The most important requirement for medical school acceptance is strong academic performance, according to admission experts, who say that an exceedingly low GPA or MCAT entrance exam score can sink an aspiring doctor's chances.
Dr. Clay Dorenkamp, an orthopedic surgery resident at McLaren Greater Lansing Hospital who is on the clinical faculty of Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, suggests premeds prioritize their academics and not get overly distracted by extracurricular activities.
"Never let it get in the way of performing well academically," says Dorenkamp, who earned his medical degree from Midwestern University's Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine and who co-founded the "On Call Mentors" advice blog, which provides guidance to premeds and medical students. "No amount of community service or shadowing or research is going to pay off if you have a super-low GPA or you perform poorly on the MCAT."
Some medical schools set minimum standards for GPAs and MCAT scores, meaning that hitting those two targets is necessary in order to gain acceptance to these institutions, experts warn. Because medical schools are rigorous, admissions officers at these schools look for evidence that prospective students are prepared to handle difficult science courses. These schools often use grades and test scores to ensure that prospective students have the technical knowledge necessary to thrive as a medical student, according to experts.
However, experts note that while impressive academic credentials help improve the odds of medical school acceptance, an excellent GPA and MCAT score do not guarantee admission.
"Once (students) meet those two initial requirements, other factors come into play such life experiences, volunteer work, research, letters of recommendation, how they perform at the interview etc. While some schools are more research-oriented, research is not always a prerequisite," Dr. Alex Anastasiou, a California-based psychiatrist, wrote in an email. "Many schools want to see that the student has had real-life experiences such as volunteering and shadowing in offices and hospitals."
GPA, MCAT Requirements for Medical School
Getting into medical school is difficult for individuals who don't have both strong grades and solid test scores. The median undergraduate GPA for fall 2018 first-year students at ranked medical schools that reported this data was a 3.74 on a four-point, A-F grading scale. Meanwhile, among fall 2018 freshmen at ranked medical schools that provided MCAT statistics, the median MCAT score on the current version of the test -- which has a maximum score of 528 -- was a 512. That score sits in the 86th percentile for all MCAT test-takers between 2015-2017, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the nonprofit organization that designs and administers the MCAT.
Keith Baker, assistant dean for admissions at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, says medical schools typically expect at least a 3.3 college GPA, and they carefully analyze grades in science courses.
Baker says medical school hopefuls with low college grades in premed science classes may be able to mitigate that flaw in their application package if they take graduate-level science courses and earn high grades. He also says that med school hopefuls with subpar MCAT scores should know they will have an uphill battle convincing med school admissions officers to overlook those scores, though it is possible to do so.
"Let's say, for instance, a school has an average matriculation MCAT of 511... If I'm sitting at a 505 MCAT, you know, my chances are pretty doggone low at an institution like that," Baker says. "And even much lower if the (average) MCAT is higher at a given institution. Now, does that mean that your chances of getting in are zero? No, it just means that there are a lot of other people ahead of you in line who are probably going to get a more serious look unless there's some overriding facts about your application that may allow your candidacy to proceed even with less-than-ideal metrics."
Prerequisite Courses and Extracurricular Activities for Medical School Admissions
While medical schools vary in their policies regarding prerequisites, experts say the following college courses are frequently mandatory:
-- General chemistry
-- Organic chemistry
Baker says med school admissions officials are typically wary of applicants who take the majority or all of their premed courses at community colleges rather than four-year undergraduate institutions, since these officials are dubious about the rigor of community college classes.
"It's kind of a red flag if all of your (prerequisite) work is done at a community college," he says. "Certainly some of it can be."
Baker adds that before applying to any particular medical school, a prospective student ought to check what the prerequisite courses are for that school.
Medical school admissions experts say it is ideal for aspiring doctors to complete their prerequisite courses for medical school during college as opposed to waiting until after college to take those courses through a postbac program, since the latter route is more expensive and time-consuming. The best way for premed undergrads to ensure that they are on track to complete all the prerequisite courses for their target medical schools is to meet regularly with an undergraduate academic adviser, beginning during freshman year, according to experts.
"A common mistake some students make is to realize they want to apply to medical school without having completed all the required science prerequisites which can delay the process," Anastasiou wrote. "While non-science majors can apply to medical school, it is even more critical for them to plan ahead since the class requirements for their major may not include all the required sciences such as chemistry, physics (and) biology. These subjects are also tested on the MCAT, so it is crucial to have taken them in order to have a good background going into the exam. Although you can start the application process without your MCAT score, it is preferable to have your MCAT scores available when you apply since some schools have early or rolling admission."
Research Experience is Necessary for Admission at Some Med Schools, But Not Others
Baker says prior research experience is typically a must-have at highly selective, research-oriented medical schools, but it is possible to get accepted into a U.S. medical school without a research background. He adds that any type of academic research can be a plus for a med school applicant, whether it is lab research, clinical research or fieldwork. However, Baker notes that the only way research helps med school applicants is when they can demonstrate that their research yielded meaningful results and they can clearly explain the lessons learned from their research.
Clinical Experience, Community Service Often Expected
Baker says the two most common med school application deal-breakers besides low grades and test scores are a lack of clinical experience and a shortage of community service.
"You have to have clinical exposure," he says. "That's sort of fundamental. That experience lets us and other medical schools know that you have a reasonable expectation of what lies ahead, and if you don't have that, we simply don't have confidence that you're a serious candidate."
Baker says medical school candidates with a highly competitive amount of clinical experience tend to have several hundred hours of such experience, which may include work as a medical scribe, volunteering in medical settings or doctor shadowing. He adds that 50 hours of clinical experience is the minimum amount of clinical experience that someone would need to get accepted to medical school.
He notes that although service experiences are not mandatory for admission at every medical school, most institutions expect premeds to have that type of experience, since medicine is a profession that involves empathizing with and providing assistance to vulnerable people.
"If you don't have service at a level that is commensurate with being a nice person, we simply are not going to invest the time in you, because ... we want to see fundamentally somebody who cares about their community," he says. "Service -- for better or for worse -- ends up being the best and easiest way for us to measure your niceness level."
Application Timing Matters
Because many medical schools make admissions decisions on a rolling basis, earlier applicants typically have better odds of acceptance, according to medical school admission experts.
"Earlier is better," says Dr. Eric Rafla-Yuan, chief resident physician in the community psychiatry residency program at the University of California--San Diego. "For basically everything in the application process, later is worse."
Rafla-Yuan says the same application that would garner an acceptance if it is submitted early in the admissions process might be rejected if submitted later.
Primary and Secondary Applications Often Required
If a medical school admissions committee is impressed by a prospective student's primary application, which typically includes a personal statement and recommendation letters, then the school will usually ask the student to fill out a secondary application and answer school-specific questions, often including at least one institutional essay prompt.
Baker says it's common for prospective medical students to rush through completing secondary applications without being as thoughtful as they were when writing primary applications. But the information in the second application is sometimes just as influential in the admissions process as the information in the first, he says.
"Don't sleep on those questions or those essays, because those are really important, and they are usually written for a very specific purpose, depending on the institutions, so don't treat those lightly," Baker says.
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