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How to Stand Out When Applying to Medical School

Growing up, many bright kids get told over and over again that they should become a doctor. When it comes time for college, though, the infamous premed firewalk burns no shortage of feet.

If you’re in college and considering the premed track, you might be wondering what else is required to get into medical school. The good and bad news is: a lot.

The high-stakes field of medicine necessitates that medical schools screen applicants as carefully as possible. This way, they can be sure that the students they admit are both qualified and committed to the profession.

On the bright side, this means that you’ll have multiple opportunities to prove yourself a great future doctor and multiple opportunities to confirm that you really want to do this work.

In this post, I’ll draw on my 15+ years of advising medical school applicants to give you an overview of what it means to apply and what is required to be a strong applicant, whether you’re a high-achiever at an Ivy League school or a non-traditional applicant.

Who Can Apply to Medical School?

Anyone with an LSAT score and an undergraduate degree can apply to law school. That’s not the case with medical school. As you may know, “premed” is not a major (an English major can still be premed). Rather, it’s a “track” or list of courses you must complete in order to apply to med school.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which runs the main portal for applying to medical school, offers a helpful progress tracking worksheet for this, which you can cross-check with individual schools’ requirements.

In general, you’ll need the following courses:

  • Biology + Lab, Chemistry + Lab
  • Organic Chemistry + Lab
  • Physics + Lab
  • Biochemistry
  • English

It’s also recommended that you take courses in other medically relevant areas, such as psychology, sociology, public health, anthropology, and physiology.

To apply to medical school you absolutely need:

  • A transcript featuring all the necessary premed coursework
  • A valid MCAT score

To be a competitive applicant for medical school, you should have:

  • A GPA reflecting largely As or Bs (3.5+)
  • An MCAT score of at least 510
  • Significant extracurricular experience in the following areas:
    • Patient exposure: Any role in which you interact with patients in a medical setting.
    • Shadowing: Spending time following a doctor throughout the day to see what it’s really like to be a physician.
    • Research: Benchwork that shows you understand how to apply the scientific method to problems in medicine.
    • Community service: Regular, unpaid work in service to the community.
    • Leadership: A role in which you have a high level of responsibility for the outcome (doesn’t have to be directly related to medicine).
  • A strong personal statement that tells your story and explains why medicine is the right path for you.

You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Get Into Medical School

That’s a lot! But the good news is: you don’t have to be a superstar in every single area. Some applicants will have a stellar MCAT score and GPA, but studied so hard in college that their extracurricular profile is relatively weaker.

Others might have dedicated a great deal of time to serious community service work, and as a result, their grades are less impressive. A strong showing in a few areas can compensate for weaker parts of your application.

Most importantly, a strong applicant to medical school isn’t someone with gold stars across the board, but rather someone who can tell a story that communicates who they are and how their experiences will make them an excellent physician.

Want to learn more about medical school life? Check out our article on what medical school is like.

How Do I Ensure My Academic Profile Is Strong?

Committed premeds figure out good study habits early. They find balanced approaches to work, sleep, and exercise. They also invest in relationships with professors who will help them master tough concepts and write fantastic letters of recommendation on their behalf later on.

Realistically, you should have at least a 3.5 GPA (on a 4.0 scale) to be a competitive applicant for medical school. But above a 3.8 should be your goal. According to AAMC, over 70% of applicants with a 3.8 or more get in.

Here are some strategies you can use to help you work toward a high GPA:

Plan out your premed coursework early

Most schools have premed advisors who can help you decide which courses to take, and when.

For example, organic chemistry might be too much during the spring semester of sophomore year when you’re busy knocking out a required language course.

Instead, you could plan to take it over the summer, when it’s the only course that will require your focus.

Choose the right major for you

Some majors, like Biology, will automatically tick all the premed boxes. But don’t select a major based on what you think admissions committees want to see.

Be honest with yourself: how hard are the premed courses going to be for you? Will they require all of your focus or do you need to give yourself additional challenges? The ideal major is one that interests you and will give you the best shot at a high GPA.

Choose your electives wisely

Explore courses that let you try new things, complement your premed requirements, and help boost your GPA. If there’s a monstrously difficult Russian lit class you’re aching to take, consider enrolling in it pass/fail so you’re free to read Tolstoy with no pressure.

By taking courses in other fields, you’ll have more to say about yourself in essays and interviews, and you’ll be a better doctor for it.

Go to office hours

Premed courses are notoriously overcrowded. This makes things difficult when you’re applying to medical school and need letters of recommendation. Going to office hours can help you build relationships with your professors so they’ll write an enthusiastic letter of support.

Even if you’re doing well in the class, ask for advice on your summer plans or for suggestions on other courses to take. You might even consider joining your favorite professor’s research lab or working as a Teaching Assistant for one of their courses.

How Should I Approach Extracurricular Activities?

At the start of college, give yourself time to explore the various extracurricular opportunities available to you.

Maybe you want to try out for everything on campus, from the men’s a cappella group to the club water polo team. Or maybe you want to spend the first year adjusting to the demands of college-level courses.

By sophomore year, you should try to pick a few extracurriculars that really excite you, and go deep in them. Maybe you’re running a film club, playing intramural soccer, and doing lab research.

Or perhaps you teach science at a local junior high, serve on student government, and volunteer in the waiting room of a nearby E.R.

Select activities that you’re genuinely interested in, and invest significant time in them.

Then, about halfway through school, revisit the five categories of extracurriculars you’ll need for med school:

  • Patient exposure
  • Shadowing
  • Research
  • Community service
  • Leadership

What are you acing? What needs more work? Spend your summers, and possibly a gap year, addressing areas of weakness.

At this point, you’ll likely have learned enough about yourself to know what excites you most. If you loved teaching science at the junior high school and found yourself particularly impassioned about keeping teens from smoking, perhaps the next logical transition is to start research in an addiction lab focused on young people.

What MCAT Score Do I Need?

The MCAT is a really tough test, and you’ll want to take it seriously to score that absolute baseline of 510. Above a 515 is a great goal, and you’ll need above a 520 to be a contender for the most competitive schools, like Harvard, Stanford, or Johns Hopkins.

When you take the MCAT depends on when you think you’d like to enroll in medical school. If you’re sure you want to take a gap year (more on that later) or a few, then you might want to take the MCAT after you graduate college.

But if you’re looking to apply at the end of college or soon after, taking the MCAT your junior year — and using that last college summer to study — may be wise. Overall, it depends on your personal timeline.

You can retake the MCAT, but ideally you won’t have to do so more than a few times. (You can only take it three times a year, and seven in a lifetime.) If you’re not radically improving between attempts, it may be time to stop and focus on other parts of your application.

When Should I Apply to Medical School?

The big question facing many premeds committed to their path is whether or not they should take a gap year or head straight to medical school after graduating college. This affects the schedule of what courses you take, when to take them, and when to sit for the MCAT.

It’s increasingly common to take a gap year or a few. Choosing this route can help prevent the occurrence of burnout in med school. You can learn more about how to avoid burnout in the video below:

Taking a gap year also allows you to fill in any gaping holes in your resumé.

If you are seriously short on clinical experience and haven’t spent enough time around patients, you can take one or two years to gain the necessary experience. Or, perhaps you’re interested in research and want to strengthen that area of your application.

That gap year might also be a chance for you to earn and save some money, which could alleviate some of the immediate burden that comes from applying to med school — application fees and interview travel expenses chief among them.

But other premeds simply can’t wait to begin on their journeys to becoming doctors. If your grades, MCAT score, and extracurricular profile are strong, applying to medical school during your senior year of college is perfectly fine.

Looking for ways to earn some money during your med school gap year? Check out this list of the best online jobs.

Don’t Take Your Medical School Application Lightly

The flippancy with which we tell bright, young people to become doctors belies the reality of a long and difficult road.

The list of requirements can seem overwhelming. But in addition to demonstrating your readiness to admissions committees, fulfilling each of the requirements provides you with ample opportunities to decide whether applying to medical school is the right choice for you.

Need help putting together a competitive medical school application? Check out Dr. Shemmassian’s free book on getting into medical school.

Image Credits: stethoscope