How to Fulfill Med School Admission Requirements

The most important requirement for medical school acceptance is strong academic performance, and a low GPA or MCAT entrance exam score can sink an aspiring doctor’s chances, according to admission experts.

So premeds should prioritize their academics and not overemphasize extracurricular activities, says Dr. Clay Dorenkamp, an orthopedic surgery resident at McLaren Greater Lansing Hospital who is on the clinical faculty of Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“Never let it get in the way of performing well academically,” says Dorenkamp, who earned his medical degree from Midwestern University’s Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine. “No amount of community service or shadowing or research is going to pay off if you have a super-low GPA or you perform poorly on the MCAT.”

Some medical schools set minimum standards for GPAs and MCAT scores, and hitting those two targets is necessary to gain acceptance to these institutions, experts say. Because med schools have rigorous course requirements, admissions officers look for evidence that prospective students are prepared to handle difficult science courses.

However, an excellent GPA and MCAT score do not guarantee admission.

Once students meet the GPA and MCAT score requirements, other factors come into play such as letters of recommendation, research, life experiences, volunteer work and interview performance, Dr. Alex Anastasiou, a board-certified psychiatrist with a private practice based in California, wrote in an email.

[Read: How to Get Into Top Medical Schools.]

“While some schools are more research-oriented, research is not always a prerequisite,” he says. “Many schools want to see that the student has had real-life experiences such as volunteering and shadowing in offices and hospitals.”

GPA, MCAT Requirements for Medical School

The median undergraduate GPA for fall 2021 first-year students at U.S. News-ranked medical schools that reported this data was 3.77. Meanwhile, among fall 2021 freshmen at ranked medical schools that provided MCAT statistics, the median MCAT score on the current version of the test — which has a maximum score of 528 — was 512. That score sits in the 84th percentile for all MCAT test-takers between 2018-2020, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the nonprofit organization also known as AAMC that designs and administers the MCAT.

Medical schools typically expect at least a 3.3 college GPA, and they carefully analyze grades in science courses, says Keith Baker, assistant dean for admissions at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

Aspiring doctors with low college grades in premed science classes may be able to mitigate that weakness in their application package if they take graduate-level science courses and earn high grades, Baker says. But med school hopefuls with subpar MCAT scores should expect an uphill battle convincing admissions officers to overlook those scores, which is possible, he emphasizes.

If a school had an average MCAT score of 511 among matriculants and you have a score of 505, your odds of acceptance are small, and those odds will get even smaller if the average is higher, Baker says. “Now, does that mean that your chances of getting in are zero? No, it just means that there are a lot of other people ahead of you in line who are probably going to get a more serious look unless there’s some overriding facts about your application that may allow your candidacy to proceed even with less-than-ideal metrics.”

Medical School Prerequisites

While medical school policies vary regarding prerequisites, experts say the following college courses are frequently mandatory:

— Biology (one yearlong sequence with labs)

— Chemistry (two full academic years of study, including four lab-based classes, three of which are general chemistry, organic chemistry and biochemistry)

— English or another writing-intensive academic discipline (one full year)

— Genetics (at least one course)

— Math (one full year, ideally including courses in calculus and statistics)

— Physics (one yearlong sequence with labs)

— Psychology (at least one course)

— Sociology (at least one course)

Some classes are beneficial for premeds, even though they are rarely necessary for admission to medical school. Here are a few examples:

— Art or music courses (to cultivate creativity, strengthen visual or auditory observation skills, appreciate the therapeutic applications of imagery or sound, and showcase well-roundedness)

— Interdisciplinary courses about death, dying and grieving in various cultures (to prepare you to care for patients who have a life-threatening health condition or a terminal diagnosis)

— Foreign language classes (to enable communication with patients who don’t speak English)

— Medical anthropology or history classes (to enhance understanding of the medical profession)

— Religious studies classes (to bolster understanding of various faith traditions that may influence patients)

Med school admissions officials are typically wary of applicants who take the majority or all of their premed courses at community colleges rather than four-year undergraduate institutions, since these officials are dubious about the rigor of community college classes, Baker says.

“It’s kind of a red flag if all of your (prerequisite) work is done at a community college,” he explains. “Certainly some of it can be.”

Before applying to any particular medical school, a prospective student ought to check what the prerequisite courses are for that school, Baker suggests.

Admissions experts say it is ideal for aspiring doctors to complete their prerequisite courses for medical school during college as opposed to waiting until after college to take those courses through a postbaccalaureate program, which is more expensive and time-consuming. The best way for premed undergrads to ensure that they are on track to complete all the prerequisite courses for their target medical schools is to meet regularly with an undergraduate academic adviser, beginning during freshman year, according to experts.

“A common mistake some students make is to realize they want to apply to medical school without having completed all the required science prerequisites which can delay the process,” Anastasiou wrote.

“While non-science majors can apply to medical school, it is even more critical for them to plan ahead since the class requirements for their major may not include all the required sciences such as chemistry, physics (and) biology. These subjects are also tested on the MCAT, so it is crucial to have taken them in order to have a good background going into the exam. Although you can start the application process without your MCAT score, it is preferable to have your MCAT scores available when you apply since some schools have early or rolling admission.”

[See: 46 Medical Schools With the Highest MCAT Scores.]

Tips on Completing Medical School Prerequisites and Preparing for the MCAT

Premeds who are unsure what undergraduate courses are mandatory for admission into their target medical schools can look up that information on school websites. Aspiring doctors can also find details about med school prerequisites in the Medical School Admission Requirements online database commonly known as MSAR, a resource provided by the AAMC.

Med school hopefuls with doubts about whether a particular undergraduate course would fulfill a school’s requirement should ask the school, advises Dr. Daphne Calmes, senior associate dean of medical student affairs with the medical education program jointly operated by the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles and the University of California–Los Angeles’ David Geffen School of Medicine.

Although a medical school might not require an English or writing course, taking this sort of class helps improve a premed’s candidacy, says Calmes. It is important that an aspiring physician be able to communicate clearly, she adds.

“Something that’s really emphasized more now is the humanities,” Calmes says. Ethics courses are a plus for premeds because they prepare students to analyze moral dilemmas that often come up in medicine, she notes.

Upper-division science classes beyond the basic prerequisites are also valuable, especially if those classes focus on areas of science that are highly relevant to medicine, such as genetics, Calmes says. It’s also beneficial for premeds to take public health or health policy classes that help them understand health care disparities and health care delivery.

A premed should choose a college major he or she is enthusiastic about and can perform well in, Calmes says.

“Choosing a major that you really do love and that you’re passionate about is probably one of the best things you can do,” she says, adding that medical schools appreciate when a student excels in their chosen academic discipline.

No matter what a student majors in, he or she needs to achieve solid grades in order to be competitive for medical school admission, so it’s best for students to choose a subject that they are both interested in and excellent at, Calmes emphasizes. “The bottom line is, they still have to perform very well in those courses.”

Dr. Shaan Patel, founder and CEO of Prep Expert, a test prep and admissions consultancy based in Las Vegas, describes fulfilling a medical school’s course requirements as the “bare minimum.”

“I would also recommend at least minoring in something completely different than medicine,” he says, noting that his college minor was in music, which helped him distinguish himself when applying to medical school.

A course in health care administration, health care economics, business or public health can enhance the admissions profile of med school hopefuls, because that coursework would help them understand how health care organizations are run, Patel adds.

A course in epidemiology — an academic discipline that addresses how diseases spread throughout a population and what can be done to maximize the health of a given population — would be helpful prior to medical school, Patel says, as would a class in preventive medicine.

Because premed science courses often require fact memorization, students can be tempted to study for tests in these classes by using the simple strategy of reading and rereading class notes, Patel says. Instead, students should consult multiple sources of information about the topics they study, using an approach that he calls the “seven-perspective method.”

Premeds should go beyond reading class notes and look at textbooks, teacher slides, online flash cards, review books and encyclopedia entries, Patel says, calling the technique “much more effective” than the brute force repetition approach.

“What happens is when you learn one-dimensionally from one source, you’re only seeing that subject and understanding it really in one perspective,” he says, noting that students tend to understand a topic better when they learn about it in multiple ways rather than from a single source. The goal, Patel says, is to gain long-term knowledge that isn’t easily forgotten.

Petros Minasi, senior director of prehealth programs with Kaplan, emphasizes the importance of taking a class on biochemistry prior to sitting for the MCAT, since this topic is addressed on the test. Minasi notes that the MCAT also includes questions pertaining to the behavioral sciences such as sociology and psychology, so he advises premeds to take college courses on these topics or independently study them.

While premeds take classes that include content assessed on the MCAT, they should devote extra time and energy to studying these topics so that they really absorb the information, Minasi says. Also, because medical school prerequisites are extensive, it’s ideal for aspiring doctors to begin completing those required classes as soon as possible during college, Minasi suggests.

In order to achieve a strong MCAT score, a premed needs to have clarity about how scientific disciplines are interconnected and be able to synthesize all of his or her scientific training, so pure memorization is not the best approach, Minasi says.

Research Experience Necessary for Admission at Some Schools

Prior research experience is typically a must-have at highly selective, research-oriented medical schools, but it is possible to get accepted into a U.S. medical school without a research background, Baker says.

Any type of academic research can be a plus for a med school applicant, whether it is lab research, clinical research or fieldwork, he explains. However, the only way research helps med school applicants is when they can demonstrate that their research yielded meaningful results and they can clearly explain the lessons learned from their research, he adds.

Clinical Experience, Community Service Often Expected

The two most common med school application deal-breakers besides low grades and test scores are a lack of clinical experience and a shortage of community service, Baker says.

“You have to have clinical exposure,” he explains. “That’s sort of fundamental. That experience lets us and other medical schools know that you have a reasonable expectation of what lies ahead, and if you don’t have that, we simply don’t have confidence that you’re a serious candidate.”

Medical school candidates with a highly competitive amount of clinical experience tend to have several hundred hours, which may include work as a medical scribe, volunteering in medical settings or doctor shadowing, Baker says. Fifty hours of clinical experience is the minimum amount of clinical experience that someone would need to get accepted to medical school, he says.

Although service experience is not mandatory for admission at every medical school, most institutions expect premeds to have it, since medicine involves empathizing with and providing assistance to vulnerable people, Baker says.

“If you don’t have service at a level that is commensurate with being a nice person, we simply are not going to invest the time in you, because … we want to see fundamentally somebody who cares about their community,” he says. “Service — for better or for worse — ends up being the best and easiest way for us to measure your niceness level.”

Application Timing Matters

Because many medical schools make admissions decisions on a rolling basis, earlier applicants typically have better odds of acceptance, according to medical school admission experts.

“Earlier is better,” says Dr. Eric Rafla-Yuan, a voluntary assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California–San Diego. “For basically everything in the application process, later is worse.”

The same application that would garner an acceptance if it is submitted early in the admissions process might be rejected if submitted later, Rafla-Yuan says.

[Read: How to Choose a College Major If You Plan to Attend Medical School.]

Primary and Secondary Applications Often Required

If a medical school admissions committee is impressed by a prospective student’s primary application, which typically includes a personal statement and recommendation letters, then the school will usually ask the student to fill out a secondary application and answer school-specific questions, often including at least one institutional essay prompt.

It’s common for prospective medical students to rush through completing secondary applications without being as thoughtful as they were when writing primary applications, Baker says. But the information in the second application is sometimes just as influential in the admissions process as that in the first.

“Don’t sleep on those questions or those essays because those are really important, and they are usually written for a very specific purpose, depending on the institutions, so don’t treat those lightly,” he says.

Searching for a medical school? Get our complete rankings of Best Medical Schools.

More from U.S. News

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14 Mistakes That Can Keep You Out of Medical School

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How to Fulfill Med School Admission Requirements originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 08/24/22: This article was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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