The medical school admissions process is one of the most complex, competitive, and time-consuming admissions methods in the country. For over a decade as a Harvard pre-med advisor and now as a medical school admissions consultant, I have thought about how to break down the complicated medical school admissions system into one that can be easily understood and followed. The resulting “Six Bucket” structure clearly lays out what it takes to get into medical school and serves as the foundation of a new venture, www.HowtobePreMed.com. Fill up all six buckets and you have a very good chance of getting into medical school.
As you well know, academics are a huge part of the medical school admissions process. The Academics Bucket is filled with items weighed by the medical school admissions committees when assessing if you are ready to excel academically in medical school:
- GPA (Total, Science, and Non-Science)
- MCAT Score
- Undergraduate/graduate school strength
- Course strength
I am often asked, “What GPA and MCAT do I need to get into Harvard Medical School.” I always answer, “It depends.” Many pre-meds think it takes a 4.0 GPA and 45 MCAT score to get into medical school. They are wrong. Pre-meds with 4.0 GPAs and 45 MCAT scores have used my consulting services after they were NOT accepted to medical school. Yes, good grades and a decent MCAT score are generally required to gain acceptance to medical school, but there is no exact GPA or MCAT that guarantees admission. Medical school admissions committees look at pre-meds’ “whole package” when deciding whom gets into medical school. Great grades and MCAT scores, a top-20 school pedigree, upper level classes, and a challenging or unique major are not enough to get into medical school. You need to be well-rounded and stand out amongst the other 43,000 applicants. Think of the Academics Bucket as being filled with hurdles. You pass over the GPA and MCAT hurdles and move on to more exciting items that fill the other How To Be Pre-MedTM Buckets.
Pre-meds frequently ask, “Do I need research to get into medical school.” I always emphatically answer, “Yes!” But “research” may not mean exactly what you think. Research does not have to involve pipetting in the lab or creating mutant rats. Laboratory research is an excellent way to delve deeper into basic science and work with other brilliant scientists trying to solve a problem, but it is not the only type of research available to pre-meds.
In the eyes of medical school admissions committees, research can be defined as any activity that involves asking a question and then trying to answer it. You form a hypothesis and attempt to solve it. The goal of your research is to prove to the medical school admissions committees your talent for analytical thinking and problem solving. Many activities fall under this broader definition of research, including:
- Studying HIV transmission rates from mother to child in Uganda
- Determining the most cost-effective way to implement an electronic health record system at the local health clinic
- Investigating scientists to be included in the book Most Notable American Woman Volume V
- Analyzing the health disparities of Costa Ricans versus Nicaraguans in San Pablo de Heredia, Costa Rica
- Looking at how states fund immunizations for a congressionally-sponsored immunization finance study
- Using nanotechnology to develop handheld laboratory analyzers to be used at the bedside
- Studying GAD65 antigen therapy in recently diagnosed type 1 diabetes mellitus
- Drafting a white paper on global payment systems versus fee-for-service payments for health care reform consulting firm
- Performing language tests on elderly individuals with and without dementia to determine if subtle language deficits can predict development of Alzheimer’s Disease
- Designing a mechanical straw mechanism that allows quadriplegic patients to control drinking from wheel-chair mounted water bottle
- As you can see, “research” has a broad meaning. The key is to find a problem you are interesting in solving, and then working to find a solution.
COMMUNITY SERVICE BUCKET
When it comes to medical school admissions, community service refers to any activity where you are helping someone else. Medicine is a caring profession, and, through your community service experiences, you can prove your passion for helping others.
Medical school admissions committees strongly prefer you show consistency and leadership in your community service activities. For example, it is more impressive to volunteer in the emergency department for four years and receive promotions from volunteer intern to volunteer trainer to volunteer supervisor than to participate in a one-week community health fair for underserved populations each year in college. When choosing your community service activities, think commitment and leadership.
Similar to choosing research and extracurricular activities, you can think outside the box and be creative when selecting your community service experiences. You don’t necessarily have to volunteer in a medical setting, though that certainly doesn’t hurt. You just need to help other people. Here are some of my favorite community service examples from former clients:
- Teach mahjong to local nursing home residents and then organize tournaments
- Institute “Sunday Suppers” on inner city street corner to feed homeless population
- Tutor military personnel on how to re-enter college and the workforce
- Provide language translation to help individuals applying for government benefits
- Wash the feet of homeless individuals at weekly clinic
- Develop sustainable system for collecting medical supplies for clinic serving Sherpa community in Nepal
The word “extracurricular,” by strict definition, refers to any activity outside of the classroom. But in the context of medical school admissions, I use extracurricular to mean any experience that does not fit into the category of academics, research, community service, or clinical experience. Examples of extracurricular categories include:
Extracuricular activities are a great way to stand out in the medical school admissions process. This is another chance to be creative and follow your passions. Admissions committees may not remember that you had a 3.7 GPA, but they will likely remember that you climbed 50 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado over the last 5 years or speak fluent Gaelic or collect classic bicycles and auction them off for charity. Do not be afraid to follow your passions, even if they do not directly relate to medicine. Your extracurricular experiences will contribute not only to your medical school admissions chances, but will help you live a happy, well-balanced life. These are the activities that often continue through medical school and beyond and make you who you are.
When choosing extracurricular activities, the same rule applies as for choosing every other pre-med experience: focus on commitment and leadership. Fewer stellar experiences are more powerful than many “one-offs,” or things you spend little time doing.
CLINICAL EXPERIENCE BUCKET
Members of medical school admissions committees often say lack of clinical experience in the most common reason why pre-meds are not accepted to medical school. Does that surprise you? It initially surprised me until I thought more about it. Even more than academic achievement, research activities, and community service experiences, medical school admissions committees want to see that you know what it is like to be a doctor. Medicine is a grueling profession and certainly not the easiest path you can choose. Do you know what you are getting yourself into? Medical school admissions committees look for the answer to this question in your clinical experiences.
The clinical experience category is less broad than the Research, Community Service, and Extracurricular Buckets. It specifically refers to activities related to doctoring. Examples of clinical experience include:
- Shadowing physicians
- Volunteering/working in a clinic, office, or hospital
- Performing clinical research
- Traveling on international medical missions
When looking for clinical experiences, try to get a broad view of the medical profession and witness the day-to-day life of different types of physicians. It’s also a good idea to volunteer or work in diverse environments, such as an office setting, emergency department, and inpatient hospital ward.
APPLICATION SKILLS BUCKET
I like to refer to application “skills” as application “art” because it takes tremendous creativity, writing, and interviewing skills to gain acceptance to medical school. Through the application, you have to create a story that helps you stand out among the other 43,000 applicants and convinces the medical school admissions committees why you will make an exceptional medical student and physician. You can use the following parts of the medical school application to develop your compelling story:
- AMCAS Work/Activities
- AMCAS Personal Statement
- Secondary Essays
- Letter of Intent/Update Letters
You may wonder how to decide on your story. This is one of the hardest parts of the admissions process. My suggestion is to look at your experiences and see how they weave together. Have you dedicated significant time and effort to studying infectious disease in the laboratory and clinic? Then you can use these experiences to tell the story of how you want to become a physician-scientist dedicated to treating HIV patients. Have you played competitive sports your whole life and witnessed how orthopedic surgeons help patients and athletes get back on their feet after injuries? Then you can craft an interesting story discussing how you’d like to become an orthopedic surgeon who focuses on sports medicine and dream of becoming an Olympic physician one day. Have you spent years studying how health policy affects public hospitals and recently worked full time at the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine? Then you can develop a story focusing on your passion for creating lasting health reform in the US that improves care for the underserved. The key is to look back over all of your life experiences and see how they come together into a unified story that leads to a medical career. This story creation is the true art of medical school applications.
AS YOU CAN SEE, the medical school application process is about so much more than grades and MCAT scores. To get into medical school, you need to fill up all Six Buckets, of which the Academics Bucket is but one. Luckily, you can cross-fill the buckets. For example, clinical research falls into both the Research and Clinical Experience Buckets. Volunteering in a clinic counts for both Community Service and Clinical Experience Buckets.
Given that I was once a pre-med and know the culture well, I expect you are a bit overwhelmed by these Six Buckets and want to run out and fill them all now. Resist this urge. Filling the Six Buckets occurs over years, starting with your first year of college. Remember, admissions committees strongly prefer commitment and leadership in all activities to “one-offs.” Be strategic when choosing how to spend your time. Focus on what you love doing and you will likely do it well. And if you are thinking of applying this cycle and haven’t filled all of the buckets, why not wait on applying? There is no rule that says you have to go to medical school right after college. Taking time off will likely only help your application.