Components of your medical school application: how to be a competitive medical school applicant

I will admit, I was very cocky when I applied to medical school. I only applied to a handful of schools, and I was 100% certain I would get into at least one. I was honored to be able to serve on the admission committee at Emory my last year of medical school and WHAT A HUMBLING EXPERIENCE. Now, I have no idea how I got into medical school. You guys are doing amazing things! With that said, I've been on both sides of the application process and I've flipped through the application of very strong candidates, so here is my novice opinion on the most important components of your medical school application.


I also recommend our career profile series. All of our featured residents share tips to be a competitive medical school applicant.

components of your medical school application: how to be a competitive medical school applicant


[ 1 ] date of submission

Most medical schools work on a rolling admission, and usually most interview invitations have gone out before the official due date. It's really stupid and makes no sense, but the earlier you get your application in - the less people you are competing with +  more interview slots are available =  the more likely you are to receive an interview slot. Your application is not complete until all of your letters of recommendation are in (see my disaster story in the last paragraph).


[ 2 ] gpa

Having a high gpa is expected for a medical school applicant. You should strive to be among the most competitive group of students at your school. You don't have to make all As, but you definitely need to make more As than Bs. Mostly As with a rare B.

If you make a C in a science course, you need to retake that course and get a higher grade. You should also strive to master the content in the classes that come after whatever class you made a C in. A bad semester can happen for personal reasons, and that's okay, but if you don't understand the material that is more of a problem.

You should also do well in your non-science classes because theoretically they're easier and it's never okay to slack off. If you make a C in one non-science class, you're probably fine not retaking it, but you may have to discuss it during your interview (or they may not care. I would definitely ask about it if I interviewed you).

Doing exceptionally well in your non-science classes and borderline in your science classes also won't make the cut. Your pre-med related gpa is calculated separately on your application to eliminate the noise of all of the physical education classes you took to get your gpa up.

Study tips.


[ 3 ] MCAT score

Most schools publish their average score, meaning there are some students that did significantly better than that score and some that did significantly worst (this is the assumption. It is also statistically possible that all of the students made very close to or exactly the average score). Don't assume your stellar extracurriculars will make up for your lower gpa/MCAT score. These objective numbers (gpa + mcat) are used as a weeding tool - meaning you application probably won't be looked at if you don't make a certain bare minimum. Typically, you have the highest chance of being accepted to your state school, so know their average MCAT score and talk to your pre-medical adviser about your chances.

If you're borderline on your MCAT score, retaking the exam (and doing significantly better) may increase the number of schools you're competitive for. However, retaking the MCAT can be a risk because - to my current knowledge - all of your scores appear on your AMCAS application.

I receive a lot of question on studying for the MCAT. The test has been updated to a completely different test from the exam I took, so I can't give advice for it. For reference, I took the MCAT April of junior year of undergrad. I took a lighter load than usual, but it was heavy in advanced biology courses and I think ochem lab. I studied on my own using examKrackers because at the time I thought spending $2,000 on a prep course was ridiculous. Looking back, I did a horrible job of studying, but I didn't know any better. I did okay on the exam, but not great.


[ 4 ] extracurriculars

Once you've made it through the gpa and MCAT screen, those items matter less. There's no linear relationship between how high your MCAT score is and your chances of getting into medical school (I don't think).

Once you've passed whatever the institution's objective thresholds, the faculty feel that you would be able to handle the academic load without trouble. The next question becomes - who are you? The best proxy question for this is - "what do you spend your time doing?" In general, it looks best if you have been part of an organization for many years and have some leadership position(s). It's okay not to stick with everything you start, but commitment stands out.

My longest volunteer experience was my 7 year weekly (highschool) turned monthly (undergrad) visits to the Alzheimer's unit at a local nursing home. I taught exercise classes, among other activities. It was so much fun and I learned a lot about medicine and health. I actually wrote one of my college essays about my experience with one particular patient (I got in early acceptance). I also volunteered for an after school program for gifted "at risk" elementary school kids (which I was once upon a time myself). I was the volunteer coordinator for my sorority and I planned educational programs sponsored by the sorority (well, the committees did all of the amazing work. I just coordinated). I was the program coordinator for the Minority Association and Premedical Students my junior year and president of the organization my senior year.


[ 5 ] research experience

Best case scenario is you join a lab freshman year and eventually earn a publication and present your work at a national meeting (as Soohee did). It's okay if this doesn't happen though. One of my defining characteristics is that I'm easily stimulated and interested in a lot of things, therefore in college I bounced around 3 research labs doing completely different work - initially an infant mortality statistics project, then snake metabolism work*, then computer programming work designing a database for fly-based metabolic syndrome phenotype information. But - I was dedicated to all of those projects. I won a summer research fellowship to work on one of them, and I picked up a lot of different, but useful skills along the way. It's okay to not know exactly what you want to do. Just follow what interests you. When I met my research advisor at Emory, I approached her with "This is what I have done and these are the skills I have, but what I'm passionate about is quality of life impact of dermatologic diseases."

*to this day, talking about my work with live snakes is my most engaging interview topic - even during dermatology residency interviews!


[ 6 ] honors/awards

National awards look very good. I didn't apply for any, and regret this somewhat but I'm just not really interested in recognition. I do what I do because I enjoy it.


[ 7 ] letters of recommendation

A really good letter or a really poor letter can tip you over the edge. The most important thing for letters of recommendation is to make sure your letter writer gets them in on time. I recommend asking at least 3 months in advance, telling them the due date in a month before it's actually due, and offering to write a draft.


My letters of recommendation were the poorest aspect of my application, by far. First, the person who recruited me to the University of Alabama and who was supposed to be my strongest letter writer would not turn in my letter, even though I provided him with a draft - at his request - in June. I was brought to the point of tears in October after my application had been completed by me for over a month, but incomplete because of his negligence. Eventually, my boyfriend at the time called pretending to be my dad and completely laid into him. He turned in the letter that evening, but at that point I was too late to be considered for a few of the schools I applied to. THEN I found out during one of my later interviews that my pre-medical advisor had actually wrote pretty negative things about me in his letter. Luckily, most of the handful of schools I applied to gave me the benefit of the doubt and granted me an interview. (I know what he wrote because in one of the interviews, the interviewee showed me because my extracurriculars and in person personality didn't match the negative words written about me.) It was a hurtful experience, but I learned from it and obtained stellar letters of recommendation for dermatology!


Want more advice of being a competitive medical school applicant?

- Career profile series: all of our featured residents give advice to aspiring and current medical students

- How to choose a medical school