Getting Into Medical School: My Personal Experience
“How do I get into medical school?” —After being accepted into University of Maryland Baltimore’s medical program (UMB), this is the question I am most commonly asked. Before I tell you my story, let me issue a disclaimer: there is not an exact formula for getting into medical school. Each medical school has different standards; some may require extensive experience in research, while others may focus more on volunteer and community work. Since I have never worked in an admission office, this article is solely based on my personal experience involving East Coast medical schools.
Despite being a dedicated student with a long-time goal to become a doctor, I was not a perfect candidate for medical school. My grades in undergrad were below average for pre-med students, both within my major of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics and outside my major as well. I did not shadow any physicians before I applied. I had no recent research or volunteer experience though, I was fortunate that a paper I co-authored was published just ahead of the application cycle which gave me the opportunity to discuss it when the topic of research was breached. I was also not involved in any medicine-related clubs, and I did not seek the guidance of my pre-medical advising office. Still, I was accepted and am currently attending medical school, because even though I was not ideal, I did a few things right, and for me, it was the right few things to do.
Things I Did Right
- I Applied Early - It may surprise you how extremely important it is to apply early. This is especially true for schools that operate on a rolling admission basis, such as UMB or University of Virginia (UVA). These schools will accept candidates that they find to be qualified regardless of how many slots they have open or remaining. This means the earlier you apply, the higher chance you have of getting accepted. The application generally opens in May, and you can begin submitting in early June, though dates will vary from year to year. I submitted my primary application the first week submissions opened up and submitted all secondary applications within two to three days of receiving them. Because I applied at the earliest opportunity each time, I received my interview offer from UMB in August, interviewed in September, and received an offer on the very first day that medical schools sent out acceptance letters that year, on October 17th.
- I Received High MCAT Scores - Though my grades were not stellar, I did very well on my MCAT – a 522, placing me within the 99% percentile. While grades and test scores are not everything, it seems like most schools like to see that their students can excel academically. A lower MCAT is not the end of the world, but it helps if you have a higher GPA to balance it out (or vice versa, like me), since both are designed to demonstrate knowledge.
- I Aced the Interview - Once you get past the initial application phase, a large portion of progressing from “interviewee” to “accepted” phase dealt with doing well on the interview—at least in my opinion. Most of the people I saw being interviewed were qualified and smart. However, being able to articulate your thoughts and ideas verbally is the one thing that the application committee cannot extract from your essays or transcripts, which is why the interview is so important. I focused on expressing my passion for the medical field and being as honest as possible about my goals and reasons for wanting to become a physician.
- I Participated in Extracurricular Activities - While I did not do some of the things that medical school applicants are expected to do, such as research and volunteering, I did have extracurricular activities that I was invested in. I was a scribe in an emergency room for two years, the second of which I was the “Chief Scribe”. This gave me both leadership and clinical experience. Keep in mind that I am not sure how much the clinical experience helped in applications, since most students had a lot of clinical experience. Personally, I have found that having that clinical experience as a scribe has been very helpful now that I am actually in medical school – I know acronyms, symptoms, and sometimes I even know the appropriate questions to ask patients. In addition to being a scribe, I was a resident assistant for three years, which gave me people skills and a chance to work with a diverse community on a variety of issues. Additionally, I had hobbies, like writing, that I worked on with my creative partners and included as a part of my resume. In short, I chose to engage in my extracurricular activities over an extended period of time, which I believe showed my ability to commit.
- I Maintained Strong Working Relationships - This is directly related to the paragraph above. Because I spent so much time as a scribe and as a resident assistant, I had the opportunity to talk to and get to know the doctors I worked with, as well as my boss at my resident assistant job. When I asked them for letters of recommendation, I knew they would not only write something positive but they would also have actual, tangible information about me that they could relay to the application committees. The same went for my research mentor, who I had kept in touch with over the years, even though I had not done research with him since high school. It is common for pre-med students to shadow for a week and get a recommendation from the physician that they shadowed. While I do not think there is anything wrong with that approach, I personally felt more comfortable with getting letters from people I knew and who knew me well.
- I Tailored Each Application - The primary application is the same for almost every school, so there is not much personalization that can be done, but the secondary applications are usually full of opportunities to show a school that you are interested in them specifically. Before filling out any of these, I always made sure to check out their website and see what they were known for, what they wanted their students to have, and what they seemed to value. Then, I would tackle the secondaries and try to incorporate those values into the applications in whatever relevant way I could.
Things I Did Wrong
- I Did Not Volunteer - Not volunteering was definitely a negative mark on my application because it was the only category in the triad of clinical experience, community service, and research that I could not fulfill at all. The last time I had volunteered was in my sophomore year of high school, and given that I was only supposed to put items that had occurred during my undergraduate tenure, I had to leave that box empty. This is my biggest undergraduate regret, not only because I had a gaping hole in my application, but also because I did not give back to my community for six years, and that is something that should be at the core of what medical workers want to do.
- I Did Not Research Schools Before Submitting Primary Applications - As I stated above, I researched schools while I was filling out secondary applications, but I should have done this beforehand. For example, I applied to Georgetown and then discovered as I was writing my essay that they were a very volunteer-focused school, and I was at a disadvantage from the start. This might not be the only reason why they did not offer me an interview, but I believe that was a significant factor. If I had known that fact from the beginning, I would not have applied there. If I was to do this again, instead of just picking schools that I had heard about and were in my area, I would find schools that suited my interests and abilities and focus my applications on those.
- I Did Not Take Advantage of the Health Professions Advising Office (HPAO) - The HPAO, as it was known at my undergraduate, had so many resources that I could have taken advantage of, from lists of flexible hour clinical jobs to a compilation of community engagement sites to a full rundown of how applying to medical school worked. I figured out most of the information on the fly, but it made the experience much harder. For example, I did not realize that I had to submit a committee packet until the week before the priority deadline, which is something I would have been walked through had I used the HPAO. To avoid the stress that I put myself through, it is important to use your school’s equivalent of the HPAO!
To wrap things up, remember that the above was just what I went through and how I felt while I was going through it. It is by no means an insider’s guide to getting into medical school. You can get into medical school by doing things differently, and many of my current classmates did, so do not feel like there is only one way of being admitted. Find activities and clubs that appeal to you, take advantage of all your resources, and most of all, work hard!