What are the most important factors in the medical school application?
There are many factors that determine success in medical school applications, ranging from exam scores to the personal essay and work experiences. An ideal application will have all the boxes checked, and in this guide we’ll walk through all of the categories in the application to help you stand out when it counts most.
MCAT Exam and GPA
For 2021, the average MCAT for students accepted to allopathic medical schools in the United States in 2020-2021 was 511.5. This is in contrast to the average MCAT score of all students who applied to U.S. medical schools, which is 506.
Unsurprisingly, those accepted to medical school have a mean MCAT higher than the average applicant, and in fact a score of 511.5 is that 80th percentile for all test takers. A truly excellent MCAT score is at or above the 90th percentile, with a score of 515.
The average GPA for accepted students is 3.74 overall, with an average science GPA of 3.67 for the 2021-2022 application cycle according to the AAMC. For all applicants, the average GPA is lower with a 3.59 overall GPA and 3.48 science GPA.
That being said, do not despair if your scores are lower than this. There is a wide range of average MCAT scores and GPA’s for accepted students depending on the medical school, and a wise strategy is to include schools in your application portfolio that accept students within or closer to your range. Attached here are some great resources for average GPA and MCAT by school and location which may help you build a list of target schools.
Many students do not realize how critical application timing is in the medical school admissions process, but it can be crucial to success. Students with very similar GPA, MCAT scores, recommendation letters, and experiences, can have drastically different outcomes depending on when they have submitted their applications.
Due to the rolling admissions process, and invitations/spots that fill up quickly throughout the summer, it is absolutely critical that you apply as early as possible, and ideally when applications open. Typically, applications are open by the first week of May for editing and AMCAS allows submission by the first week of June. Our advice is to start editing your application as soon as it opens in the first week of May, and have it ready for submission by the first week of June.
The Primary Application
The primary application as a whole will be submitted through a centralized medical school application system such as AMCAS for most medical schools, and TMDSAS for Texas medical schools. We will go through the components in the following sections, but as emphasized in the last section it is crucial to start this in early May of the application cycle. Here is a resource directly from that AAMC with links to tutorial videos and information about fee assistance programs.
The Personal Essay
Your personal statement gives the admissions committee a window in to who you are as a person, why you chose to go to medical school, and what motivates and inspires you. It is vital that the personal essay does not read as simply a list of your accomplishments included in your resume. This is your opportunity to share something unique about yourself that is not otherwise clearly already obvious in the rest of the application, and answers the fundamental question of why you are motivated to go to medical school. We have a separate forum dedicated specifically to this topic and how to approach the personal statement, as it can make or break an application among many qualified applicants with great MCAT and GPA scores.
Work and Activities
You are allowed to list 15 different experiences in your Work and Activities section of the application on AMCAS, and choose up to three experiences that you consider the most meaningful to describe in up to 1,325 characters. While you do not need to necessarily have 15 experiences to list, you absolutely should take advantage of this extra space to describe your three most meaningful experiences
Firstly, the over-arching point is that quality is better than quantity. What does this mean? It means that one or two strong, in-depth experiences where you have dedicated a tremendous amount of time, showed clear passion for the subject, or been a leader in an organization, will go much farther than having half-a-dozen ‘pre-med’ experiences all of which have had very brief time commitments and little results to show for. This is because medical schools can see clearly through applicants that have tried to pad their resume’s, and what they are truly looking for is applicants who have demonstrated a consistent passion for something over time that has been truly meaningful to them and explains their rationale for applying to medical school. Below, we’ll touch on some of the different categories of experiences and examples of what can make an applicant competitive in each group.
Dedication to serving the community is a common theme that medical school admissions committees look for. This is because they want applicants who have sought exposure working for diverse populations, working toward the betterment of others, and improving the lives of those around them. Volunteering at clinics, local blood drives, and local hospitals as a greeter are all examples of medically-related service activities. Of note, not all of your community services need to be medically-related. Volunteering at a homeless shelter, participating in abroad programs dedicated to community service, and additional community service experiences can also be excellent and help you application stand out. The most important rule for such experiences is that you demonstrated a consistent commitment, and serious time involved, over a period of time. Helping with one event over a weekend will simply not be enough to impress admissions committees or show serious time commitments. You should include and plan participation in organizations that are longitudinal where you can show months to years of dedication to a cause.
Even if you do not plan on having a research-heavy career, or plan on applying to medical schools with a research-heavy focus, having at least 1 or 2 research experiences can make you a much more competitive applicant and stand out among a crowded field with a unique research experience. Seek opportunities out by asking to join a research lab at your university, applying to research internships during the summer at larger companies, or performing as an undergraduate teaching assistant in a biology or chemistry lab throughout your junior and senior years of college. Great examples from former students include working on ALS protein lab-based research with an undergraduate professor for two years, a summer internship studying immune pathways at Pfizer pharmaceuticals, and being the undergraduate teaching assistant for a molecular biology lab during college. Each of these experiences show a time commitment, clear goal, and a passion that you can discuss in-depth on your application.
Clinical Exposure and Clinical Experience
What is the recommended number of clinical hours? A goal of 100 to 150 hours is generally enough for most successful applicants. However, the type of experience is also crucial. Shadowing is something you should take advantage of if you have the opportunity, and it is a great way to accumulate hours. While this is the case, and it can surely help you decide if the medical field is something that attracts you and is a good fit, it is important to have clinical experiences that go beyond shadowing.
What are experiences that go beyond shadowing? You will need clinical experience that results in direct patient exposure where you are the one interacting and taking care of the patient. Some examples of this are working for Emergency Medical Services (EMS), functioning as a hospital scribe working directly with physicians and their patients, volunteering at a hospice facility taking direct care of patients daily, or applying to be a certified nurse assistant, medical assistant, or emergency room technician. Keep in mind, many students will have these experiences, and while they are not unique they are certainly requisite as part of your application to demonstrate clinical exposure and interest in one form or another.
What experiences can make you unique or attractive to medical school programs?
Many students search for the experience that will help them stand out. Our best advice is that if you want to be unique and do something nobody else is doing, then start your own organization. All it takes is a cause you are already passionate about, and family or friends that are willing to help along the way. Doing so will not only ensure that what you have done is unique, but also demonstrates creative acumen and leadership skills to organize people around a central aim – all qualities that are sought in a future physician. Beyond starting your own organization, knowing multiple languages can be an advantage in certain regions. For instance, students that can speak Spanish, and especially those who have worked as Spanish interpreters in a clinical setting, will be sought after for their ability to connect with patients in states such as Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Florida among others. Those who plan to take a gap between college and medical school to work with organizations such as Teach for America and Americorps are also highly sought-after for their real-world experience and dedication. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but is meant more to get you started on your journey to medical school and brainstorm ideas that will ultimately lead you to stand out in the areas that motivate you most.
Frequently asked questions
That depends entirely on a number of factors, including your overall GPA, science GPA, MCAT score, letters of recommendation, experiences, personal statement, and secondary application in addition to other factors. The average GPA and MCAT score for accepted students in 2021-2022 was an overall GPA of 3.74, science GPA of 3.67, and mean MCAT score of 511.9.
Since medical schools can receive thousands of applications for very few spots, and many of these applicants all have average or above average GPA and MCAT scores, the personal statement can become and important differentiator.
Extremely important. In fact, many medical schools will weigh this even more heavily than the general application personal statement, because they personally chose the prompt and want to hear why you are a great fit specifically for their medical school.
Absolutely. You should have multiple people review your essays for grammar and spelling errors, transition quality, and overall message. The most polished essays that are application-ready have usually been through at least 2 or 3 revisions prior to submission.
You should start it well before May 1st, with plans to submit your application as soon as you are able to in the beginning of June in the application cycle. Due to rolling admissions, it is a significant advantage to apply early before spots are beginning to fill up. This means that you should also notify your mentors for letters of recommendation before these dates to give them ample time for submission.