Getting into medical school has always been a difficult process. Nowadays, medical schools around the world are not just looking for the best scientists: they are looking for the best leaders, the most compassionate caregivers, and the most driven students. Because becoming a doctor involves a lot more than studies, setting goals during your bachelor’s degree and understanding how the application process works are critical.
Our fictional student, Alina, is majoring in biochemistry at NYU (New York University). She was accepted to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, one of the top medical schools in the US (and also one of the most selective). Of course, your grade point average must be excellent (in the 3.5 – 4.0 range) when you are competing for slots into which only about 40 percent of applicants matriculate each year.
How did she earn admission? Further, what did she do outside of her coursework that bolstered her application?
Her MCAT scores were excellent
The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is a standardized admissions test required by almost all medical schools in the US and Canada. This exam tests potential M.D. candidates in four areas:
• Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
• Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
• Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
• Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills1
The highest score possible on the MCAT is 528. Alina’s score of 521 placed her in the top ten percent of all those who took the exam, which gave her a distinct advantage in applying to the top medical schools in the US. Thanks to her background in biochemistry, she received a perfect score on the first section. This, combined with her 3.8 grade point average (or GPA), made her one of the most competitive candidates for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
She wrote a strong AMCAS essay
The AMCAS application (which stands for American Medical College Application Service) is the first of two applications required by Johns Hopkins University Medical School. Nearly all medical schools in the US and Canada use this one application plus their own supplements that are submitted after. (Thankfully, this means that if you are applying to multiple schools, you only have to fill out one AMCAS.)
Everyone who applies to medical school must write at least one essay, called the personal comments essay. The topic of this 5,300-character essay is completely open, meaning that there is no prompt or specific topic applicants have to focus on. However, the essential question that needs to be answered is simple: why do you want to go to medical school?”
Many students writing applications get nervous when faced with an open topic. While it is a little scary to have so little insight into what those who might read it are looking for, it is also an opportunity to get creative. Further, writing an authentic essay can actually be more difficult with a prompt. It is far harder to get stuck in the trap of writing “what they want to hear” without one.2
Alina wrote about what she learned during her internships and how her love of music reinforced her love for working with people. To make this connection, she compared connecting to the audience in a recital to connecting with patients, and how helping to heal people could also be seen as an art form.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, she made sure to have people she trusted read through it and make suggestions before she revised and submitted it.
She gave an excellent interview
The majority of medical schools in the US interview their applicants before making a decision. And like most potential medical students, Alina was a bit nervous. The Association of American Medical Colleges notes that…
“The interview is very important in getting accepted to medical school. Although intellectual ability and record of achievement are important factors, the personal interview gives the admissions committee another dimension by which to evaluate and understand other traits necessary to foster the development of a competent, compassionate, and responsible physician. The ability to communicate and interact, social consciousness, maturity, personal integrity, tolerance, service to others, and motivation for a career in medicine are among the characteristics sought.” (AAMC, “Ask the Experts“)
Medical school interviews don’t focus on an applicant’s scientific knowledge or their coursework. For the most part, interviewers are more interested in learning how a person can adapt to stressful or complicated situations. They also are used to examine how much a person uses the four pillars of ethics in medicine, and these are:
- Autonomy (Does respect for the patient and their right to decide on their own care?)
- Non-maleficence (Does it harm the patient?)
- Justice (Will someone aside from yourself or the patient be affected or suffer?)
- Beneficence (Is it beneficial to the patient?)
When asked a difficult ethics question, Alina explained in the interview that there is more to consider aside from “what is right and what is wrong.” Because physicians face questions like this every day when dealing with patients, her willingness to be open about her thoughts impressed the faculty.
Here are three examples of ethics questions:
- “If you were able to take a pill and know all of the knowledge you will need to know to be an excellent doctor, would you take it?”
- “You have two patients who have been admitted after a serious accident. Both require immediate attention to survive. One patient is 20 years old; the other is 60 years old. Which life would you save?” (Missouri State)
- “A patient who has been in an accident needs a blood transfusion. She states that her religion does not allow them. You are the physician in charge. What will you do? Will you override her strong objection?” (University of Colorado)
She got clinical experience every summer during her bachelor’s degree
Because she is interested in pathology, she decided that working as a phlebotomist with a plasma donation company would be a great way to gain technical and clinical skills. A phlebotomist’s (which is a person trained to draw blood for “tests, transfusions, research, or blood donations.” (Bureau of Labor Statistics) ) license is simple to obtain in the US: it only requires A high school diploma and a short training course. Getting this license enabled Alina to not only gain skills and a potential letter of recommendation from her supervisor but to earn some money.
During her third year, she decided to seek out a volunteer opportunity at a larger hospital. To find which one she wanted, she found listings through National Institutes of Health This allowed her to learn from several established physicians and nurses, but most importantly, she started interacting with patients. People skills are essential for any physician.
Research with professors is another option during the summer. A friend of Alina’s, who will study obstetrics, got in touch with a few professors at NYU School of Medicine to ask if they had space to take on a research assistant. She simply kept asking until she got a positive response. Getting a research position is often that simple.
Taking advantage of internship opportunities like these and many others reflects very positively on applications, and it demonstrates that a person is willing to take risks and is self-motivated. Overall, Alina’s well-rounded internship and work experience, combined with her academic work, showed that she would be an excellent candidate to become a physician.