How to be a competitive medical school applicant

I wanted to write this post because I get a lot of questions from premeds about this topic. Here I reflect on the most valuable things I did as a premed to help me prepare for medical school. *Of note, I didn’t go into advice/tips on the application process itself.*

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  1. Focus on building your application holistically.

The word holistic is thrown around a lot, but it’s important to understand its meaning. No two medical students have the same application so there’s no 100% guaranteed formula to success. Every applicant has strengths and weaknesses (I promise!) so don’t let your weaknesses paralyze you. If you feel like your grades or test scores aren’t good enough, focus on building other strengths like extracurriculars or strong letters of recommendation.

  1. Find a good mentor.

This is the key to success. Not only will they write you a strong letter of recommendation, but they will also provide invaluable advice and be your strongest advocate. This can be a professor you connected with in class, a research mentor, or even a faculty adviser to a club you’ve been involved with. Mentors who can also evaluate your academic performance carry the most weight. For instance, I took classes with two of my research mentors. And I’ve continued to stay in touch and seek their advice throughout med school.

  1. Find strong academic letters of recommendation from professors who know you.

This is supplementary to #2. You’ll need strong letters from your academic professors and it’s important you identify individuals who will write you both a strong and personal letter. Keep in mind that being at the top of your class ≠ strong letter. For me, it made more sense to ask my professors who taught my small elective classes since they actually knew me, rather than asking the professor of my introductory organic chemistry class of 200 students. Even though I did well in the class, I doubted the professor even knew my name.

Example 1: X is a smart and diligent student. Out of a class of 200, she consistently scored in the top percentile on all exams.

This may seem like a great letter, but honestly, what new information would this give the admissions officer that they wouldn’t have already gotten from the grade transcript? It’s positive, but it’s also generic and does not help you stand out. The professor could’ve easily copy/pasted this letter for other students in the class.

Example 2: In my class, X showed tremendous growth and aptitude for overcoming challenges. She showed immense interest in the class material and was heavily involved in classroom discussions. She also actively worked towards improving her performance by attending office hours and going over exam materials with me.

This is a strong letter that reveals character traits of an applicant. This shows they were hardworking and passionate about the material. In a smaller class of 20 students, it’s much easier to stay involved, attend office hours, and stand out.

  1. Do well in your classes.

GPA is important, especially for your science classes. But it’s not the end of the world if you’re not doing great. If you’re not doing well in a class, don’t be discouraged! Use it as a learning opportunity by going to office hours and meeting with your professor to identify areas you can improve on. Not only can you get a strong letter (see #3), but you will also help turn your grade around. One of my strongest letters was from a professor whose exam I scored well below the class average on!

  1. If you really didn’t do well academically and/or didn’t take the necessary classes, you may want to consider a post-baccalaureate program.

Many programs have a GPA cut-off that’s fairly low. If you have one bad grade here and there, you can always focus on improving other aspects (see #10). However, if your GPA is < 3.20, or you’ve never taken a biology class in your life, you may find it beneficial to take a post-bac year. Most, if not all med schools require at least 1 year of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. Post-bac programs are expensive so make sure you do your research before choosing one. Find out their acceptance rates to med schools and how well their students do after. And if you do enroll in a post-bac program, TAKE IT SERIOUSLY. It’s critical that you excel in your classes.

  1. Do well on the MCAT.

This is kind of self-explanatory. I won’t go into study methods and test prep materials here. But like with GPA, most schools also have an MCAT cut-off. Average scores for accepted applicants are around 500 (new MCAT) or 28 (old MCAT). If you score well below, you may want to consider retaking the exam.

  1. Have some type of clinical experience.

Many students don’t realize this but, even if you’re a rockstar student with multiple academic publications, if you’ve never stepped foot into a hospital before, admissions officers will wonder why you want to go into medicine in the first place. Clinical experiences can range from volunteering in medical clinics in Uganda, shadowing doctors, or even assisting in nursing homes in your community. I worked as a child life assistant in a pediatric hospital to help children cope with their stay. You need to show that you’ve explored medicine so that you know what you’re getting yourself into.

  1. Show commitment to community service.

Almost all med students have some type of volunteer experience. You want longitudinal experience, not a smattering of short-lived community service experiences. Pick one type of volunteer work and stick with it. Volunteering in hospitals is only one of many ways you can show commitment. Tutoring underprivileged students, getting involved in local charities, and helping with local shelters are just some of the ways you can show commitment to service.

  1. Don’t neglect your extracurriculars.

Med schools like extracurriculars because it shows that you have the dedication and passion to pursue something you love, AND have the ability to balance your time effectively. The type of extracurricular activity doesn’t matter as much. If you hate research, don’t work in a lab! If you’re a D1 athlete, don’t give it up. Med schools will see how challenging it is to train for a D1 sport and study for your classes simultaneously. It’ll be a strong signal to them that you’ll be able to manage your time just as effectively in med school. Working a part-time job or being an accomplished flutist in the school orchestra all show that you are able to juggle your time wisely.

  1. Embrace what makes you unique.

Med schools are trying to fill a diverse class. That means, they’re not looking for 100 biology majors with lab research experience. Obviously, if you are a biology major with lab research experience (like me), that’s okay too! But in my class, there are athletes, musicians, and even former bankers and lawyers.

  1. See if a gap year is right for you.

I see more and more students take time off to work, travel, volunteer, or even learn a new hobby before starting school. It’s not necessary for everyone, but it can be a good option for many students.

  • First, it makes your premed experience that much less stressful. If you want to go straight through, you have to get your application in by junior spring, so you can start interviewing the fall of your senior year. This means, you have to finish all of your required classes and take the MCAT by the end of junior year. If you feel like this is impossible, then a gap year might be a good idea.
  • Second, you can strengthen your application. If your grades aren’t good enough, don’t have enough clinical experience, or need more time to study for the MCAT, a post-bac year can help a lot.
  • Third, you can explore other interests before school starts. Starting med school is kind of like getting on a high-speed train with no stop in sight (I’m being dramatic). It’s much harder to take time off during school (to travel, work, etc) than it is before starting school. If you’ve always wanted to backpack through Europe, now is the time to do it! That being said, people do take time off during school to pursue other interests like global health, research, or even learning a new language in a foreign country. For example, yours truly is in her gap year doing research.

Whatever the reason, make sure you use your gap year to its fullest potential.

A few last words…

Going straight through
I ultimately went straight through and definitely had the most stressful junior year trying to fit everything in. I decided against a gap year because I didn’t see how it could strengthen my application. I wasn’t going to enroll in a post-bac program, and I didn’t want to work in a research lab for a year. The only reason I would’ve wanted to take time off was to maybe work in something like healthcare consulting or travel.

The benefit of going straight through was that my senior year was amazing. I got to study abroad in Paris after interview season ended and thoroughly enjoyed my time off. By the time summer ended, I was refreshed and eager to jump into med school.

Dealing with disappointment
Sometimes despite your best efforts, you don’t get the outcome you hoped for. It’s important to take some time off, re-center yourself, and engage in some self-reflection. If you’re sure medicine is for you, don’t give up (read Shirley’s inspiring story about getting into UCSF as a reapplicant here). Try to figure out ways you can improve your application and focus on the positive elements.

Hope this was helpful! Good luck on your medical journey. Please reach out to me if you have any questions about the med school process. I love hearing from you!

7 Thoughts

  1. Hi, Jenny. This post was very insightful. I’m currently a freshman in college interested in becoming a physician assistant, which requires direct patient care. I was wondering how one goes about becoming a child care assistant; it seems like a challenging yet rewarding job, and I would love to work with kids. Thanks in advance. 🙂

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    1. Hi! For me, there was a vacancy posted at our university. To be a child life assistant, you don’t need any specific credentials, being a college student is enough. Having experience working with children can be helpful. To be a child life specialist, you generally need a masters in child life or human development. You can always try reaching out to the child life department at your hospital to see if they are looking for students. Hope this helps!

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      1. Thanks for the clarification! Everything I could find with regard to the job stated that a degree was needed, but I’m glad to hear that isn’t the case. I will definitely contact my local hospital! And yes, this was very helpful! 🙂

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  2. Jenny,

    Thanks for the awesome blog post! I found the information valuable and this will definitely help me with my application! As for now, I am focusing on doing well on the MCAT!!

    I started recently started a blog documenting my journey and hopefully encouraging others with their path to med school!

    xoxo,
    Nhung

    https://sequinsandstethoscopes.wordpress.com/

    Like

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