Only about 41% of applicants to U.S. medical schools who sought admission for the 2019-2020 school year matriculated, according to official statistics released by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
That’s one reason why medical school admissions experts advise applicants to get a realistic perspective of their credentials before deciding when and where to apply.
Glen Fogerty, an associate dean of admissions and recruitment at the University of Arizona College of Medicine–Phoenix, encourages med school hopefuls to look up statistics on the MCAT scores and GPAs of admitted students at their target schools.
“Past that, they could also review previous class profiles and see if these medical schools provide any type of overview of clinical or research experience or the type of extracurricular activities their students participated in,” he wrote in an email. “Now, with this said, I would recommend that applicants gain the clinical, research and extracurricular activities that are meaningful to them and not try to fit into any medical school profile. Following their own path will serve the applicant best as the person will then find the medical school that is the best match for them as well.”
One resource experts recommend applicants use to estimate their chances of getting into medical school is an MCAT-GPA grid published by the AAMC. The grid notes the acceptance rates among premeds with various combinations of GPAs and Medical College Admission Test scores using aggregated data from the 2017-2018 through the 2019-2020 admissions cycles.
For instance, the grid shows that 87.8% of applicants to U.S. med schools who had both an MCAT score that exceeded 517 and a GPA that surpassed 3.79 were accepted.
“Metrics like GPA and MCAT scores are often where students start to assess their competitiveness for medical school, but there’s more to it than just metrics,” wrote Dr. Renee Volny Darko, founder and CEO of admissions consulting firm Pre-med Strategies Inc., in an email. “Life experiences play an important role in establishing a student’s ability to compete. Extracurricular activities such as employment, volunteering, clinical experience, research, and shadowing doctors are where students can not only showcase themselves to admissions committees, but also solidify for themselves that medicine is worth pursuing.”
Darko says there are situations when it makes sense for a prospective student to wait a year to apply to medical school to allow time to improve his or her candidacy. “Sometimes being patient and deferring the application is the best strategy,” she says. “It gives time to become more competitive and the applicant doesn’t have to explain previous rejection from medical school.”
Medical school admissions officers urge premeds to remember that numbers are not the only component of their application that matters.
“Most medical schools these days use what we call holistic review, which means that they put an equal emphasis on the academic record and the experiences that the candidate has had and, finally, the personal attributes of the candidate,” says Dr. Quinn Capers IV, vice dean of faculty affairs and professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Ohio State University College of Medicine.
He says med schools care about candidates’ communication skills, collegiality, teamwork abilities and how well they take feedback. Capers recommends that med school hopefuls apply to no fewer than 16 schools to maximize their admissions chances.
Capers says that, in past eras, medical schools focused primarily on academic factors, such as GPAs and MCAT scores, but now these schools have expanded the number of factors they consider when making admissions decisions.
“You have to have a strong academic record, but in addition, you also have to have a strong record of experiences that show you want to help your fellow man, and you have to be able to prove that you have the attributes that we want to see in medicine,” he says.
Capers adds that his school evaluates the quality of prospective students’ extracurricular activities, including leadership experiences, health-related activities, research and community service. A lack of community service experience can be a deal breaker in the admissions process, he says, since that type of experience is something that medical schools specifically look for.
David Lenihan, president of Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico, says he looks for well-rounded individuals who have done something interesting in college beyond studying hard and doing well in courses. Lenihan, who has a Ph.D. in neurosurgery and electrophysiology, says he appreciates when premeds have participated in extracurricular activities such as sports, band or drama.
“A well-rounded student makes a much better doctor in the long run, and I believe that it’s that well-rounded student that’s more likely to go into areas of need and practice,” he says. For example, Lenihan says he was intrigued by a candidate who was a concert violinist, because the activity was memorable, distinctive and required commitment.
He suggests that students with passions outside of their schoolwork can bring those up during their medical school interviews in order to distinguish themselves. Candidates who pursued a nonacademic project while preparing for the MCAT could discuss how they maintained a balance and juggled those two commitments, he says.
Lenihan also notes that students should look for schools that have a strong academic program in whatever medical specialty they are most fascinated by, whether it is rural medicine or psychiatry, for example. He also advises that students should look for med schools with mission or vision statements that align with their personal goals. “They’ll pick up on that, and that will help improve your odds,” he says.
Highly ranked research-focused medical schools tend to seek students with sterling academic statistics and scholarly achievements, Lenihan says, since a core component of those schools’ missions is to train leaders in the academic sphere of medicine, such as medical school professors and physician scientists.
In contrast, Lenihan says his primary objective is to recruit med students who have the potential to become great clinicians, and he argues that premeds with 4.0 undergraduate GPAs aren’t necessarily the ones who will be most effective at treating patients.
Dr. G. Richard Olds, president of St. George’s University, an international academic institution with a campus in the Caribbean, says the most common mistakes in the med school admissions process are either not applying to a sufficient number of schools or not applying to the most appropriate types of schools. Olds says it’s crucial to apply to a wide range, including reach, match and safety schools.
Residency and citizenship status are also an important factor in the medical school admissions process, particularly at state schools that have a strong preference for admitting in-state students, says Dr. McGreggor Crowley, a medical school admissions counselor with the admissions consulting firm IvyWise.
“Some states are uber-competitive, like California and Massachusetts, where the large populace of state citizens makes admission to their medical schools quite challenging … In states where the population is smaller, and the pool of qualified applicants is proportionally smaller, competition can be a bit less severe, and out-of-state residents may have better chances,” Crowley wrote in an email. “National citizenship status is also important, and international citizens, even if they matriculate in American colleges and universities for their undergraduate degrees, are still at a disadvantage in the selection process.”
Crowley says prospective students need to do an honest self-assessment to figure out whether they are competitive for medical school and whether they should apply now or later.
“Some students, however, may never be in a position to submit a very strong application to medical school, and those are the students I enjoy working with the most,” he says. “Helping them to understand their core interests, talents and opportunities outside of becoming a physician is very rewarding for me, because being a physician is not for everyone, and there are a plethora of careers that a student may find even more rewarding once they begin to investigate them.”
However, Dr. Louis Levitt, executive vice president and secretary of The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, suggests that his own life story of applying four times to medical school until he got in shows what is possible.
Levitt notes that he eventually graduated in the top 5% of his medical school class at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, which was previously known as the Medical College of Virginia. He also won admission to the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society, a selective and prestigious club for high-achieving medical students, residents, faculty members and alumni.
“I’m at the end of my career at this point, but when I look back on it, I would never do anything different other than medicine,” says Levitt, an associate professor of orthopedics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and a clinical instructor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.
“You know, every day, I go to work and I can make people feel better and have an impact daily on people’s lives. … If I had tried to do anything other than this, I would have been a miserable human being, I think. So … my persistence paid off for me. It may not pay off for other people, but it certainly did for me.”
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What Are Your Chances of Getting Into Medical School? originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 10/15/20: This article was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.