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

May 25, 2023


Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Chief Resident in Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medicine, & Admissions Officer, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/30/22

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

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

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Importance of Research for Medical School

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.

Because research is a way for you to dig deep and get involved in your field of interest, applying to medical school with a semester or two in research will show the admission committee your dedication and strong will to learn, which will obviously be favorable and increase your chances of getting accepted. 

While research experience is important, don’t forget to participate in other extracurriculars such as clinical experience and community service. Again, your overall application, GPA and MCAT score, and how each experience connects are what will potentially determine your readiness for medical school. 

Beyond that, students who take part in research projects during their undergraduate career tend to be more prepared to face graduate school.

Research experience before medical school will help you expand your knowledge in your area of interest, teach you how to be an excellent team worker as well as an individual one and will help you understand how the published world works.

After all, everything begins with research, and as a future physician, acquiring all the skills that a sound experience in it will provide you is crucial for your success. 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. 

First of all, the research that you choose to invest time and effort into should make sense in the context of your application. Most schools find experiences in both clinical and social sciences or humanities fields valuable, so to start with, you should know that not only clinical research will be taken into account. 

The duration of your involvement in the research is also important; that’s why starting early in your undergraduate years is always recommended. Consider investing a minimum of one semester to a research project, and if you can do one full year, even better. 

Some students take a gap year before starting medical school to invest in either research, clinical experience, or any extracurriculars that will help their application stand out. There’s no need of doing that, though.

Participating in a research project part-time while you’re working on your prerequisites, laboratory-based or not, will count as good research experience for medical school. The key is to get involved in something that is relevant for you and your career, and that you can commit time and dedication to. 

For example, if your major is biology, it would make perfect sense to jump on research about growth hormones, since it’s in the same field, and chances are you’ll find the topic interesting. On the other hand, let’s say you’re passionate about magnetism but your major is in social sciences or humanities.

In that case, your essays and interview will be a good opportunity to explain your different interests and how your broad and interdisciplinary education will help you succeed in medical school and later on as a doctor. 

Medical schools value research experience mainly because it’s an academic component that enables students to develop both excellent written and oral communication and makes them become critical thinkers.

This skill set, along with the professionalism, integrity, and the ability to analyze data that this kind of experience provides, makes almost any research a good opportunity. Since there’s no “good” or “bad” research, try getting involved in projects that you’re passionate about, comfortable enough to discuss and explain, and that are related to your major.

That way, talking about it won’t be a struggle. Admission committees will deem the fact that your research experience was meaningful and connected to your undergraduate career and interests as something very positive.

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.

Also, check the summer programs that are offered; your university probably has summer programs on offer where students work with a mentor to gain research experience. Outside of the university, you could consider looking for internships at laboratories or research facilities.

Any option that you chose is fine; the good thing about being a pre-med is that you’re surrounded by professors and counselors who have the resources and knowledge to get you on the right path. It’s just a matter of navigating through the mound of possibilities and acting as soon as possible once you’ve found a position of interest.

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. 

The high numbers that many students report shouldn’t overwhelm you, since a lot of them decide to take a gap year to dedicate exclusively to research and they have a clear research interest and want to pursue it in the future.

So, the hours you should dedicate to research widely depend on your personal circumstances and other aspects of your application. For example, if you have a high GPA and feel confident about your performance so far, dedicating more hours to research could be a good commitment for you.

However, if you’re not doing as well as you’d like, focus on your academics first and let research come second. 

If the idea of taking a gap year to gain research experience doesn’t quite convince you, bear in mind that a semester or summer of research involvement, which would sum up to around 500-800 hours, is more than enough to show your abilities, commitment, and critical thinking skills.

This dedication will make a good impression on admissions committee members and can help make your application stand out. 

Also, ask yourself: “Am I really interested in research? Do I want it to be part of my career in the future?”. If you’re only doing research for the sake of the application, you shouldn’t force yourself to overdo it.

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 Supervisor

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. A liberal arts and interdisciplinary educational background can make outstanding applicants.

So, while lab-based research may have a perceived better reputation than social science research, it’s certainly not better in the eyes of admissions committees.

Research Experience for Med School 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, to 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.

If you’re truly interested in research and really want to pursue it, go for it. However, don’t feel like that’s something you should do; there’s no written rule of what works best. If the research you’ve taken part in during your undergraduate years satisfies you, you shouldn’t feel like you need to take a gap year for that purpose. 

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

There are a lot of outside circumstances and variables we can’t always control; like professors moving, or you deciding to change career paths. However, a single long research experience will catch the admission committee’s attention; it demonstrates interest, persistence, and resilience. So, to the extent possible, go for quality over quantity. 

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 essential. 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.

Keep in mind that there’s no requirement on being published, so don’t focus your energy on that, but do talk about your interest in the publication experience to your mentor or professor and they will make it easy for you. Medical schools will love to see the things that you’ve been involved with and read about what you’ve worked on!

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 on your clinical experience as well as volunteering and community service. Also, work on maintaining a good GPA and improving your MCAT score.

As previously mentioned, at the end of the day, the sum of all your experience and how everything in your application connects and aligns in a clean and clear manner will determine your success in getting accepted. 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 as rich as possible will play a key role in whether research complements your application in a positive way, and whether it makes you a competitive candidate.

Research experience, although not a requirement in most cases, is viewed favorably by medical schools. It is a perfect way to build a skillset that will be crucial for your future as a medical student, and later on for your career as a physician.

Following this guide and taking into account that the overall quality of your application is what counts, you can weigh your options and determine what kind of research experience, if any, will be the most beneficial for you and the theme of your application.

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