What To Expect In Medical School Applications, From A Doctor

There is already an abundance of information online regarding medical school applications, how to submit letters of recommendation, etc. During today’s Q + A session, Dr. Andrew Nimmich of Tutor the People, addresses the more difficult questions commonly asked by pre-meds. The types of questions that are responsible for the most misinformation regarding the medical school applications process. Andrew Nimmich, is an incoming PGY-1 in vascular surgery, a recent graduate of Boston University School of Medicine, and co-founder and pre-med advisor at Tutor the People, where he has worked with many pre-meds to help them apply to medical school and increase their scores on the MCAT.

What are medical schools looking for?

Medical schools are interested in applicants with excellent academic abilities, strong interpersonal skills, clear dedication to medicine and medical science, and demonstrated compassion. That’s great, but how do we show this on the application and what activities are best?

Below I will breakdown how to demonstrate each attribute on your application with examples.

Academic abilities – Everyone knows that strong grades and MCAT scores demonstrate academic excellence. But what about freshman year where you received a 2.9 GPA? The good news is that the admissions committees are made up of humans, some of whom had 2.9 GPAs their freshman year. They understand that not everyone is perfect, however, what they like to see is an uptrend in grades. Did you fix the issue, overcome adversity, and come out with a cumulative GPA of 3.7? Terrific! Everyone loves an underdog story, and some may look at this as evidence of your adaptability and ability to overcome adversity. However, it’s always better to start out on-top, as overcoming a low GPA can be very stressful.

Interpersonal Skills – These skills will be demonstrated by volunteering, employment, research experiences, letters of recommendation, and leadership roles. The modern hospital is made up of interdisciplinary teams consisting of nurses, social workers, pharmacists, etc. For example, let’s say you were 1st author on a research project where you lead the team and you did a phenomenal job. This demonstrates your leadership abilities, gives you not only a research publication, but a (hopefully) glowing letter of recommendation from your principal investigator who can vouch for your ability to work within and lead a team of individuals from different backgrounds. If you don’t have any other leadership roles on your application, you can do something that contributes to your community like a fundraiser event for a specific illness you are passionate about. Anything that benefits your community and application is always a great idea. The ideas here are endless! What’s important is that you do something you are passionate about: this will really shine through on your application.

Dedication to medicine and medical sciences – Do not underestimate the importance of your demonstrated dedication to the medical field on your application. To say that medical school is a difficult and trying experience would be an understatement. On days when you feel like quitting, your zeal for medicine will be what keeps you going. It is really important that the admissions committee understands that you wouldn’t rather be doing anything else in the world. You can demonstrate this by significant shadowing experience, obtaining employment in the medical field (such as being a medical scribe or medical tech) in addition to stressing the driving factors for pursuing a career in medicine on your personal statement. What’s more, showing you are committed to contributing to medical sciences is always a good idea. I know many students really dislike the practice of medical research and some really like it. Even if you dislike it, I recommend doing it. Understanding how research is conducted will not only really help your application, it will make you more familiar with the inner workings of research projects. As the guidelines for the recommended treatments for your future patients are created from medical research, this is extremely important for you to understand. The ability to properly evaluate research is a skill all physicians must acquire, and it is better to start sooner rather than later.

Demonstrated compassion – There are many ways to demonstrate your compassion, or how you care about the wellbeing of others. You can volunteer in an underserved community (clinical or nonclinical work is fine, but clinical may be better if you need more patient contact) or you can start a charity or fundraiser. However, perhaps one of the most significant and overlooked ways you can show your compassion for others is by how you tell patient stories and demonstrate your values through a well crafted application and personal statement. Checking off all the boxes for a stellar application is one thing, but how you tell your story and how you describe your activities is ALL the admissions committees see. If you fail to describe yourself and the activities in a way that demonstrates your potential to be a caring and compassionate physician, you are doing your application a disservice. We have many compassionate students that we work with at TTP who need a bit of direction as to how to show this on paper.

How do medical schools feel about students who take time off prior to applying, or “non-traditional” applicants?

The average age of the first year medical student is 25, as many students do not attend medical school directly from college. I was 28 when I matriculated. Being an older applicant, I was able to accumulate more volunteer hours, more shadowing hours, obtain new leadership positions, and improve my cumulative GPA through taking advanced level science courses. I was also able to explore different career paths. Having these unique experiences, the added maturity that correlates with older age, and more time to make your application shine are all added benefits to applying after taking some time after college prior to applying. More and more medical schools are appreciating the experience that comes with being a non-traditional applicant. However, I do not recommend this path for everyone. Medical school and residency training is a long and expensive career path, and budget and time should always be of concern. I recommend students take time off in between school and the applications process under two scenarios:

If their application needs more work prior being submitted for fear it is not competitive enough for acceptance.

If they are not positive that medicine is the right career path for them. It is important to spend ample time in the hospital setting and decide medicine is not right for you prior to applying. Deciding in your during medical school can be disastrous, so it is best to get as much exposure as possible beforehand.

Remember! Any time off between college and applying to medical school should be spent on activities that enrich your experience and augment your application. If not, taking time off can indeed hurt your application.

How many medical schools should I apply to?

This is a question I get often and one where I feel students are typically led astray by others. The average number of schools that students apply to is around 12–15. Most students apply to the schools in their state of residence in addition to private schools which are friendly to out of state applicants. 12-15 schools is OK for most competitive applicants. However, for the applicant that is on the border of acceptance with their GPA, MCAT score, or extracurriculars, applying to 12-15 schools is a risky option. For students whose application is less competitive, I recommend applying to more than 25 schools and focusing on in-state schools, private schools, and schools that have an out-of-state friendly reputation. You can find out which schools are friendly to out of state applicants by visiting forums like Student Doctor Network. Sure, it is more expensive to submit an extra 10 applications, but it is far more expensive to reapply and push your entire timeline back a year because you didn’t get off the waitlist. For all applicants, if you are worried about your chances and are on the grey area of acceptance, the more schools you apply to, the higher chance you have of getting accepted.

How do I decide which schools to apply to?

In my and my colleagues’ experience, as pre-meds we spent a lot of time calculating our chances for acceptance to different institutions based on statistics, but most accepted applicants will tell you, where you end up getting accepted and rejected can be quite surprising. Many students I know were accepted to their reach schools and rejected from their safety schools. The reason for this is multifaceted but comes down to all of the non-quantifiable factors of the application. Are you in the range of their MCAT and GPA? This is a good way to start to plan out your list of schools. The Medical Schools Admissions Requirement book (MSAR) contains all of the information for each school, including average GPA and MCAT scores. However, keep in mind that applying to some reach schools is OK. More and more schools are looking at which applicants are the right “fit.” Does the school’s mission involve a dedication to working with underserved populations, and does this applicant have experiences that demonstrate said dedication? If so, a school may be willing to overlook other weak areas of an application that are less appealing as the student has demonstrated they are a good fit for the institution. Of course, it also matters if you feel the school is the right fit for you! Look on forums, ask friends and mentors to determine if a certain school is a place you would like to be. One more obvious criteria for creating a school list of course comes down to where you want to live for four years.

About the Author:

Dr. Andrew Nimmich is a recent graduate of Boston University School of Medicine and a Co-Founder of Tutor the People: a services that provides online and in-person MCAT test prep. He works with premedical students on-on-one to help formulate their application strategy and timeline, and to help craft their personal statements effectively. Andrew is an incoming Integrated Vascular Surgery resident.

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