Six Essential Lessons for Getting Into Medical School (Part 1)

By: Rob Humbracht

"Nobody gets into medical school these days."  I hear this statement a lot, and I understand where it comes from.  When you see scores of well qualified candidates - brilliant classmates, selfless neighbors, hardworking siblings - apply and get rejected, it's easy to think, "there's no way I can get in."

You can.  The acceptance rate to a US medical school (MD) in 2015 was 41%

There's two ways to read that number.  On the one hand, two out of every five applicants is successful, so clearly SOMEONE is getting into medical school.  On the other hand, medical school is by far the most competitive of US professional schools.  If you apply to college, law school, or business school, you're going to get in somewhere; it's just a question of where.  Not so with US med schools.  You may not get in anywhere.

I've helped a lot of students get into medical school, and below are my six most essential lessons to pass along to you, dear reader, to help you improve your chances of getting in.

1. Get A's.

Getting into medical school requires good grades.  How good?  For the past decade, the average GPA for both applicants and matriculants has been slowly rising.  For the 2015-16 cycle, the averages were:

 

For applicants:

Total GPA 3.55

Science GPA 3.45

Non-Science GPA 3.68

 

For matriculants:

Total GPA 3.70

Science GPA 3.64

Non-Science GPA 3.77

 

Source: https://www.aamc.org/download/321494/data/factstablea16.pdf

 

Your goal is to get a 3.7 or better.  

You want to be right in the middle of the average GPA for matriculants (people who have a 100% success rate of getting in), not just for applicants (who, remember, have a 41% success rate).  

A 3.7 means getting A's in 70% of your classes (with nothing lower than a B in the rest).  This is not to say that you can't get in with lower than a 3.7 (indeed, half of all applicants have below a 3.7); it's just that with each grade point lower, your job of getting in gets harder.

 

How do we help ourselves get the highest possible grades?

a. Major in whatever you want (not something that is too hard for you).  See which major is most likely to get into medical school

b. Only major in one subject.  Double majors don't impress medical schools much, and you will want as much flexibility with your courses as possible so that you can get good grades.

c.  Take a hard class or two at a community college over the summer.  As long as you don't take every hard class at a community college, medical schools will be fine with this strategy.  Doing so should help you knock out the subject that would otherwise be your Achilles Heel while you are not inundated with other school work.

d.  Don't take more than the recommended number of credits each semester at your college.  You don't get bonus points for doing so, and it puts your GPA at risk.

e.  Don't race through undergraduate just to impress medical schools (they won't be that impressed, and you will probably damage your GPA in the process).

2. For the MCAT, prep better than your peers.

If you're like me, you were born to take tests.  My wife tutors SAT and ACT, and we still enjoy taking standardized tests, just to see who will get the higher score.

I assume that most of you are not as weird as I am, so you probably won't enjoy the process of preparing for the MCAT.  That's okay.  You can't control your natural aptitude for standardized testing; all you can control is how thoroughly you prepare.

The MCAT is a scaled exam, which means that your performance is measured against everyone else taking the test that day.  I don't want you to turn into a competitive jerk, refusing to study with others who are also taking the MCAT with you.  Instead, I want you to use the competitive nature of the MCAT as fuel for your fire.  

 

Your singular goal on the MCAT is to prepare better than your peers.  What does the ideal prep plan look like?

a. Plan to take the MCAT just once.  Unlike the SAT or ACT, med schools see every score you get on the MCAT, so you want to make each test date count.  Plus, each time you take the MCAT you lose a piece of your soul, so you should preserve as much of your soul as you can.

b. Prepare when you don't have school, ideally over the summer.  Your brain only has so much capacity for studying, so trying to study for the MCAT while you're in school depletes needed brain power.  Avoid doing so if possible.

c. Plan to prepare for six months, putting in at least 300 hours of studying, test-taking, and review.  This will be the hardest test you've ever taken, and I would much rather you over-prepare than under-prepare.

d. Take a prep class if you can afford it.  You're trying to prepare more efficiently than your peers, and a prep class provides several advantages that are hard to replicate:

  • - it helps you understand the material better and more quickly
  • - it gives you all the materials you need
  • - it gives you access to talented teachers who can make you a better test-taker
  • - it gives you a study plan
  • - it gives you accountability, to make sure that you stick to your plan

Don't underestimate that last one.  The single biggest place that most test-takers fall down is that they think they can stay motivated on their own.  It's like going to the gym.  Sure, you can go on your own, but you're more likely to stay disciplined if you've got a workout buddy.

If you can't afford a prep course, you can find all of the above benefits in other places, but it's going to take you more time and resourcefulness, so plan to devote even more hours to your preparation.

3.  Do one activity that has nothing to do with medicine.

There's so much to do as a pre-med, and it's easy to start making everything you do relate to getting into medical school.  That's a mistake.  For one, if everything you do relates to medicine, what are you going to talk about with patients?  Further, put yourself in the shoes of a medical school interviewer.  You've got 15 people to interview that day.  Are you really excited to talk about one more generic research project?  A mundane volunteering experience? 

I once worked with a student who was a certified scuba diver.  She included that fact on her application and spent the majority of her interviews at two different schools talking about scuba diving.  Needless to say, she got into both schools.

Think this is an isolated case?  Look at what med schools brag about in their class profiles.  Ohio State medical school (a solid mid-tier med school) publishes a class profile in which they brag about the "Unique Characteristics" of their incoming class.  

Here's their list of "Unique Characteristics":

  • Carpenter’s apprentice
  • Chiropractor’s assistant
  • Classical pianist
  • Construction assistant
  • Dagorhir Medieval combat re-enactor
  • Disc jockey
  • Diversity ambassador
  • Eagle Scout
  • Girl Scout Gold Award winner
  • Glassblowing teaching assistant
  • High fashion model
  • Knight of Columbus
  • Lead singer and guitarist
  • Life guard
  • Maccabiah games athlete
  • Murder mystery play actress
  • Opera singer
  • Perioperative technician
  • Personal banker
  • Prison basketball program participant
  • Skate guard
  • Starbucks barista
  • Theater house manager

What aren't they bragging about?  I don't see any pre-med clubs on this list.  I don't see much research or volunteering or other "typical" pre-med activities either.  It's not that these activities aren't valuable - they are (see part 2) - it's that the typical activities won't help you stand out and get into med school.


Whew.  I’m out of breath for part one.  Check back next week for part two!