To hear some people tell it, future doctors need to start applying to medical school while they’re still in diapers. And while that’s not exactly true, it is a fact that medical schools consider a wide range of factors in evaluating their applicants, and meeting their many requirements is not easy. Before embarking on the grueling med school admissions process, it’s important to make sure you can satisfy all their expectations.
Whether you’re a high school student considering a pre-med track or a college student looking to begin applying to an M.D. program, understanding what med school admission committees are seeking in their applicants can significantly increase your chances of admission. Below, discover the most important factors medical schools look for in prospective students.
As you consider your next steps on your journey to med school, be sure to keep all these crucial factors in mind. Strong coursework, a good MCAT score, the right extracurricular involvement, and thoughtful essays will all substantially increase your chances at your dream school.
First things first: every medical school in the United States and Canada requires students to have earned an undergraduate degree from a four-year accredited college or university by the time of matriculation. That doesn’t mean you need four years of college before applying; many students apply as seniors. Others finish in fewer than four years through extra classes or Advanced Placement credit or complete their degree through a BS/MD program.
Additionally, contrary to common perception, that degree can be in any major! In fact, many very selective medical schools actively target students who majored in something other than biology or chemistry, as they believe it benefits their classes and leads to better patient care. You can get a degree in physics, philosophy, or politics, so long as you take care of the following, too:
While medical schools accept students with a wide range of majors, all successful applicants share some common coursework, although the exact requirements can vary by school. Many universities offer a pre-med track that will ensure you’ve met all the prerequisite coursework for most medical schools. Other students undertake a post-baccalaureate program to fill in any gaps in the course requirements for their top choice schools.
The AAMC website lists the most common required prerequisite courses. These include:
Biology. This is kind of a no-brainer, as biology is arguably the most relevant science to medicine and provides an essential foundation for any med school path.
Chemistry. Similarly, a clear understanding of how organic and inorganic substances work (and interact) at the chemical level is crucial to medicine. Most med schools will want to see general chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry.
Physics. While not as directly applicable to medicine as some biology and chemistry, the majority of medical schools will still want to see a full year of physics.
Math. You might be surprised how much mathematics is involved in practicing medicine! Because of that, nearly all medical schools require a full year of math. Some schools require calculus, others statistics. To be safe, it’s best to take both.
English. What?? But think about it: there’s a lot of human-to-human communication involved in medicine, so med school admissions offices want to see that you can read and write well. Aim for a full year with at least one writing-intensive course.
Other. While science courses are crucial, many med schools also like to see courses in related fields, such as psychology, social sciences, philosophy, or a foreign language, all of which can make you a more conscientious doctor.
Taking these required courses isn’t enough, of course—you also have to do well in them! Generally speaking, medical school applicants have strong GPAs in both their science classes and their non-science classes. Last year, according to the AAMC, the average GPA of admitted medical students was 3.65 in their science classes and a 3.8 overall.
Given the rigors of pre-med courses, that’s a pretty high GPA, and the more prestigious medical schools will want to see you do better than average. That said, if you needed some time to get adjusted to college and have a strong profile otherwise, schools may overlook a slightly lower GPA, if you can explain why you’re still an excellent candidate.
Unfortunately, your academic abilities aren’t all med schools care about. The Medical College Admission Test, better known as the MCAT, will play a significant role in your application and your chances of admission. So, what is a good MCAT score?
The new MCAT (as of 2015) comprises four sections, each scored out of 132. That means the maximum score is 528. According to the AAMC, in 2019, the average MCAT score of admitted students was around 506. Of course, if you’re aiming for a highly prestigious school of medicine, you’ll want test scores at least ten or fifteen points higher than that.
While the MCAT isn’t the be-all-end-all of your medical school application, it’s still a huge factor. Nearly all prospective medical students devote a significant amount of time to studying and preparing to take the MCAT, whether with a tutor, test prep books, or classes.
While no one extracurricular activity is a specific admission requirement for medical schools, there are a few common activities that admissions committees love to see in medical school applicants. Regardless of what field of medicine you intend to enter, consider participating in the following activities during college or afterward:
Shadowing Physicians. Spending time in a hospital learning from real doctors and nurses is crucial experience for medical school applicants. On top of that, shadowing will help you understand what it really means to be a healthcare professional.
Clinical Experience. Even better than shadowing is getting real experience in patient care. Not only will this help you focus your interests in medicine, getting hands-on clinical experience will give you great material for your application essays.
Community Service. Again, don’t let your interpersonal skills go undeveloped while preparing for medical school. Volunteering at a healthcare facility, clinic, or shelter can provide great experience and help your profile stand out among applicants.
Research Experience. In addition to practical experience in hospitals, medical schools want to see that you have experience undertaking original scientific research. Having a lab position or other research role will also elevate your application.
Getting letters of recommendation can be one of the most daunting parts of the medical school application process, but they are nonnegotiable. Medical schools vary in their requirements, but in general most ask for three to five letters of recommendation. While there’s no perfect approach, having a mix of academic and personal references is ideal.
Sample breakdown of five letters of recommendation for medical school:
When it comes to whom you should ask, remember that the best recommendation letters are those from people who know you well and can attest to your character. That means you shouldn’t just ask a professor because you got a good grade in her class; you want someone who can speak to your work ethic, your personality, and your goals.
Once you’ve decided, check out our guide on how to ask a teacher/professor for a letter of recommendation. And of course, remember to say thank you!
Lastly, there’s the written application itself. Medical school applications are famously long and involved; admissions committees want to know every single thing about you to evaluate whether you’d be a good program member and (eventually) a good doctor.
As you may know, the most common medical school application is run through AMCAS, the American Medical College Application Service, and comes in two parts: the primary application and the secondary application. In the primary application, you’ll need to submit:
The AMCAS Personal Statement, a statement that goes to all your schools and explains your interests and goals in medicine, as well as any other relevant information about your background, identity, experience, or other factors;
The Work and Activities section, in which you’ll list and briefly describe up to 15 extracurricular activities, including any shadowing, clinical experience, volunteering, or other activities, as well as contact information for your supervisor;
Your List of Medical Schools, where you’ll indicate which schools you want the preliminary section of your AMCAS application to go to; and
Optional Essays; if you’re applying to an MD/PhD program or certain public schools (such as Texas), you may need to submit additional essays in this stage.
In the secondary part of your application, you’ll have the opportunity to submit school-specific essays to some of your schools. This secondary or supplemental application nearly always consists of additional, optional short or long essay questions, but the content and word limit of those essays varies widely from school to school.
None of them will repeat the general “why do you want to go to medical school” personal essay from the AMCAS application, but some do ask why you want to go to that particular medical school. Another common question is an open-ended topic where they ask you to address any experiences or background information that you feel is relevant that you haven’t had a chance to discuss elsewhere in your applications.
Once you’ve submitted your written materials in the fall, you’ll need to wait to hear which schools want to interview you. Invitations to interview and expected dates for acceptance letters vary depending on whether the school uses a rolling or a standard timeline.
If you’ve received an interview invitation from a school, you’ve already made it through a difficult culling process, but the hard work isn’t done yet. Top medical schools are looking for top-notch communicators (since physicians need to be able to communicate their knowledge to others), so you really need to nail your interview. Aim to present your reasons for entering into the medical field and your skills and unique qualities in an effective fashion.
If you are typically nervous or quiet in similar circumstances, plan to practice with peers and/or mentors. Have them ask you a variety of interview questions many, many times, so that you become comfortable responding to any of them clearly, coherently, and concisely.
Gaining a medical education is a long road—and one that’s hard to begin too early. Meeting all these requirements, from coursework to extracurricular pursuits to testing to the application itself, takes an enormous amount of time and energy.
However, knowing the requirements and ensuring that you know when and how you plan to meet them can take some of the pressure off. When it comes to medical school, having a solid plan can make all the difference!
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