Harvard University, around the corner from Harvard Medical School

How to Get Into Harvard Medical School: A Complete Guide

April 5, 2021

Intro

There’s no use in denying the reputation. Harvard Medical School offers one of the best educational experiences available to students of medicine. It’s no wonder that the school is at the top of the list for many of the world’s brightest medical students.

As one of the most competitive medical schools in the country, getting into HMS is no easy task. Because of the school’s reputation, many potential applicants are discouraged from even submitting an application. However, with the right skill set and an understanding of the school’s admission process, you could be one of the 165 applicants who are admitted to HMS each year. This guide can tell you exactly how to get into Harvard Medical School. 

About HMS

It comes as no surprise that in 2020 the US News and World Report ranked HMS as the number one medical school in the country. Year after year, HMS not only brings out the best in its students but also improves the field of medicine as a whole. Not only a world-class education program but also a world-class research institution, the school’s faculty currently consists of 16 Nobel Peace Prize recipients. The official mission statement of HMS is “To nurture a diverse, inclusive community dedicated to alleviating suffering and improving health and well-being for all through excellence in teaching and learning, discovery and scholarship, and service and leadership.” HMS aims to help students who are looking to better both themselves and their community, priding themselves as an “organization dedicated to improving the human condition.” 

The school is located in Boston, Massachusetts, a well known academic center of the U.S. Boston is one of the most walkable cities in the country, and students can easily access Harvard’s other campuses across the Charles River, as well as Fenway Park, numerous art museums, restaurants, and more. The school’s medical teaching affiliates are all nearby, or easily accessible by public transportation. 

For a high achieving student looking to make a difference in the world of medicine, HMS is perfect. On top of this, HMS works well for those looking to personalize their medical school experience, offering two unique tracks of study. 

What programs are offered?

HMS offers two tracks within the MD program: Pathways and Health Science Technology (HST). If after researching both options you are still not sure what’s best for you, HMS does allow applicants to apply to both tracks. 

If you consider yourself a hands-on learner, the Pathways track is for you. An integrated program with a focus on learning through experience, students who choose the Pathways track begin their clinical experience earlier than their HST peers. The first year of this track is centered around developing the core knowledge that students need before beginning their clinical work. The second year is a year of clinical immersion, in which students take part in one to three month clinical rotations. In years three and four, students work critically in higher-level classes, building expertise on their experience. Pathways also provides its students opportunities for independent research. 

For problem-solvers interested in the intersections of engineering, health, and science, the HST program is a combined effort with HMS and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The program emphasizes bioengineering and requires independent research. HST students often take an extra year to focus on this research project. While both programs offer the same clinical experience, HST students do not begin this area of their studies until year three. Following their clinical year, HST students complete a two-month anchoring clinical experience (ACE), a combination of inpatient and outpatient care and clinical research. 

Students in both tracks choose to enrich their academic experiences in many ways, from student groups to academic societies. On any given day, at least one of HMS’ sixty student groups is holding a meeting. From those interested in specializing in infectious disease to those who have a soft spot for bees, HMS has everything to enrich the academic experience. 

And if you are seeking efficiency in your college career, HMS also offers many combined degree programs, allowing students to personalize their academic experience in a way that works best for them. These programs allow students to combine their MD and Ph.D., MD and MBA, MD and MPH, and more. Students in both Pathways and HST tracks may apply to a combined degree program after matriculation. 

Both Pathways and HST are competitive programs, as Pathway typically admits 135 students every year and HST only 30.

Scholarships and Tuition 

As far as medical school goes, HMS is on the more expensive side, but then again HMS is one of the more prestigious programs in the country. Tuition for the entering class in 2020 was $64,984. This number does not tell the whole truth, as HMS gives a significant amount of financial aid. 

At $111,823, the average student debt is more than $70,000 below the national average for private medical schools, which is $184,840. Harvard aims to ensure that student financial needs are met, as approximately 72 percent of the student body receives financial aid. Beyond this, HMS has compiled an extensive list of outside scholarship opportunities, which cater to a variety of applicant experiences. 

Admission process 

Acceptance rate: You’re not the only one wondering how to get into Harvard Medical School

HMS is one of the most competitive medical schools in the country. In 2019-2020, 168 of 6,708 applicants were admitted, an admission rate of 2.5%. While HMS does not release their acceptance rate to the public, it’s unlikely that it’s much higher than the admission rate. Although this figure causes many prospective applicants not to apply, it’s important not to be discouraged. HMS looks for students who rise above the odds in order to pursue their passions.

Required coursework

Despite popular belief, HMS does not give any preference to applicants who majored in sciences as undergraduates over applicants who majored in other disciplines. In the class of 2024, about 30% had an undergraduate major outside of the sciences. HMS looks for students with diverse academic backgrounds who meet certain prerequisite requirements. While you do not need to be finished with these prerequisites when you apply, you must have completed all required courses by the time you are matriculated. HMS requires prerequisites in the following six areas:

Behavioral sciences- Courses in psychology, sociology, and other behavioral sciences are suggested to meet this requirement.

Biology- One year of biology is required. AP credits cannot satisfy this requirement. If you have received AP credits in biology, this requirement must be filled with higher-level classes.

Chemistry- Two years of chemistry that include inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry are required. AP credits can be used to satisfy the equivalent of one semester of this requirement.

Physics- One year of physics is required. For HST applicants, this entire year must be taken in college, and calculus-based physics is encouraged. For Pathways applicants, AP credits can be used to satisfy the equivalent of one semester of this requirement.

Mathematics- For Pathways applicants, one year of math that covers calculus and statistics is highly encouraged. For HST applicants, upper-level mathematics courses including differential equations, linear algebra, and statistics are suggested.

Analytical and Writing Skills- One year of expository writing coursework is required for all applicants. AP credits cannot be used to meet this requirement.

For a downloadable list of applicable prerequisite classes, visit HMS’s website.

Your MCAT score

Because HMS is such a competitive institution, it should come as no surprise that HMS matriculates report very high MCAT scores. Among the class of 2024, the average MCAT score was 519.2. However, HMS reviews all applications holistically, so a lower MCAT score won’t necessarily send your application right to the rejection pile as long as you have strength in other areas.

HMS considers all valid MCAT scores, so if you’ve taken the test multiple times and your scores vary between sections, you can submit them all. In order for a score to be valid, it must be less than three years old.

Because of MCAT cancellations due to the pandemic, HMS is currently considering applications without MCAT scores and asking that applicants who have been unable to take the test submit their scores once testing sites have reopened.

Letters of Recommendation

Submitting letters of recommendation is an important way for the admissions board to learn about your strengths from other professionals who have seen your work. Finding a recommender who knows you well and can speak to your unique skill set can really set you apart. HMS recommends submitting at least two letters from professors in the sciences and at least one letter from a professor who is not in the sciences. Additionally, you should submit a letter from all research supervisors, because while there is a six letter maximum, applicants are allowed to exceed six letters if the additional letters are written by research supervisors.

Essays

In recent years, people skills have become more and more valued in the medical community. HMS is looking for students who not only have the smarts, but also the ability to work with both patients and peers in a compassionate and helpful manner. Your essays are a way to show the admissions board the person behind the hard figures on your application. Prompts are generally broad, giving you room to tailor your essay in a personal manner. They ask for topics only you are an expert in, such as your research background, personal identity, and activities since graduation. They ask you to articulate your Use your essays to talk about your passions and what drives you to want to improve the practice of medicine.

Writing is a skill that more medical schools are beginning to value as communication becomes a more essential tool for innovation. Make sure that you write well and communicate points efficiently. It’s always a good idea to have a few people read over your essays critically before submitting them. Visit HMS’s website to read essays of past matriculants. This is an excellent way to learn about what HMS is looking for. 

While it is important to work hard on your essay, the interview is also an excellent opportunity to display your individuality. 

Interviews

Under the eligibility requirements on HMS’s website, the ability to communicate effectively is described as “crucial to the delivery of care.” Your ability to communicate well and make a good impression during your interview will be an integral part of your path to acceptance, and you should consider this an opportunity to display your interpersonal skills. In your interview, the admissions board will want to know about your personality and what characteristics you possess that will make you an asset to HMS and the medical community, so be honest and confident.

This is also an excellent opportunity to demonstrate your research experience. To prepare for the interview, it is a good idea to develop a ninety-second elevator speech to describe your research process and why you are passionate about it. 

Applicants who are selected for an interview are notified by mid-January. 

How to get into Harvard Medical School? Extracurriculars!

Team captain in college? Volunteer at your local nursing home? Spent a summer in the lab? These experiences were not in vain! Extracurricular experiences are an excellent way to demonstrate both your specific interests in and commitment to the field of medicine. Extracurricular activities demonstrate to schools the unique knowledge that you can bring to the classroom, as well as leadership experience. 

Research

Since HMS is a school that values innovation, research is a crucial aspect of students’ educational experience. The vast majority of applicants have some research experience, so it’s important that yours stands out. The admissions board values depth of research projects over time commitment. Therefore, the type of research that will impress the admissions board is research that has been conducted out of sincere interest in improving medicine, not just an attempt to brighten up an application. Research that you are passionate about and that you intend to continue in the future will serve you better than experiences that just look good on paper. 

Patient exposure

The ability to connect with patients and provide not only knowledge but also comfort and sympathy, is a valuable skill in the medical field. Knowing how to maintain a professional but trusting relationship with patients is key, and it’s a skill that HMS values in applicants. Working well with patients isn’t a skill that can be taught in the classroom. Hands-on experience in the field, especially through shadowing, is an essential part of preparing for your experience at HMS. Admissions will look for how this exposure shows up in your application, whether it be through shadowing, volunteering, scribing, or other opportunities.

Leadership experience

Leadership is a cornerstone of the education you will receive at HMS. In the professional world, a graduate of HMS will more than likely hold a leadership position because of the school’s reputation and the high quality of education that students receive there. Therefore, leadership experience is a valued feature on an application. As an undergraduate, running for a student government position, starting a club or organization, or leading a research project are examples of leadership experience that will make your application stand out.

Getting admitted 

HMS uses the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), as do most other medical schools, making it easy to apply to HMS at the same time as other schools. They also require a few supplemental materials, including letters of evaluation. 

The deadline for applications on AMCAS is November 2nd, while the deadline to submit HMS supplemental materials is November 9th. Whether you have been accepted, declined, or waitlisted, all applicants receive an email in early March. All admissions decisions are final.

If you are accepted and choose to attend, you must commit to enroll by June 1. The matriculation ceremony takes place in early August.

If after applying you’ve realized you’re not ready, you may choose to defer your matriculation, you must write to the Faculty Associate Dean for Admissions explaining why you want to defer and what you plan to do during your deferral period. Deferrals are typically granted for one year but can be renewed for students in multi-year fellowship programs.

Conclusion

There’s no denying that figuring out how to get into Harvard Medical School is daunting, but for students who are truly passionate about helping others by practicing medicine, it’s worth it. While there is no one tried and true method of getting into HMS, those who do receive a world-class education that will prepare them for excellence in the field of medicine. Make sure you turn in a comprehensive application that displays your range as a student of medicine, and don’t be afraid to ask for help!

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