One of the first steps in becoming a doctor is completing medical school, but you’ll need to apply and be accepted first. Applying to medical school is a highly competitive and rigorous process that spans several months, but you can stay ahead by starting the process early.
To help you start the process, we’ve compiled this comprehensive guide for how to get into medical school in 2021.
What Medical Schools Look For
According to the Association of American Medical colleges, less than 45% of applicants are actually accepted to a medical school program each year. If you want to get into medical school, you’ll need to know what admissions committees are looking for and which features of your application package can get you a leg up on the competition.
Admissions committees will definitely be looking at your previous academic performance to evaluate your candidacy. Fortunately, they won’t be digging up that D you got in art during the third grade. The largest weight to your academic performance will be your undergraduate GPA, so stay on top of your studies and make sure you maintain strong grades throughout your undergraduate program.
If you happen to attend any graduate-level classes before applying to medical school, you will likely be asked to include your graduate GPA as well. However, graduate GPAs do not weigh as heavily in the admissions decision as your undergraduate marks. It’s also worth noting that admissions committees will weigh your grades in the science classes and other medically related classes more heavily than grades in other disciplines.
Admissions committees will also expect to see your completed MCAT scores with your application package. The MCAT, or Medical College Admission Test, is required by nearly every medical school in the Caribbean, United States, Australia, and Canada. This test evaluates your ability to solve problems, think critically, and apply scientific knowledge to situations provided during the test.
MCAT scores range from 472 to 528, and the national average on the test is 500. If you plan to apply to competitive medical schools, you’ll need a score significantly above average. For example, the average score for accepted applicants at Columbia Medical School is 520, which is a 98th percentile score. It can take several months to study and prepare for the MCAT, and it takes several weeks after completing the test to receive your scores. To be well prepared for your target admission cycle, you should plan to take your MCAT test at least two months before you plan to apply.
One special caveat regarding test scores arose as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, several medical schools have announced that they will not require MCAT scores for students applying during the Spring 2021 cycle. While schools may choose to extend this test waiver, most schools have not made any announcements regarding test scores beyond the spring semester.
Colleges typically like to accept well-rounded students, and medical schools are no exception. You can demonstrate your fit by highlighting your previous participation in extracurricular activities when you apply. However, these extracurricular activities should ideally be related to your chosen career path. Playing in your college marching band and joining the chess club will not look quite as good as demonstrated research projects, medical internships, or other medically related volunteer work.
Letters of Recommendation
During the application process, you’ll also have the opportunity to submit letters of recommendation from professors, supervisors, and other people within the medical community who are familiar with your work. Schools want to know you as a person, not just your statistics on paper. They look to letters of recommendation from those who’ve worked closely with you to get some insight into your best personal qualities and characteristics that would make you successful in medical school.
This can be a great opportunity to showcase your drive, determination, and passion for the medical field. Your letters of recommendation should come from people who can testify to your ability to succeed academically and professionally, so begin thinking early about who is best positioned to highlight your abilities and be an advocate for your admission to medical school.
The Medical School Application Process
Applying to medical school is not for the faint of heart. The entire application process typically spans nearly a year, and it begins during the second half of your junior year in undergrad. There are multiple steps along the way, and your target schools will have multiple rounds of evaluating your candidacy for coveted medical school spots. To ensure you don’t miss important deadlines, you should familiarize yourself with the process and timelines well in advance.
Most US medical schools accept initial applications through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). The AMCAS service is an online application portal that allows you to upload all your documents, including test scores, academic records, letters of recommendation, personal statements and essays, and more. Each of these components will make up your completed application package, known as the primary application, which can then be sent to multiple medical schools with a few clicks of a button.
The AMCAS primary application can typically be submitted as early as June of the year before you plan to start medical school. Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis, so it’s best to get your application in as soon as possible. However, once your application has been submitted, it cannot be changed. To ensure the best chance of admission, you should prioritize a thorough and impressive application over a speedy one that’s not as competitive.
Once you have submitted the primary application to all the schools you’re targeting, they will review your application and make one of two decisions:
- They will thank you for applying but reject your application.
- They will send you their secondary application.
Secondary applications are a way for schools to gather additional information that is not collected by AMCAS. In the secondary application, your target school may request written essay responses, recorded video interviews, or other information about your background. The sooner you complete this secondary application, the sooner your school can identify you as a fit for their program. Again, you should prioritize a thorough application submission that highlights your skills, but avoid unnecessary delays as speed is critical during this phase of the process.
Medical School Interviews
After receiving your secondary application, your target school may invite you to schedule and attend an interview. Typically, interviews are scheduled weeks to months in advance, and you will usually travel to the target school to attend the interview in person. Due to changes as a result of the pandemic, however, many schools have been conducting medical school interviews virtually. While this practice may continue for the near future, you should be prepared to schedule, travel for, and participate in your med school interviews in person if it is required by your target schools.
During the medical school interview, your interviewer may ask you questions about:
- Your personal history – strengths, weaknesses, and personal characteristics that make you a good fit
- Your motivation – why you want to choose medicine as your career path
- Your knowledge of the medical field – healthcare trends, clinical research, and recent events that should be relatively common knowledge for someone interested in medicine
- Your educational outcomes – why you targeted the institution, what sets you apart from other candidates, and what questions you have about medical school
You should always come prepared to ask questions and engage in the interview. This is your opportunity to demonstrate your critical thinking skills, your passion, and your interest in the institution.
How to Prepare for Medical School During Undergrad
If you plan to attend medical school, the preparation begins well before the application process. As soon as you begin your undergrad work, you should be taking steps each year that will bring you closer to a successful medical school application. For each of your undergrad years, we’ve outlined below several steps you should take to become a more competitive candidate.
- Begin taking some of your medical school prerequisite classes.
- Start researching how to gain clinical experience.
- Connect with your pre-med advisor and set out a plan for your entire undergraduate program.
- Find an internship, student organization, or volunteer opportunity that can begin building your experience.
- Take one year of organic chemistry.
- Take one course in a social science.
- Begin evaluating medical schools and narrowing the list of your target schools.
- Secure a job shadowing or internship opportunity if possible.
- Prepare for and take the MCAT.
- Secure commitments from professors and other people familiar with your abilities to write letters of recommendation on your behalf.
- Begin gathering your med school application requirements, including personal statements and other documentation.
- In May of your junior year, begin uploading your application requirements to AMCAS.
- Throughout the fall semester, continue applying for and evaluating your med school applications and responses.
- Complete any secondary applications as required.
- Prepare a list of questions to ask during your med school interviews.
- Schedule and conduct your interviews as you are invited to each school.
Final Tips for Getting into Medical School in 2021
While the process for getting into medical school remains largely unchanged over the past several years, the global pandemic has introduced some unique challenges to the application process. Given the current state of the environment and the medical community, here are some special tips for getting into medical school in 2021:
- Consider taking the MCAT – Although some schools aren’t requiring the MCAT for 2021 applicants, it may still be a good idea to take the test and submit your scores. Especially if you score in the top percentiles, this can be a huge advantage on your application package as most medical schools still weigh MCAT scores and GPA higher than any other factors.
- Learn a foreign language – This skill can be especially helpful in making you stand out as a competitive applicant, particularly if you plan to apply in geographic areas where the language is heavily spoken.
- Be your own advocate – Especially with the chaos surrounding the pandemic, teachers and advisors have little time to proactively promote your application for medical school. Don’t be afraid to assertively ask for what you need, and follow up regularly. The only person in charge of your application process is you, and you need to take the reins.
- Find a med school mentor – It can be extremely helpful to connect with someone who has been through the process of applying to medical school. This may be a fellow student in the grade ahead of you or a teacher who completed medical school many years ago. Simply having that resource to ask questions and identify pitfalls before they happen can be instrumental to receiving the acceptance letter of your dreams.