Aiming for average isn’t in your nature. You’ve always been more likely to go above and beyond. That mindset will prove useful as you apply to medical school, because there’s a lot of competition out there. A mediocre medical school application won’t get you very far.
You’re already familiar with the basic requirements like obtaining letters of recommendation, gaining clinical exposure, and writing a personal statement. But you might not know how to make sure each of those medical school application elements is as strong as possible. And what else can you do to help bolster your resume when pursing an MD degree?
The first thing you should know is that crafting a strong application is about setting yourself apart. Resist the temptation to think of the various components as a rigid list of requirements you need to complete.
"I think too many students treat the aspects of the application like a checklist."
“I think too many students treat the aspects of the application like a checklist,” says Dr. Ryan Gray, founder of Meded Media. In order to build an impressive application, it’s about more than just ticking off boxes.
In his work as a podcast host and author, Dr. Gray has advised countless students who’ve gained acceptance to medical school. And he has plenty of tips on how you can give yourself the best chance of success.
Expert advice on crafting an excellent medical school application
Now that you know what to avoid, you’re probably ready to learn about some actionable strategies that can help you throughout the application process. Take a look at the suggestions below.
1. Focus on school first
The road to medical school is long. There are quite a few pieces that go into a completed application, and some of them take a considerable amount of time. It might make you feel like you need to tackle everything at once, but not so fast.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see with students, especially early on, is they try to do too much too fast,” Dr. Gray warns.
"One of the biggest mistakes I see with students, especially early on, is they try to do too much too fast."
If you overload your schedule with various activities and volunteer experiences right away, it’s possible your academic performance could suffer. That doesn’t bode well for admissions committees. They only want to accept students who they feel can handle the academic rigors of medical school. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), students who started medical school in 2018 had an average GPA of 3.7.
Start by focusing on school. Dr. Gray suggests students determine what types of study methods work for them and how to manage their time.
“As soon as you master that and you have evidence that your grades are going to be good, then you can starting thinking about those other requirements,” he advises.
2. Be consistent with your medically related experience
There’s a question that nearly every pre-med asks at some point: “How many hours of clinical experience do I need?” In truth, there isn’t a concrete answer. Instead of focusing on numbers, you should take a different approach to your medically related experiences.
“Medical schools want to see consistency and prolonged interest in those things,” Dr. Gray says.
"Medical schools want to see consistency and prolonged interest in those things."
Say you acquired 200 hours of experience working as a scribe and shadowing physicians during your freshman and sophomore year of college. That’s certainly a respectable amount of time. But if you didn’t add to that during the final two years of your undergraduate education, Dr. Gray says that’s a major red flag for medical schools. They might question your commitment.
Again, this goes back to thinking of application components like they’re items on a checklist. Medically relevant experiences are absolutely requirements, but it’s not really about pleasing medical schools.
“Those types of things are really there for the student to prove to themselves that this is what they really want,” Dr. Gray offers. If working with patients feels like drudgery, that’s a sign medical school probably isn’t the right path for you.
3. Develop a relationship with physicians you shadow
While most people think of physician shadowing as an activity that falls under the clinical experience umbrella, Dr. Gray differentiates the two. Clinical experience, he maintains, involves true patient interaction. Shadowing is really about observing the physician and the work they do. That doesn’t mean it’s any less important. In fact, Dr. Gray thinks every pre-med needs to gain shadowing experience. So how do you get started?
'It’s really about connecting as much as possible with your own family physician and other physicians you might know."
“It’s really about connecting as much as possible with your own family physician and other physicians you might know,” he suggests.
From there, try to develop a good relationship with the doctor. Working with the same physician over a period of time gives you a fuller picture of what their work is like. You might even be able to secure a letter of recommendation, but that shouldn’t be your goal of shadowing. Dr. Gray doesn’t think it’s worth stressing over.
4. Gain research experience, but only if it’s really important to you
In addition to medical school prerequisites, students are wondering whether they need to have research experience for their medical school applications. They also want to know how involved they have to be.
“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 offers. “None of that is really true.”
Believe it or not, most medical schools don’t expect research experience. It’s really an extra component. That said, you should absolutely pursue research if it’s something you’re truly interested in. And Dr. Gray points out that MD/PhD programs and certain institutions do emphasize research involvement.
5. Demonstrate what you’re passionate about
It might sound hokey, but pouring yourself into the things you’re most interested in is probably the best way to make admissions committees take notice. You aren’t going to be able to differentiate yourself by obtaining a good MCAT score or participating in your school’s pre-med club.
“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.”
"Students should really try to focus on what they enjoy."
Think about where your passions lie. Medical schools look for students who demonstrate 15 core competencies, and there are numerous activities that will allow you to showcase these characteristics. You could be involved in anything from music to sports.
“If you are super interested in playing soccer, can you also coach and be a leader?” Dr. Gray asks. “Can you potentially put together a weekend soccer league?”
A few other helpful reminders
There are a lot of unwritten rules pre-med students think they need to abide by, but it’s important to maintain some perspective. While schools scrutinize your grades considerably, that doesn’t mean you need to be perfect. More and more schools are 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 says. He’s advised numerous students who’ve overcome academic struggles.
It’s also helpful to know that you don’t have to be certain of exactly what you want to practice. Even if you’ve always wanted to become a family physician, you might eventually find you’re a better fit for a different field. That’s actually pretty common.
“Data from the AAMC shows that 75 percent of students change their mind of what they want to do coming into medical school,” Dr. Gray points out.
Prepare for your future as a physician
There’s no denying how challenging it is to get into medical school, so a lot of students spend their time worrying about how one mistake could cost them their dream career. But consider that it can be a lot more beneficial to focus on how to improve than how to avoid errors. Every student has an opportunity to strengthen their medical school application. You just need to act on it.
Remember that submitting your application is just the first step. You also need to show you’re a solid candidate when attending interviews, so preparation is essential. Start practicing by checking out our article “10 Medical School Interview Questions All Future MDs Should Expect to Answer.”
See yourself as a medical student?Learn More