Man pushing ball uphill representing how hard it is to get into medical school

How Hard Is It To Get Into Medical School? An In-Depth Look

July 5, 2021
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Part 1. IntroductionPart 2. How Hard Is It to Get Into Medical School: ConsiderationsPart 3. Level of Competition Part 4. AcademicsPart 5. EssaysPart 6. InterviewsPart 7. Mistakes to AvoidPart 8. FAQsPart 9. Conclusion

Introduction 

Just how hard is it to get into med school? You must have asked yourself this question when you decided to pursue a career in medicine. The short answer is this: it's pretty hard. 

The long answer is more complicated and is dependent on a variety of factors such as how ready you are and how long you have been preparing. Getting accepted into med school is highly competitive and requires you to have a stellar application that puts you slightly above the rest. 

The application process is a game of inches as there is no shortage of qualified candidates. The smallest things could help tilt the odds in your favor. You may have a high GPA, a great MCAT score, tons of hours in volunteering, stellar letters of recommendation, and still get rejected due to the sheer competition. 

Every prospective applicant knows how hard it is to get accepted and has prepared accordingly. The hardest thing is reconciling what we hope is true with what is actually true. It is easy to get caught into thinking that our mix of experiences, activities, volunteering, personality, and grades makes us unique. 

While there is nothing wrong with that statement per se, it may not be accurate from a competitive standpoint. Many candidates will have a similar mixture of skills, experiences, high scores, and talents. To fully understand how difficult it is, we must break down and analyze the different parts of the application process. 

How Hard Is It to Get Into Medical School: Considerations

To gain an objective picture of this question, let's look at some of the data. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC: 53, 371 individuals applied to the medical school during the previous admissions cycle. 

Of these applicants, only 21, 869 (41%) were accepted. Looking at these numbers tells us that, out of all the people who applied, more than half did not get into a single medical school. Ten years ago, the acceptance rate was 44%. 

Medical school applicants and reapplicants

Looking at this chart, we can gain a clearer picture of the applicants – there are more than ever. The applicant pool has grown 25% in the last decade, and the number of available spots has not grown in proportion to the number of applicants. In other words, more people are trying to get in, and fewer seats are available.

Level of Competition 

You must have heard of the doctor shortages on the news. This may lead you to believe that med schools are welcoming more applicants than ever with open arms. However, that is not the case. Even with new med schools opening-up, there are not enough seats available for all qualified applicants. 

The doctor shortage is happening in the less popular, less attractive areas and specialties of medicine. In other words, it's not that we need more doctors in general but, we need more doctors in areas that are often overlooked or disregarded: rural areas, underserved urban areas, and in the least-alluring specialties, such as primary care and geriatrics.

Now let us take a look at some GPA and MCAT score data. According to the AAMC: among last year’s applicants, the average cumulative GPA was 3.58, and the average MCAT score was 506.1. These scores were slightly higher than the applicants from two years ago with a GPA and MCAT score of 3.57 and 505.6, respectively. 

Among the matriculants from a year ago, we see a GPA and MCAT score of 3.73 and 511.5, respectively, which is again higher than the matriculants from two years ago’s GPA and MCAT score 3.72 and 511.2, respectively. Looking at the data, we can see that students are earning high grades and scoring top level on the MCAT, making the competition fierce.

 

Academics

Your GPA and MCAT score will play a vital role in your application and factors in determining the difficulty of getting into med school. Obviously, the higher your GPA and MCAT score, the better your chances. If you have a low GPA or MCAT score, it will be much more difficult for you to gain admission as you will not be as competitive. That doesn't mean it's impossible, though. Getting into med school with a low GPA has been done.

GPA is a good representation of your time as an undergraduate student: your dedication, your effort, your work ethic. Medical schools use these numbers to gauge if you will study hard and can handle the academic pressure. There will be a mountain of information to learn and not much time to do it.

They want to know that you won't be crushed under the weight of it all. They will also look at your year-by-year averages and the types of courses you took. 

Just because your grades in the science courses are more impactful doesn't mean that your other classes don't matter. Med schools will analyze your schoolwork in its entirety to obtain a clearer picture of you as a student - one that goes beyond a single numerical average. 

Schools like to see improvement and will be looking for grading trends. If they see an upward trend in your grades, your chances of getting accepted will be higher than if your grades remain stagnant year after year. 

Maybe you had a hard time adjusting to the first year of college, and your grades suffered because of it. Now it's weighing down your average GPA. Maybe, however, you managed to pull yourself together and adapt to the new flow of things. As a result, maybe your grades improved.

This is the kind of upward trend that would impress a med school admissions committee. If you can show improvement, despite initial challenges, you will be in a more favorable position. That means, of course, that the reverse will hinder your chances. 

If you started off doing well and your grades declined, then getting into med school will be much harder for you. Another way to balance out a low GPA is to obtain a high MCAT score. 

The MCAT is difficult and requires a lot of preparation. It’s harder than your average college exam because it is comprehensive and covers multiple subjects like physics, biology, and chemistry. It also requires reading comprehension that includes passages from the social sciences and the humanities. 

It’s also much longer than your average college exam, taking just over seven and a half hours including breaks. The MCAT is also a passage-based exam. All questions will be linked to a six to seven paragraph passage and it won’t be enough to simply recall memorized information. 

The test requires that you understand the concepts you learned in your premed courses and use them to solve problems. There are a lot of questions to answer and it can be difficult to finish each section in the allotted time. 

Average MCAT and GPA scores

Essays

Your personal statement is a critical part of your application. If neglected or underestimated, your chances to impress the committee are low. How hard it will be to get into med school will be determined, in part, by the quality of your personal statement. This is your chance to let medical schools know who you are and why you want to pursue medicine. 

The application process can seem cold and impersonal. Personal statements are a way to show the humanity behind the stats. Med schools want to admit empathetic, intelligent, and kind people. Use your personal statement to show that you possess these qualities. The more compelling your statement is, the better your chances. 

There are a variety of themes you can write about: An experience that changed your life, a relationship with a mentor or teacher that inspired you, or overcoming a personal obstacle. What’s most important is that your statement addresses the question “Why do you want to be a doctor?”.

After completing your primary application, you may be required to write additional essays for your secondary applications. These essays will often require you to write an answer to a more specific question. If you want a robust application, make sure that your secondary essays complement your primary application.

Interviews

Most schools interview a tiny portion of their applicants. If you have landed an interview, it means that admissions committees were impressed by your application. This is a chance to showcase your personality and your eagerness. But how hard is the interview? 

Well, it depends on the type of interview. While there are a few different interview formats, most med schools use two different interview types: MMI (Multiple Mini Interview) and traditional. 

An MMI involves multiple stations. At each station, you will be given a scenario and some time to formulate an answer. The MMI will be testing your communication skills, your ability to apply general knowledge, and your fitness for a medical career.

The traditional interview is a one-on-one interview and involves a conversation between you and the interviewer. The interviewer will try to gain a sense of who you are as a person and why you want to be a doctor. 

Some people find these interviews much more comfortable and more straightforward than the MMI format. It depends on you. In either case, preparation will be essential. If you have practiced with mock interviews and have put serious thought into your answers, the interview process will be more painless for you. 

Mistakes to Avoid 

As hard as it is to get into med school, there are steps that you can take to make it easier on yourself. In the quest to be as competitive as possible, there are mistakes that you can avoid making to save yourself from regret. 

1. Being Hasty In Taking The MCAT

Medical schools will know how many times you attempted the MCAT and what you scored each time. With that in mind, would it not make more sense to take the MCAT when you are truly ready? It's common to cave into peer pressure and follow what your peers are doing. 

Maybe your friends are not taking a gap year because they want to get their applications in as early as possible. But does that mean it's the right decision for you?

If you have the slightest feeling of not being ready or if you feel you could benefit from taking a gap year, then it's a path worth considering. Getting your applications in early may sound like a good idea, given that schools grant admission on a rolling basis. 

Meaning the earlier you apply, the higher your chances of being accepted. If you end up with a low MCAT score, however, it won't matter how early you submit your application. 

2. Neglecting Academics And Focusing Too Much On Extracurriculars 

As mentioned previously in this article, your GPA is going to hold a lot of weight in the admissions process and it can be easy to spread yourself too thin. You want to avoid becoming distracted by so many activities outside the classroom if it means that your grades suffer. While extracurriculars are essential as well, your academics should be your top priority.

According to data by AAMC, the average GPA requirements have gone up in the last ten years. You may think you are doing fine, but you may be comparing yourself to data that is a few years old. The trend shows an upward pattern. That is why you should aim for the highest GPA you can get. The higher your GPA, the easier it is to get accepted. 

When it comes to extracurriculars, don't jump from one activity to another thinking that it will look good on your application. It's about quality over quantity. You can participate in hundreds of different activities, but if you only scraped the surface of each experience, it won't impress the admission committee. It's better to select a few activities to put your time into and from which you can gain valuable experience. 

3. Rushing The Application Process

There is an established application schedule with premed students – the traditional way to move through the process. Certain things must be done at certain times. Applying to med school is arguably one of the most significant decisions you will make.

So what sense does it make to rush it? Why not take your time and go at your own pace if the end result of becoming a doctor will be more attainable? 

Use your time to gain more clinical and volunteer experience, take more courses, improve your GPA, and work on crafting your essays. In the end, it's about making your application as competitive as possible. You can't do that if you are following in other people's footsteps. 

They may be ready but that does not mean you are. Separate yourself from the rest and look at your application objectively. Get others to look at it. Submitting a sub-par application is the worst thing you can do. Many are choosing to take a few years off before applying so you are in good company. 

4. Not Applying To The Right Schools

It's important to look at your credentials objectively and be realistic in your choices. Many students make the mistake of choosing too many schools that are out of their reach. These schools have slightly higher GPA and MCAT score requirements than what you may have. The vast majority of schools that you apply to should be those that fall within your range. 

Some schools that you apply to should be "safe" schools – ones that you have a higher chance of being accepted into. And of course, a few can be those out-of-reach schools as well.

Applying to too many out-of-reach schools will limit your chances of being accepted, as the odds are very slim. It's better to take an objective approach to your application and focus on the schools where your chances of acceptance are the highest.

FAQs

1. What type of applicants are med schools looking for?

Med schools are looking for applicants with a variety of skills and experiences. They want applicants with strong academic abilities (high GPA and MCAT score), strong communications and leadership skills, a keen interest in medicine, and demonstrated empathy. 

2. When should I apply to medical school? 

In terms of which year to apply, you should apply when you are most competitive, and your application is at its strongest: strong grades, scores, and extracurricular experiences. As mentioned before, do not rush your application. It is perfectly reasonable to take time after graduation to strengthen any weak aspects of your application. 

You also need to think about admissions deadlines within the application season. If you feel your application is the strongest in August of the application season, you will already be on the back foot. Ideally, you should submit your application ASAP once AMCAS opens (end of May - start of June) to ensure that you have the best chances of acceptance.

Conclusion

Applying to med school is a stressful process—so many parts and pieces have to fit together in harmonious union. It is stressful and anxiety-inducing. So, back to that question. Is it hard to get into med school? It sure is. But it also depends on you. One thing that is for sure is that it's not easy. 

Several factors play a role: your GPA, your MCAT score, your extracurriculars, the schools you apply to, how well you craft your personal statements, how you perform during your interview, and to which schools you choose to apply. 

It also depends on whether you manage to avoid common mistakes: rushing to take the MCAT, rushing the application process, focusing too much on activities outside the classroom, and applying to too many schools out of your reach.

If you've managed to avoid these common mistakes and fulfill all medical school requirements, then getting into med school is certainly an attainable goal.

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