4 Ways to Strengthen Your Medical School Application
It’s no secret that admission to medical school can be competitive. You’re likely pretty familiar with the basic requirements like maintaining a strong GPA, obtaining letters of recommendation, gaining clinical exposure, and writing a compelling personal statement. But if you want to push your medical school application beyond mediocre, you’ll need to learn how to make each element as strong as possible.
Crafting an effective application is all about setting yourself apart from an equally qualified applicant pool. Dr. Ryan Gray, founder of Medical Education Media, has advised countless students who’ve gained acceptance to medical school. We spoke with Dr. Gray to get his best medical school application tips.
How to make your medical school application stand out
“I think too many students treat the aspects of the application like a checklist,” Dr. Gray notes, explaining that the best way to build an impressive application is to avoid looking at medical school requirements as a rigid list of boxes you’ll need to check. Each element is important.
Read on for some strategies to make the most out of the application process.
1. Focus on school first
The road to medical school is long. There are several aspects that make up a completed application, and some of them take a considerable amount of time. One of the most helpful pieces of advice Dr. Gray offers to pre-med students is to pace yourself.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see with students, especially early on, is when they try to do too much too fast,” he warns. If you overload your schedule with various activities and volunteer experiences in hopes of bolstering your medical school CV, it’s possible your academic performance could suffer—and that won’t bode well when it comes time for an application committee to review your transcripts.
Doctor of Medicine (MD) programs are looking for students who will be able to handle the academic rigor of medical school. While your GPA won’t be the only thing they consider, it’s important to remember that it can still carry a lot of weight. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the average GPA for medical students who were accepted into MD programs in 2021 was 3.59.
If you’re looking for ways to improve or maintain your GPA, Dr. Gray suggests doing a bit of extra work to learn how to manage your time and find the types of study methods most effective for you. “As soon as you can master those things and you have evidence that your grades are going to be good, you can start thinking about those other requirements,” he says.
2. Be consistent with your medically related experience
Many pre-med students wonder how many hours of clinical experience they’ll need. Because there isn’t a concrete answer to that question, Dr. Gray encourages students to focus on the quality of those clinical experiences. “Medical schools want to see consistency and prolonged interest in those things,” he explains.
If you acquired 200 hours of working as a medical scribe and shadowing physicians during your first two years of college, for example, those are certainly respectable experiences to list in your medical school application. But if you don’t add to that during the final two years of your undergraduate education, Dr. Gray suggests that could be a major red flag for admissions teams. The last thing you want is for a medical school to question your commitment to becoming a physician.
“Those types of things are really there for the student to prove to themselves that this is what they want,” Dr. Gray explains. Clinical exposure is a helpful method for gaining hands-on experience, but it’s also the most effective way to confirm that pursuing a career in medicine is the right path for you.
3. Gain research experience
Most think of medically related experience as shadowing physicians or volunteering in a clinic. While clinical exposure like that can be invaluable for pre-med students, another way to gain experience in the medical field is to participate in research efforts.
The idea of pursuing medical research experience can seem intimidating on the surface. “A lot of students worry that you have to have a publication, you have to be first author, or you have to do a poster presentation,” Dr. Gray says. “None of that is really true.”
While MD/PhD programs do often emphasize research involvement, most medical schools don’t expect this type of experience from their applicants. But if you have any interest in working with medical research in the future, it can serve as a compelling component of your application that may help you stand out to admissions committees.
It’s also helpful to note that seeking out these opportunities early on will help you build a foundation for strong medical research skills, bolstering your residency applications in the future.
4. Demonstrate what you’re passionate about
Realistically, you know you’ll be applying to medical school amidst a class of other applicants who have also obtained strong GPAs, impressive test scores, and a range of medically related experiences. So if you’re wondering how to make your medical school application stand out from the rest, you can do so by letting your unique passions and interests shine through.
“Students should really try to focus on what they enjoy,” Dr. Gray offers. “And when they focus on that, it will come through in their application and their interview. It just helps make their application a little different.
Your personal statement can be a great place to highlight the things you’re passionate about and the experiences that have helped shape your aspirations. Even if they’re not directly related to practicing medicine, Dr. Gray notes that there are numerous ways to tie your favorite activities or causes back to being a successful medical student.
“If you are super interested in playing soccer, can you also coach and be a leader? Do you have the skills to put together a weekend soccer league?” he poses.
Medical schools look for a range of different competencies in promising applicants, from social skills to critical-thinking abilities to cultural competence. Whether you’re interested in music, sports, working with children, supporting community issues, or anything in between, there are numerous ways you can showcase the characteristics they’re seeking.
Other medical school applications tips to keep in mind
There are many unwritten rules pre-med students think they need to abide by, but it’s helpful to maintain some perspective. While schools scrutinize your grades and test scores considerably, that doesn’t mean you need to be perfect. In fact, an increasing number of medical schools have been adopting a holistic review process.
“If you have a bad semester or a bad year, or if you start off freshman year poorly because you’re away from home, it’s not the end of your medical career,” Dr. Gray encourages, noting that he’s advised numerous students who have overcome academic struggles and still found success in medical school.
It can also be important to go into your medical school experience with an open mind. The list of medical specialties and subspecialties is vast, and it’s perfectly acceptable—encouraged even—to enter your MD program unsure of the type of doctor you’ll become.
Even if you’ve always envisioned yourself working as a family physician, for example, you may eventually find you’re a better fit for a different field. Dr. Gray points out that around 75 percent of students change their minds about the type of medicine they want to practice after entering medical school. Having clear-cut aspirations can be helpful, but it’s not a necessary component for success.
Prepare for your future as a physician
There’s no denying how challenging it can be to get into medical school. But with this advice on how to make your medical school application stand out, you should feel ready to put your best foot forward.
Once you submit your application and catch the eye of some MD programs, the next step will be to participate in medical school interviews. Admissions committees will be looking for pre-med students who are just as impressive in person as they are on paper.
You can start planning your next steps by checking out our article “How to Prepare for Medical School Interviews: Steps for Success.”
*This article was originally published in 2019. It has since been updated.