Applying to medical school is a complicated process of selling yourself to discerning and over-particular customers. Medical school admissions committees (adcoms) aim to admit well-rounded applicants that embody a laundry list of qualities. Furthermore, every medical school looks for slightly different personal attributes that fit their school’s nuanced missions. Attempting to sell yourself to every medical school is a Sisyphean exercise and therefore not recommended. However, there are five general criteria that will pique the attention of most adcoms.
1 | High Degree of Academic Achievement
There is no getting around the fact that your GPA (overall and science) and MCAT score must be above average. Medical schools want to admit students with a high degree of scholastic achievement who have proven that they can handle challenging course loads and excel on exams. That being said, having a high GPA and MCAT score only gets your foot in the door and certainly does not guarantee admission. However, if you have a low GPA and/or MCAT score, it is unlikely you will even get a secondary application or an interview invitation. Thus, the first concern of any pre-medical student should be to maintain a high undergraduate GPA and ace the MCAT.
2 | Diverse Set of Extracurricular Experiences
Curating an eclectic portfolio of extracurricular experiences is your main ticket to quantifiably stand out to adcoms. You can list up to fifteen different Experiences on the AMCAS and highlight three of those fifteen as your Most Meaningful Experiences. The key to the Experiences section is to both display a diversity of interests (i.e., show that you are well-rounded) and emphasize a few key activities that demonstrate your passion for medicine and/or a key personal attribute (e.g., leadership, service, teamwork). Medicine is a long path and adcoms look for applicants that have had a sustained commitment to one or more activities in their life.
When curating your Experiences, make sure that one or more of your three Meaningful Experiences is a clinical, research, or service activity. Below you will find some advice and comments about various experiences you should try to include in your AMCAS, which will aid you in fitting the profile of an aspiring physician and satisfy the checklists of most adcoms. However, it is recommended to take the liberty of using some of your fifteen Experiences to showcase interests outside of medicine or science, especially if they are particularly meaningful to you. Your unique quirks will make you more memorable to adcoms.
A | Highly Recommended Experiences
- Shadowing physicians, being a medical scribe or an emergency medical technician.
- Preferably related to medicine or healthcare. Can be basic, translational, clinical, or social science research.
- Volunteering at clinics or hospitals, working with the homeless.
- Captain of your sports team, being the president or officer of a club.
B | Optional (But Recommended) Experiences
- Studying Abroad
- Not everyone is presented with this opportunity. But if you have the opportunity, studying abroad is a great way to demonstrate cultural competency, independence, and communication skills.
- Being a good teacher requires advanced communication and organizational skills and is a common attribute found in many medical students and physicians that become leaders amongst their peers. Thus, teaching experience is looked upon favorably by adcoms.
3 | Admirable Personal Attributes
Conveying your personal attributes is a task split between your personal statement, your Experiences section, and your letters of recommendation. There is literally a laundry list of pre-professional competencies that are listed by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Some examples of these competencies (i.e., personal attributes) include being culturally competent, a team player, and a good communicator.
The key to the tricky task of humblebragging about yourself is to show, not tell. Avoid making claims like “I am a culturally competent team player who is a good communicator.” Instead, show the adcom these three personal attributes by describing an Experience where, for instance, you helped organize an outreach event to increase access to free diabetes screening amongst an underserved, non-English speaking population. In terms of your letters of recommendation, select professors or supervisors that know you well and ask them if they are willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation for medical school.
4 | Coherent Motivation for Pursuing Medicine
You must communicate coherent and considered reasons for why you want to become a physician in your personal statement. The bulk of your personal statement should be focused on describing what drives you, what your passions and career goals are, and why you are committed to the difficult pathway that is medicine. Adcoms want to ensure that applicants understand what they are getting themselves into and have an adequate understanding of what it means to be a physician.
5 | Significant Life Experiences
Discussing how significant life experiences have shaped your personal attributes and/or desire to pursue medicine might take center stage in your personal statement if you have had particularly challenging or adverse life experiences. Adcoms value students who have overcome significant adversity to make it to applying to medical school. However, do not feel obligated to share such experiences if you do not want to and certainly avoid embellishing your life to make yourself look like an underdog.
The goal of your medical school application should be to connect the dots of your academic achievements, extracurricular experiences, personal attributes, reasons for going into medicine, and life experiences into a portfolio that convinces readers that you are a well-rounded individual. Being well-rounded certainly does not mean you must be amazing at everything; however, it does mean that you should make a checklist and try to fulfill as many items that define successful medical students as possible. Beyond that, just present yourself and your quirks honestly. Good luck!