Admit It! Your Med School Application Needs a Makeover

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • Medical school admissions — just saying the words conjures up more fear and worry than it does joy and hope for a fruitful future. We often see the admissions committee as a gatekeeper, a mysterious group that meets in a room with a towering stack of papers, ultimately giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to your application. With 896,000+ applications submitted in the 2019-2020 season, it can make the eager student feel dejected, like a small fish in an endless sea.

    Alas! Med school admissions need not be all doom and gloom. In many ways, once you secure your medical school acceptance, your destiny is more or less secured. Work hard along the way, secure that residency spot, and a lifetime of doctor-hood is yours.

    Here are some tips to make your AMCAS application stand out from the other million or so:

    1. First things first: Don’t get bogged down by the numbers when applying to med school.

    There will always be loads of hopefuls applying to medical school, and that is unlikely to change. If you hear acceptance rates of 2.5%, don’t shudder. This is referring to the number of matriculants, ~22,000, divided by the 896,000 number of applications quoted earlier. If we factor in that the average number of applications submitted by each applicant is 17, we find a true number of applicants of only 53,300. Our effective admissions rate becomes a number much more easy to swallow, right around 40%. Not too shabby.

    The obvious advice is just that: obvious. We do not need to go in-depth explaining that doing outstanding on your MCAT and in your college (and possibly post-baccalaureate) coursework will serve to help your application. In a single sentence:

    2. Do what it takes to perform well on any objective numbers that find their way to your application, specifically your MCAT score and GPA.

    No matter how good or bad your grades and scores are, it’s the rest of your application that makes you into a person.

    It chisels you into a real applicant, and not just a few faceless numbers on your cover sheet. Some, especially those with stellar numbers (and not much else), will devalue the importance of this “softer,” more subjective part of the application. Don’t make the same mistake! Medical school involves spending a lot of time with people: patients, instructors, fellow classmates, residents, support staff. It is a human-driven practice, and humans aren’t numbers.

    3. In your med school application, you should exude commitment, compassion, and empathy.

    Mold your life around these human qualities, and you will not only be ahead of the game on your medical school applications — you will be a more spectacular human being.

    At the very least, being an applicant who can communicate that you live by these ideals will help move you to the top of the stack.

    The most certain way to show commitment is through a long-term, ambitious project. It should be something you are infatuated, perhaps obsessed with. If it’s not medical, that’s fine. Maybe you wrote a rock opera, or started a tutoring program for underserved elementary school students. Maybe during your time off, you hiked the Appalachian Trail or finished an Ironman triathlon. Take pride in these demonstrations of commitment.

    Compassion and empathy can be more difficult to exhibit on a piece of a paper, and will likely show themselves more in your interview. Let the admissions committee know that you have sacrificed a bit of yourself for someone else. Let them know that you truly care about ideals and people, not just grades and tests.

    4. Demonstrate experience in the medical field.

    It would be a terrible thing for both the medical school, and you, the student, if you got through your formal education and found that you were miserable being a doctor. There is a difference between loving the finer points of human physiology and showing up at the hospital to treat patients everyday. Before you and a medical school both commit four hard years to each other, make sure you have some sort of exposure to the medical world. This can be accomplished through medical volunteerism, becoming an EMT, shadowing a physician for an appreciable amount of time, or being a medical scribe. If you were ever a patient (for something more than an average check-up), feel free to wax poetic on all that you learned from the experience.

    5. Show admissions boards that you can do great at something.

    Frequently, students feel driven to pad their application with as many extra-curricular activities as possible, as though any white space on their AMCAS application is forbidden. There is a much more important virtue than being a member of 15 clubs: be deeply involved with one thing.

    Once you’ve established that, then you can go onto adding more activities to your resume. Being a member of a club or association takes nothing, and the admissions committee knows this. It is much too easy to go to a few meetings and call yourself a member.

    What speaks infinitely more volumes is showing something that you helped your group accomplish. Maybe you were the treasurer of your college’s jazz band, and figured out a novel way to fundraise for a trip to New Orleans. Showing up to student government meetings pales in comparison to holding an office or writing legislature for the group. For the non-traditional student, did you work at your job just to get by, or did you improve the workplace for everyone? Don’t spread yourself too thin before you’ve poured it on thick in one particular venue that really excites you.

    Subjective information on your AMCAS application cannot be overstated. Do great on your tests and push yourself to the limit by being a great human being who has proven that he or she can get a big job done.