“It’s harder than ever to get into medical school,” Forbes recently declared in a report highlighting the soaring number of medical applications since 2020. Whereas changes in application rates vary by only 2-3% per year, the pandemic, which highlighted the essential role of health care workers, has caused that rate to rise to 17.8% for the 2021-22 admissions cycle.
That number is even higher in California, where medical schools, such as UC Davis, have reported a whooping 40% increase in submitted applications. It is likely the pandemic is also responsible for increasing migrations toward warmer climates, since outdoors activities and houses with backyards are increasingly coveted.
For students just starting their journeys toward becoming medical professionals, there are important questions to consider in these shifting cultural circumstances, including:
In this article, we summarize all the essential points for students looking to start their medical careers on the West Coast.
We have ranked in the top-five pre-med schools in California using three factors:
Occupying the 6th spot in US News’s 2022 Best Colleges ranking, Stanford University is arguably the best place to start a pre-med academic track. It supplies the second largest number of students to elite medical schools after Harvard University and has a wide range of student and advising services available for pre-med students.
With its Biology and Chemistry departments ranked 6th and 2nd, respectively, according to US News’s 2022 Subject Rankings, UC Berkeley is an attractive option for prospective pre-med students. Along with Stanford, it is also a Top Feeder for elite medical schools. It sits in 6th place, right underneath Yale University.
As the No. 1 public university according to US News and No. 20 in its 2022 National Universities Ranking, UCLA should also be high on the pre-med dream list in California. For the 2021-22 medical school application cycle, the Association of American Medical Colleges said UCLA registered the highest number of undergrad students submitting applications to medical school.
Ranked 27th in US News’ 2022 National Universities Ranking, USC is also a great place for students to kickstart their medical education. USC is known for its Office of Pre-Health Advisement, which helps USC students get into their dream medical schools through careful curriculum planning, interview skills training, and other health-related student services.
Ranked No. 34 in US News’s 2020 National Universities Ranking, UC San Diego is a final great option for students to consider as the home of their pre-med career. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 757 UC San Diego students applied to medical schools in 2021. It is likely that most of these students were successful – UC San Diego ranked No. 22 in the Top Feeders list of undergraduate institutions supplying the most students to elite medical schools. That’s more than many of its rivals on the East Coast, including New York University.
Medical school admissions committees are aware that universities, whatever their rank or prestige, often provide the same education quality. That said, pre-med students who have the backing of a prestigious university hold a clear advantage, especially if their undergraduate alma mater also boasts its own medical school.
For example, it is unsurprising the undergraduate school with the most Stanford Medicine admits in 2020 was Stanford itself, with 12 successful applicants. Among the remaining six institutions included in Stanford’s Top Feeder Schools list are UCLA and USC, supplying its in-state rival with three students each.
Given California’s tight-knit web of universities, similar statistics show a clear advantage for California pre-med students who want to remain in the state well into their medical school experience. The Keck School of Medicine of USC, for example, prides itself on having 83% of its Class of 2025to be coming from California, with seven of UC’s 10 campuses represented.
The value of a pre-med track degree from California is not limited to intrastate student exchanges – it also can send students to the other end of the country.
The University of California, Berkeley is indeed one of the highest contributing institutions to Boston’s Tufts University School of Medicine, supplying its Class of 2025 with almost as many students as Boston University.
California has a long history of providing a large number of students to some of the US’ top medical schools. The Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis keeps track of the universities supplying them with students since 2011. The top-five schools include two of California’s best colleges:
· Harvard University: 53 successful students
· University of California, Berkeley: 41 successful students
· Yale University: 39 successful students
· Duke University: 37 successful students
· University of Southern California: 30 successful students
Despite California schools leading the front in medical school admissions, a look at Harvard’s Class of 2025 profile provides a more holistic answer to the question of whether it matters which pre-med school applicants have attended. The 164 students accepted into their medical school come from 68 colleges across 31 US states and seven countries. These figures alone should encourage students to aim high with medical school list no matter what undergraduate program they graduated from.
Students can mention their ambition to enter medical school when applying to pre-med schools. However, California’s top colleges will be especially interested in how applicants can contribute to their own undergraduate communities and programs.
Here are our top-three tips for getting into a top pre-med school in California.
Schools with rigorous pre-med tracks want to understand students’ motivations for choosing one major over another. It will not look good on an application if it appears an aspiring pre-med student chose psychology as a proposed major because its admissions process is less competitive than biology.
Was it a curiosity for neuroscience that motivated you to choose psychology? Have you struggled with mental health yourself and now wish to understand it scientifically? Confident answers to these questions – and those combining personal and academic insights – will make applications stand out to undergraduate admissions officers.
Though universities in California attract students from around the world, it is essential for all applicants to shed light on the geographical considerations behind their application.
For in-state students, the idea of easier commutes or reduced tuition fees will not woo admissions officers. These students must reflect on why they are more equipped to remain in California for undergraduate studies. Does their current involvement in a local nonprofit require them to remain local to continue their commitment to the cause?
Students coming from out of state or from another country would have to explain to admissions officers why they are not better off staying local. These students are encouraged to get acquainted with local California culture and history. For example, a student from the East Coast applying to UCLA can use their high school foreign language units to demonstrate their interest in the differences in Hispanic cultures within the Los Angeles area rather than their tacit concern for sunnier climates.
If the warm Southern California climate is worth mentioning in a college application, it will be on the grounds that warmer environments foster tight-knit and active communities. You can also point out how high temperatures are further indicators we must gather together and fight climate change.
Either way, California universities want to learn about prospective students’ community work. Has volunteering experience in homeless shelters equipped you to tackle the housing crisis in Los Angeles? Do these extracurricular experiences push you to probe further into San Francisco’s urban planning?
Community might mean many things, including college campuses. Among Stanford’s essay questions, students have the option to “write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—get to know you better.” This essay prompt reveals how the best colleges in California are especially interested in students who strive to make their local surroundings welcoming to all.
UC Berkeley is right to claim there is “no better way to demonstrate your readiness for medical school than through experience as a helper, leader, and thinker.” We encourage students to build an undergraduate career around that trinity and strike a balanced lifestyle in and out of school.
Since care is at the heart of medical schools’ ethos, admissions officers will appreciate applicants who have invested time in helping others. Help can come in all forms and serve a range of stakeholders: individual doctors, hospitals, NGOs, and social programs.
Students can volunteer to shadow specific health professionals whose area of work appeals to their academic interests. For example, through Stanford’s SIMS program, students “are paired with a physician mentor and learn from a breadth of experiences including shadowing in clinics and on rounds, observing in the operating room, attending departmental Grand Rounds lectures, and other opportunities as identified.”
Though shadowing experience is useful for medical schools to evaluate if applicants will be able to assist medical professionals, students may also opt to volunteer at individual hospitals – rather than with individual doctors – to acquire a more general and holistic exposure to the day-to-day life of medical institutions.
For example, UCLA Health regularly invites applications to volunteer at its Santa Monica Facility. Accepted students are immersed in the full breadth of operations in a hospital as “positions range from administrative, to hospitality areas, to patient care settings.” Having acquired a bird’s-eye \view of how hospitals work, students from such volunteering programs have a better chance to convince medical schools they are fully aware of the complex environment they would like to enter.
Besides helping doctors and hospitals, students can be creative and dedicate time helping a range of underserved communities. Stanford recommends excellent options, such as working “with the physically or emotionally disabled, on a crisis hot-line, as a peer contraceptive counsellor, or at an alternative health care clinic, to name just a few.” These recommendations are all health related yet take place at various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social welfare agencies, broadening students’ horizons beyond the local hospital.
Likewise, students can consider volunteering opportunities that may not be directly related to health, but they can convince medical schools of their relevance. For example, an internship with a nonprofit working for the integration of asylum seekers can expose students to cases of torture and to the lived experiences of people from regions where health care access is scarce.
It does not matter where or whom students have helped before applying to medical school. Admissions officers are especially eager to hear about the lessons learned from the act of helping others.
Medical schools seek students who can lead in future research laboratories, hospital units, and academic conferences. Students are therefore encouraged to take up leading positions during their undergraduate career. A glance at some of the creative student-led initiatives at UCLA reveals how leadership is already valued and pursued among pre-med students.
An interesting collective at UCLA is THINQ, “a motivated group of undergraduate and graduate students working with physicians at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center to conduct clinical research and make proposals for the betterment of healthcare quality.” Having established direct channels of communication with doctors, researchers, and hospital administrators and access to a range of survey data, THINQ invites undergraduate students to benefit from these networks and resources and potentially come up with their own hands-on project.
One of THINQ’s past projects involving survey analysis sought to improve the relationship between medical doctors and registered nurses. Undergraduate students design and run these surveys, testing their leadership skills at the focal point of different stakeholders in hospital settings.
The student organizing at UCLA also prides itself in its commitment to serving their Los Angeles communities. For example, the university has a SWC CPR & First Aid Program that aims to “curb the rising trend of increasing pre-hospital deaths around the nation by teaching basic life-saving skills to community members.”
Their team of instructors comprises exclusively UCLA undergraduate students. When students become teachers, medical schools will appreciate their sense of leadership in health-related pedagogical settings.
Another interesting student-run association at UCLA is PULSE, which aims “to provide undergraduate students with the opportunity to experience all aspects of the hospital in their undergraduate career.”
PULSE is a great example where students help each other. Though applying to medical school is a competitive process, admissions officers will be especially receptive to applicants who have put competition aside and pushed their fellow peers to become as involved in the medical community as them.
It is also worth noting that PULSE was founded by students. Should pre-med students find a similar lack among student clubs in their respective universities, we recommend starting their own group. This shows the student’s sense of initiative and leadership capacity.
Though the medical school experience distinguishes itself primarily from undergraduate studies with its range of clinical experiences, a large share of its curriculum centers on academic methodologies, and graduates are expected to become effective doctors and curious scientists. It is telling that in its 2020 student profile, Stanford Medicine mentions 53% of its accepted students have published works in peer-reviewed publications.
Top medical schools desire promising scholars among their student bodies. Undergraduate students are encouraged to cultivate research interests that speak to them at a personal level. Is there a cellular behavior in your first-year biology class that is too fascinating to leave unquestioned? Did an elective course at the history department spark your interest in 19th-century medical practices?
Medical schools are especially attentive to applicants who can prove a great level of independent research and whose publications, articles, blogs, or course papers speak to larger research questions that they might want to pursue further with medical school faculty members. Therefore, pre-med students should take advantage of the wide breadth of grants, summer residencies and independent study electives for research purposes available in their respective colleges.
For example, Stanford tells its students if they “are working on an independent project, [they] may be eligible to apply for a VPUE Undergraduate Research grant: a Small Grant, a Chappell Lougee Scholarship, a Major Grant, or a Beagle II Award.” This diversity of funding opportunities reveals how eager top universities are to encourage independent scientific thinking in their undergraduate student body.
Moreover, UC Berkeley has a special Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, providing students with the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member and contribute to their ongoing research projects individually and within a larger research unit. Pre-med students can be paired with a range of mentors from the human health sciences or other research areas that involve similar skills.
For example, Katarina Makmure was still an undergraduate student when she worked with Professor Sarah Hake in the field of plant and microbial biology. Though the research project aimed to specifically track the chromosome mutations in maize, Makmure was exposed to common and useful research and experimental methods in a range of areas within biology, such as performing DNA extractions and PCRs.
Students immersed in these apprenticeships can demonstrate to medical schools their readiness to grow as thinkers within and beyond specialized disciplines; an interdisciplinary approach that is common and sometimes crucial in hospital settings.
Another student who used UC Berkeley’s research program to better understand biology was Dipankan Bhattacharya, who was placed with Professor Harland, an expert in molecular and cell biology.
Bhattacharya recollected what first brought him to apply to the apprenticeship, “I told Dr. Harland that I had never done research, and didn’t know if I wanted to go to grad school or med school. I was applying to find out. It turned out that I got the position. That was great.”
Bhattacharya also admitted what surprised him “the most is how often Dr. Harland is actually there – he is almost always in the lab.” This close level of collaboration between students and faculty members is rare in typical course settings.
Medical schools will not only be happy to hear from students who have closely supervised research experience under their belts, but also from those whose research already shows them thinking about ways to solve some of the pressing challenges in health care.
Many questions arise among pre-med students as they prepare for medical school applications. In this section, we answer some of their most pressing concerns.
Pre-med students with artistic abilities can volunteer at hospitals and use their passion in patient-related positions. The Santa Monica Facility of UCLA Health has a Creative Arts Program where “volunteers share the positive benefits of art and round to patient units, spending time with patients at bedside, and provide art/craft materials and activity kits for patient use.”
Though some hospitals accept a large share of volunteers, others have an application process in place to vet candidates. UCLA Health, for example, asks applicants to write a 500-word essay on why they wish to volunteer at its facilities.
Some universities, such as Stanford, have pre-health advisors who can help students prepare for medical school. For more in-depth preparation, Inspira Advantage has a range of helpful options – from test prep to admissions consulting – for medical school applicants.
Successful completion of an Emergency Medical Technicians program gives pre-med students a higher level of practical experience than the regular medical school applicant, especially in high-stress environments. Since EMTs often need up to 150 hours of training, students should make sure to balance it with their other pre-med commitments.
Though the main requirements for medical school are courses in biology, chemistry, and physics, some schools may require a certain number of mathematics credits as a prerequisite to enroll in advanced chemistry or physics courses. Generally, an advanced understanding of mathematics is highly desirable in medical school applications.
Besides visiting professors during office hours, pre-med students can also use networking platforms like LinkedIn to connect with health professionals in their network.
California is a great place for students to kick start their journey to becoming excellent medical professionals. Top pre-med students are often guaranteed a spot at some of the world’s best medical schools, especially if their undergraduate records also come from prestigious institutions, such as Stanford or UC Berkeley.
Nevertheless, there is no standard path to success in medical school applications. Schools judge each candidate on their merit. Therefore, students should individualize their pre-med careers as much as possible; reflecting in their course choice and volunteer positions their own personalities and human attributes.