By Dr. David Steinhardt
Now that my medical school application process has come to an end and I’ve made it into med school, I feel a personal responsibility to share some of the knowledge I’ve gained during the process of getting into medical school.
First, here are my stats; I applied to 25 medical schools, got six interviews, was accepted at four schools, and wait-listed at two.
I applied alongside lots of other people with differing backgrounds and successes. It is impossible to go through this process with friends and not talk about it pretty much constantly. From those conversations, I heard countless stories about other applicants, students, doctors, both triumphant and tragic.
Here are the main things I learned and now recommend to get into medical school, in order of importance:
- Have a Solid Overall GPA and Science GPA
There is no substitute for high grades. If you’re reading this during your senior year of college right before opening your AMCAS application and you haven’t done well in school, don’t give up hope!
Consider entering a post-bac program. Although medical schools care more today about your background, personality, and extracurriculars, their number-one concern remains: will this person be able to make it through medical school?
The primary way to answer that is by looking at a student’s science classes. If you’re not ready to commit to being a doctor at age 18, it might be in your best interest to get a liberal arts education, grow up, and do a post-bac after getting a year or two of work experience post-college.
I know tons of people who had mediocre grades in college but then rocked the post-bac classes due to newfound motivation and maturation. However, it’s better if you’ve gotten good grades all along. The other option is, starting at age 18, work hard, and do well in college. If you’re a genius, this isn’t that hard. If you’re not, get ready to sacrifice some fun. I’m biased because I had tons of fun in college and delayed the whole medicine thing – but that’s because I was in no position to decide what I wanted to do with my life when I was 18 or 19 years old. I’m rambling now, but suffice it to say, get good grades, the higher, the better.
- Get a Good MCAT Score (505 or greater)
At this point, you may be thinking that this is an obvious list. Well, in a way, it is, but I’m honest here.
The people who have the most trouble getting into school (besides people with bad grades, who pretty much don’t get into schools) are those who bomb the MCAT. Now don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say I like the MCAT. I don’t support the MCAT. Indeed, I hate the MCAT. But you need to post a decent score.
In my non-expert opinion, the 505-507 range is a passing grade on the MCAT. Anything lower will hurt you; anything higher will help you. Don’t stress too much about it: study a lot, take TONS of practice tests IN exact testing conditions (no breaks, same time as real test, sitting at a desk quietly, etc.), and then do as well as you can.
I also recommend taking the test as early as you can be ready for it. If you take it too close to the application timeframes and do poorly, you have to retake, and it delays your entire application.
The best thing to do, though, is to do well the first time. I did not take an MCAT class, and instead used Sn2’s famed study schedule, available on the StudySchedule website.
A class works for some, but a good study plan works for all. StudySchedule is a free service from the Health Professional Student Association. Check it out.
- Apply Early
AMCAS opens in May of each year, and the first day you can turn it in is June 1. You don’t HAVE to turn it in on June 1, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. I recommend anytime in June, preferably in the first half of the month. There are a few reasons, some of which everyone will tell you and some of which they won’t.
First, the obvious: it is a rolling admissions process, so the earlier you apply, the fewer spots have been taken, and the more spots schools have to fill. Applying early is not foolproof as the admissions’ offices readily note. They’ve been through this process before, so know how to spread out their acceptances throughout the year, but at the same time, who believes that they give March interviewees the same chance as the people who interview in October? No one. This brings me to my next and, in my opinion, a more critical point.
Apply early for your peace of mind. Peace of mind is the big one for me. In short, prioritize your application year and make it a happy one. The most optimistic person I know was accepted at UC Davis in October. Once he was accepted, he could relax and work the jobs he wanted, take the vacations he wanted, etc. The most unhappy people are still, in early March, unsure where they will get in.
If you’re in the latter boat, all is not lost, you still might get in, but your year has doubtlessly been more stressful. Save the stress for residency.
- Get Recommendations Early
Gather your recommendations early and get writers who can be personal, if possible. Most schools like a committee letter, so if your premedical department or post-bac does them, get it.
I also recommend a research recommendation and a letter from someone who’s seen you do clinical work. If you’ve had a legitimate job, get one from there too. Professors are great, but the committee letter takes care of that aspect for you, at least it’s supposed to. Since you want to apply in June, you should contact your recommenders by January of your application year. That way, they have plenty of time to write it, you can send them reminders each month, and everyone is happy in the end.
Most people will agree to write you a letter if they know you, but try to get people who genuinely know you and who you can level with. The best recommender is someone you can sit down with and say, “this is what I think should be in my letter, blah blah blah.” I’m not saying you should be able to write your own letters, but you want your recommenders to have a personal stake in getting you into school, and the only way that will happen is if you have a personal relationship with them.
If you don’t have a personal relationship with any of your recommenders, don’t freak out; go ahead and get someone (anyone) to write your letters. It’s just preferable if you have recommenders that know you beyond your name.
- Do something unique!
The best applicants are those that jump off the page.
Start something, get some unique experience, and make it legitimate. Don’t just do it because you want to get into medical school. Do it because it’s something you want to do, and this is your life to live. Getting into med school is not everything, but it turns out that if you do something unique and extraordinary (doesn’t have to be medically related), it catches people’s attention. And when you’re trying to get into a class of 100 out of 7,000 applicants, you have to stand out in some way.
The application has three spots for “most meaningful experiences.” Ideally, two of these are medical/research-oriented, and the third is something outside of medicine that you’ve done that application readers want to tell their friends about.
- Get Real Medical Experience
Get medical experience to prove you know what it’s like to be a doctor. The second half of this is the critical part. If you’ve had incredibly cool hands-on clinical experience or responsibilities, that’s a plus, but the important thing is that you’ve spent lots of time with physicians while they’re on the job. Schools want to make sure you know what medicine is all about and that you have realistic expectations.
Schools want to make sure you don’t just like the idea of being of a doctor, but that you like the reality of the job. This is important for your clarity too. Being a doctor is not Grey’s Anatomy or Chicago Med; this is actual life. Be sure you know what you’re getting into, and prove that on your application.
- Do Research
Do scientific research of some kind, any kind! It’s nice to have research on your application. If you’re applying for an MD/PhD program, move this advice to number one, but if not, you don’t necessarily need tons of research.
Of course, if research is what you’re into, your experience should reflect it. Also, it’s not necessary to do bench research if that’s not your cup of tea. There are tons of clinical research going on in every major hospital. So if you want to do stuff more directly patient-related, get involved with it.
- Have Experienced People Read your Application Essays
After all of the hard work you’ve put in at school, in your extracurriculars, getting your recommendations, etc. the essays on your application are critical too.
After all, how else will the admissions office people know what you’ve done if you don’t know how to write about it correctly? I recommend having a few doctors read your essays and give comments, and then someone who knows the current application process, like a premed advisor at your college, read it as well. This will provide you with a variety of opinions, and then you can take it from there.
One important thing to note is that everyone has their own opinions about what schools are looking for. This is, of course, because each school and admissions officer is different. So, in the end, you have to decide how you want your essays to read. Make sure that it’s your essay, and that you don’t take every person’s opinion on every little thing. More importantly, though, make sure you get multiple readers for those essays and make sure everything is grammatically perfect (unlike this blog post). 😉
- Do Practice Interviews
Get prepared and do some practice interviews. My practice interviews helped me a lot. Some people are natural interviewers and don’t need the practice. Decide which one you are and go with that.
Again, current doctors and premed advisors are the best people to do practice interviews with. It’s easy to explain to your friends who know nothing about the field why you want to be a doctor – it’s much harder to explain it to an actual doctor.
Before your interviews, make sure you can talk about ALL activities on your application and why medicine suits you. Beyond that, and this is a cliche, of course, but be yourself. The bottom line, if the person interviewing you likes you as a person by the end, you have a good chance of getting in.
Some schools do the MMI (multiple mini interviews), which are their own story altogether. To prepare for these, you need to understand the ethical dilemmas doctors face and know how to take a stance on them. I recommend Googling MMIs, and you’ll find tons of practice scenarios. Also, use the fantastic interview feedback resource for actual questions from each medical school. (Be sure to post the questions you got too!)
Discuss them with your girlfriend, boyfriend, parents, and you’ll be fine. The most important part of the interviews is to be relaxed and appear to be an average, friendly person. Your numbers speak for themselves; now you have to show you are fit for a career where you will work with patients every day.
- Apply Broadly
Apply to many medical schools, expect lots of rejections, and make your own final decisions on where you apply and where you go. Consider using the LizzyM score to find the schools that are in your application range. I think applying broadly is essential. Getting into medical school is an absolute meat-grinder. Most schools have a 1-2% acceptance rate.
Apply to lots of schools. If there’s a particular school you’re on the fence on, apply to it. I will likely be going to the school I added last to my list, not because I didn’t like it, but because I didn’t think I could get in because I was out of state.
Apply to as many schools that interest you, but don’t apply to schools you don’t want to attend. If you wouldn’t go there, don’t apply. I applied to 25 schools. That’s a little on the high end, but I’d do it again. You have you assume, even if you are an absolute genius that you’ll be getting rejected from 75% of the schools you apply to, most of them pre-interviews. That’s just the way the process is. Keep your head up and move on. You can only go to one school anyway.
The last piece of advice I have is to make your own decisions. My advice applies to every aspect of the process: from the classes you take to the strategy you use to study for the MCAT, your recommenders, your essays, etc.
There’s a lot written about getting into medical school — some by experts and some by non-experts. The simple fact is, there is no one way to get in, and there’s no one strategy. In the end, you have to be you, take the classes you want, write the essays you are proud of, and hope for the best.
If you get into medical school, that’s great! If you don’t, remember, some people have far more significant problems. Getting into medical school isn’t a race; it’s a journey. If you need to improve in any of the ten steps above, it’s time to start that journey now!
Written by Dr. David Steinhardt
Verified and updated by Dr. Lee Burnett – October 4, 2020