Medical School Admissions FAQ
Medical School Applicants constantly call and email us with a huge array of questions and here we have decided to list some of the most common questions or frequently asked questions about medical school admissions and present answers from our Former Admissions Officer Consultants.
1. How do you recommend addressing a low GPA or MCAT score in an application?
The first approach, which is likely not practical for the majority of students, is to take additional classes or to repeat the MCAT to improve these numbers. If you have time to take courses at a community college, or another institution, this may be beneficial. In addition, if you are able to retake the MCAT and obtain a significantly higher score, this can drastically improve one's impression of your academic ability.
However, this strategy is unfortunately not practical for the majority of our applicants. Thus, the other recommended approach is to work with the application you have, and to highlight certain points In particular, it is important to highlight an upward trend in GPA, specifically science GPA, if possible. It is also helpful to highlight other strengths of the application. For example if you have a low GPA, but a unique accomplishment, or life story, it is helpful to bring this to the forefront of the application, through your personal statement, LORs, activity description, etc. It is also helpful to have your letter writers (particularly your science LOR writers) vouch for your academic ability. This is where working with a consultant can be particularly helpful, to identify the areas of your application that can be highlighted best to offset the lower GPA or MCAT score.
2. Is it better to have a portfolio of many activities with less involvement in each, or fewer activities with more involved presence in each?
In general it is ideal to have a variety of activities to showcase your well-roundness, ability to work with different types of people, and appeal to different schools. However, it is more important to demonstrate significant impact and involvement in any activity you are part of. Thus, if you have to choose, I would recommend having a smaller portfolio of activities, but to have longitudinal involvement in each of them, and to have meaningful impact. This can be in the form of a leadership role, significant changes made to the organization, or some other value that you brought. Schools want to see that you have leadership ability, and are reliable and consistent. In addition, the more high quality involvement you have in the activity, the higher chance you have of obtaining a solid letter of recommendation, and coming across as genuine in your secondary assays. This enthusiasm will also carryover if you are able to speak about them in an interview setting. Remember, quality over quantity usually works best!
3. How many schools should I apply to? What balance of reach and safety schools should I choose?
This is a difficult question to answer, as it depends so much on the individual applicant, and many factors such as your grades, test scores, how strict you are with your geographic preference of schools, etc. Most students apply to at least 15-20 schools and it is not uncommon to apply to more than 40 schools depending on your application. Working with an application consultant, or someone with prior admissions experience, can be very helpful for this in order to identify schools that are particularly best "fit" for you as a person and your application. All schools are seeking to find the right "fit" for their classes, and thus the way you frame your secondary application can make a big difference in how you are viewed.
It is always best to have a balance between safety schools and reach schools. The exact balance also depends on the caliber of your application, but in general I would recommend having 15-20% of your application be "reach schools," 10-15% be "safety schools," and 65-75% be everything else. Remember your first goal is to get into medical school, thus the wider net you cast, the higher your likelihood is of obtaining admission.
4. How many letters of recommendation should I get? What balance of science / non-science / activity letters should I seek?
Like the previous question, balance is key when obtaining your letters of recommendation. You want to strike a balance between obtaining enough letters to demonstrate a variety of perspectives of you as a person and as a student, but not too many to overwhelm the admissions committee. The best letters are from writers that know you well, and longitudinally over time. They are the ones that can speak to your personal attributes as a person, but also your ability to be a reliable and dedicated student, and a compassionate and caring physician. For a general guideline, I would aim to have 2 letters from science professors, 1 letter from a non-science professor, and 1-2 letters from extracurricular activities (including research, service activities, clinical shadowing, etc.). Any activity in which you have been significantly involved with should be accompanied by a letter, otherwise it may raise red flags about your true involvement. I would aim for no more than 5 letters in total, unless you have a really unique background or pathway to medicine.
5. Should I send updates to schools after I submit my application? If so, how often should I send them and what should I include in them?
Yes! It is definitely worthwhile to send updates to schools, especially if you have significant additions since you initially applied. This serves two purposes: to provide schools with more information about your candidacy as an applicant, but also to demonstrate your genuine interest in the school. If you have not heard back from the school about an interview, it may be worth sending an update several months after your secondary application is submitted. These updates should be no more than 1 page, and should highlight key additions that you have not included in your application thus far (any new grades/tests you have taken, new activities you have become involved with, additional leadership roles you have started, etc). It is also helpful to reiterate your interest in the school, using specific points about why you would be a good fit for their class. You can consider sending additional updates after this, but it is important to do so in a tactful way and at the appropriate time based on the individual school's application timeline. Working with the admissions consultant is helpful here as he/she may know the school and what is considered to be appropriate for that institution.
6. How much shadowing should I do?
The purpose of shadowing is to demonstrate your interest in medicine and your exploration of the career. Shadowing is not considered to be a primary clinical experience activity. There needs to be more involved clinical experiences that allow you to observe the doctor-patient relationship and experience the role of a healthcare provider for yourself. Therefore, there is no set minimum number of hours for shadowing. Use shadowing as an opportunity to explore medicine as a career and learn more about different specialties. If you have an area of particular interest, consider shadowing a physician who practices that specialty extensively, for several hours a week over a longer period of time (months). Shadowing is a great thing to do over the summer while you're home with your family. Shadowing multiple providers in different specialties gives you a broader perspective, expose you to different aspects of a career in medicine, and help you better understand your own motivation for pursuing medicine. These experiences are good for generating points of conversation or topics for essays in your primary or secondary application. Consider shadowing for 4 to 8 hours one to two days per week for the course of a month or two. If you're lucky enough to develop a mentorship relationship with the physician, it may lead to participating in research projects or career advising. Overall, somewhere between 50-150 total hours of shadowing would be considered within the range of average. Again, this is not about the number of hours but the depth and breadth of the experience.
7. When should I ask for letters of recommendation?
Ask for letters of recommendation during or immediately following the interaction with the letter writer (a class, research experience, volunteer experience, for example). Waiting until a year or two had passed and you're finally applying to medical school will not generate strong or contemporaneous recommendations. If your school offers a letter service, set that up early so that your letter writers have a place to send your letters. If your school does not have a letter service, let your letter writer know that you'll need the letter for a future application to medical school and request that they keep the letter for the future.
Ideally, letters should be received by AMCAS before the primary application is submitted in late May/early June. If your school has a committee letter, they will often require that letters of recommendation be submitted at an earlier date for inclusion in your letter packet. Inquire with your University regarding whether they use a committee letter so you can plan around this date. When requesting new letters or reminding previous letter writers, it's courteous to give them at least one to two months to write and submit the letter. In the spring before your application, contact all of your potential and confirmed the letter writers, requesting that the letters be sent in by mid-may to AMCAS.
8. Do I need 15 activities? Do I need to fill every line in the activities section?
The short answer is no. It is certainly more important to have quality, in-depth experiences rather than numerous short experiences. Most extracurriculars should be done over a longer length of time to get more experience and demonstrate leadership and investment in the organization. Long-term experiences generate better letters of recommendation and demonstrate a commitment to the cause/experience that is desired by admissions committees. If you can generate 15 quality, in-depth experiences that demonstrate leadership, advancement in position, and commitment to the cause, then do so. Otherwise, it is better to have fewer experiences with more number of hours and greater involvement then it is to have a smattering of superficial and short-term experiences. The purpose of all of your experiences is to explore your interest and demonstrate your commitment to research, clinical activities, and community service. This is best done through longer-term, comprehensive activities.
9. Should I take a year off to apply after graduating?
The answer is IT DEPENDS. You need to ask yourself, “What is the reason why I want to take a year off?” If you have an awesome opportunity to work for Teach for America, to do an international service project, to do a research fellowship, to go on a mission’s trip, then by all means take a year off. Those type of experiences generally look awesome to an admissions committee, because it shows that you’re a dynamic person that has interests/passions outside of the cookie-cutter pre-med. If you are awarded such an opportunity, it likely will help your application tremendously.
However, too many applicants think that they’ll “beef” up their application by spending a year in a general research lab (not associated with a formal program/fellowship). In reality, because you start your application well over a year before applying, you will not have any productivity and it will likely just be viewed as a filler and will not help your application.
10. What is the minimum MCAT/GPA needed to be competitive?
The bottom line is that you want your GPA/MCAT scores to be as high as possible (duh!). Broadly speaking, a 3.9-4.0 will make you look like a superstar, a 3.8-3.9 is competitive for most schools, a 3.7-3.8 is where you start getting borderline, and below a 3.7 you will need other areas of your application to help compensate. If you are below a 3.5, you will likely need to consider alternative options. For MCAT, higher than 520 is superstar status, 515-520 is very competitive, 510-515 is competitive, and below a 510 is where you will start running into trouble.
Some exceptions do exist. If you are >5 years out from undergrad, have had great life experience pursuing a different career, and have come back to the sciences and turned around your grades in a post bac program, you can get away with a lower GPA. An example of this would be a military medic who fought in Iraq who graduated undergrad with a 2.8 GPA. They served as a medic for 6 years and served on the front lines. They came back and completed a post bac program with a 3.9 GPA and achieved a MCAT of 516. They were extremely competitive at even the top tier schools. Additionally, individuals that have played D1 sports, have come from significantly disadvantaged backgrounds, or had another unique path such as overcoming a serious illness during undergrad will have some leeway.