Getting into Medical School
One of the most important decisions that you will ever make is your career choice. Competition for admission to medical school is intense, and the coursework that follows requires an individual to think critically and employ discipline. Though the path to a career in medicine is a long one, it is intellectually challenging, financially secure, and personally rewarding.
Understanding medical school acceptance standards is a good first step toward pursuing your interest in a medical career. It is never too early to become informed so that you can make the most of opportunities to prepare yourself for the application process.
Key Factors in Medical School Acceptance
A medical school admissions committee is likely to be made up of teaching physicians from the clinical faculty, research faculty from the biological sciences, and medical students. Alumni or community physicians may also serve on admissions committees.
In considering an applicant, a committee will review:
Top Producing Medical Schools
Each year, the AAFP recognizes the top ten medical schools with the most graduates accepted into a family medicine residency program. These schools represent the best of the best in contributing to the pipeline of future family physicians.
Medical school admissions committees have no preference for one major or degree over another. Choose a major in which you have a real interest. Be sure to take English, biology, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and math (college algebra or above), regardless of your major choice.
Begin to research specific medical school admissions requirements, timing, and other application factors as early as possible, even during your freshman and sophomore years of undergraduate study.
Although GPA is important, medical school admissions committees seek students who demonstrate a balance between their academic success and other interests.
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) publishes the average applicant GPAs and MCAT scores for US medical schools from the previous academic year. This information will give you a good idea of current averages.
Whether you meet or exceed the averages reported, remember that each application involves a variety of factors, including but not limited to academic performance. Don't let your GPA determine whether you apply.
The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a multiple-choice, standardized test designed to assess problem solving, critical thinking, and writing skills in addition to knowledge of science concepts and princles prerequisite to the study of medicine. MCAT scores are utilized by medical college admissions committees as a factor in the admission decision process.
The test consists of four sections:
- Biological and biochemical foundations of living systems
- Chemical and physical foundations of biological systems
- Psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior
- Critical analysis and reasoning skills
The MCAT exam takes approximately five hours to complete. You can take the MCAT a maximum of three times per year. Medical school admissions officers usually suggest that you take the test in the calendar year prior to the year in which you plan to enter medical school.
All US medical schools require the MCAT for admission, with the exception of very few special consideration programs.
If you have financial limitations, you may apply for fee assistance.
The personal statement is the last part of the application process, but preparation for this essay should begin as early as possible. This is one part of the admissions process in which applicants have a direct influence and should submit the best product possible.
While admissions committees often emphasize that they do not advise students about what to write, there are specific themes and topics that can be included. You want your personal statement to reflect your goals and the qualities that are unique to you, so that you stand out. As you start your essay, take the time to carefully reflect on the academic foundation you have built and the experiences that have contributed to the development of your character and led to your decision to pursue a career in medicine.
Possible themes to include in a personal statement:
- Reasons or motivation behind choosing medicine as a career
- An experience that influenced your career choice
- Qualifications and accomplishments that make you stand out
- Personal values that reflect commitment to a service-oriented career
Ten Tips for Writing a Personal Statement Essay
- Develop a theme for your essay and write about a topic that you know about and that also excites you.
- Use concrete examples and personal details.
- Be concise. Every word counts and “fluff” is easily detected.
- Address any weaknesses in your application, but don’t dwell on them.
- Pay attention to good writing skills, including use of the active voice, sentence structure, vocabulary, and transitions. Avoid the use of clichés.
- Focus on capturing the reader’s attention.
- Revise your essay multiple times.
- Have multiple people review your essay, including professors, friends and family for an outside viewpoint.
- Do not use the essay as an autobiography. Avoid listing information.
- Be authentic.
Most medical schools require a personal interview, though the specific processes differ among schools. Interviews may take place on or off campus. Interviews may be conducted by an admissions committee member, by multiple members of the admissions committee, or by off-campus interviewers, such as practicing physicians and/or current students. Generally, the interview assessments are added to the admissions file.
During the interview be prepared to answer questions in the following topical areas:
- Critical thinking skills and problem solving
- Ethical questions and scenarios
- Grades and test scores
- Personal attributes and experiences including philosophical viewpoints
- Career choice - be prepared to verbalize the answer to “Why do you want to go into medicine?”
- Attributes that make you a great fit with the medical school
"Does every medical school offer primary care curriculum?"
Medical schools vary in their emphasis and approach to including primary care in their overall curriculum. If you're interested in family medicine, you'll want to look for programs with characteristics and courses of study that support your future direction.
We've created a checklist of indicators that you can look for during your research and interviews with medical schools to explore their approach to primary care.
Admissions committees view involvement in extracurricular activities very favorably. If you can maintain a competitive grade point average in a rigorous curriculum and still actively participate in extracurricular activities, this demonstrates a high aptitude and work ethic. Many successful pre-med students join a variety of organizations, play varsity and intramural sports, participate in theatrical and singing groups, and all the other things done by a typical student. Leadership positions in these areas can also show commitment and personal growth. However, it must be emphasized that no amount of involvement in extracurricular activities can substitute for a good academic record or strong MCAT scores. Successful pre-med students have clear priorities and have learned to manage their time wisely.
Work experience related to the medical field is of particular value when applying to medical school. The primary value of working in a hospital, doctor’s office, public health clinic or nursing home is to increase your exposure to the field and also help you decide whether to pursue a career in medicine. Many admissions committees will view this type of medically related work experience favorably. This is not a prerequisite to admissions, but is becoming increasingly important.
Students who have shadowed health professionals show that they have taken the initiative to investigate their career choice and have spent time and effort learning about the career. It is very important to keep track of physicians you have shadowed and the number of hours you spent in their offices. It is a good idea to shadow different professionals, not just physicians, to give you a broad perspective of the health care system. It is also important to shadow one or two professionals on a regular basis so that they may become familiar with you and your career goals. These individuals are more likely to feel comfortable writing you a letter of recommendation if they have mentored you or allowed you to follow them on an ongoing basis. It would also be a good idea to journal your experiences while shadowing. Journaling provides an opportunity for you to document your experiences for future application materials and experiences that can be written about in your personal statement.
- Wear flat comfortable shoes, but avoid sandals and open-toe or athletic shoes.
- Men should wear nice dress pants and a pressed shirt. Shirts should be tucked in. Ties are optional.
- Women should wear below the knee dresses or dressy pants and a conservative top.
- Avoid clothing that is revealing or exposes undergarments.
- Avoid excessive jewelry or fragrances.
Ask questions. Come prepared with two or three questions to ask the preceptor (physician you shadow).
Follow instructions. Do exactly what your preceptor or the staff asks you to do. Respect patient confidentiality and privacy. Do not talk about the patient or their information at any time. Not only is it unethical, but it is also illegal. You will likely be asked to sign paperwork that informs you of federal privacy rules called HIPAA.
Be self-aware. If at any time during a procedure you feel light-headed or dizzy, alert the physician and leave the patient’s room to sit down. Some students find it helpful to have a light snack prior to starting the clinical session.
Volunteering not only helps students decide whether medicine is the right field for them, it is a way to provide service to the community. Medical school admissions guides strongly urge their applicants to have engaged in some kind of volunteer activity before applying to medical school. Volunteering is viewed as increasingly important when it comes to admission decisions. It conveys commitment and integrity. You can’t demonstrate those traits in only a few days or a month of volunteer service.
Experience in scientific research is recommended by admissions committees for the academically strong student who has such an interest. This type of experience is essential if you aspire to a career in academic medicine or research. Many undergraduates develop an interest in pursuing research as a career while participating in projects in the laboratory of a faculty member.
Medical school admissions committees may also consider:
- Evaluations from faculty members who had the student in class
- The applicant's state of residence
- The applicant's specialty choice
- Physician specialty needs in the state where the medical school is located
Thoroughly review each school's application to ensure that you're supplying all of the information requested.
"What if I don't get accepted to medical school?"
If an applicant is rejected in the preliminary screening, medical schools require a secondary application, which will be mailed upon receipt of the AMCAS or AACOMAS application. Most schools require an additional application fee, which must be mailed to the school with the completed secondary application.
There is usually a deadline date for filing the secondary application. This deadline date should be carefully observed. Check with individual schools for specific requirements and deadlines.
Most secondary applications include:
- Biographical Information
- Dual Degree Program (optional)
- Test Scores
- Clinical Health Experience
- Essay Questions
- Statement of Disciplinary Actions
- Statement of Nondiscrimination
- Letters of Evaluation
Specialize in the Human Family
Family physicians focus on the whole person. By building relationships with their patients over time, family physicians are able to develop a comprehensive understanding of their patients’ health, and offer insightful, personal guidance and treatment for every stage of life.