A student gets their own stethoscope after learning how to get into medical school

How To Get Into Medical School: A Step By Step Guide

October 3, 2021
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Part 1. IntroductionPart 2: Consider Why You Want to Attend Medical SchoolPart 3: Choose Your Pathway (DO vs MD, Joint Programs/Dual Degrees)Part 4: Choose Your Pre-Med Major and Take Med School PrerequisitesPart 5: Understand the Medical School Application TimelinePart 6: Gain Relevant Experiences Part 7. Take the MCATPart 8. Understand the Application Process and ApplyPart 9. Ace Your InterviewsPart 10. FAQsPart 11. Conclusion

Introduction

“While the journey seems long and hard at the beginning with perseverance and dedication the rewards at the end last a lifetime.”

―William R. Francis via Baylor College of Medicine

Getting accepted into medical school is a dream come true for future physicians, but the journey to acceptance is challenging. Over half of all medical school applicants fail to be matriculated into any MD program to which they apply, so as you can see, the level of competition is fierce.

But don’t be discouraged. With the right attitude, due diligence, and preparation, you can face any challenge head-on and walk toward a rewarding career in medicine. With this step-by-step guide on how to get into medical school, you will learn everything you need to know to maximize your chances of acceptance into your dream school.

Step 1: Consider Why You Want to Attend Medical School

This may seem obvious, but the first step to getting into medical school is to seriously consider why you want to attend. It’s important to think about this now in specific terms so you can speak knowledgeably and confidently about your decision to attend medical school. This will also help you in your interviews when interviewers inevitably ask, “Why do you want to be a doctor?” or “Why do you want to attend medical school?” 

The strongest answers to these questions are specific and targeted, not generic or clichéd. For example, the over-used “I want to attend medical school and become a doctor because I want to help people” is not going to get you very far since it is unimaginative and doesn’t describe your particular interests, strengths, and goals. 

Here is how a strong answer to why you want to attend medical school is structured:

Begin with an introduction. The introduction touches upon your initial interest in medicine and how that curiosity first began. What event sparked your interest? Describe it in detail as if you are telling a compelling story. Relate your story to medical school and tie in how the program will continue to develop your interests. 

Next, talk about the steps you took to build on your passion for medicine. What are your experiences to that end? What, specifically, do you like about medicine as you learned more? You can talk about the diagnosis of diseases, treatment, interactions with patients, what you learned through research, and other relevant areas.

Finally, emphasize your commitment to healthcare and how you decided that this was the right path for you. Your answer should be introspective, reflective, genuine, and confident. If you faced any challenges or hardships along the way, mention these and show a growth mindset. That is, talk about what you did to overcome challenges and what you learned from the experience. 

Step 2: Choose Your Pathway

Choosing your pathway is an important decision when you apply to medical school. You will have to make a few preliminary decisions based on your career and education goals.

First, decide if you want to attend an allopathic or osteopathic medical school. Most schools are allopathic, meaning they offer the traditional MD (Doctor of Medicine) degree. Some schools are osteopathic, meaning they offer the DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). 

So, what exactly is a DO versus an MD? In short, whether you have the MD or DO initials after your name, you are a practicing physician. The main difference between the two is in philosophy. That is, MDs prioritize diagnosis of disease and treatment of symptoms. DOs, on the other hand, adopt a more holistic approach in treatment, prioritizing the whole body and getting to the root cause of symptoms.

Both types of doctors work side-by-side in all clinical settings; both types of doctors treat patients and prescribe medications, and both types of doctors have extensive medical knowledge and training.

Additionally, many medical schools offer joint degrees, or dual degree programs, that you can combine with your MD (or DO) degree. The MD-PHD, MD-MBA, and MD-MPH are the most common dual degrees.

To learn more about dual degree programs, go to the school’s website and read about their curriculum, admission requirements, program durations, and more. As this decision is personal to your particular interests and goals, you will have to do a bit of research before applying to your programs of choice. 

Step 3: Choose Your Pre-Med Major and Take Med School Prerequisites

Strong academic performance is essential for getting into medical school. Medical school GPA requirements are extremely competitive, and it is exceedingly hard to bounce back from poor academic performance.

To that end, you should choose your pre-med major and requirements for courses wisely with a strategic mindset. First, you can major in any subject. That’s right—a science major is not required to go to medical school. Only the science prerequisites are required, and as long as you complete them, what you major in is entirely up to you.

In fact, you should choose a major in the subject you’re most passionate about and interested in learning. Pursuing a major that you’re excited about will make it easier to do well and achieve high grades in your courses. Additionally, medical schools love to see well-rounded applicants with unique backgrounds.

Think about it this way—wouldn’t it be boring if every single med school applicant chose biology as their major? Diversity in your background is highly sought after, so be comfortable in your decision to major in something that may be off the beaten path.

After you’ve chosen your major, whether it’s in the sciences or not, you need to make sure that you complete all required prerequisite coursework for medical school. In general, medical schools require the following prerequisites:

Every medical school has its own specific requirements regarding what prerequisite coursework you should take, how many semesters for each course, and which courses to take with labs.

So, you will need to verify that you are on track with your undergraduate prerequisite coursework with each medical school individually. If you need help with planning your courses and ensuring you complete them on time, you should speak with a pre-health advisor. 

Step 4: Understand the Medical School Application Timeline

Understanding the medical school application timeline is paramount to your success. It cannot be stressed enough that you should submit all required application materials early in the cycle.

Don’t procrastinate! Not only will you add so much unnecessary stress, but you risk the chance of missing important dates and deadlines because you didn’t have enough time to write strong, compelling essays or collect documents such as official school transcripts and letters of recommendation. 

Most allopathic medical schools use the AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) to streamline the application process. There are a few exceptions.

For example, Texas medical schools use the TMDSAS (Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Service). Osteopathic medical schools use the AACOMAS (American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service). 

Here is the AMCAS timeline for MD students:

timeline part 1
timeline part 2


Because the application timeline is lengthy and involved, it would be beneficial to start preparing even before the AMCAS cycle begins. Two years before you apply, in your sophomore year, you should already be thinking about preparation.

Use this time to build relationships with your professors so you can ask them for letters of recommendation. Ensure that you are taking the required prerequisite coursework. Begin preparing for the MCAT. One year before you apply, begin thinking about what medical schools you would like to attend.

Use this time to start collecting letters of recommendation from professors, employers, and supervisors from extracurricular activities. (Pro-tip: It would go a long way if at least one of your letter writers is a physician, and sometimes it is required.) Lastly, use this time to begin crafting your personal statement for medical school.

Step 5: Gain Relevant Experiences

While it is no secret that your academic achievements speak volumes about your candidacy, it is just as important to gain relevant experiences and participate in the right extracurricular activities. Your experiences and extracurriculars will bolster your application and attract admissions officers to your unique background.

You may have come across the many medical school websites that say they review applicants holistically. This means that in addition to grades, medical schools want students with diverse and relevant experiences that cultivate the right skillsets for physicians.

To that end, the name of the game here is quality over quantity. That is, it is better to have a few substantial experiences that help you gain work experience in a medical setting and build professional relationships through networking. (Pro-tip: You can secure strong letters of recommendation from the professional connections you make.)

Here are a few relevant experiences that will enrich your application and help prepare you for a career in medicine: 

Clinical Experience

Clinical experience is essential to have if you want to get accepted into medical school. Whether it’s paid or unpaid, what matters is that you gain hands-on experience for a substantial period (aim for over 100 hours) in a clinical setting. Working directly with patients will prepare you for what your lifelong career will be like. Furthermore, you will strengthen your soft skills like interpersonal communication and empathy, which are the main desirable qualities of a successful physician. 

Medical Shadowing

Medical shadowing is also one of the most vital experiences to have for medical school. Shadowing a physician will allow you to see the everyday details of running a practice, interacting with patients, diagnosing diseases, and providing treatment. To get the most out of your medical shadowing experience, research your particular areas of interest and specialties.  

Research

Research experience is not required for most medical schools; however, having a research background boosts your application and makes you a competitive candidate. According to the AAMC, 60% of medical school applicants had research experience listed in their application. Research experience is also valuable because it gives you opportunities to publish, be a part of a scholarly network of physician-scientists, and hone your analytical skills. 

Volunteering

Volunteering is a great way to show medical schools how committed you are to helping others. It is also a wonderful way to get involved in a cause or project you are passionate about, so volunteering will feel rewarding. Some medical schools have guidelines about volunteering (i.e., they recommend at least 100 hours of volunteering)

It would be in your best interest to treat “recommendations” as “requirements” and fulfill the school’s expectations of applicants. 

In addition to the relevant experiences above, you can supplement your application with appropriate extracurriculars and hobbies

Step 6: Take the MCAT

The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is a crucial component of the medical school application. The test is composed of four sections: Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys), Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio), Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych), and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS).

It is a timed, passage-based test composed of 230 multiple choice questions with a total seated time of 7 hours and 30 minutes, including breaks. 

Admissions committees consider the MCAT to be a “top-tier” selection factor; that is, if your MCAT score doesn’t meet the school’s minimum requirements, you will likely not advance very far through the application process.

MCAT scores are also highly competitive among the pool of applicants as most matriculated students exceed the school’s minimum required MCAT score. You should aim to fall within or exceed the school’s median MCAT score, which will give you a competitive edge over other candidates. 

As such, it is vital that you start studying for the MCAT as soon as possible. According to the AAMC, the average student should spend 300-350 hours preparing. Most students devote approximately 20 hours a week to study, which is three to five months of preparation.

It is also important to think about when to take the MCAT. Generally, the subjects you will be tested on will be covered in the first two years of your science coursework. Speak with a pre-health advisor to ensure that you are on track to complete the recommended coursework in time to prepare for your MCAT. 

The MCAT is offered from January to September of the year (it is not offered from October to December). Taking the MCAT earlier in the year will ensure that you stay ahead of your prospective medical school’s important dates and timelines. Most schools require that you complete the MCAT within three years of the application cycle, meaning you will have to retake the exam if it has been more than three years since you last applied.

You are allowed to take the MCAT three times in a year, four times in two years, and a total of seven times in your lifetime. Also, be mindful that admissions officers can see your MCAT score every time you take and retake the test, so try to do your best the first time. 

Step 7: Understand the Application Process and Apply

As stated above, you will use the AMCAS for allopathic schools, the AACOMAS for osteopathic schools, and the TMDSAS for Texas schools. Here are some general guidelines for the three application services:

AMCAS: How to Fill Out Your Medical School Application

There are nine sections in the AMCAS that you must complete. Sections 1-3 are background information which includes your name, identifiers, and schools you have attended. Section 4 is where you enter your coursework and transcripts. Section 5 is the work and activities section.

This is where you should enter your extracurricular activities and work experiences. Section 6 is for uploading your letters of recommendation. Section 7 is where you will enter information about the medical schools to which you’re applying, for example, the types of programs or whether you’re applying early. Section 8 is the personal statement. Section 9 is where you submit your standardized test scores, such as the MCAT. 

How to Fill Out Your AACOMAS Application

There are four sections in the AACOMAS that you must complete. Section 1 is where you enter your personal information, such as your name, identifiers, and biographical information. Section 2 is for entering your academic history.

This includes information about high school, college, course subjects, continuing education courses, and standardized tests, such as the MCAT. Section 3 is for supporting information and materials. This includes letters of recommendation, professional experiences, the personal statement, and your achievements.

Achievements may include awards, honors, publications, scholarships, and other relevant accomplishments. Section 4 is to submit any other program materials depending on the program requirements and recommendations. 

How to Fill Out Your TMDSAS Application

To fill out your TMDSAS application, you must enter your personal information, transcripts, education, employment, activities, essays, proof of residency, a digital photo, test scores, and letters of evaluation. 

Step 8: Ace Your Interviews

Now we’ve arrived at the final step of the entire application process, the medical school interview. Interview invitations are sent to select applicants who have passed the initial screening of their primary and secondary applications.

So, if you’ve been invited for an interview, you should feel accomplished and proud of yourself for making it this far. The interview is the last hurdle to jump before the admissions committee makes its final decision, so it is absolutely imperative that you ace your interview by utilizing the following tips:

Research the medical schools to prepare for targeted interview questions.

For example, “Why did you apply to our medical school over others?” You should have a thorough understanding of the school’s mission statement, history, and achievements in medicine (e.g., breakthroughs in research, technology, treatment). Being knowledgeable about the school will show the interviewers your interest in their program. This preliminary research will also give you a better idea of whether the school is a good fit for your career goals and interests. 

Stay up to date on current events in medicine.

It is likely that the interviewers will ask you questions about a hot topic in medicine, such as the global COVID-19 pandemic, or other topics that may be controversial, such as marijuana or abortion. The purpose of asking about your stance on a current event is not to assess whether or not you get the answer “right.” For these types of questions, there is no right or wrong answer. Rather, the interviewers want to see your critical thinking and analytical skills. How knowledgeable are you about important topics in medicine? How do you think about these topics and arrive at informed opinions? The interviewers want to evaluate your understanding of current events and how well you are able to defend your positions. 

Familiarize yourself with the different medical interview formats.

Each school has a different method for interviewing candidates, so you should walk in knowing what to expect. The most common interview formats are the traditional one-on-one interview, the panel interview consisting of a group of interviewers, and the MMI (multiple mini interview).

Practice your interview to gain confidence and master your nerves.

Review sample medical school interview questions and practice your answers in front of a mirror. You can also schedule mock interviews with experts to get unbiased feedback. 

Dress in the best attire for your medical school interview.

This is business formal. For women, wear a skirt suit or pantsuit. For men, wear a suit and tie. (Pro-tip: Think of your winning smile as a part of your attire.

First impressions are important! The people you meet with on the day of your interview might be your future colleagues, peers, mentors, and instructors. They will be your support network throughout medical school, so put your best foot forward and make a lasting first impression that’s professional, friendly, and confident. A simple smile accomplishes all of that.)

FAQs

1. Is it okay to take a gap year before applying to medical school?

Yes, it is perfectly acceptable to take a gap year before you pursue medical school. In fact, many students opt to take a gap year to bolster their applications. According to the US News & World Report, the average age of matriculated students is 24. Just be sure that you use your time wisely by gaining relevant professional and personal experiences that strengthen your application. Strong medical school candidates are well-rounded in addition to their high academic performance.

2. Can I apply to medical school as a non-traditional applicant?

Yes! 

Non-traditional applicants are usually those who decide to change careers or students who have a degree unrelated to pre-med or the sciences. Non-traditional applicants are increasingly in demand as medical schools adopt holistic approaches in reviewing candidates. Diverse backgrounds and skillsets are desirable in the field, and if you are a non-traditional applicant, you can use your unique experiences to your advantage.

As a non-traditional applicant, your biggest challenge to overcome is lacking medical school requirements. So, you may have to do some extra prep work before you pursue medical school. Don’t worry—this is totally doable if you are proactive and take the right steps:

3. I’m not happy with my current academic standing. What are my options?

While your complete application materials will be reviewed holistically, it is extremely difficult to advance in the application process with a low GPA or MCAT score. If you are unhappy with your current academic standing, consider retaking courses and the MCAT. Also, be sure to ask for help where needed—instructors, tutors, and experienced mentors will happily guide you.  

4. Why do some medical schools require the CASPer test?

The CASPer test (Computer-Based Assessment for Sampling Personal Characteristics) is required by some medical schools. Essentially, it is a pre-screening tool that evaluates applicants’ personal characteristics and behavioral traits and helps schools decide which candidates to invite for an interview.

The CASPer test was created to assess candidates’ soft skills and desirable qualities more accurately in collaboration, communication, empathy, equity, ethics, motivation, problem-solving, professionalism, resilience, and self-awareness. As with the MCAT, you should dedicate some time to prepare for the CASPer test.

5. Is it better to attend an in-state or out-of-state medical school?

Whether you attend an in-state or out-of-state medical school is entirely up to you and depends on numerous factors. Consider the cost of attendance and available financial resources.

Some medical schools offer the same tuition rates for both in-state and out-of-state students, some schools have higher tuition for out-of-state students, and select schools like the NYU Grossman School of Medicine have substantial affordability initiatives like offering all students full-tuition scholarships regardless of academic merit or financial need.

You should also weigh other factors into your decision, such as quality of education, the school’s use of cutting-edge medical technology, curriculum, program duration, location, setting, networking opportunities, and career outlook. Target medical schools that align with your specific goals, then tailor your application to put your best foot forward. 

6. How can I pay for medical school?

Medical school can be expensive, but you have options to help with the cost of attendance. For every school to which you apply, we recommend visiting the Student Financial Services center and speaking with a financial resources counselor. A counselor will guide you through your specific financial needs and if you qualify for financial aid packages, loans, or scholarships.

7. What is the TMDSAS personal characteristics essay?

The TMDSAS personal characteristics essay is unique to the TMDSAS application. The essay must be 2,500 characters or less, including spaces. Applicants must answer the following prompt: “Learning from others is enhanced in educational settings that include individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Please describe your personal characteristics (background, talents, skills, etc.) or experiences that would add to the educational experience of others.” Essentially, the personal characteristics essay is a way to measure your diversity and how your diverse background will enhance/benefit the medical school and your peers.

8. What should I do if one of my letter writers tells me to write my own letter of recommendation?

Sometimes, professors and employers are busy. They want to help you by offering you a letter of recommendation, but they don’t have the time to actually write it. Instead, they will tell you to write a letter of recommendation for yourself, and then they will review it and sign it. If you find yourself in this position, you have a few options.

You can politely refuse and ask someone else. You can provide your letter writer with a list or summary of things to highlight in the letter and ask if they’d be willing to write the letter using your notes. Or you can simply go for it and write a recommendation letter for yourself. This last option, while not optimal, may actually be a blessing in disguise.

Think of it this way—who knows you, your work, and your accomplishments better than yourself? You have the opportunity to cast yourself in the best light, and if you do so objectively, you will have a strong and compelling letter of recommendation. Just remember to be open to feedback as your letter writer might want you to change a few things before signing off on it. 

9. I’m reapplying to medical school. What are some things to keep in mind?

Reapplying to medical school is perfectly fine. After all, it is difficult to get into medical school on your first try. If you were rejected the first time, don’t be discouraged. Take some time to regroup and tackle the application process again. When you reapply, you should comb through your application materials objectively and spot any areas that need improvement. Don’t simply resend the same application without meaningful changes.

Be honest with yourself as you think about any weaknesses in your application. Solicit unbiased feedback from trusted mentors and peers. Perhaps your science GPA was too low, or your MCAT score can improve. Or maybe you need more substantial and relevant experiences. Think critically about what’s missing, then take the steps to fill in those gaps.

Maybe your application materials are strong, but you did not do well on the interview because your nerves got the best of you. In this case, you will need to practice, practice, practice. Set up mock interviews and get useful feedback from expert admissions consultants.  

10. I have big dreams. What are the top medical schools in the United States?

Here are the top medical schools in the United States that consistently rank the highest in the US News & World Report:

Conclusion

As you can see, the process of how to get into medical school is involved and challenging, but it is not impossible. The deciding factor for your success is how seriously you commit yourself to the process and do the work. To get into medical school, you will need to consider why you want to attend and choose the best pathway for your career goals.

You should choose a pre-med major and complete all required prerequisites. Understand the application timeline to stay ahead of important dates and deadlines. You should gain relevant experiences that bolster your application and make you a strong, competitive candidate. Prepare for and take the MCAT (and CASPer, if required).

Be sure to understand the application process before you apply (remember to follow every medical school’s specific requirements, guidelines, and recommendations). Finally, go with confidence and ace your interviews. May your efforts lead you to success!

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