Every year, thousands of students undergo the arduous task of applying to medical school in the early summer, starting another “cycle,” the term used to call each application year. Truth be told, medical school application requirements may vary from school to school.
That being said, despite little differences, several things are required in a fundamental medical school application for a majority of U.S. medical schools.
Almost all medical schools accept applications through an online system known as AMCAS (American Medical College Application System). So what do you need when you start your application on AMCAS?
This article provides a basic checklist for applying to medical school, as well as increasing your odds of getting accepted.
Table of Contents
Checklist For Required Items/Material
When it’s time to apply, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) has a handy database called the Medical School Admission Requirements, or MSAR for short. It allows you to look at any medical school’s requirements and information in one place—with a yearly subscription of $36/year.
1. MCAT Score
Medical schools don’t consider your application unless you have an MCAT score on it. You can still submit your primary application without your MCAT score. But medical schools won’t review your application until the score is there.
The current Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) consists of four parts:
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
Each section is worth a total of 132 points, so the whole exam is graded out of 528. The individual percentile cutoffs vary each cycle.
Though there is no official cutoff for MCAT scores at many schools, the general consensus is that MCAT scores should reflect academic excellence. Harvard Medical School, for instance, does not have a cutoff for GPA or MCAT scores, but requires applicants to have a track of academic excellence.
Medical schools recommend that you take the MCAT in the spring semester before the cycle begins in early June, though MCAT exams are offered all year round.
Additionally, most schools require MCAT scores to be no older than 3 years.
The MCAT is a difficult exam, but with good preparation it should be more manageable. Check out our article on study tips, schedules, and hacks that may help you study.
2. Premedical Coursework and baccalaureate degree
Most schools require at least three years of college work and a baccalaureate degree before matriculation. Note that the requirement is “before matriculation,” which means you can start applying as long as you are on track to complete your coursework and graduate within the expected time frame.
In addition, an applicant must demonstrate that they can handle rigorous coursework, are fluent in English, and can excel in the biological and physical sciences by completing a series of pre-requisites.
Generally, the minimum required courses for applications include completing one year of biology, one year of physics, one year of English, and two years of chemistry (including organic chemistry). Some other mandatory courses may include behavioral sciences, calculus, and genetics, but what courses fulfill the requirements vary by school.
Although the typical premedical coursework may make it seem like it is a requirement to become a science major, that is not true. Students can major in whatever interests them, as long as they complete the premedical classes. Medical schools are full of people coming from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and majors.
Students who did not complete the premedical coursework in their undergraduate study or took it a long time ago can take the classes necessary or pursue a post-baccalaureate degree with a tailored premedical track.
As a general rule, coursework shouldn’t be older than five years when submitting your application. That being said, exceptions can be made depending on the school. Some may allow recent advanced science courses to show academic excellence if premedical courses were completed long ago.
3. Letters of Recommendation from your premedical advisor or committee
Medical schools usually only accept letters of recommendation via AMCAS (the platform you apply through).
The recommendation letter requirements vary by school, but usually include at least one letter from a science professor. Your recommenders aren’t limited to professors and can be anyone who knows you well enough to endorse you. You can even ask the TA of your favorite class to write it if the professor is willing to sign off on it as well.
Colleges may offer two options: a committee letter and a letter packet. Generally, a committee letter includes a cover letter that summarizes a student’s candidacy and endorses the student. Meanwhile, a letter packet contains a cover letter that doesn’t endorse the student the same way a committee letter does. All your recommendation letters will be attached to either option when sent to schools.
Some colleges may have their own system and requirements for obtaining either type of letters, so it’s best to check with your school’s pre-health office.
You can ask for letters of recommendation anytime throughout your coursework, but the specific timing varies. For instance, your school might have a system to compile and hold recommendation letters for you.
You may want to ask someone to write a recommendation letter right after completing a class, an internship, a volunteer experience, or any other experience. This way your recommender has a better sense of who you are and what you have done. And you get a stronger letter of recommendation to add to your file!
If you wish to have your recommender individually submit their letters to the AMCAS application, you should ask him or her a few months in advance of a specific deadline, so they have time to write and submit by then. This also applies if they’re submitting to the school’s internal system.
Checklist For A Competitive Application
In 2019, there were 53,371 applicants to U.S. medical schools–a solid ten thousand more applicants than there were just a decade ago (9). It is important to make your application stand out with so many students vying for a spot in medical schools.
This checklist goes over factors that can enhance your application and make you more competitive. These tips are particularly helpful if you already have a good academic streak.
1. Competitive MCAT Score and GPA
Although having a high MCAT and/or GPA score does not guarantee that you will be accepted, it will increase your chances. Each school’s admission page offers a profile of admitted students and includes the median MCAT and GPA of each year.
The NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine Class of 2019, for instance, has a median GPA of 3.96 and a median MCAT score of 522. Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University has a minimum requirement of 3.0 GPA and 494 MCAT (at least 123 and above for each section) but its recent incoming class had a median GPA of 3.64 and MCAT score of 512, far above the minimum requirement.
To ensure that you stay competitive during the application process, look for schools that have a median GPA and MCAT score that is in your range.
Besides studying consistently throughout your coursework and for your MCAT, consider taking on a major that you are interested in! It’s easier to excel in something you’re interested in.
2. Gain Medical Experience (Shadowing or Non-Shadowing)
According to Dr. Sarah Carlson, a doctor who served on Dartmouth’s medical admission committee, medical schools want to see that you have an idea of what the field involves, and realistic expectations of a medical career.
In order to gain that insight, students can shadow physicians or other medical professions, or pursue other non-shadowing options. Think about becoming a certified nursing assistant, hospital scribe, volunteer emergency medical technician, hospice volunteer, or any other clinical experience.
Having some sort of clinical experience is highly recommended.
3. Participate in Community Service or Volunteering
Being a good physician is more than just being good at science. It also includes being empathetic, communicating effectively with others, and helping to do good. Consider pursuing non-clinical service opportunities that align with your other interests. This can range from volunteering as a library tutor, to fundraising for a cause at your school, to volunteering at a pet shelter.
You can ask your pre-health advisor for opportunities around campus or the community if you don’t know where to start!
4. Research Experience
Research experience may be particularly helpful when applying to research-focused medical schools. It is also a good way to gain hands-on experience in a field of science that you may be interested in. You can even gain valuable (and fun!) experience participating in conferences and meeting experts in the field. Getting your name on a paper or abstract would be a nice bonus too!
However, it does not help make up for subpar grades or MCAT, or lack of clinical experience. It is a common mistake for pre-meds to think that research is a requirement.
Medical schools look at research experiences differently, based on the type of research done or what the student can show them. All in all, students should pursue it if it’s something they enjoy: it shows a solid science background and commitment.
5. Extracurricular Activities
Participating in extracurricular activities over a long time shows commitment, which is something medical schools look for. Though there isn’t a minimum of required hours, committing yourself to an activity allows you to have something to talk about and stand out.
There is a general pressure to rack up leadership positions, but opt for a few activities you enjoy for more meaningful experiences instead. Remember, quality over quantity. In fact, your commitment and achievements may help to overlook a lower grade in some cases.
When you join extracurricular activities, you have more opportunities for strong letters of recommendation that show who you are outside of academics. Also, you can prove your ability to manage time and juggle multiple things at a time.
6. Having a Mentor or Advisor to Contact the Admissions Committee
This tip may not be the first thing you think about, but having an advisor or a mentor reach out to the admission committee to advocate for your candidacy. If you have a strong interest in a specific school where you are just at the brink of acceptance, maybe give this a try.
Although there are basic, mandatory components of the medical school application, there are many other sections that give you a competitive edge. Medical schools look at applications holistically. So the applications should give them an accurate picture of who you are and not who you think they want to see.
These checklists contain an overall sweep of those requirements and parts, but at the end of the day, it is important to refer to each school’s websites for their own specific requirements. Keeping track of all these sections throughout your journey helps immensely when it’s time to apply.
The timeline for applying to medical school is earlier than what is normally expected for graduate school. The cycle for medical school opens up in the summer, which is a year before intended matriculation.
So if your intended matriculation is August 2022, you have to apply in the cycle that begins in June 2021. This means it’s important to have nearly all the checklists completed by June 2021. Please keep in mind the timeline as well as the checklist as you prepare to apply!
These checklists are by no means entirely encompassing. If you have any other tips or suggestions, feel free to comment below, and share this article for others who may benefit from the tips!