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12 Keys to Getting Into Medical School

female college student smiling in lab coat sitting next to microscope

Applying to medical school is a long and daunting process, starting in undergraduate and concluding senior year after you finally send your applications.

Along with that, admissions are competitive. You’re up against the best and brightest young minds, each with applications full of high grades, extracurriculars, and medical and non-medical experience.

To guide you through the arduous application process, here are 12 keys for getting into medical school.

1. Get a Strong Overall GPA and Science GPA

An overall high GPA is the foundation for a strong medical school application. If you’re currently a freshman, prioritize your grades. Don’t skip out on extracurriculars, volunteer work, or other activities, but make sure your studies come first.

You’re not out of luck if you are an upperclassman without a stellar GPA, though. Consider enrolling in a post-baccalaureate program — now that you’ve adjusted to the rigors of college studies during your first bachelor’s degree, getting higher grades with a second degree will not be as tough.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to pick any specific major to be considered by medical schools — most students simply go with a science major because it covers many pre-med requirements. However, you’re allowed to study what you can do well in and what you find interesting if you complete those pre-med requirements.

2. Score Well on the MCAT

The MCAT’s importance is obvious, but failing to score well on it can preclude your acceptance into your top schools. As for specific numbers, aim for at least 127 in all sections (or 508 total). Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, though. Instead, study hard for the MCAT and take a lot of practice tests under the test’s conditions. Hone not only your knowledge but your test-taking skills as well. Once you get to the real thing, try to refrain from stressing out. You’ve spent an untold number of hours preparing, so you’ll likely do well.

Take your MCAT as early as possible. You can take it as soon as late in your sophomore year. However, you don’t want to compromise your grades, so consider scheduling for the summer between sophomore and junior year if you’ve covered the required material in your classes by then.

Ideally, you’ll score well the first time and can forget about the MCAT forever. However, if your first score isn’t what you wanted, then you’ll have time to retake the MCAT without delaying your admission.

3. Apply to a Broad Selection of Medical Schools

Average medical school acceptance rates sit around 7%, so apply to as many medical schools as possible and expect a lot of rejections. If you have even a slight interest in a potential school, send an application.

Sending out so many applications might cost you extra time and money, but each application improves your chances of being accepted somewhere.

With that in mind, don’t apply to schools you don’t want to go to. Save your money and time for the schools where you’d enjoy your studies.

4. Apply as Early as Possible

Applying as early as possible may help your chances since medical schools use rolling admissions. Early on, most spots will be open, and you will have less competition applying for those spots. As those spots begin to fill up, your chances of acceptance decrease.

Of course, applying early gives you peace of mind. With no more application deadlines weighing on you and some acceptances in hand, you can enjoy your last few months before medical school classes start.

5. Get Your Recommendations Early

The people from which you’ll be seeking recommendations tend to be busy, and they will likely have other people requesting recommendations from them. Getting your recommendations as early as possible will ensure your recommenders have plenty of time to write high-quality letters.

If you’ve had work experience in the medical field, get recommendations from your supervisor. Mentors from research programs are also good sources of recommendations. Professors are, too — if you’re still in school, visit professor office hours so you can build those professional relationships.

Overall, letters from people you know personally are best. They care more about your future success in the field of medicine, so they will have an incentive to craft the best possible letter. Plus, it’s easier for you to relay to them what you want them to express in their recommendation.

That being said, recommendation letters from someone you don’t know well should be fine. It’s just better for you to know the person.

6. Seek Out Financial Aid

The average cost for one year of medical school at a public institution is around $30,000; private colleges cost even more at over $50,000 per year. With this in mind, financial aid should be high on your list of priorities.

Start by finding funding sources you do not have to pay back. Apply to every scholarship and grant you qualify for. Look for assistantships as well — in addition to helping you pay for school, assistantships improve your resume and give you valuable experience.

Look into service programs, too. Various government or military programs may cover some medical school costs if you work for them for a set number of years.

Only after you have exhausted the above options should you consider loans. Go for federal loans first, as these loans tend to have lower interest rates than private loans. Additionally, federal loans come with several repayment plans and forgiveness programs should you need them down the road. Finally, consider private loans if you still need funding.

7. Prepare for Application Costs

Now, you already know that medical school itself is expensive, but just applying will cost you thousands of dollars as well.

The Student Doctor Network’s Medical School Application Cost Calculator is a helpful tool to estimate your application costs. This calculator runs you through each step of the application process, from MCAT registration to your interviews. It even includes costs you may not think about, like dry cleaning your suit before interviews. At the end of the process, the Cost Calculator will generate a cost summary.

If you think you will need assistance with application costs, check out the fee assistance programs offered by the AAMC and the AACOM early – these programs offer limited numbers of fee waivers to qualifying students.

8. Gain Unique, Meaningful Experiences

As a medical school hopeful, much of your competition will have excellent grades, strong MCAT scores, and medical experience. Stand apart from them by having unique and meaningful experiences.

The AMCAS application has 3 spots for your “most meaningful” experiences. You’ll want to demonstrate your well-roundedness, so stick to a maximum of two medical-related experiences. Fill out the other one or two spots with unique non-medical experiences.

On the application, you want to tell a story about your experience instead of just listing what you did. Admissions officers have to read thousands of applications — an engaging story will catch and hold their attention.

9. Gain Some Real-World Medical Experience

Med school admissions don’t expect you to have experience treating patients, as you aren’t even a med student yet. However, they like to see that you’re taking initiative and familiarizing yourself with your field.

Shadowing a doctor is a popular way to see what your future career will be like — but it’s not the only way to gain real-world experience. You could get a job as a medical scribe, become a Certified Nursing Assistant, or work as an EMT, to name a few. Even serving as a caretaker for an ill family member is favorable in the eyes of admissions.

10. Perform Research

Research experience isn’t as important to admissions as clinical experience — unless you plan on attending a research-heavy institution or enrolling in an MD/Ph.D. program — but it can still bolster your application.

No need to perform bench research if you don’t want to, though. There are plenty of clinical research opportunities available at hospitals.

11. Ask Experienced People to Proofread Your Essays

Don’t forget about your essays, as they’re a crucial piece of your overall application. Seek out a few doctors to read your essays and provide feedback. Make sure they not only find spelling/grammar errors but that they comment on the actual content of the essays.

Additionally, have a pre-med advisor read your essay. They know the application process quite well, allowing them to provide additional insight that doctors well out of school might not.

Of course, everyone’s opinion is different. Don’t worry about factoring in every piece of feedback — instead, use them as guidance.

12. Run Through Practice Interviews

Practice interviews can sharpen your ability to answer questions — perhaps more importantly, though, they can reduce your nerves and make you a more confident candidate on your interview days.

The best practice interviewers are pre-med advisors and doctors. Being knowledgeable about the medical field, they will push you hard to adequately explain why you want to be a doctor.

If you feel you’re a keen interviewer already, you may be able to skip out on practice and dedicate your attention to other parts of the application process. A little bit of practice never hurts, though.

When the interview day comes, it’s essential to be able to talk about everything on your application authentically and in detail — but you also want to be yourself. Interviewers want to get to know the real you as well; your chances of getting in increase if they like you at the end of the interview. And after the interview, don’t forget to thank your interviewers.

Summary

Getting into medical school is tough, but it’s not impossible. Keeping your grades up, becoming a well-rounded candidate through work and extracurricular activities, and applying early and broadly will increase your chances of landing spots at a few schools. Make sure to study hard for the MCAT, collect your recommendations early, and prepare thoroughly for your interviews.

For more great educational tips, check out the other blogs on College Basics.