Everybody knows that doctors are important. With every medical emergency and every reassuring office visit, we’re reminded that qualified healthcare professionals keep us safe.
Because doctors serve such an important role in society, we put a lot of expectations on them. We want them to be on the top of their game and always learning, keeping up with innovation, and following research about the latest discoveries. And most importantly, we want every person in medical school to go through a rigorous — some would say grueling — training process.
Now, rest assured. A career in the health profession is hard, but it pays very well. Looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you’ll find that jobs in healthcare have annual salaries that range from $28,000 a year to over $208,000 a year. On top of that, the BLS expects the field to grow by a stunning 15%, which means that jobs will be abundantly available as demand grows and grows.
Hopefully, that information will keep you inspired through the hard parts of medical school, through the exams and the clinical rounds.
Some might say that applying to med school belongs on that list, because the application process can be detailed and overwhelming. But we don’t agree.
Throughout this guide, we’ll demystify a process that many find vexing, breaking down every step. We’ll tell you how to take the MCAT, how to stand out on your application, and which courses will put you in the best position for acceptance.
So if you’re up to the challenge and ready to answer the call of medical school, begin your journey by reading up on how to complete the most important medical school requirements.
In nearly every case, students planning on going to medical school must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The MCAT is a computer-based exam that assesses problem-solving, critical thinking, written analysis, and knowledge of scientific concepts and principles.
The exam shows medical schools the breadth of knowledge an applicant will bring to the program, ensuring they all have the base understanding needed to become a professional. For that reason, you must take the MCAT within three years of applying to a program. If you’re applying later than that, you’ll need to retake the MCAT.
The MCAT consists of four sections, each of which receives individual scores. In the first section, students have 95 minutes to answer 59 questions about the chemical and physical foundations of biological systems.
Critical analysis and reasoning skills are the focus of section two, which gives students 90 minutes to answer 53 questions.
Section three covers 59 questions about the biological and biochemical foundations of living, with a 95-minute time limit.
Students also have 95 minutes to answer the 59 questions in section four, which is about the psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior.
Generally, students planning to go to medical school take the MCAT either in the summer following their sophomore year or in the January of their junior year. Some wait until the spring of the year in which they plan to apply to med schools, but most experts do not recommend that.
In most cases, students need to devote at least three months to study, giving them the best chance to pass the exam with an impressive score.
What is an impressive score? While each program has its own standards, most consider 508 to be the minimum. To be among the top ten percent of applicants, you must score between 514 and 528.
Required Classes for Medical School
While every medical school certainly has its own culture and expectations, it’s important to remember that they are fundamentally graduate schools. They should be a continuation of your intellectual journey, not a brand new start. For that reason, the courses you take as an undergrad matter a great deal for your application.
Unsurprisingly, the best degree option for those planning on going to medical school is pre-med. In this course of study, you’ll gain the basic scientific knowledge you’ll need to not only succeed in medical school but also in your career as a healthcare professional.
That said, you can apply to medical school with any degree. And, in fact, different programs have different requirements and expectations for applicants.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, students should take the following courses to prepare for med school: a year of biology, a year of English composition, and two years of chemistry (including organic chemistry).
That’s a pretty basic list, and most programs will require more courses from their applicants. Experts strongly recommend that students also take advanced science courses to ensure they’ll fit in more programs.
These classes include two semesters of biology lecture and one semester of biology lab, a semester of general chemistry with a lab, two semesters of organic chemistry with a lab, one term of biochemistry, two semesters of physics with a lab, two semesters of math, and two semesters of English.
That is a lot of classes to take, but everyone else who’s applying to medical school will have taken them as well. These are the basic requirements expected of every applicant.
If you want to make an impression on admission committees, you’ll need to do a little bit more. You can undoubtedly improve your standing by earning top grades in these classes. But it would be even more effective to work these classes into your essays and interviews, making an argument to the school that these courses made you the applicant you are today.
Medical School Interviews
If all goes well with your application and the admissions committee deems you one of the top possibilities, you will be given a chance to interview with the school. During an interview, you’ll not only have an opportunity to express your interest in the program verbally. You’ll also get to make your case for admission to the program
Of course, there’s no way to know for sure what questions will be asked by university officials. But if you remember that they are trying to decide how you’ll fit in their school, you’ll have a better idea about how to prepare your responses.
In other words, interviewers want to know why you are the right person to attend their school at this time. All of the other questions they ask will work to uncover answers to those questions.
So when an interviewer asks, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” your answer should tell them the qualities you bring as a student, how the university will help you develop those abilities, and how your time at the school will prepare you for the career you will hold in a decade.
To pull this off, you’ll need to call upon your inner lawyer. Provide details and evidence to tell the interviewer about yourself in a compelling way. Help them see the student you are and the medical professional you’ll become.
However, it’s also important to remember that interviews are a two-way process. In addition to answering the school’s questions for you, you must also have prepared questions for them. Ask them about the curriculum, their expectations for students, and their favorite aspects of the school.
Show yourself to be engaged, and you’ll be more likely to make an impression.
At this point, you know that standardized tests are a big part of any medical school application. We’ve already talked about the importance of the MCAT, and we’ll briefly discuss the GRE below. However, there is one more standardized test that future healthcare professionals need to know about.
The Computer-Based Assessment for Sampling Personal Characteristics or CASPer test is increasingly being required by allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) medical schools. The exam consists of a range of scenarios presented in text or video form. After learning about the scenarios, students are given three questions and have five minutes to answer them.
Medical programs use the CASPer to measure an applicant’s personal competencies. The test helps admissions counselors decide which applicants have the highest potential for success and which personality types will work well together. Because medical schools value a diverse student body with different types of learners, they need to make sure they have a variety of personalities in their programs.
Because the CASPer measures personality, you might assume that there’s no way to prepare for the test. After all, you’ve been building your personality over your entire life.
But there are certain things you can do to make sure that you help that personality stand out and put your best foot forward. One of the essential things you can do is brush up on your typing skills to express your answers within the time limits clearly.
Also, spend some time reviewing medical ethics and look up practice scenarios. Although this practice won’t familiarize you with “correct” answers, it will give you time to consider the type of medical professional you’ll be. You’ll want the committee to see that person in your answers.
With a little bit of practice, the CASPer can be an excellent opportunity to set your personal goals as a healthcare professional and start developing the bedside manner and patient care that will be crucial for your future success.
Essays & Personal Statements
Perusing this guide, you can see that med schools want a lot of information, including test scores and letters of recommendation. Those all have their place, but the most important part might be the personal statement essay.
And that scares some med students.
Instead of just showing the committee why you belong in their school, you have to explain yourself. In one or two short pages, you need to make your case to the med school. You must tell them why you belong in their program and what you’ll bring to their learning community.
That is a lot of information to cover and, make no mistake, the stakes are high.
But if you look at some of the most successful essays, you’ll notice that they are fundamentally the same as those you wrote in high school.
Sure, you’ll need to write more than five paragraphs, but you’ll do the same things you did then. You need to open with a compelling introduction, you’ll need several body paragraphs that develop your ideas with evidence, and you’ll end with a concluding essay that brings your points together.
Some of you might look at the prompts used in personal statement essays and insist that it can’t be so easy. For example, students entering the 2017-2018 class at Harvard Medical School were asked, “What is the promise of medicine to me?”
That’s a big, broad question, and it might be overwhelming. But look closer at that prompt. Who is the focus of the question?
It’s you. The essay is about you.
Think of the personal statement essay as an opportunity to talk about yourself. You might make passing references to important family members or teachers, but this is your story.
Tell the reader what first drew you to medicine. Explain how your high school and undergraduate education made you into the future med student you are now. Argue that the school to which you’re applying will only bring you further along your journey.
Also, be sure to explain how you’ll bring something to the school. Remember that you’re planning on learning from the whole school community, and you’ll have attributes that will help others.
The trickiest part of this approach is remembering evidence. It’s one thing to say that you have a deep desire to care for others, but it’s so much more effective to prove it by telling an anecdote.
Instead of treating the personal statement essay like a chore to complete, remember that it is an opportunity to make your case. Take advantage of the opportunity to introduce yourself to your future medical school.
Given the difficulty of entering medical school, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that admissions counselors emphasize exam scores and a solid personal statement essay. But what about your undergraduate grade point average? What GPA do you need to get into medical school?
Unfortunately, that’s a difficult question to answer.
There isn’t one standard expected GPA across the profession. Minimums listed on school websites tend to range between 2.5 and 3.5, and many schools do not have a minimum grade at all.
Don’t be fooled. GPAs do matter to schools, but not for the reasons you think.
Schools like to see a high GPA from their students because those stats raise their ranking in outlets such as U.S. News & World Report.
But the more important reason is that GPAs are a strong indicator of a student’s ability to work within a program’s standards. If a student has a lower GPA than the average at a given school, that suggests that the student won’t be able to handle the program’s demands. If the GPA matches those of students at the school, then they’ll probably fit in just fine.
So rather than looking at minimum requirements, it’s better to look at the average GPA of the school you’re applying to. On average, students enter med schools with a GPA of 3.64 in science courses, a GPA of 3.79 in non-science courses, and a 3.71 GPA overall.
For the best chance of getting accepted into med school, you should strive to match these averages.
However, remember that GPAs are just indicators. If your grades don’t quite live up to these averages, then use letters of recommendation and the personal statement essay to compensate.
If you can explain your qualities as a student in those elements, then the GPA doesn’t carry quite the same weight.
Letters of Recommendation
Of course, every single part of your med school application matters. There’s no one section that you can blow off or ignore.
That said, some parts are indeed more weighted than others. As we’ve already discussed, your GPA doesn’t quite carry the same gravitas as other aspects.
But among the most essential parts of any application are the letters of recommendation.
Letters of recommendation are the inside track of college applications. In them, one respected member of the community advocates for you to other members. If a professor with a good track record says you would make a great student, committees will likely believe them, even if other parts of an application aren’t as strong.
For that reason, future med students need to be very strategic when planning for their letters.
The ideal letter of recommendation comes from someone the admission committee respects at your goal school, who knows you well enough to speak to your abilities, and who has seen you at your best.
You can start shoring up the first quality at the beginning of your undergraduate career. In your first semesters, you should plan to take classes with the most influential profs in the program.
Although you only need three letters (in most cases), it’s good to have more choices. You don’t want to have to ask for a letter from a prof you don’t like or can’t trust.
You should also work hard in these classes and try to develop a relationship with the prof. Look for opportunities to serve on committees or to be a research assistant, so the prof can see you at your best.
Finally, make sure that you give your prof plenty of time to write the letter. Generally, profs will need at least a month, if not a whole semester, of lead time. Asking for a letter the day or week before the deadline will never work, even if you’re close with the prof.
Even though letters of recommendation carry a lot of weight, they aren’t impossible to secure. With some planning and people skills, you’ll be able to get great letters and improve your chances of acceptance.
Do Medical Schools Require the GRE?
As we’ve already seen, medical schools put a great deal of stock in standardized tests. The MCAT and the CASPer help admissions committees decide which applicants will be accepted and which will be passed over.
It’s reasonable to wonder if medical schools also require the GRE, one of the most common graduate school tests. Before we answer that question, let’s look at what the GRE is.
The GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) determines a student’s readiness for graduate school. The general GRE covers basic knowledge common to all college graduates, while specialized GREs focus on a single subject. While subject GREs are only required for specific programs, most graduate school applications require the general GRE.
The general GRE consists of six sections covering verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking. Students write essays, complete math problems, and test their vocabulary.
Vocabulary and logic are significant parts of the analytical writing section. Students have a limited amount of time to write a persuasive essay, in which they argue for or against a proposition, and an issue essay, in which they explain a concept. Those same skills are part of the verbal section, in which students make analogies between terms and compare ideas.
The quantitative section focuses on math and geometry. Students interpret data and demonstrate their understanding of arithmetic.
While medical schools certainly value critical thinking, verbal reasoning, analytical writing, and quantitative reasoning, they can usually measure those qualities in the MCAT or the CASPer. For that reason, most programs do not require GRE scores.
Extracurricular Activities for Medical School
Unsurprisingly, most students applying to medical school have strong exam scores, impressive letters of recommendation, and a compelling personal essay. How can you make yourself stand out among the other good students competing for one of those limited spots?
To make yourself more distinctive, you need to take advantage of opportunities to personalize your application. The more you can develop the skills and experience for medical school and tell the committees about them, the more you’ll differentiate yourself from other applicants.
Extracurriculars are an excellent way to develop the experience that committees look for when making those final decisions.
For most applicants, these extracurriculars involve forms of community service. Any time you do something for others in the community, without the expectation of reward or remuneration (in other words, you don’t get paid), you receive “credit” towards community service.
These activities can demonstrate to committees that you have compassion and can work well with others.
If you can take a leadership role in any of your service activities, that will also impress admissions counselors. By acting as a leader, you demonstrate your ability to make decisions and work towards goals, qualities valued by medical schools.
But the best types of extracurriculars are those directly related to the medical field. On the most basic end, you can shadow a physician. When you’re shadowing, you’re simply watching the physician carry out their duties.
This process will expose you to the particulars of the profession and may even lead to a strong letter of recommendation. However, it carries relatively little weight with admissions committees.
Even better are roles in which you interact with patients. In these cases, students demonstrate their ability to interact with patients and take responsibility for their care.
Anything from performing procedures to developing or even directing treatment for a patient will strengthen an application. That might seem like a tall order, but students can gain this type of experience as an EMT, a CAN, a phlebotomist, an LVN, or an RN.