Be completely selfless while somehow spending enough time by yourself to study and get perfect grades.
Experience something life-changing that drew you towards medicine (and be able to write about that experience without sounding “braggy” or cliché.)
Volunteer more hours than you sleep.
Other helpful skills/experiences: being a top pick in the NBA draft but declining because you want to pursue medicine, winning a Nobel prize (“nominee” would also suffice), being the dean of a medical school, etc…
Okay, so I’m obviously being sarcastic…but when I was a premed, there were times when this was how I honestly felt. Whenever I told others that I was pre-med, their eyes would gloss over and they’d mumble a reflexive “well isn’t that nice”. Truthfully, I felt kind of strange identifying as a “pre-med” since that word is empty unless you actually get accepted into med school. I wrote this piece to share what I wish I would have known as a pre-med and hopefully put some certainty into this overwhelmingly uncertain stage in your life…
Unfortunately, I can’t give you a recipe that will guarantee your acceptance into medical school (I would if I could). What I can do, however, is share with you the three essentials that will ultimately get you that life-changing, “we are pleased to offer you a spot at ________ school of medicine” call.
These essentials are: show you are smart and can learn, show your dedication to medicine, show you understand what being a doctor is all about…
1. Show You Are Smart And Can Learn…
This is where your MCAT and GPA come in. Let’s breakdown these anxiety-provoking, objective data points a little more and really understand how admissions committee’s weight them.
MCAT – “Smart”
Your MCAT score is uniquely provides the only “standardized” metric to directly compare you against every other applicant. That said, admissions committee members know that correctly memorizing and using Bernoulli’s equation of fluid dynamics isn’t what will ultimately make you a good doctor. Rather, your MCAT score is a means of identifying your baseline ability to study and take a test (a skill that is unfortunately necessary for you to become a doctor).
This means you DON’T need a near perfect score to get accepted. However, you DO need a solid score that shows that you can perform at a baseline level similar to your peers. (For more info about studying for the MCAT click here)
GPA – “Capable of Learning”
You will learn more in four years of medical school than others learn throughout their entire life. That said, in order to gain the vast knowledge required of a successful doctor, admissions committees want to be confident in your ability to learn.
When compared to the MCAT, your GPA is much more ambiguous and “open to interpretation”. To compare the two, think of your MCAT as a picture and your GPA as a video. Your MCAT is a snapshot of how you performed on one day, but your GPA is how you performed over 4+ years! Like a video, your GPA is dynamic in that it changes over time. Since admissions committee members like to scour through your transcripts to see how your grades changed over your undergrad years, your GPA becomes more than just one number. Ultimately, they are looking for progression and want to see that you are committed to learning and self-improvement.
If you have a bad grade or even bad semester, then show your ability to bounce back by having better semesters.
Honestly, having a poor GPA one semester then showing continual improvement after, can even be more beneficial than just having all good semesters. With all that said, you are expected to reach a specific “GPA cutoff” that many schools have. If your GPA is lower than others, your grade progression through your undergrad years is a huge determining factor.
2. Show Your Dedication To Medicine…
From my experiences, applicants usually fall into one of two categories:
The applicant knew at a young age that they wanted to become a doctor.
The applicant experienced something that changed their life’s course and pushed them to pursue a life as a doctor.
Now obviously not everyone is going to fit one of these two categories, and often times, there is overlap between the two. Neither of these applicants are superior to the other, and both have unique opportunities to show their dedication to medicine. Regardless, your personal statement will be key in showing your commitment to medicine.
To help you strategize and show your dedication to medicine, I have broken down these two applicants by timeline.
Applicant #1 – To show your dedication…
Emphasize and outline your long history of interest in the medical field. You should show your consistency by highlighting the experiences you have had that have strengthened your passion for medicine. Although you might not have that “life changing” event like applicant #2, your strength resides in your long-term commitments, whether it be volunteering, shadowing, premed organizations, etc…
Applicant #2 – To show your dedication…
Your focus surrounds that life-altering event that pushed you towards becoming a doctor. You have an opportunity to grab attention by vividly describing this event and how it will help you stay committed during the long journey to becoming a doctor. Don’t be afraid to highlight your previous interests or career, since these will help show your uniqueness as an applicant. For example, I have med school classmates that were previously chefs, investment bankers, English professors, etc…
If you fall somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum, don’t worry! You might have the opportunity to combine the best parts of both of these applicants to show your dedication. Regardless of what type of applicant you are, you will always benefit from a personal statement review service.
3. Show You Understand What Being A Doctor Is All About…
Basically, admissions committee members want to make sure that you know what you’re getting yourself into. The training required to become a doctor is unlike that of any career. It will push you beyond your perceived limits and demand huge delays in gratification. So in order to make these sacrifices, you should clearly understand what it means to be a doctor so you can focus on this ultimate goal. Admissions committee members understand this too.
I believe there are two main ways to show that you know what being a doctor is all about:
Shadowing and/or working as a scribe…
Every applicant needs to have at least some shadowing experience. No question. Getting this glimpse of what its like to be a physician on a regular day is critical. It shows that you not only understand the positives, but more importantly, that you understand the frustrations and challenges they face. It shows that you’re willing to take the good with the bad and still pursue this career.
Working as a physician’s scribe can be a substitute for shadowing, since this is a lot of one on one time with a doc.
Direct patient contact…
As crazy as it sounds, if you want to become a doctor you have to see patients (yes, even pathologists and radiologists). Therefore, having patient contact experience is essential in demonstrating your ability and understanding of what doctors actually do. This includes any opportunity where you have 1-on-1 contact with patients. Some examples include: CNA/caregiver work, EMT, hospital volunteering where you directly visit with patients, etc.
To be a competitive applicant, you should at least have some experience in both shadowing AND patient contact. Every applicant is different and you can choose to do more of one and less of the other. For example, compared to other applicants, I had minimal shadowing experience(20+ hours). However I made up for it by working a full year as a caregiver (plus 2 years visiting elderly patients in the hospital). These patient contact hours ultimately offset my limited shadowing experiences.
The answer to “how to get into medical school?” starts with the following:
Show that you’re smart and can learn – via your GPA and MCAT score.
Demonstrate your dedication to medicine – via sharing your personal story.
Show that you understand what being a doctor is all about – via your shadowing and patient contact experiences.
I have found that the people who talk a big game are usually trying to compensate for the lack of success. If you haven’t noticed in this piece, I’ve emphasized “showing” rather than “telling”.
If you want to be a doctor, you’ll have to make sacrifices and do what others won’t now to have what other can’t down the road. You’ll have to miss a few parties, study when you’re tired, and volunteer on your days off. But once you make that decision to commit to this noble pursuit, I promise you won’t regret it!
This is what will ultimately get you accepted into med school.
By Drew Porter
-M4 at UWSMPH, Editor at Motivate MD
This is obviously a broad topic, but I’d love to answer any questions you might have… So don’t hesitate to comment below!!