Each year, I help review the hundreds of applications we receive at our medical school. Each year, I’m impressed by so many great applicants. It seems like each class just keeps getting better. So in a pool of hundreds of applicants, many who I have no doubt would make fine doctors, how do we differentiate each applicant and select a medical class?
Stand out, by NOT standing OUT in the wrong way
Conventional advice is that you should do well in everything. A perfect applicant is someone with a 4.0 GPA, 42T MCAT, tons of research, leadership positions, volunteering opportunities, stellar references and an outstanding interview. On top of all that, you must excel in one thing that makes you unique and memorable.
In reality, I don’t think that’s a realistic goal for most applicants. In fact, only a handful of those “perfect” candidates exist. Instead medical classes are made up of a more diverse group of people. Some medical students have taken time off before applying while others have had alternate careers. Many people have grades that are great but not perfect and MCAT scores that are good enough. They may be play the piano but are not anywhere near a concert pianist.
I think a much better strategy for getting into medical school is to NOT stand out in the wrong way.
You see, when every application is superb and similar, it’s hard to deem one as better than another. It is much easier instead to look for red flags that can help us eliminate an applicant. Finding the right people for medical school is not so much a process of choosing the right applicants as it is a process of elimination.
Your Application is Only as Strong as the Weakest Link
I often get emails from people asking which extracurricular they can do to stand out in the eyes of the adcom. What unique leadership position should they be in to get a better chance for medical school? Would an exceptional research project overcome a poor freshman GPA?
Time and time again, I tell them the same message. Grades matter first, and then your MCAT and finally your extracurriculars / references. If there’s something that’s going to eliminate you first, it’s your GPA and MCAT scores. Without meeting these requirements, the rest of your application doesn’t even get looked at!
Similarly, when we interview students, it’s far easier to spot applicants with red flags than it is to differentiate great applicants. If they seem unethical, unable to speak or have questionable responses, they will be cut. It’s the same with reference letters. Most letters will read the same. When you’re reading through hundreds of them, very few letters will leave a lasting impression. The admission committee is instead trying to screen out students that might be a problem in the future.
It’s about Picking Out the Rotten Apples
When there are twice as many great applicants as there are spots, as a medical school your main concern is to make sure you weed out the bad apples.
Because who’s to say applicant #140 is that much of a better student than #220 who just missed a spot. I’m sure they both could be good doctors. The supply of great applicants far exceeds the number of medical school seats.
Instead, it’s much more important to weed out the psychopaths and sociopaths who will be troublesome down the road. Medical schools aren’t worried about not filling their class with great people, they are worried about letting in people that will cause them headaches in the future.
Don’t Focus on being Perfect, Minimize Your Weaknesses Instead
A more realistic strategy for medical school admissions is to make sure your application does not have a fatal flaw. A bad grade could be what’s keeping you from getting an interview. An unbalanced MCAT score with one low section could be the difference.
Similarly, writing something controversial in your essays or choosing the wrong referee may sink your application.
So stop trying to be perfect with your medical school admissions. Realize that medical schools are looking more for people without any major flaws than the perfect applicant. A person with perfect grades, lots of extracurricular activities and awesome interview skills is still a bad applicant if they have something that doesn’t seem right, especially if they are unethical or lying.