By: Ryan Kelly
In our work with pre-meds, we hear all kinds of crazy claims. About 95% of the time we hear one of the above phrases, what follows is false. No, you don’t need 400 hours of shadowing to get into medical school. No, it doesn’t help to finish college in three years. And when you get a rejection letter, you shouldn’t call the medical school and plead to be given a second chance.
The myth-making process is completely understandable. Pre-meds are competitive people, so they pounce on any piece of information--no matter how unreliable the source--to help them gain an edge. Medical schools don’t make this any easier; resources about how to get in are often vague, with little to no tangible details about how medical schools ACTUALLY choose applicants. And given that any idiot with a computer can post his “knowledge” to a message board, well… you get a lot of people who have heard a lot of things.
In the following post, we hope to tackle some of the most insidious rumors in the medical school admissions process and lay out our best representation of the truth, as seen from our perspective of working with hundreds of pre-meds.
All that really matters is acing your science classes. Medical schools will focus mostly on upper division courses taken as a junior and senior.
Medical schools look at every grade since high school, so not only are your science grades important, but so are your grades in every class you’ve taken. There’s no grade replacement for medical school, either, so any goof up will show up on your record.
If you’re required to take humanities, languages, or other non-science classes as part of your general education, you’ll have to work hard no matter how nauseating you find Victorian poetry or Picasso. Every grade on your record will count.
Since you’ll be studying science on the MCAT and during medical school, you should choose Biology as a major, to show medical schools that you’re up to the task of performing well in the sciences.
As long as you take the required science sequence (see below), then you can major in any subject you want. Choosing a nontraditional major will help you stand out while applying to medical school. In fact, med schools love bragging about the diversity of their incoming class, including the diversity of the scholarly backgrounds of their students. Why accept another boring science major when they might accept an art history or drama major instead?
Studying the humanities or social sciences could reap major benefits for your writing and communication skills, and it might even improve your MCAT score (we’ll get to that later).
However, if you’re going to become a doctor, you should be a stellar science student, or at least have the drive to look like one. Medical schools will pay close attention to your grades in the required science sequence:
All of your science and math grades get combined into a BCPM GPA (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Math), which most medical schools weigh slightly higher than overall GPA. You will review all of these science courses during medical school, but only in the first two or three weeks. As a result, you must prove that you already have the capacity to thrive in these subjects.
So, what should you major in if you want to go to medical school?
The MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) is like the SAT of medical school admissions, but much longer and more challenging. It tests biology, chemistry, physics, verbal reasoning, and writing ability. Most pre-meds take it during their junior year of college.
The MCAT reflects the advanced material you’ll learn in medical school, so you should take the most challenging science courses offered by your college as a way to prepare.
The required sequence listed above is the only science tested on the MCAT. So once you complete that, you’ve taken all the science you need.
Three quarters of the test consists of reading comprehension passages that use science as their subject matter. Reading comprehension? Yep, and lots of it! Turns out those humanities classes will come in handy after all. The more you read, the better you’re likely to perform.
Yeah yeah, okay, so you should read more. That’s all fine and good. But what grades and MCAT do you need to be accepted?
High scores alone don’t get you into medical school, but low numbers can definitely keep you out. It doesn’t matter if you did research on Jupiter--if you have a 2.7 GPA in college, you’re not going to medical school. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has plenty of information about application and acceptance rates to medical school.
One of the most interesting pieces is a chart of average GPAs and MCAT scores, divided by undergraduate major for those who apply and those who get accepted. Go to www.aamc.org, then click “Data and Analysis,” then click on “Applicants and Matriculants” data.
Okay... so everyone needs to have solid numbers. But you should want those anyway, if only for the knowledge and gained skills they represent. Here’s the point: if you’re a truly competitive candidate, then these scores are merely an expectation--perhaps even part of your identity.
But let’s forget the quantitative for a second, and move to the qualitative, where you really have a chance to shine. The remaining myths on our list give you the opportunity to differentiate yourself from other candidates and flesh out your application with genuine personality.
You should take any and every research experience you can, especially if it takes up a ton of hours and gets you a letter of recommendation. The more complex and prestigious sounding, the better. Medical schools only care to see whether you’re smart enough and have enough attention to detail to be a doctor.
You should find the research projects that make you the most enthusiastic. If you take anything you can get, you’ll end up going through the motions like every other pre-med who seeks out research for the sake of it. It will be challenging to sound excited when writing or talking about your work. In short, you’re not going to stand out.
Oppositely, you’ll win over the admissions committee by communicating your genuine fascination with the research. You want to give the impression that you’d perform the research, regardless, even if they didn’t care about it. Your curiosity, not your sense of competition, is what should be driving you.
When the time comes, you should make a list of the best professors from your most challenging classes and ask them to write letters on your behalf.
At a large school, the professors often forget past students. Yep, they might even forget YOU. If it’s a smaller school, the professor can still only comment on one semester’s worth of your work. Plus, they will probably repeat what medical schools already know from your transcript.
You should choose recommenders during your first or second year. Visit those professors during office hours and get to know them personally. Look into their research and inquire about work in their labs. Participate frequently in their classes and ask intelligent questions. Take them for as many sequenced courses as possible.
DON’T do this just for a letter of recommendation. That will probably be transparent to the recommender. Do it because you enjoy the work and the instructor. This kind of intellectual curiosity pays off. When you need a letter, these professors will have plenty to say.
Click here to find the answers for Every Question You Have About Letters of Recommendation For Medical School
Have you fallen prey to any of these myths before? Stay tuned for Part II, where we’ll finish off the top ten and debunk more of the common misconceptions.
What other myths have you heard? Comment below, and we’ll do our best to clear things up!