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What Do Medical Schools Look for in Their Applicants?

18 min


An applicant at a medical school interview shaking hands with her interviewer.


So, you are considering applying to medical school and wondering how to get in? Every year, U.S. medical schools evaluate tens of thousands of applications from some of the brightest and most talented college students and recent graduates in the country. The admissions process is highly secretive, yet we know a lot about what makes applicants successful from decades of patterns and information provided by insiders. There is so much information available but simultaneously so much uncertainty that it is hard to decipher the secret to medical school admissions. Indeed, the perennial question for medical students and their friends, family, and mentors alike is: What do medical schools look for in their applicants? There is no single, definitive answer to this question. In fact, there are myriad answers and a virtually infinite number of approaches to gain entrance into medical school. Nevertheless, there is a way of distilling the wealth of knowledge available into a comprehensive guide that dispels counterproductive myths while highlighting the factors admissions committees consider during their review process. This is what we have done here. A key takeaway is that it is undoubtedly difficult to be a competitive and successful applicant. However, it is not an overly complex endeavor. Generally, with genuine motivation, consistent hard work, and careful attention to the details of what medical schools are looking for in their future students, most who want to enter medical school will succeed to do so.


The factors which admissions committees (henceforth adcoms) consider fall into four broad categories: academic performance, MCAT performance, extracurricular experiences and jobs, and personality traits. Keep reading to learn what each category consists of and how important each is as a part of the application process.



Academic Performance


The first thing most people think of for this category is the grade point average (GPA). The GPA is a good metric of a student’s overall academic performance throughout college, but its utility as a single number is limited. It’s important to take a deeper dive into how this number can be viewed and the context surrounding it because that is what adcoms do. First, there are several types of GPAs. There is a total GPA, a science GPA, and a non-science GPA. Second, there are often important trends in GPA over time that convey a lot of information about a student’s growth or life experiences. For example, although an excellent GPA is preferred, there is a lot of value in a decent or good—but not exceptional—GPA that has increased over time. The transition to college is not easy for most, and there are a lot of personal and academic adjustments to make. This is especially true for students who were at the top of their class in high school but suddenly find themselves surrounded by high achievers from around the country. Adcoms are forgiving of students who struggle early but find their footing after the first few semesters of college. In fact, showing a significant and steady improvement can impress adcoms because growth and self-awareness are highly valuable traits.


Another important caveat to the GPA as an indicator of overall academic performance is that GPAs are not standardized. A 3.5 GPA from a large university known for grade inflation means something very different than a 3.5 GPA from a small liberal arts college that gives out A’s only to a select few students. Adcoms are aware of this and consequently account for the context surrounding each GPA they see. Other important considerations they make include how many major(s) and minor(s) students graduated with, the course loads taken on, and the rigor of the coursework. Completing more concentrations, taking a greater number of courses, and taking more difficult courses can all help explain a lower GPA. A 4.0 GPA is not impressive if you complete only the minimum requirements and the easiest available classes rather than challenging yourself. There is a limit to the course load and rigor, however. If it is clear that you took on too much and stretched yourself too thin, this will work against you because adcoms value self-awareness and the ability to recognize your capabilities and your limits.



MCAT Performance


The GPA is a useful metric, but it isn’t perfect. In addition to the biases it entails, its major limitation is that it is not standardized, as described above. As a result, adcoms rely on your MCAT score to complement your GPA. As a test covering a significant amount of material, the MCAT reflects not only test-taking performance but also how well you learned the material from your pre-medical coursework. Additionally, because it is standardized, it can be directly compared across students.


The relative significance of both the MCAT and GPA among the entire application is a common source of mystery. However, it is very straightforward: these scores matter more for getting your foot in the door, but they are unlikely to “seal the deal.” In other words, the point of these metrics is to demonstrate that you are smart and hardworking and that you have what it takes to succeed in medical school. However, this is not the only aspect of being a doctor and in fact, most applicants from a pool of tens of thousands can demonstrate excellence in this way. What schools are looking for within this large pool are individuals who stand out in some other way. This could be from exceptional academic achievement, such as a perfect GPA and 99th percentile MCAT score. Yet more often than not applicants stand out based on other aspects such as volunteering, leadership, and hobbies.


The takeaway from this is that as an applicant you should work hard to excel academically, but when it comes time to craft your narrative you should emphasize other ways in which you are unique. Ideally, your application will demonstrate academic success as a baseline accomplishment but emphasize additional features that make you a unique individual.



Extracurricular Experiences & Jobs


We develop our values and perspectives from our experiences, and adcoms place more value on certain types of experiences over others based on the perspectives they impart. For instance, experiences which provide exposure to the field of medicine are essential. Adcoms prefer applicants who understand what the field is like and therefore the career they are planning to enter. This can be accomplished through clinical shadowing, volunteering in an emergency department, and working as a scribe, to name a few.


Other important experiences include community service, research, teaching, and leadership. Community service is important because medicine is fundamentally a service-oriented job and having a track record of community service shows adcoms you are entering medicine for the right reasons. Research is also valuable but in a different way. Evidence-based medicine may be a relatively new terminology, but basic science has been behind nearly every major medical discovery for many decades. Furthermore, translational science ensures discoveries are brought to the bedside and clinical science is responsible for testing, implementing, and fine-tuning all aspects of medical care. In the information age, doctors are responsible not only for a wealth of knowledge but also for paying attention to new research that influences their practice. Medical science is changing so rapidly that scientific fluency is a must. Even if you are not interested in pursuing research during your career or doing more than the minimum necessary while in medical school, having research experiences during college will show adcoms you will be able to learn and practice evidence-based medicine. Importantly, the research experiences gained from laboratory classes (e.g., biology, organic chemistry) are not quite enough. All applicants will have the same set of limited experiences, so being able to seek out additional experiences and gain mentorship from your principal investigator will be immensely valuable.


Teaching is less important than some of these other experiences, but it is often easy to pursue through tutoring, working as a teaching assistant (which is often a paid position), or volunteering as a peer mentor. Leadership, on the other hand, is somewhat more difficult to define. A clear example would be serving as a head tutor for your campus’ peer tutoring center—if it has one. But there are many other ways to practice leadership. For example, leading a project in your lab can demonstrate leadership and research experience simultaneously. Alternatively, if you are passionate about a particular cause (e.g., voting), starting an on-campus organization is an excellent way of conveying your interest while also displaying exceptional leadership, motivation, and persistence.



Personality Traits (AKA Core Competencies)


The last category is the hardest to define. All of the previous components are quantifiable: the GPA and MCAT are of course numerical, but research and volunteer experiences can also be counted in terms of the number of hours completed. However, a person’s interpersonal skills cannot be measured in the same way. Instead, the AAMC defines 15 core competencies that outline the desired skills and traits for entering medical students. Many of these are related to science and critical thinking and are therefore demonstrated through academic performance and research experiences. Others termed interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies, concern your ability to interact with others and reflect on yourself. Because these are not quantified in your application, you must convey how you meet these competencies through other means including letters of recommendation, your pre-health advisor’s committee letter (if applicable), interviews, and (hopefully) a lack of significant honor code or campus policy violations. Some universities and colleges have also added the CASPer exam to their applications to help in quantifying this category.


Letters of recommendation and interviews are required components of the application process, but not everybody takes full advantage of these opportunities to show adcoms how you stand out. Keep in mind that the AAMC put a lot of effort into developing the core competencies to help evaluate applicants. Therefore, the clearer you are about how you meet or exceed these competencies, the easier it will be for adcoms to reconcile you as an applicant and an individual with their goals for the composition of their matriculating class.


Medicine is a challenging field, which is why the medical school admissions process is so competitive and adcoms spend so much time evaluating applicants. There are many aspects to your application, but everything can be grouped into four categories: academic performance, MCAT performance, extracurricular and work experiences, and personality traits. Use this guide to help sort through the components of each category and understand the significance of each. If you work hard, construct a strong application with the help of this article, and apply wisely, you will have an excellent chance of doing well and getting into medical school!

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