria. The test comprises a number of categories including Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills; Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; and Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior.
There are many companies offering MCAT courses and one may be a good option for you. However, the financial burden of these programs can be great. I want you to know that there are many students who achieve competitive scores without paying to take a course. They do this by using MCAT books they have borrowed from the library or purchased and through self-study of the topics on the exam. Many students also report “writing a mock exam” in their room or elsewhere, using the time required, in advance of the actual MCAT date.
Before you decide to pay for a course, think about your budget and what type of learner you are. This can factor heavily into what MCAT strategy will make sense for you. And be reassured that you can be successful whatever option you choose.
[Want a free, personalized MCAT study plan laid out for you featuring study materials you already have? Check out StudySchedule.org.]
For more advice and strategy about your medical school goals, check with your school’s guidance or career office. And best wishes in your medical school journey!
About the Author
Christine Fader was a medical-school application reader/interviewer for 8 years at a Canadian medical school, has been a career counselor and pre-med advisor for 20 years and is currently an instructor in the School of Medicine at Queen’s University to fourth-year medical students applying for residency. She is the author of the new book for Canada, “Just What the Doctor Ordered: The Insider’s Guide to Getting into Medical School in Canada” (Brush Education, Sep 2018). Find her at christinefader.com.