10 Steps to Getting into Medical School
Choosing to become a doctor is a hugely rewarding career decision. Not only is it a well-respected and well-paid profession, but it can also provide vast levels of job satisfaction and allow you to have a positive impact on the lives of the patients you will treat.
The downside is that getting your foot in the door can be a competitive and daunting process. Large numbers of high-quality candidates apply every year, and med school places are limited; this means that to make the cut, your application needs to be truly outstanding. Luckily, we’re here to help.
We’ve scoured the web for the best tips and hints to put yourself in pole position, so if you’re thinking of applying, make sure to read on.
This is how to get into medical school in…
1. Gain Exposure to a Clinical Environment
Life as a doctor isn’t easy, and the training alone requires a level of commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly; therefore, it’s essential for your own interests to try and gain any exposure that you can as to how things work inside a hospital or any other clinical environment.
Aside from giving you an indication of your suitability, it also reflects well on your application. Nobody is expecting you to be intubating patients during school holidays, but shadowing a particular specialist, volunteering within a certain department or even getting paid work as a porter or something similar can give you a first-hand view of what it’s really like on the shop floor. This helps to convince admission boards that you’re serious about medicine and that you know what you’re getting into.
Don’t ignore the networking potential, either. As we will touch on later, strong references are a vital part of the process, and having an existing doctor or health professional vouch for you can go a long way.
2. Get Good Grades
This may sound like a no-brainer, but the harsh truth is that – unlike a lot of other higher education courses – there is zero flexibility with medical schools when it comes to academic requirements.
In the UK, anything less than AAB in your A Levels is realistically a write-off (for the top schools, AAA is the minimum expected), while in the US your pre-med GPA would need to be between 3.5 and 4.0 to be accepted onto a graduate course.
Given the generally high standard of applicants, poor grades will likely see you fall at the first hurdle, so ensure that you put in the study hours and leave assessors with no doubts about your academic capability.
3. Widen Your Net
While we don’t recommend that you apply to every single medical school in the country (indeed, in the UK you are restricted to just four medical choices), it is recommended that you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Even if you’ve settled on the perfect school, it’s wise to have back-up options should things not go to plan.
That doesn’t mean you should just scribble the first few that come to mind, though. Research each school thoroughly, and only submit an application if it ticks every box. Is it a good school? Can you see yourself living there for the next five years? Do the teaching methods fit your learning style?
It’s also a case of numbers; the more schools you apply to, the more chance you have of being accepted. Remember: as long as you put the same amount of effort and commitment into each application, there is nothing wrong with touting yourself across the board.
4. Make Yourself Stand Out
Again, this might sound like a bit of an obvious tip, but it’s an area that has the potential to go wrong very easily; selling yourself without venturing into arrogance or hyperbole can be a balancing act all in itself.
Firstly, don’t shy away from documenting your achievements; as mentioned already, the competition is going to be fierce. Don’t venture into the ridiculous for the sake of standing out, though. Describing yourself as ‘like gold’, for instance, because you are ‘rare, durable and highly valuable’ will likely see your personal essays end up in the bin.
Don’t be afraid to extoll your skills, qualities and achievements – especially the ones that are relevant, such as research projects or caregiving experience – but don’t overstate yourself. If you are a good fit, then your application will speak for itself.
5. Prepare Thoroughly for the Admissions Tests
Regardless of where in the world you are applying, you will be expected to sit at least one lengthy and in-depth admissions test. Generally, the questions are not medicine-related and are instead psychometric assessments designed to test your personality, your reasoning skills and your logical process.
Luckily, there’s a wealth of free resources online that can help you prepare for these tests, including practice questions, hints and general exam tips; just make sure you focus on the right one! Generally speaking, the most popular are:
- Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) (USA & Canada)
- UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) (UK)
- Graduate Medical School Admissions Test (GAMSAT) (Australia, UK and Ireland)
6. Choose the Right References
In any field or industry, it is important to have good references – especially if you don’t have much employment experience to fall back on. But when applying for med school, it is essential. As previously mentioned, a good word from a respected source can be the difference between you and a similar candidate getting that last free place.
If you can obtain a reference from someone in the medical community, that’s great, but if not, then focus on contacting people (such as teachers, professors and respected community members) who know you well and can write something insightful and personal. Asking your mum’s friend’s sister who happens to be a lawyer might look good from a credibility perspective, but if she barely knows you from Adam then it’s unlikely to have a major impact.
7. Engage in Sports and Activities
While being your school’s standout football star or the president of the chess club doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a place at John Hopkins, it’s no secret that admissions boards put value in the extracurricular activities of applicants.
Not only does it demonstrate commitment to something outside of schoolwork, but it also reveals a bit more about your personal side and what makes you tick as a person. Doctors are expected to be passionate about their job, and assessors want to know that candidates are capable of displaying this kind of commitment in different aspects of their life.
If nothing else, it’s also a valuable pool of potential referees, so if you aren’t already, make sure you are spending your non-study time as productively as possible.
8. Prepare Thoroughly for Interviews
If you are invited to an interview, it’s important to be as prepared as possible. Most universities and colleges offer advice and guidance on the kind of topics that will be discussed and where you should focus your research efforts, so make sure you follow this advice. Practise interview techniques with friends, family and, if possible, teachers and career professionals, too; this will allow you to develop your confidence and make you more at ease in an interview setting.
Specifically, ensure you have a good answer for ‘why do you want to become a doctor?’. While there is no right or wrong answer to this question, your reply can suggest a lot about your motivations and suitability. Try to avoid generic or immature answers (‘it pays well’ or ‘I want to help people’ doesn’t tell your interviewer much), and instead try to incorporate a detailed personal element into your response.
9. Make Sure You’re Organised
Organisational skills are an essential component of a doctor’s armoury, and you will need to demonstrate them straight away in order to ensure that your application runs smoothly.
In most cases, medical school admission procedures run on a different timescale to other university or college courses, and you therefore need to pay close attention to deadlines. Med schools do not accept late applications or allocate places through clearing, so if you miss your chance, you will have to wait until next year to apply again.
Also, be aware of the numerous prerequisites that each individual school may or may not require; read and reread every school brochure and website, and don’t hesitate to send an email if you’re unsure. This doesn’t just apply to the course itself but to all the related student finance information that comes with it, too, including any grants, scholarships or benefits that you could be entitled to.
Remember: knowing what exactly you need to provide, and when to provide it, is the very least of what will be expected of you, so don’t ruin your chances because of a silly and avoidable administrative error.
10. Don’t Be Afraid to Try Abroad
If the substantial costs or competition for places is proving too much, there is another way to get into medical school: apply to study abroad, an alternative that more and more frustrated students are starting to explore.
Of course, you will have to do your research, but if you are the adventurous type and want to take on a challenge, then heading overseas – with all the benefits that come with it – could be just the ticket.
Depending on where you choose to go and where you plan to work as a doctor once qualified, there are numerous cross-border legal agreements where qualifications are recognised or eligible for conversion. As long as you clarify this before you begin, then there’s no reason why you can’t gain your medical degree the more travelled way.
Getting into medical school is not easy – and given the responsibilities of a doctor, nor should it be. But it’s not impossible, either, and if you can match your academic and extracurricular achievements with a strong sense of commitment and dedication, as well as the ability to convey your worth and potential to admissions boards, then there’s no reason why a fascinating career within medicine can’t be yours.