By: Rob Humbracht
Last week we explained the The 5 Necessary Factors for Getting into Medical School, but what about the cherries on top? The X-factors? What are the ways you can elevate your application from average to extraordinary?
Everyone applying to medical school has letters of recommendation (that's required), but not everyone has excellent letters. The most successful students are able to get up to five letters of recommendation from people who know them well, both inside and outside of the classroom.
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.
Letters of recommendation allow the people who know you best to brag on your behalf. 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 personal characteristics. It’s why medical schools consistently rate letters of recommendation as one of the most important qualities for admission. According to an AAMC survey, letters of rec were ranked second - behind only the interview - as the most important factor for deciding whom to admit.
Most important factors for deciding whom to admit (with survey response score in parentheses):
Since you're likely to be a leader of a healthcare team as a doctor, it's extremely helpful to have leadership positions as a pre-med. Most pre-meds are elected to something during their undergraduate career, but what's most helpful is when those students can articulate what they actually did during their leadership tenure. Did they increase new members by 50%? Did they lead an outstanding day of service in the community? Did they create a lasting legacy at their college or university?
Or was it just fodder for your resume without any interesting stories to tell on the application?
Leadership experience is pretty much required to get into medical school. But the biggest difference between average pre-meds and stand-out pre-meds is the extent of the impact of their leadership positions. According to the list of factors above, leadership experience is deemed important (#10 of 12), but not as important as several other factors. I would argue, however, that leadership experience influences at least two other factors on that list: the interview (#1) and personal statement (#7).
If you’ve had an impact as a leader - you started a program to facilitate donations between local toy stores and hospital waiting rooms, for example - then you’re going to write about that experience in your personal statement and you’re going to talk about that experience in your interview. It’s what helps both stand out. And as a result, it’s going to be extremely helpful to your application.
Can you get in without an impactful leadership experience? Sure. But the most successful applicants give themselves the time and resources to make their leadership pay off.
You probably wrote a handful of essays when applying to college, but applying to medical school is a different beast entirely. You're going to have to write:
If you apply to 25 medical schools, that means you're writing 50+ pages of essays! Madness!
If you wait until the application process to learn to write, you'll be toast. Take at least one creative writing class during undergraduate to build your writing muscles so that you're ready for the marathon essay sessions for the application process.
Not only are essays about your writing experience, though, but they also highlight your story. On an AAMC survey of admissions officers at 127 medical schools, essays show up in two places:
Personal statements - Highest Importance
Secondary application responses - Medium Importance
But almost every experience that medical schools find valuable requires good writing to highlight what you’ve done and what you’ve learned. Consider the list of experiences that medical school admissions consider “Highest Importance” or “Medium Importance”:
All of these experiences require skill to express in your essays. So, your essays are the best place for you to showcase your perspective and your accomplishments.
This topic is sensitive, so let me make my best case for why medical schools give preference to those with favorable demographics.
First, medical schools want a diverse incoming class because they believe that people learn better when they're exposed to diverse classmates and diverse people.
Second, our country needs more doctors dedicated to helping underserved communities, and probably the best way to train those doctors is to seek students from those very communities. That's not just a race or ethnicity argument; we need more doctors who grew up in rural areas, and doctors who grew up poor. There's no better training for serving the future needs of your patients than to have been in their shoes yourself.
Frustrated that you're in the majority? There's a way to let this preference work for you: spend several years devoting yourself to serving one of these underserved communities. That might not be advice that you're willing or able to follow, but it's true. We've seen several students get into prestigious medical schools after making an impact in an underserved community, even though they themselves weren't born into that community.
You won’t find this label in any of the categories listed by the medical school admissions committees, but your unique experiences shape everything about your application.
How can you express this individuality?
One of the best ways to differentiate yourself is through your voice, as well as your general approach when answering prompts. Whether you’re crafting an essay or preparing for an interview, you should consider how most applicants will respond to a given question. Then, you should either A.) do the opposite, or B.) give your own personalized spin to the common answer.
Most students will avoid mentioning their failures, vulnerable moments, or times they were caught off guard. It might seem counterintuitive, but these anecdotes are a great way to show your maturity, self-awareness, and the unique insights you gained from difficult learning experiences. If you discuss the times you were surprised, or when your expectations were disrupted, you’ll surprise the reader in the same way. Just make sure that your answer ends on a positive note.
Lastly, don’t hesitate to embrace your quirks or unusual activities. If you led an improv comedy group during college, go ahead and write about it for one of your most meaningfuls. If you once had aspirations as a beekeeper or professional chef, share those details in your secondaries or briefly during interviews. This information might seem trivial or tangential to you, but for a reader or interviewer, it might be the most memorable part of your application.