Ask The Experts: Get the Inside Track on Medical School AdmissionsAugust 18, 2021
It’s no secret that applying to medical school is extremely competitive. As a prospective medical student, you want to put your best foot forward as you navigate your way through the complicated admissions process.
To help you do that, two proven leaders of US medical school academia who have been training MDs for more than 30 years – Joseph Flaherty, MD, dean emeritus of the University of Illinois College of Medicine and president of Western Atlantic University School of Medicine (WAUSM), and Paula Wales, EdD, WAUSM’s executive dean and chief academic officer and co-founder of Nova Southeastern University’s Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Allopathic Medicine, sat down to answer some common questions and give you a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of a medical school admissions committee.
When applying to medical school, what are the main criteria considered and what are some things that may catch an admissions committee’s eye and help me stand out?
Dr. Flaherty: Every admissions committee is going to look at your grade point average (GPA) and Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) scores first. Some medical schools have broken the GPA down further into science and non-science GPAs. Others, I think quite unfairly, use a rating percent times the GPA, making a GPA from universities or colleges that are considered “prestigious” count more than others.
GPA and MCAT scores are two very different things. It’s possible to get a high GPA by not taking difficult courses; however, that can lead to not having enough knowledge to score well on the MCAT. You need to balance what you think you will get good grades in with the knowledge you need to do well on the MCAT. Most medical schools are going to have a bottom cushion that requires this much GPA and this much MCAT, and often they’re wielded into a cognitive index that combines both.
In general, what you major in doesn’t get a lot of attention; however, the trend over the last 10 years has been those who have the desired GPA and MCAT scores and have majored in either engineering or computer science because of the increasingly technical aspects of medicine.
Special interests and accomplishments do catch the admissions committee’s eye, but they’re looking for candidates that have a steadfast interest in a certain area of at least one to three years. If you spent a day on the paternity blood drive it really won’t count. They want to see a long-term commitment. Any other accomplishments you have – a vocation, presentation or national meeting, speaking several languages, these things all are important as well.
Dr. Wales: One other thing is to look at the website of the school where you are applying to make sure you meet the prerequisites. We will be looking at GPA and MCAT, as Dr. Flaherty said, and really underscore diversity – whether that be diversity in terms of race, gender, thought, or even interest. Special interests really do pique other people’s interests.
What are your suggestions for writing a standout personal statement?
Dr. Flaherty: The best recommendation I can give is to let go of your ego and find someone to review it who can give you candid feedback. It’s not meant to be tricky; it’s meant to be straightforward and should answer two main questions: “Why do I want to be a doctor?” and “What do I want to do with medicine?”.
Admissions committees have a talent for detecting students who are less than fully sincere. If you’re funny and have a great sense of humor that comes through on paper (again, have somebody critique it) you can be creative and bring humor into it. Otherwise, give a straightforward response instead.
If your reason is a personal interest, and often it is, the committee members will relate to that. I had two brothers with developmental disabilities that clearly got my interest up. If you can describe that in a way that isn’t self-serving, do it. You don’t want to get too maudlin and yet if you can show a side of yourself that has some sympathy and empathy in a realistic manner, go ahead and do that. Otherwise, the usual story isn’t going to depart too much. You’re not going to score a point but you’re not going to score a demerit either.
Dr. Wales: It’s a tough balance because to get into medical school you must be hyper focused on yourself and your performance, but what an admissions committee wants to see are candidates who are going to serve patients. So, if you can, include details related to empathy in your personal statement.
Also, in my own personal experience, very few medical school applicants send a personal thank you note anymore. A lot of them emailed, and that seems to be very common these days, but when someone mails a thank you, it stands out because it’s so unusual.
Another thing that stood out for me and my fellow committee members was email etiquette – or more to the point, a lack of it – that led to a bad impression. It’s important to be always professional.
How important are letters of recommendation? Who, ideally, should write them?
Dr. Flaherty: Committees do look at personal letters of recommendation, and my advice would be to get them from people who know you. Ask them if they have the time to write a thorough letter. You might have had a prestigious professor at your university but if they don’t know you well, they won’t be able to write a powerful letter for you. If you can get a professor or endowed professor instead of a teaching assistant that will carry some weight, but again, only if that professor knows you and can speak directly to your accomplishments, etc. Usually, two or three of the letters will be from where you went to college or graduate school; if there’s one where you have any work experience – a community agency or practicing physician that can write a letter – include that as well. We’re looking to see how well you get along with people, do you care about them or have an idea of service to the community or the individual?
Dr. Wales: Right. Your MCAT and GPA will show us if you can do it academically but what we really want to know is, are you a decent human being who’s going to make a good doctor?
How important is it for me to be able to articulate why I want to become a MD?
Dr. Flaherty: It’s very important you tell us why. It’s important to show that there was some evolution – or, if that wasn’t the case, you should be honest in stating that the realization came late – especially if your MCAT and GPA are a little on the border. Take the time to think about why you’re writing this letter. Don’t get so taken by trying to figure out what an admissions committee wants to hear that you forget to be genuine. If you spend some time thinking and reflecting, your comments will come out much more natural and credible.
Dr. Wales: You must find a balance. If you have a student who says, “I have known since the moment I emerged from my mother’s womb I was destined to be a surgeon,” you worry about them because they may not be flexible, they may not make it. On the flip side of that, if you have a student who can’t articulate why they want to be a doctor you worry about that, too. Medical school is tough and if you don’t know why you want to be there than the worry is (again) that you may not be able to make it. The admissions committee is looking for the middle ground – they don’t want people who have no idea why they’re there, nor people who are so committed to a certain specialty that they’ll never be happy doing anything else. The sweet spot we’re looking for is candidates who feel compelled to help others and want to learn as much as they can; we want to know that the fire is in their belly – that they’re called to become a MD.
How much weight does volunteer work/research and/or other related experiences carry?
Dr. Wales: We look for people who have been involved in something for a long time. We want to see that you’re interested in something and committing your time to it, regardless of your role. And it could be that you put that in your personal statement; that you’ve had the opportunity to volunteer or serve on teams and you learned collaborative skills. If you happened to be the leader of that group, I think you can say that and highlight it.
Dr. Flaherty: Some of those activities will be individual and that’s fine, but if any of them show you working as part of a group in synchrony, that’s increasingly something admissions committees will look at.
I’m a second time applier – how can I increase my chances of acceptance?
Dr. Flaherty: First, the most important thing you can do is take a course or series of courses specifically designed to help you get your MCAT score up. If you spent a year getting your grades up and/or got a master’s degree in something that’s the second most important thing.
Dr. Wales: Many of the students who have applied have already finished undergrad, so there is no way they can influence their undergraduate GPA. Something some admissions committees will do is if a student is enrolled in some sort of master’s degree program, we would stipulate that their acceptance was contingent on completion of that degree. Echoing Dr. Flaherty’s suggestion, I would also encourage you to take some sort of MCAT course that’s going to improve your score. But the “reasons why” for each applicant is so individual and it’s true that there are more qualified students than slots and it could be that the student is very well qualified, it’s just that there aren’t enough spaces for them.
How can I show off my unique skills in the best light?
Dr. Wales: I think interesting things you do – anything that is a little different, it catches people’s attention. So, just from a personal perspective, I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school in the “normal” 12 years. I hid that for years because I was embarrassed by it and didn’t realize that overcoming that is actually a sign of strength, not something to hide.
Dr. Flaherty: Again, have someone critique it but if your academic scores are borderline and you come from a reasonably poor family and had to work in high school and/or college, or if your parents had less than a high school education, you should note that because some admissions committees are going to recognize that you were on a very positive trajectory even though it might not have seemed that way.
How important is the MCAT? How many times do you recommend taking the MCAT? How can I best prepare for the MCAT and what can I do if I’m not a strong test taker?
Dr. Flaherty: If you’re not a strong test taker you probably know it by now and I can think of two things that may be helpful: The first is taking something like the Kaplan course on MCATs; the second is taking a few sessions with a learning specialist. Many students, particularly those that are on the border, are not good at time management.
Dr. Wales: I agree with everything Dr. Flaherty said. A structured, in-person program can help you perform better on the MCAT. And you must because the MCAT score is extremely important as a predictor of how you will perform on later standardized tests, and there is no way to get through medical school without taking those tests.
What I’ve seen in medical students is that they’ve done well in high school but sometime during the first year of medical school they will be tested and be eligible for accommodations. What’s important to remember about that is the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) will not recognize accommodations unless the student has had them almost their entire life.
I would recommend taking the MCAT three or four times.
What should I expect during a medical school interview? Are there different types of interviews? What can I do to prepare?
Dr. Flaherty: The best thing to do to prepare is write down three or four main points you want to make during the interview no matter what, and maybe have a few subpoints if it goes to that and then practice the interview. Have someone, maybe a teaching assistant, graduate student, or roommate, do mock interviews with you to get you over the jitters. A key thing is to be yourself. It’s easily said, hard to do, but that’s what you want to do. Also, recognize that your interviewers are going to vary tremendously in their capacity for interviewing, their motivation for interviewing, and the influence they have. Some will be a little high handed and off-putting; others are going to come in saying we’d love to have you come to our medical school, tell us more about you. Don’t be offended by the ones that are a little more abrasive – that’s their nature; it’s not going to affect you.
A cautionary note is that medical schools often have students spend lunch with you or spend an hour to “get to know you” and tell you about the medical school from their point of view in a more relaxed environment. Many will elicit an evaluation from those students that counts considerably in the application process, so be ready to tell your personal story and explain any red marks on your application.
You should also be prepared to talk about topics in medicine that interest you, so have a couple things for when these questions arise.
In terms of dress, wear the standard interview outfit which is almost universal for men and women – a dark suit. Women can have the option of wearing a dress.
Dr. Wales: There are a couple different kinds of interviews. One would be interviews with faculty where you might have one-on-one interview(s) where you’ll carry on individual conversations. There are also interviews that consist of a panel of faculty that can be a little more challenging. There’s also a third kind of performance-based interviews that include the MMI, or multiple mini interview, and problem-based learning (PBL) interview.
MMIs are interesting because they look like interviews, but you’ll be asked to answer questions that have no right or wrong answer. What they’re looking for is how you think things through, so be ready to explain your rationale and thought process.
In the PBL interview, you will be put into an actual PBL group and what we are looking for are good members of the team who demonstrate they can both participate and lead.
You won’t necessarily know what kind of interview you’re going to get, so it might help to talk to other people who have applied to figure out what style they use, or you can even ask when they invite you for the interview what to expect in terms of style.
My advice would also be to recognize that the interview starts from the moment you are contacted by the school. Interact well and professionally with the staff who are scheduling you; if you meet with students for lunch or dinner, remember that you are being interviewed the entire time.
Is “medical school fit” important? How will I know if I’ve found the “right” medical school?
Dr. Flaherty: A medical school’s reputation often has little to do with the quality of the teaching or the learning experience. Their reputation is based either on research, patient care, or circular reasoning. You’re looking at the quality and comfort. If you have a choice, you probably want to go with more prestige but not necessarily.
Ask yourself, did you feel comfortable there? All medical schools are going to have the same curriculum, though some things will be delivered in slightly better or interesting ways, so I’d look at how they deliver their curriculum, but the main issue is comfort – in the school, in the professors you meet, in the students – is it a place where you feel you can really get down and dirty studying? You want to feel like you can belong there.
Dr. Wales: Medical school is hard. There are going to be hard days, weeks, and months, and you need to make sure that wherever you are, you feel like you fit there and have support. Look at the curriculum, student affairs, and the students. Try to find out if there is a formal mentoring and advising program? Will you be assigned a faculty member who will get to know you? See if there is opportunity to work in small groups; healthcare is delivered in teams so look for opportunities to be put in small groups repeatedly. Almost every school is going to offer early patient experience – make sure you have that and look for standardized patient experience as well. You might ask how their students perform on Step 1 and Step 2 and the MATCH. Fit is extremely important because you are going to be there for at least four years and they’re going to be four hard years, so don’t go somewhere just because you got accepted or it’s the most prestigious place. Are you better off being a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond? Try to find a support system that fits for you. Medical students and applicants need to know they can’t do this alone. Medical school is not a solo sport. Medicine is not a solo sport. You need a team and a support system to flourish.
How many medical schools do you suggest applying to?
Dr. Flaherty: It’s hard to give a number but I’d say 15 at the minimum. Bear in mind your budget, look and see how many may be doing interviews virtually – many have the last year or two and probably will continue.
Dr. Wales: With AMCAS, you can apply to all medical schools without any additional fees. The fees come out on the secondary, so apply to all that you can within your budget, and for secondaries pick only the ones you really want to go to.