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Med School Admission Strategies – Don’t Get Eliminated

What can you do to maximize your medical school chances? (Louish)

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.

Evaluate your application, is there something that’s holding you back? Let me know in the comments or by email, and I will give you my feedback!

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  1. S.A.B.
    S.A.B. April 8, 2012

    Wow, that’s some great advice.

  2. Gary
    Gary April 9, 2012

    This is a great article–I can’t stress the idea of cutoffs and avoiding red flags enough. I knew one person who got into several of the top schools in the states (e.g., harvard, etc) but he did not even interview at UWO because of the verbal cutoff. Moral of the story: work hard to clear all the GPA and MCAT cutoffs. Beyond that, get a little clinical exposure, and focus on the 1-2 non academic things you really love to do. As long as you have no red flags from this, you should have a decent shot (but no guarantee!).

  3. Honeebeed
    Honeebeed April 11, 2012

    Hey Medaholic

    I already know I am a hard sell but it isn’t going to stop me from applying. My stats….overall undgrad gpa 2.6, major gpa( biology major) 3.8. MCAT…didn’t prepare for it but just took it last year to see what it was like and got a 30 so I know with preparation that can improve. Currently getting a second degree in Forensics while working full time in microbiology lab handling state reportables and quality control. I can also read two different benches. I also TA for one of my old professors in Organic Chem, my favorite subject. Volunteered for the past 6 years at a local elementary school as a reading coach, state licensed bee keeper and I sell my own honey in the summer LOL. My other extracurricular activities include learning sign language, developing science based nature programming for a local Girl Scout Camp, volunteering at the local red cross and for the MS Society. I have some ideas of what I obviously need to do in the next year to get ready to apply but I will admit sometimes feeling defeated before I even mail my information out. In any event, I can’t complain about something if I never try so….

    I would love to hear your feedback and compare it to my own ideas

  4. […] I previously wrote in a post that the best way to increase your chances of medical school is to Not Get Eliminated. I didn’t truly understand at the time why this was true other than by personal experience […]

  5. SamiJ
    SamiJ May 16, 2013

    I really appreciate your input! Its great to read something that is realistic about the medical school admissions process yet not discouraging. Entering college I was an apparel design and merchandising major, after working my way up from a sales position to a merchandising manager I decided that being a merchandiser was not something that I wanted to do any longer. I was 20 years old, had a salaried position and I quit my job after having an epiphany that I was going to be miserable if I continued with this career. During the two years I was working 60 plus hours a week I unsuccessfully tried to stay in school by taking classes at a local community college. Eventually I just gave up, after failing every class that semester. After I decided to quit and try to return to the university I had started school at as a freshman in college I worked very hard to catch up on credits taking classes at 3 different schools 20 credits each semester. I transferred back to my university and I changed my major to Biology. It has been a uphill battle from there! I have tried with every fiber of my being to maintain my grades and it seems that despite my best efforts I’m not always successful. Although I know that I have a very solid background in the sciences, I go to a school where it is very difficult to do well in science courses. So far I have an A in both my biology classes a C in my first semester of general chemistry, I had to retake the second semester of gen chem because I got a D, and I aced it the second time around. I took the summer off following that school year and tried to asses where my weaknesses with school were coming from and I vowed to not give up no matter how hard it got. I got to o-chem, and I got a D that semester because my father died right before the only midterm that we had in that class (there was only one other exam which was the final). Although, when i transferred back to my university I returned with a 3.6 transfer, my g.p.a. is only a 3.1 at the moment. I have participated in research, many volunteer activities and I tutor as well as run a biology discussion section for the biology department at my school. I have A’s in all my general education classes following my return to the university and although I realize that I will have a-lot of difficulties obtaining a spot in a U.S. medical school, I would like your advice on what do you think is my best option. I have invested so much energy and a plan B is not an option for me. I am an under represented minority, although I know that only goes so far. I do not plan on taking my MCAT until early next year, and I realize that with my low GPA, it may be my last shot. Also, what would your advice be about the transcripts for the community college I was attending while I was working as a manager? It has never been transferred to my university, nor figured into my GPA but I have to report it and I am worried about how it may effect me. It has been 4 years since I took those courses, and it will be 5 when I apply to medical school(they were from 2009 and 2010) do you think it will further negatively impact my application? I would really appreciate your advice in this situation!

    • medaholic
      medaholic May 19, 2013

      I will send you an email with more specific advice – but for something this detailed, it’s best to seek an academic counselor who can review the classes you took and decide what credits are transferable.

  6. Joey
    Joey May 26, 2013

    Hey there, I really enjoyed reading your article but I have a couple questions to ask you. I’ve been told that my first year doesn’t count at all for my admission GPA. Is that true? Also, I play piano at a grade 9 level but don’t take courses, will they consider that pointless if I haven’t taken courses? (Anyone can say he plays piano without taking courses) And finally, I’m not too into sports, but I work out a lot and am in great shape. Does that count for something? Because there isn’t much teamwork involved in working out. Your advice would be greatly appreciated! Thank you!

    • medaholic
      medaholic May 26, 2013

      Hi Joey,

      You first year does count for your admissions GPA, don’t slack off!
      Secondly, it sounds like you have a lot of extracurriculars that you spend quite a bit of time on. I would try to quantify them in measurable ways. Do you play in a band? Do you play for any concerts? Any music competitions. Similarly, if you work out a lot, are you in any type of competition? Eg. If you run, have you done some races with measurable times. I knew people who were provincial champions in weightlifting and they just started out working out and eventually became quite competitive.

      Try having measurable and concrete examples of proven success.

      • Matt
        Matt August 14, 2013

        This is not true. Plenty of Med schools I have looked up only take the last 2 full years into account. It depends on which school you apply for.

        • medaholic
          medaholic August 14, 2013

          Completely valid. But I would treat every year the same and do my best to maintain great grades. Some schools weight your best years, some take your last two years, most look at your comprehensive GPA. Bottom line – take each academic year seriously.

  7. NaishaR
    NaishaR July 2, 2013

    My dream ever since I can remember was to become a doctor. But as time went by I’ve been discourage due to bad marks, lack of work experience, and just a whole bunch of obstacles. This year I’m finally attempting to pursue my dream but as I’m researching schools to apply to, I feel as if my future is slipping through my fingers and I can’t seem hold on to it now matter how tight I clench. My cumulative GPA is 3.51 but in my last 3 years of undergrad I’ve gotten annual GPA’s of 3.67, 3.68, and 3.88, respectively. The 57% I got in first year calculus is really weighing me down. In addition to that, I didn’t take a full course load in my third yr so that prevents me from applying to a bunch of schools. If in the next two months I study my butt off for the MCAT, manage to write strong personal statements, get some decent reference letters and really emphasize my volunteer experiences (since that’s now my only strong point), do you think I have a shot at getting into a Canadian medical school?

  8. Medaholic
    Medaholic October 20, 2013

    Hello Medaholic;

    I just read your post and I like it very much! Although I have some questions, let me tell you, I’m in 5th year medstudent in Honduras, bt I would love to continue studying and graduate in the states. You have any ideas of which is the first step I need to do? Or more exactly which one are the exams that I must do, before applying to Medschools in the Us?.. Thank you very much. 🙂

    • medaholic
      medaholic October 20, 2013

      Sorry, I am a Canadian graduate and am not too familiar with the process in the States. You might find better information at SDN

  9. Kiru
    Kiru July 11, 2014

    I recently completed an undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering through a military academy, and now I have to serve 5 years with the Artillery. I face a few obstacles in applying to med school in that my grades were mostly in the mid to low B range, with a few in the A and C range as well. My GPA is around 3.2. Also due to my job I will not have many opportunities to work in a clinical setting, however I am trying to obtain volunteer position after hours. My program also made me take a lot of courses in things like english, history, politics, psycology and french.

    I plan on studying and preparing and then taking the MCAT next July. I am hoping that a high MCAT score will offset my mediocre undergrad grades. Do you think it would be worth applying to Med school in this situation?

    Your insight would be most welcome.

    • Mike
      Mike December 16, 2014

      Hey Kiru,

      I’m on the same boat as you are. It’s tough doing the 8 to 5 and then studying a completely new subject alone. Have you completed any prerequisites or taken courses to boost your GPA?

  10. E
    E August 7, 2014

    Hi great article, I just have a quick question. Would taking semester off due to a parent passing from a cancer diagnosis be considered a “red flag”. I finished all my pre-reqs and finished my 3rd year. I am taking the fall semester of my senior year off to help family out due to the situation and returning in spring. Applying that summer. Please let me know. Will be filling the time being a medical assistant.

    • E
      E August 7, 2014

      I was doing research during the summer after my 3rd year and my mother said she really needed my help moving , financialy ect. I have 86 credits and a 3.9 cum and 3.93 science GPA. will be applying with around 100 credits.

  11. Natasha
    Natasha September 19, 2014

    I’m applying to medical schools in Ontario right now. My GPA is in the 3.9s but I am a bit worried about my MCAT score, which was a 34; 11PS, 10VR, 13BS. Do you think that I have not made the necessary verbal reasoning cutoff in order to receive an interview at some Ontario schools?

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