As a current medical student, I’m often asked to give people tips on “getting into medical school.” It’s somewhat of an awkward conversation, as I don’t really like the idea of difficult to negotiate gateways to education in general, and I’d like education to be a lot more egalitarian and open and available. However, these difficult hurdles exist and must be addressed.
Now whether or not you actually want to go to medical school is a decision which I leave up to you. There are many reasons for and against; however, as my friend Jake noted in a recent blog post, you basically need to make sure you will enjoy the process, otherwise it is also not really worth it. The whole process is a ton of work and stress (mainly because you often have to make sure you are pleasing other people), to get a job you may not even like once you get it. One survey suggests that 60% of physicians would quit medicine if they could and the same number would not recommend medicine as a career for their children.
Before going forward, I think is worth mentioning that there are some beliefs that you can completely ruin your chances of getting into medical school. For example, check out this recent article. Now, messing something up like getting a bad grade in a required class is not a decisive event that will keep you out of medical school, you may have to work harder and do extra things to make up for it. But isn’t a deal breaker.
That article also has a wrong a factual point. It says that withdrawing from a class and getting a W (or whatever passes for a withdrawal instead of a bad grade) really penalizes your chances in applying for medical school. However, when you do your AMCAS application (more about that below) and put in all your grades, anything other than a regular letter grade does not get included in calculating your GPA. A Pass/Fail doesn’t count toward your GPA either.
For schools that offer a filter by GPA with a hard cutoff, it won’t affect your GPA if you have W’s on your transcript. It may, though, come up with someone scrutinizes your transcript by hand, but how that is addressed is much less clear and only after the school requests their own copy. If you’re reading this and have more insight, please clarify in the comments.
It’s also important to remember that even if you can’t get into a very competitive MD program at your ideal school you still can be a successful doctor. In addition to all the allopathic medical schools, there are many large osteopathic schools offering DO degrees which are functionally equivalent in the US and are often less competitive. There are also schools abroad, such as the many for profit medical schools in the Caribbean that exist to train students to apply to residency programs in the US. Now, a lot of these programs are very expensive and often put students at a disadvantage when applying to residency compared to US schools, but it is possible with hard work and effort to do it. It may take you longer and may put you in greater debt, but it is possible. If you’re looking for a simple path forward, planning a career in medicine probably isn’t for you.
Now down to the nitty gritty. For the logistics about applying to medical schools, this great book that has lots of information about the nuts and bolts of applying along with very good timelines, much better than I could come up with. The author of the book is a medical school consultant that helps people get into school. If you have the resources, I think spending the money (lots of money) getting a consultant is actually money well spent. If you think about the overall cost of just applying (application fees, travel to interviews, cost of school, USMLE test fees, and the costs of traveling to residency interviews) along with the eventual tuition costs, this is a tiny drop in the bucket. My friend’s wife does this for people applying to undergrad schools, and it is amazing the kinds of things they know to help strengthen your application. You are only going to be applying to a limited set of schools, so you want to make the best application you can for each school. It’s like getting health advice from a medical professional or legal advice from a lawyer. It’s expensive, but invaluable.
Getting more into the nitty gritty, a major step in the process the MCAT. I found the Exam Krackers books to be a great MCAT self-study tool (the best one that I found). You can pay like $20 (I think?) to do a practice exam on the MCAT website, and it is totally worth it. You want to have done as many actual computer-based real tests as possible. You’ll be more comfortable and able to know exactly what your score is going to be on test day. The score you are getting on the real practice tests is basically the score you will be getting on the real tests, so you can keep practicing until you are at the level you need to be.
There is also the SDN website, full of neurotic pre-meds, but they have some great gems of school specific information and information about resources which you can’t find anywhere else. For example, they post the secondary questions from each school for each year, and you can see what they are and get an idea of what is involved. The secondary questions are additional school specific questions/essays that you need to complete after the general personal statement for the AMCAS application. SDN has lots of helpful school specific information if you poke around, including people from all kinds of untraditional backgrounds with compelling stories. Lots of crazy ones too.
The best advice I can give is to get your application in as early as possible, and start having the secondary application questions worked on so you have something ready as soon as you are asked to write a secondary. They need to be in as early as possible. Secondary application questions are often the same from year to year, so an applicant can start working on questions even before getting asked to submit. There are also broad classes of questions which are pretty similar, across schools. Early, early, early. Again, It’s really important to have a timeline and get the application in as soon as possible. People think about their essays and such, but it is important to have their transcripts and recommendations sent in as early as possible and to be on the early timeline as much as possible. This is the most critical thing, as the admissions is very much biased toward early applications.
It doesn’t hurt to see what is on the AMCAS application ahead of time and you can see what fields are there and what information you can get. Having every entry planned out and ready so you can enter it online as soon as the AMCAS website opens up is where you want to be at.