The Four Pillars of A Successful Medical School Application

Medical school. Just the words invoke ideas of sleepless nights, hard work, and prestige. Even today, being a physician is viewed as one of the most respected professions, inhabited by many of the smartest people on the planet. Becoming a physician is a dream of many, but a realization of few.

Despite the fact that many college students start out “pre med,” few actually reach the finish line with an acceptance letter in hand. Why? Not enough dedication to the years of study? Not enough intelligence to make the high scores? Often I’m sure a combination of both, but maybe the biggest obstacle is simply not understanding or knowing the path to a great application.



The Four Pillars of A Successful Medical School Application


You don’t need to cure cancer. You don’t need to invent the next great medical device. But you should get some experience in classical bench research prior to applying. A great way to do this is spend a month or two one summer of undergrad assisting in a lab. Find a paid position if you can and make it your summer job. I spent two months after my freshman year counting blood cells for an alternative medicine hypothesis. There was no paper from my work and I was paid to do it. But it came up not only on my medical school interviews but even into residency. Admissions directors just want to know you are capable of basic research and generally interested in improving medicine or science.

Clinical Experience
If you haven’t shadowed a physician, especially primary care, you probably shouldn’t even be thinking of medical school. The medical life isn’t for everyone. You need to see it in action, feel the hours, feel the stress that patients bring in. For your application, spend another month or two each with a couple of physicians. This is easier to set up at any time, but I recommend dedicating a few months during sophomore year to getting hands on time with real docs in the community. Additionally, the opportunity to do CLINICAL volunteer work, where you mix shadowing and volunteer work, is generally looked upon very favorably by admissions committees. My experience was that I did a lot of dedicated shadowing, and then also spent time at a free clinic where I both shadowed and volunteered.

A common question I get is, “My GPA is X, can I get into medical school?” The answer is probably truthfully “maybe.” A GPA is different from different schools. I graduated with a 4.0 from a State school and I know that GPAs in the upper 3.8-9 region from big universities were probably looked upon higher. The general rule is >3.5 is toward the bottom for MD schools, while >3.7 is probably much safer. What to major in? That’s its own post but the short answer is that the best major is the one you enjoy and the one you could make a job of it you don’t end up on medical school.

“The great equalizer.” Everything else on this list is subjective. Medical schools don’t know how hard it is to have a certain GPA at your school or how difficult Honors Chem 450 was. They don’t know whether your shadowing experience was hands on for weeks, or simply stopping by a doctor office one afternoon. Your research could have taken hours and hours of involvement, or maybe you just knew someone who was happy to add your name to a research paper. But medical schools know the MCAT. It’s the singular aspect of applications that is a direct comparison. Because of this, it’s the most important part of your application. A great MCAT score can overshadow an otherwise very weak application, and likewise a poor score can make even the best of students struggle for acceptance. Spend the most time on this one. Plan your study out months and months in advance. Begin daily studying at least 3 months out. Take courses if you need to. Do full length timed practice tests. And most importantly, do every single practice question you can get your hands on.

Honorable mention goes to non-clinical volunteer work. But like most other extracurriculars, while they may help your application and peak some admission committee members interest, they certainly aren’t required.

A great medical school application takes ideally takes years of advanced planning to incorporate components of each of the above. But once this layout is known, having strong aspects of each is a sure way to get yourself in position for acceptance.

My plan:
Research during summer after freshman year.
Clinical experience throughout sophomore year.
MCAT – study a dedicated summer after sophomore year. Take the exam before classes start again. Repeat if needed during summer after junior year.
Keep the GPA above 3.7.

Best of luck! Shoot your thoughts in the comments area!


Editors note: I received a comment suggesting it was crazy to have research over volunteer experience on this list. I generally was referring to non-medical volunterrism. A few extra thoughts:

– By being “pre-med” you will have the opportunity to do a lot of small volunteer projects that you basically just have to show up for or be a smaller part of a bigger project.  Yes I would do a couple of these to pad the resume. If you’ve been going to Africa every summer on mission trips saving children or have a charitable organization you’ve personally started – that’s better than most research and not what I’m talking about. For most of us volunteerism is a simple gift of time at local already established organizations and often not clinically related. Good clinical volunteerism, like at a free clinic, where you are mixing shadowing and volunteerism, is going to be much more desirable than any non-clinical experience.

– If I had one free month and could only do research vs volunteer – I’d still go research, especially if that research is attached to a medical school you are interested in attending. It will likely better build academic connections and a better letter of recommendation over a local volunteer experience. Medicine can still be a lot about who you know. Also, medical schools have bias to pick strong research candidates – they will likely continue and bring $ to the university. You’ll find a lot more jerks with great research experience than heart of golds who don’t know their way around a lab in med school, that’s just a fact of life. 

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