By: Rob Humbracht
Getting into med school is simple. Just get A’s in all your classes, ace the MCAT, devote hundreds of hours to community service, take lots of leadership positions, get published in a leading medical journal, and learn to speak and write about your accomplishments eloquently. Ta da. You’re in.
Oh, right. You’re a human being. There are only 24 hours in a day, and at least four of those should probably be devoted to sleeping. How do you decide how to spend your time if your end goal is medical school? How do you make sure that you’re in the coveted 40% of all applicants who get in each year and not one of the many qualified students left out in the cold?
How we made this list of the Most Important Factors for Getting Into Medical School:
We at the Savvy Pre-med are here to help: we’ve made a list of what we think are the 10 essential factors for getting into medical school. We’ve formulated this list from our experience of working one-on-one with hundreds of pre-meds (and speaking for many thousands more). But don’t just take our word for it. We’ve also referenced several surveys of medical school admissions officers, who have rated the factors they consider most and least important for choosing applicants.
To help conquer the list, we’ve sorted the factors that are necessary to get in (you will definitely get rejected if you don’t have these things - we’ll cover those this week) from those that are merely helpful (it’s good to have these things but not necessary - we’ll cover those next week). We’ll try not to dwell on the obvious - surprise, you have to get good grades to get into medical school!!! - so that we can discuss some of the nuances for getting in.
A Good Enough MCAT score - It’s pretty simple: if you can pass the MCAT, you can pass the USMLE. Score too low on the MCAT, and medical schools will think you won’t be able to become a doctor. (LINK: HOW LOW IS TOO LOW ON THE MCAT)
Admissions committees agree. According to a Kaplan survey of medical school admissions officers, a low MCAT was listed as the number one “application killer.”
Your goal is to do well enough on your MCAT to get in. Because the MCAT is used more as a filter to screen out low scores, your goal is to get a balanced score, where each individual subject passes the minimum threshhold for getting in.
Good Enough Grades - In a study done by the AAMC of 127 medical schools, good grades showed up on the list in several places:
UGPA: Cumulative science/math
UGPA: Cumulative total
Upward or downward grade trend
Performance in a post-baccalaureate program
UGPA: Cumulative non-science/math
The first lesson here is that grades in science classes are slightly more important than non-science grades, but you can’t completely neglect the non-science courses. Both the total GPA and science GPA are important, but both are more important than the non-science grades.
The second lesson is that you don’t have to get perfect grades to get into medical school. Medical schools consider of the “highest importance” the trend in your GPA. The other factor listed is performance in a post-baccalaureate program, most of which are aimed at students who have not performed well during undergrad. In other words, if you screw up freshman year but then get your act together, you’re still on track to get to med school.
A Kaplan survey of medical school admissions officers revealed that the interview was actually the most important admissions factor. Other surveys show it farther down the list. Either way, the interview is often make-or-break for your chances of getting in. While overall acceptance rates for a given medical school will often be 5% or less, medical schools often take as many as 50% of the students they interview. In other words, once you’ve gotten to the interview, your chances are quite good, and your performance seals your fate.
Ranking the interview this high is a little misleading, since your interview performance reflects multiple factors about your application, including:
In other words, your interview is the culmination of years of preparation as a pre-med. Medical schools are trying to figure out if you look, talk, and act like a doctor, so you need to start building the skills and experiences to make your case early in your undergraduate career.
What do we mean by exposure? Any experience that illustrates what a career in health care looks like, including but not limited to:
Most pre-meds rack up hundreds of hours of exposure to the field, but the most important factor is quality, not quantity. Do you know how hard it is to be a doctor these days? Can you articulate a downside that you foresee in your medical career? Despite all of the challenges you'll face, are you sure you still want to be a doctor?
Medical school admissions committees consistently rank this experience at the top of their lists about what’s most important for getting in. We at Passport Admissions can confirm that: we’ve seen several students with top grades (4.0) and MCAT’s (37+) get rejected because they completely lacked clinical experience. It’s not enough to be capable of doing the work of a doctor; you have to prove that you know without a shadow of a doubt that this is the only career for you.
Because doctors serve their patients (and indeed, the entire medical profession) for the rest of their careers, medical schools seek students who have demonstrated a consistent desire to serve others during their undergraduate career.
When evaluating community service, medical schools put its importance slightly below exposure to the field, but above many other factors. Here’s how community service shows up on the list of factors:
Community service/volunteer experience
Experience with underserved populations
Experience with populations unlike the applicant
Most pre-meds take a "sampler plate" approach to community service: a blood drive here, a little fundraising there, some soup kitchen volunteering at the end. This smorgasboard of service will not show medical schools why you are passionate about making an impact. The best approach is to focus on the activities that actually matter to you, where you can make a meaningful impact on your community.
The list of factors above suggests an alternative approach that medical schools would find more effective: gain exposure to underserved populations and people who are different from you. Don’t just spend time doing beach cleanups or fundraising on campus; instead, get out into the field. Take a homeless person to lunch; work as a translator in a free clinic; teach at an inner-city high school. As a doctor, you will be exposed to an incredible variety of patients, so do the same in your preparation for med school.