Research for Medical School Admissions: What Do You Need to Know?

April 25, 2024
7 min read
Contents

”Jonathan

Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 4/25/24

There are several ways in which you can make your application for medical school more attractive to the eyes of admissions committees.

While research experience is not a requirement for most schools, having a research background that is sound, aligns with your major and interests, is fundamentally strong, and overall complements your application’s theme is a perfect way to be a competitive candidate and enhance your possibilities of getting into medical school.

This guide will teach you all that you need to know about research for medical school, ensuring you’ll gain successful and meaningful experiences.

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Importance of Research for Medical School‍

Infographic outlining the importance research for medical school and giving tips on how to land opportunities

Your MCAT, GPA, extracurriculars, and clinical experience all play a role in your admissions chances. But research is also key! Most but not all students accepted to medical school have research experience.

According to a survey of incoming medical students conducted by the AAMC, 60% of students participated in some kind of laboratory research for college students. Experts in the field have made their ideas about it very clear; Dr. Petrella, a Stanford University Ph.D. and mentor, states: 

“Our belief is that an exercise science curriculum provides students the opportunity to become responsible professionals of competence and integrity in the area of health and human performance.” 

Today, we’ll talk about how to prepare for and strategically use research to enhance your application and make it more interesting and rich in the eyes of the admissions committee. But first, take a quick look at why you should gain research experience in your undergraduate career. 

why research is important for medical school admissions

What Counts as Research for Medical School?‍

While most research is good research, some things should be taken into consideration before jumping into the next opportunity available: 

  • Clinical research is great but research in the humanities or social sciences also counts
  • Good research experience develops your writing skills, critical thinking skills, professionalism, integrity, and ability to analyze data
  • It’s important to contribute to the research for a long period of time—several months rather than a couple weeks
  • You can participate in research part-time or full-time; both count
  • You should get involved in research related to your major, desired career, and interests
  • Be committed and deeply involved in the research—you’ll be asked about it in interviews!
  • Being published as a top contributor of any related research papers looks the best 

Overall, there isn’t really “bad” research experience, so long as you’re committed, make clear contributions, and are genuinely passionate about the subject! 

How to Gain Research Experience as a Pre Med

There are several ways to become involved in research and find research opportunities during your undergraduate years. Research opportunities will be available through the university you’re attending, so make sure to maintain a good relationship and communication with your professors.

One of the best ways to secure a research position is to have a conversation with your professors. They may be looking for a student to help them with an upcoming project, and even if they don’t have any opportunities to offer you, they can easily refer to other staff members who might. 

Try navigating through your university’s website as well; many schools will have a student job board that may host research opportunities. For example, if you were a premed student at the University of Washington, you’d be able to check the Undergraduate Research Program (URP) database in order to filter and find research opportunities.

How Many Hours of Research Do You Need For Medical School?

Since research is not a requirement at most medical schools, there’s no minimum number of hours you should be spending at the lab. Some students report entering medical school with over 2,000 hours of research experience, while others had no more than 400. 

This may seem like a lot but bear in mind that a semester or summer of research involvement sums up to around 500-800 hours. This can be more than enough to show your abilities, commitment, and critical thinking skills.

The hours you should dedicate to research widely depend on your personal circumstances and other aspects of your application. If you have the bandwidth to dedicate more hours to research, you should, but never compromise your grades for it. 

6 Types of Medical Research

There are six main types of research that pre-med students commonly participate in: 

Basic Science Research

Basic science research involves delving into the intricacies of biology in laboratory settings. It's one of the most common pre-med research opportunities and typically entails studying genes, cellular communication, or molecular processes.

Clinical Research

Clinical research is all about working with real patients to learn about health and illness. It's hands-on and great for getting a feel for healthcare. 

Public Health Research

Public health research focuses on analyzing population health trends and developing strategies for disease prevention and health promotion. It's a great area for pre-med students interested in community health, although it is a little harder to get involved in. 

Health Public Policy Research

Health public policy research examines the impact of healthcare regulations and policies on access to care and health outcomes. Although less common among pre-med students, it offers insights into the broader healthcare system, involving analyses of policy effectiveness and healthcare disparities.

Narrative Medicine Research

Narrative medicine research explores the role of storytelling and patient experiences in healthcare delivery. It's a more human side of medicine, focusing on empathy and connection. 

Artificial Intelligence Research

Artificial intelligence research can be difficult for pre-meds to get involved in, but it offers innovative solutions to complex medical problems, such as developing AI algorithms for disease diagnosis and treatment planning.

Tips to Make the Best out of Research Hours 

Now that we've covered the importance of research experience for med school application, we'll go over some tips to help you make the most of your research experience!

Have Noteworthy Research Experience

Having noteworthy research experience is a plus in your application, but it doesn’t end here. The ultimate goal of research is to actually become involved in the most recent projects, discoveries, and questions in your field of study, and prepare you for potential research later in your graduate career.

Use Research as an Opportunity to Gain Skills

Make your best effort to see research experience not only as a way to make your resume and application look better, but also as an opportunity to gain skills and face challenges that will help you become a dedicated professional, and will help you succeed in any your future endeavors. 

Be Clear With Your Goals

Before getting started with your research hours, make sure the research question is perfectly clear to you, and that you’re familiar and interested in what the research is aiming to find or prove. By doing this, you’ll be off to a great start, and your research experience will be valuable from the beginning.

Understand the Project and Be Engaged

Once you’re involved in research, make sure you try your best to perfectly understand every part of it. Shallow and meaningless research experiences won’t get you very far.

During your interview you'll be asked about the research project – regardless of your level of contribution, it’s important for you to be clear, confident, and perfectly articulate to make yourself a competitive candidate.

Take Your Experience Seriously

Also, take your time at the lab very seriously. Try approaching your research contribution as a job; show up in time just like you would show up in time for work, put your best effort in it, and above all, be professional. 

Build Relationships With Your Supervisors

Another tip for maximizing your research experience is to make a connection and form a relationship with the mentor or the professor that will, or is already working with you. By forming strong bonds and relationships, you’ll have the opportunity to ask your mentor for a letter of recommendation.

So, do take every hour spent seriously and work hard to make a good impression. This way, you’ll kill two birds with one stone: you’ll gain research experience while obtaining strong recommendations.

What Kind of Research do Medical Schools Prefer? (Science vs Non-Science)‍

That is a somewhat tricky question. The simple answer is that any research that can show your involvement and commitment and aligns with the theme of your application is beneficial. However, there are a lot of layers to it. 

Probably the most common type of research among applicants –which is also highly valued by medical schools – is science and lab research. If you’re a science major in college, this is probably the way you’d want to go; laboratory-based research. 

With that said, if your major is in the social sciences or humanities, getting involved in research related to your major and your interests is something that medical schools will find attractive.

After all, the majority of schools use a holistic approach to admissions and want their potential candidates to be widely and well-educated individuals.

FAQs

1. Is Research Experience More Important Than Clinical Experience For Medical School?‍

The short answer to this is no. Even though the majority of applicants have research experience, for many deans of admissions, clinical experience is equally and sometimes even more valuable. The clinical experience involves patient interaction, which is undoubtedly crucial preparation for a life-long career as a physician.

However, getting your first research experience as early as possible in your undergraduate years will help you determine if research is something you’d like to pursue in the future. Plus, it will make it easier for you to secure more research positions in your graduate years, so you should definitely go for it if it's of your interest. 

2. Is Research Experience More Important Than Physician Shadowing?

While both experiences are relevant, research has the added benefit of allowing you to gain hands-on experience. However, don’t forget that doctor shadowing also adds a lot of value to your application, since it serves the purpose of actually seeing what being a physician is, and such experience could determine your interest in moving forward. 

You should also take into account what your medical school of choice expects. For example, for research-focused schools like the Mayo Clinic, research experience will definitely be more important and you should plan on putting most of your energy there.

3. Should I Take A Gap Year Before Medical School To Gain Research Hours?‍

Taking a gap year gives you the opportunity to refine your application and fully focus on what you want to improve. Whether it’s worth it or not depends on your personal and academic circumstances. Remember, it’s not necessarily about how many hours you complete, but the level of contribution you make and your interest in it!

4. Should I Participate In Many, Short-Lived Research Experiences Or In A Few Long Ones?‍

Always choose quality over quantity when it comes to research experience. One long research experience will impress the admissions committee far more than several short ones! More time spent on a project often means greater contributions made, and it demonstrates interest, persistence, and resilience.

5. Should I Look For Research Opportunities Even If My GPA Is A Bit Low?‍

If you’ve gone through a hard time and your GPA is suffering a little bit, definitely focus your energy on that before committing to long hours in the lab. Your GPA and MCAT scores are the non-arguable parts of your application; make sure these are as impeccable as possible, and as soon as there’s an improvement, move on to research.

That doesn’t mean that you should completely forget about the “extras” of your application; as long as you keep a balance between a good GPA, scores, work, and extracurriculars, you’ll be on the right path to creating a competitive application.

6. What Does It Mean To Be Published In Research? Is It Important To Medical Schools?‍

Being published means that your name appears on written documents about research, and it is, indeed, important, but not necessary. We’re not talking about being the first author in a publication, since this is almost impossible for an undergraduate student. 

However, appearing as a co-author on any presentation, publication, or poster will help you build a reputation.

7. What Should I Do If I Don’t Have Research Experience?‍

Ultimately, if you don’t have any research experience and do not have time or do not plan on being part of any research, focus and invest time in your clinical experience as well as volunteering and community service. Also, work on maintaining a good GPA and improving your MCAT score.

Keep in mind, though, that MD-PhD candidates do need to get involved in research before applying, and a big emphasis should be placed on research in these cases. 

8. Does Clinical Research Count Also As Clinical Experience?

Clinical research can count as both clinical experience and research experience in your AMCAS application.

9. Is Research Required For Medical School?

Research experience is not required for most medical schools. However, having research experience will help you stand out and present yourself as a more competitive candidate during the application process.

Final Thoughts‍

Participating in research for medical school can play an important role in the quality of your application. For this reason, knowing how to make your experiences as valuable and rich as possible will play a key role in ensuring the research complements your application and overall profile. 

Research is the perfect way to build a strong skill set that will aid you as a medical student and make you a better physician! 

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