Setting goals is one of the best ways to plan for success. It gives you something specific to work toward. You certainly adhere to this way of thinking, which is why your main objective for some time has been to get accepted to medical school.
But you’re also a realist. You know it’s important to take a serious look at how you compare to other medical school applicants. It occasionally makes you wonder, “Will I get into medical school?”
There’s certainly no crystal ball you can gaze into to determine whether you’ll gain an acceptance letter. The admissions process is too nuanced, particularly for schools that employ a holistic review. Still, you can gain a better understanding of your odds by taking a look at your academic profile and knowing how to strategically apply to the right programs.
8 factors that affect your odds of getting into medical school
As an aspiring medical student, it’s important you know how to lay the foundation for success. There are numerous factors that play a role.
1. Your academic metrics
It’s impossible to identify a specific MCAT score or GPA that will ensure acceptance, but you can get a sense of where you stand by being aware of the averages. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the average MCAT score for students who started medical school in the fall of 2018 was 511. The average GPA among those students was 3.72. It should come as no surprise that medical schools have high standards.
"This expectation is so that the medical schools can be sure that a student will be able to perform the academic workload required of medical school."
“This expectation is so that the medical schools can be sure that a student will be able to perform the academic workload required of medical school,” explains Dr. Deborah Gutman, Emergency Physician and founder of AdmissionsRx.
If you fall well below either the average GPA or MCAT score, you might need to take some steps to improve. A low GPA could require some additional coursework. If you’re struggling with the MCAT, you may need to retake it. Just be careful about how you proceed.
“What really makes it worthwhile to retake the MCAT is if you know that you’re going to do something differently,” says Dr. Daniel Southren, Pain Management Physician and founder of Atlas Admissions. That might mean using different study techniques and resources or working with a tutor to create a customized plan of attack that takes into account your strengths and weaknesses. He also mentions that students tend to perform better on practice exams than the actual test, so keep that in mind as you assess whether you’re ready.
2. The amount and quality of clinical exposure you have
Clinical experience like physician shadowing is essential for medical school applicants, but not for the reasons you might suspect. No program expects students to come in knowing how to practice medicine. Gaining experience around patients is more about seeing what it’s like to work in the field.
“I think a lot of medical schools just want to make sure that you understand exactly what you’re getting into,” Dr. Southren offers.
"Medical schools just want to make sure that you understand exactly what you’re getting into."
Why would this matter to medical schools? Because the road to becoming a practicing physician is long and difficult. It takes a considerable amount of commitment.
“Medical schools will take pause when an applicant does not have a clear perspective, based on clinical experiences, of what it means to be a physician,” Dr. Gutman adds.
3. Your involvement in other activities
Clinical exposure, while important, is just one factor making up a strong application. Admissions committees also consider research experience, volunteer work, and more. Even activities that have nothing to do with medicine like sports and music can play a role.
“Anything that could expose how you work in teams, how you would be as a future leader, and even how you are from a creative standpoint can come together to show how you would make a good physician in the future,” Dr. Southren explains.
And remember, it’s not just about checking items off a list to get into medical school. Your involvement in various activities helps you develop as an individual.
“A person with hobbies and interests across multiple disciplines or realms is a more interesting candidate and likely a person who will be able to relate to a wide range of people,” Dr. Gutman suggests.
4. The strength of your letters of recommendation
Letters of recommendation are the only component of your application that includes others’ opinions of you. That matters significantly. Your letter writers—physicians or professors who know you very well—can speak to the qualifications and characteristics that demonstrate you’re prepared for medical school.
5. The quality of your personal statement
Your personal statement is one of the best opportunities to explain you know what being a doctor entails and express why you want to become one. But be wary of spending this valuable real estate discussing your lifelong desire to pursue medicine or a sick loved one who inspired you. Those types of stories have been told hundreds of times.
"Expand on those anecdotes in a deeper way that might expose your true underlying motivations."
“Use anecdotes that are more specific to you, and expand on those anecdotes in a deeper way that might expose your true underlying motivations,” Dr. Southren offers.
It’s also worth remembering you’re writing an essay for admissions officers who are assessing you as both a future student and future graduate. Dr. Southren recommends keeping your readers in mind by expressing how you can contribute to that particular institution.
6. Whether you have guidance
There’s a lot to keep track of when applying to medical school. For most students, working with some sort of advisor is really essential. You should always start with whatever free advising services your school provides. But for students who want more individualized attention or who don’t have a pre-med advisor at their school, it might be beneficial to work with an independent consultant.
“An advisor can help answer the hundreds of little questions that come up along the way and also serve as a sounding board for how students can present themselves in the most authentic light,” Dr. Gutman says.
7. The logistics of submitting your application
Believe it or not, timing can actually play a huge role in your odds of getting into medical school. Medical schools extend interview offers on a rolling basis. This means it’s in your best interest to apply early.
"It’s well-known that the number of interview spots decreases dramatically as you get past the initial summer months."
“It’s well-known that the number of interview spots decreases dramatically as you get past the initial summer months,” Dr. Southren says, adding that it’s best to submit when applications open in June.
You also need to apply to enough—and the right mix of—schools. This is another area where it would be beneficial to enlist an advisor to help you craft your final list. Dr. Gutman says it’s wise to apply to about 15 programs, but there’s also more to the story.
“Like most things, it is not about the number of the programs as much as it is about picking the right programs for your list,” Dr. Gutman says. For example, she notes it doesn’t make sense to apply to programs that emphasize research if you don’t have an interest in it.
8. The strength of your interview
Receiving interview invitations is exciting. Medical schools only extend these offers to candidates they would actually consider admitting to their program. That said, you can’t expect to coast through them.
“It's important to realize that once you’re in that interview phase, things sort of reset in terms of the overall application,” Dr. Southren says. What he means is that everyone who comes for an interview is more or less on even ground, so it’s critical that you put your best foot forward. The interview offers an opportunity for dynamic interaction and assessment.
This isn’t cause for panic. You just need to prepare appropriately. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the types of questions interviewers ask and practice as much as you can.
Set your sights on MD success
If you know you have what it takes to succeed as a physician, hard work and smart planning can go a long way. It might be time to stop asking yourself, “Will I get into medical school?” and start thinking about how you can achieve your goal. There are a lot of elements well within your control, including the list of schools you apply to and how you represent yourself during interviews.
Interviews are particularly critical for gaining an acceptance letter, because admissions committees really get to know who you are as a student and person. Learn more about how you can get ready for these conversations by reading our article “How to Prepare for Medical School Interviews: Steps for Success.”
Find out if medical school is right for you.Learn More