Medical School Holistic Admissions: What to Know

Many, if not most, medical schools believe that they screen applications with an eye toward the complete person and not just his or her MCAT score and GPA. This has always been a fascinating topic to me, and I see it play out from week to week in so many different scenarios.

A fantastic MCAT score does not make up for obvious gaps or concerns. A fantastic MCAT score is important, but let me give you an example of an instance when an applicant’s high score alone didn’t carry an application.

The applicant had what I would consider a rather low GPA — around 3.0 — over all four years of college. In one of the application essays, he addressed his mediocre GPA, explaining it was low because he was interested in taking so many extra courses every year.

[READ: How High of a College GPA Is Necessary to Get Into Medical School?]

On one hand, you could take his explanation at face value and reason that since he had known he wanted to be a physician prior to undergraduate school, he must also have known that his GPA would not be ignored when it came time to apply to medical school. So why would he shoot himself in the foot and get a 2.9 or 3.0 simply because he wanted to take extra courses? Wouldn’t this strategy limit his opportunities at the next level of training? Or was he really not the outstanding student his MCAT otherwise indicated?

This med school applicant took an extra year after graduation to engage in extracurricular activities, all before attempting his first and only MCAT. It is unclear whether the extra courses, extracurricular activities, or both contributed to the applicant’s low GPA, but nonetheless his grades suffered, particularly those for his biology, chemistry, physics and math courses.

A low GPA during one term or even a full year during the student’s first or second year of college can be overlooked, but not for four years straight. His low GPA wasn’t the only clue to a potential problem. There were other hints that this applicant might not take responsibility for his decisions, based on an institutional action and family circumstances.

[Read: Address Mistakes, Weaknesses in Medical School Applications.]

The bottom line was that the applicant’s explanation for a low GPA and, after one year of study, an elevated MCAT was not enough to gain him an interview. He failed to demonstrate humility and honesty. A lack of integrity or “spinning” the truth on your application might imply to a screener that you might do the same thing on a patient’s medical record.

Here’s an example in which a lower MCAT score and GPA, accompanied by a truthful self-reflection and a willingness to ask for help, gained an applicant a seat in medical school for 2021.

The applicant grew up in the inner city near the med school, had volunteered in the community and had worked as an aide in the nearby hospital. She wanted her future medical practice to support the people this medical school believed they were serving by training primary care physicians. She was a perfect holistic fit. Humility was present in her application, and she demonstrated coachability. Compare this example to the applicant described earlier.

[Read: Primary Care vs. Research: Which Med School Is Right for You?]

Counting on any single strength and expecting it to carry your med school application is a mistake.

Some applicants rely too heavily on their research experience, which can seem very attractive. However, if they lack volunteer experience, which demonstrates sacrifice for others, yet detail time spent on a great many hobbies, their research experience won’t be enough.

The term “holistic” means truly taking into consideration all the aspects of the applicant, not just the ones they want to put forward while hiding others.

Demonstrating respect, taking responsibility for one’s own missteps without blaming others and looking for the right fit show humility, honesty and good judgment. That combination of characteristics is a winner in the eyes of most medical schools.

More from U.S. News

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