By: Ryan Kelly
Are you an optimist or pessimist? A glass-half-empty person, or glass-half-full? Patch Adams or Dr. House?
Each year, only 40% of applicants get in to US allopathic schools. My question for you is this:
Is 40% a lot? Optimists might say: that’s higher than the acceptance rates at any given medical school, which hover in the single digits. Plenty of people are getting into medical school.
Pessimists might counter that - unlike college applications where everyone gets in somewhere - not everyone gets into medical school. In fact, most people get rejected. The likely outcome for you is that you will get rejected too.
I made a helpful graph of who gets in and who doesn’t:
Why do some people get in and others don’t? MCAT and GPA explain a lot. At heart, medical school admissions is a numbers game, and if you don’t have the numbers, you won’t get in.
Admissions committees agree. According to a Kaplan survey of medical school admissions officers, a low MCAT was listed as the number one “application killer.” Roughly 32% of those rejected didn't have a high enough MCAT score (501 or below, making it really hard to get in). Roughly 18% didn't have a high enough GPA (below a 3.4, which also makes it tough).
But that leaves approximately 50% of the rejects with good enough grades and good enough MCAT. What happened to these candidates?
Let’s examine, then, the top five non-academic reasons people get rejected:
Reason #1 - They failed to complete the pre-med checklist
As we’ve mentioned before, the pre-med checklist (volunteering, shadowing, research, etc) is not enough on its own to secure your admission. To cover the bases of the pre-med checklist, you’d be wise to pursue the following:
Several hundred hours (200+) of clinical volunteering and shadowing
Several hundred hours (200+) of nonclinical volunteering
Some exposure (usually six months or so) to research
Some leadership positions (usually two or more)
If you’re lacking experience, it’s most likely because you need more time. It’s in your best interest to hold off on your applications until your checklist is up to par with the competition.
Reason #2 - They failed to stand out
There are too few spots in medical school to accommodate everyone. As a result, it's not enough to be qualified; you have to stand out.
Standing out is one of our favorite topics at Savvy Pre-Med. It’s probably because we’ve read so many applications that we’ve grown to appreciate originality and captivating voices.
One great way to stand out is through diverse activities. Most pre-meds are either too busy or too myopic to extend themselves beyond schoolwork and the typical checklist of experiences. But if you can boast about distinct, unusual activities, like performing in an improv comedy troupe or serving as a wilderness survival coach, you’ll automatically be more memorable to the admissions committees.
You can also leave a good impression through a “capstone experience,” which shows you as a leader who can isolate and solve problems in your community. These come in all shapes and sizes, but you can read more about them here.
Another good way to stand out is through exemplary writing. Pre-meds are not always naturals when it comes to dynamic, impactful writing. They’ve been misguided by academia’s demands for long, convoluted prose, and they haven’t gotten much practice in creative storytelling. It’s wise to read examples of successful personal statements, review style guides, and heed our past advice on writing.
Reason #3 - They had average letters of recommendation
The most successful students obtain up to five letters of recommendation from people who know them well, both inside and outside of the classroom.
But getting the letters is only half the battle. What makes a letter of rec excellent? Primarily, it's the stories that a professor, mentor, or doctor can tell about you. The status of the letter writer doesn't matter as much as the quality and specificity of the letter itself.
As an applicant, you can’t brag much, because the admissions committee won’t believe you. But your letter writers can really go to bat for you. They can say that you’re one of the best students they’ve ever worked with and rave about your characteristics. It’s why medical schools rate letters of recommendation as one of the most important qualities for admission. According to an AAMC survey, letters of rec were ranked as the second most important factor.
Wondering how to get better letters of recommendation? Check out our extensive FAQ, which covers every question you have about letters of rec.
Reason #4 - They applied to the wrong schools
Students often fail to put the needed focus and energy into compiling their school list. Perhaps they don’t have enough guidance, or maybe they’re rushing through the process. At best, they might use average MCAT and GPA as a way to filter their choices.
Some students don’t apply to enough schools, while others apply to too many. Consult the AAMC's Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) webpage to gain a better understanding of your possible range of schools.
Beyond stats, there are many other important factors, like whether the school vastly prefers in-state candidates (hint: many public schools do) or whether the school is heavily research-focused (like Johns Hopkins). Students might not consider how their commitment to social justice aligns with Georgetown’s Jesuit philosophy, or how their work in rural communities would appeal to schools like UC Riverside. These connections can be the difference between gaining an interview and ending up in the slush pile.
Lastly, many students who should probably apply to osteopathic schools never even consider the option, which is particularly unwise if they’re trying to hedge their bets. Want to know whether you should apply to DO schools? Click here.
Reason #5 - They were overwhelmed by secondaries
Students sometimes view secondary essays as small, tacked-on assignments. DO NOT fall into the trap of viewing them as a formality, or something you can accomplish quickly. We’ve repeatedly warned students about the shocking number of pages it takes to finish the secondary essays. You cannot afford to be reactionary and wait until you receive them in the summer. The most successful students make a point to pre-write all their secondaries ahead of time. Here’s our database of last cycle’s secondary prompts. The questions don’t change too much from year to year, so there’s no reason to wait until the last minute.
There are useful strategies to expedite the secondary writing process, but it’s still a grind, no matter how you approach it. The key is to generate a lot of reusable content in the beginning, so that you can repurpose different drafts across the future prompts you encounter for different schools. It’s wise to make a small list of possible connections you can draw to different institutions. You’ll encounter a lot of “Why Our School” essays, so this step will you save time by not having to research each school along the way.
Remember that schools are as diverse as the students who attend them. We’ve written several different guides about specific schools’ prompts, including USC, UCLA, Albany, UCSD, and many others. Although we encourage you to reuse content across schools, there’s not a one-size-fits-all style or approach, so you’ll need to make adjustments in order to cater to what individual schools are looking for.
So there you have it. Our top 5 reasons students get rejected from medical school. We hope this guide of what not to do will help you prioritize and execute a stellar application. Best of luck!