Getting into Medical School
How to make your medical school application stand out
The profile of successful medical school applicants is varied. Their interests, level of experience and even academic achievement are different from one another but they do have a few things in common. They are all:
- Commited to their education
- Involved outside the classroom
- Knowledgeable and exposed to the practice of medicine
Show your motivation
To my knowledge, every medical school allocates points to a strong motivation to become a doctor. You could say anyone who applies to medical school must be motivated so why is motivation so important in the marking scheme. Some students apply because they have a deep rooted desire to become a doctor from a young age. This may be because their parents are doctors or they have developed a passion gradually through their life. Other applicants discovered an interest for medicine more recently after thinking about career options at school or after a talk with someone. Many apply because they are good in sciences and are told that medicine is a good noble career. Some just "fell into it" and do not know why. You can see that not all applicants are equal in their motivation to pursue this career. The job of a doctor is challenging and demanding. Recruiting keen aspiring doctors is thus a priority for medical schools.
Here are a few examples of how to show your motivation in your application:
- Organise shadowing experience in varied settings. Every applicant has at least one shadowing experience. However, an applicant who has made a specific effort to shadow in 2 or 3 varied settings such as: an outpatient setting (e.g. general practitioner) and an inpatient setting (e.g. general medical ward), an acute setting (e.g. accident & emergency), an urban setting (e.g. a city hospital) or a rural setting (e.g. a village clinic) stands out as someone keen to make a real effort to find out about the scope medicine has to offer.
- Read appropriate content such as the BMJ, health news, etc. Reading something on a regular basis shows that you have a genuine interest in the medical field and how you integrate it in to your day-to-day life.
- If your reasons stem from embers of your family practicing medicine, do not shy away from mentioning it. Of course, wanting to be a doctor just because your mother or father was a doctor is not sufficient on its own. With that said, if your parents were doctors, it seems very natural that you were exposed to the medical field early and developed an interest for it. Many applicants hesitate to mention it. As long as it is followed with genuine effort to explore the career, it provides an honest and logical context to your aspirations. This is helpful in convincing admission officers of your genuine interest in medicine.
- Demonstrate your altruism. Love, passion or ability for sciences are most commonly mentioned as applicant's motivations to apply to medical school. They are very valid and "believable" but remember that being a doctor is about being at the service of the community. Applicants who understand that are able to demonstrate their altruism in their extracurricular activities and link it very effectively to their deep rooted desire to practice as a doctor. Long term regular volunteer commitments reflect better than short term volunteer work.
Show commitment to your education
It is common knowledge that a strong academic record is needed to be successful in your medical school application. Students and parents alike are usually surprised when I mention that many of my colleague doctors did not have all A grades prior to entering medical school. The minimum eligible requirements have increased over the years but if you know where to look, there are still many options to get into medical school for students who do not have "straight A's". Medical schools are looking for intelligent and committed individuals who can handle the academic demands of the programmes.
Here are a few ways you can demonstrate your commitment to your education in your application:
- Having top grades at school and university is the most obvious way to demonstrate that you are capable of successfully pursuing a rigorous course. With that in mind, for those choosing their A Level subject or those choosing an undergraduate major prior to applying to medical school, remember that if you take something you are "less good at" but "looks better", you will not be forgiven for a lower grade. Subjects such as English, Chemistry and Biology are all recommended in principle, but if you do not think you can achieve a good grade in one of them, it is better to choose a different subject and achieve the top grade than to take a subject that "looks good" but not achieve the top mark.
- Demonstrate your commitment to your referees. Commitment to education is not all about grades. Attitude towards your studies plays a large role is this assessment. Showing efforts made to improve on a particular weakness can strengthen your application greatly. This may be effectively shown in your reference letter or your personal statement. Similarly, someone who is keen to read further than the required material, is conscientious in his work and helpful to his classmates will have a reference letter that reflects these traits. They all contribute to showing commitment toward education.
- High scores in UKCAT, BMAT, GAMSAT or MCAT. This is important for all applicants but students frequently underestimate the preparation required for these. Many medical schools give you an automatic interview if you achieve above a certain cut-off and even more medical schools do not consider you if you achieve below a specific cut-off. Investment in time and money can pay off well when it comes to preparing for these exams. Courses and books undeniably help, but the largest comitment is of time. Students who prepare for their application early should aim to complete all their shadowing and volunteer work prior to the summer of their application so they can fully concentrate on the exam preparation and personal statement writing.
- Attending a first aid course or similar type of emergency medical training is an added way of showing commitment to your medical education.
Show involvement outside the classroom
All medical schools in the UK, Canada and the US expect you to have some healthcare related volunteer or paid activity. Medical Schools in other countries vary in this requirement and you will find more information about this on the sections of the website dedicated to specific countries. The most powerful experiences, for your application, are those that have spanned over a long period of time.
Below is some advice regarding your extracurricular activities. For detailed tips and ideas on what you could get involved with, check our dedicated website pages on the subject.
- It is best to have one or two extracurricular activities that you do once a week for a year or more rather than many things you have done for a few weeks. In a longer placement, your supervisors can comment on your reliability and ability to learn and on your progress over time. It is also easier to show you are passionate about something by sticking to it rather than if you are changing your extracurricular activity all the time.
- Evolving within a team or an organisation to positions of greater responsibilities is also very well perceived on a medical school application. It demonstrates commitment by staying involved in the same organisation and also shows that people trusted you to give you a position of leadership. Initiative and leadership skills are best portrayed tied to long term commitments.
- Keep a log of reflections. While you are doing your work experience and hobbies, keep a log of what happened, what you did and what you learned. This will help you greatly when it comes to writing your personal statement and preparing for your interviews.
Be knowledgeable about the medical system in the country in which you are applying
I notice the first signs of a poor application when I speak to a student, who despite having strong exam scores and all A's at school, is unaware of current issues in the medical profession. This shows lack of interest, poor preparation and is the weakest point in many applications. Here are a few ways to strengthen your knowledge of the medical system.
- Read medical professional association websites such as the BMA.org (UK) or medical college’s association websites such as the AAMC.org (US). Each country has an equivalent website which contains useful summaries of current political, financial and social issues in the profession.
- Organise work experience in a variety of settings and for as long as you can. The longer the experience, the more you will gain and learn from it. Specifically, to understand the medical system in depth, it is useful to stay with the same team for a little while. One or two days of shadowing are often too little to get a real appreciation of the challenges which the healthcare professionals face on a daily basis. Once you become a "member" of the team, you will learn more from each individual about what they like and dislike in their work. An international applicant or someone who does not have a medical background in the family may need to organise longer placements to get a grasp of an unfamiliar system in order to be able to talk about it intelligently at the interviews.
- Read some novels. Keen writers have produced novels detailing their journey through medical school or their journals as a doctor. This can be a pleasant way to gain some insight into the life of a doctor and shows enthusiasm on behalf of the applicant.
- Speak to medical students, doctors, healthcare professionals, etc. When I applied to medical school, I was a foreign student from a family with no medical background. The medical system was unfamiliar to me. Meeting and talking to doctors and medical students was the most fruitful way in which I began to understand how the NHS works, its great benefits and its limitations.
- Attend a medical school interview course. One thing that is done well in medical school interview courses, from most private companies, is covering current medical issues and the organisation of healthcare. When I applied, I attended a course which helped me narrow down what I needed to know from the vast amount of information available on the internet. For those applying to medical school in the UK, myself (Dr Jiva) and my team run courses in London.
When I applied, I attended a course which helped me narrow down what I needed to know from the vast amount of information available on the internet.