Getting into medical school is a huge accomplishment. While simply getting accepted does not necessarily mean that you will definitely now become a physician, it does mean that your dreams of one day working as a doctor are at least one step closer to fruition. However, the truth remains that the majority of medical school applicants for each admissions cycle will not be admitted. A few students who don’t get accepted may make it onto some institutions’ waiting lists, but such a predicament certainly does not guarantee eventual enrollment.
So what do medical school admissions committees really want? Why do some students get admitted while others are rejected? While the thoughts of some admissions committee’s reasoning in certain cases will probably always seem like a mystery, there still are some overarching trends that seem to run within the minds of medical school admissions committees.
Simply put, medical school admissions committees tend to look for students who display similar examples of strength, while also being unique individuals. In other words, while there are some certain skills that are essential to doing well in medical school (and as a physician beyond medical school), these strengths in academics and social skills alone are often not necessarily enough to ensure a spot within an institution. Other factors play into the admissions decisions; while schools desire students to have a certain level of academic prowess, they also desire for their student bodies to in some way exemplify the diverse patient population that they will someday be serving.
As mentioned previously, perhaps one of the strongest determining factors of whether or not a student will actually get accepted into medical school in the first place is his/her academic record. While a relatively low MCAT or GPA is not necessarily indicative of whether or not an individual will actually make a good doctor, these academic markers are used as ways of “weeding out” less academically strong candidates. The first two years of medical school are filled with an enormous study workload, and schools want to pick the candidates they think are most likely to successfully pass their regular courses, as well as score highly on their Step I exams. High Step I exam scores mean that students are more likely to successfully match to their top-choice residencies, a statistic that medical schools will hold with pride. Again, while academic performance may not necessarily correlate directly to how great of a doctor a student may be someday, academic performance does often indicate how strongly a student may do on certain standardized tests that provide important statistics feedback to medical schools on how their students are “performing.”
At the same time, however, even though admissions committees often use past academic performance (or specifically, lack thereof) to rule out certain candidates, admissions committees also often use certain markers of social skills to rule in applicants. This is the primary reason behind interviews typically being a part of the medical school application process. Of course, most admissions committees understand that students are probably nervous and therefore do a bit worse than they might otherwise do in their interviews because of this, but a good interview (or series of interviews) will definitely make a candidate more likely to be admitted. Similarly, strong personal reference letters can also speak of an applicant’s social skills as well. The actual work of a physician rarely involves performing well on standardized exams, and admissions committees want to make sure that their students are those who can interact properly with patients also.
While general social skills and academic abilities can typically be ascertained by the above methods, other more character-based factors are also typically assessed by admissions committees as well. This is where the list of “extracurricular” activities that is an offered slot on the primary AAMCAS application really comes into play. Sure, a student may have done well in all his undergraduate classes and earned a stellar MCAT score on top. However, if all that student has done is academic-related activities, then he simply may not stand out to an admissions committee as anything particularly special. Getting good grades when all you are doing is studying all day every day is not necessarily impressive; getting good grades while balancing a full life that includes extracurricular activities at the same time is.
In fact, admissions committees recognize that those students who were only able to receive good marks in undergrad because all they did was study might actually be less likely to perform well in medical school than students who received slightly lower grades but had many other activities on the side as well. This is because the workload is much more in medical school than in undergrad, and students who were able to succeed in undergrad while doing other activities will more than likely be able to succeed in medical school if most of their energy is now poured into one main focus. For anyone who had just one focus (academics) in undergrad, however, the amount of work in medical school might prove to be too much.
Additionally, being able to balance studying and extracurricular activities (campus jobs, sports, club involvement, leadership roles, etc.) often means that a student will be more likely to be disciplined enough to be able to balance the “real life” difficulties of being a doctor someday. He/she might be more likely to deal with the demanding work of a physician while also being able to successfully handle any stresses in his/her home life as well. While academics and interview skills will always look good on an application, leading a life that shows you have extreme discipline in your time management skills shows an admissions committee that you probably won’t only be a good student–you’ll probably be a good doctor as well.
However, acceptance into medical school is not necessarily always determined solely on one’s undergraduate experiences. Instead, admissions committees often tend to dig deeper into the past of an individual. While this does not mean that they are looking into your middle school GPA, it does mean that factors beyond the years you’ve spent in college might be considered when reviewing your application. Students who have risen above great odds to get to where they are at the point of their applications are often desirable applicants; these students’ resilience in the face of adversity makes them highly sought-after students for medical schools.
Similarly, life experiences in general are often considered by medical schools as they make admissions decisions. While the average age of medical school students tends to put the typical age of acceptance shortly after graduating from undergrad, often more “non traditional” students are more desirable applicants. Students who have spent time in other careers but who desire to switch over to medicine often have stronger desires for becoming doctors than those who do not have any work experience at all. This increased determination to become a physician may easily be the determining factor for which students will do better in medical school when the going gets tough.
Despite commonly held conceptions about what a “doctor looks like,” medical school admissions committees are really looking for students who can add diversity to their student bodies. This means more than just racial diversity, however. Admissions committees are also interested in accepting students who don’t fall into the typical “science major” categories. Students who chose to study math, humanities, government, and business are actually often more desirable applicants than the more commonly encountered biology-major premed students. Studying areas outside of typical science courses often makes for a more well-rounded student who has an understanding for how the world outside of medicine functions.
Additionally, students from various socioeconomic backgrounds are desired by admissions committees. Even though many medical students have parents or other family members who are physicians, medical schools are seeking to get out of the “rut” of accepting mostly students who already come from medical families. While coming from a “medical family” will not hurt your chance of being accepted, not coming from a medical family also shouldn’t be a problem.
Benefits to medicine
So how does the trend of medical school admissions committees taking a more holistic approach to considering applicants really help the future of medicine in the long run? How will future patient populations benefit from future doctors who exemplify the above mentioned character qualities and cultural backgrounds?Simply put, the goal is for medical schools to educate better physicians who are then able to provide better healthcare for all. Seeking out applicants who have proper social skills will hopefully result in doctors who are able to provide better patient-physician communication; these socially aware doctors will also hopefully be able to display adequate empathy when dealing with difficult situations with patients, leading to a better physician-patient relationship overall. Additionally, accepting medical students from a variety of backgrounds will hopefully work to help address the problem of health care disparity found in certain socioeconomic populations. More doctors who are able to serve in previously underserved communities across the States will equate to more immediate access to medical help when it is needed.
This article was published in the November/December 2014 issue of PreMedLife magazine.