Stephen Canton is a third year MD/MS candidate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine/College of Business. You can follow him on instagram and linkedin. He has served on the medical school application committee
Choosing a major and minor
The choice of major is crucial for not only your career but also for your medical school trajectory. Medical school committees consider the rigor of your school and your major. For example, engineering majors are appealing to schools. Non-traditional pre-med majors are also of interest (ex, English Lit major) because it contributes to the diversity of knowledge and experiences of the school body.
It is a delicate balance, though. It is hard to know early in your high school or undergraduate tenure, but you must be real with yourself. If medical is the only thing that you want to do (no plan B), then you must ensure that you choose something that you’re interested in and know that you can excel in. Unfortunately, GPA is the first thing used to screen applicants.
Yes, of course, students with lower GPAs are accepted. However, there are fewer of them. I have heard the dean of a medical school state that he would love to take more students with average GPAs, but unfortunately, the GPA and MCAT scores are taken into consideration when US News rank institutions. It is the job of the dean to ensure that the school is thriving, and one of those things maintaining a high ranking. It’s just the reality of the situation.
Minors are less critical but still considered. Medical schools like to see well-rounded applications. Language minors, for example, are appealing. It displays your work ethic and your future versatility.
This was briefly discussed in the Choosing a Major section. You should shoot for the highest GPA possible. Note, the previous statement is not coming from an individual who had a high GPA. However, having served on the admissions committee, I saw first-hand that GPA is something that you should try to optimize. We know things happen in life that may be detrimental to one’s GPA. If you don’t have a stellar GPA, it is still possible, but it will just be exponentially more difficult in the long run.
This, similar to GPA (see GPA section), is very important. It may even be more critical. MCAT can be a make or break. When were provided information on students to rank, MCAT was listed before GPA. These tests are theoretically in place to even the playing – to give a way to standardize the field. However, We know that these “standardized” exams are marginalizing because they favor individuals with access and strong networks.
Unfortunately, this issue is most likely not going to be fixed by the time you are reading this. Our goal at Greater Influence is to tear down these marginalizing factors and simultaneously provide access to necessary resources.
In the meantime, while you join us in this fight, this barrier is not an excuse. You must do everything in your power to attain a good score on this exam.
Here are some sample MCAT percentiles from the latest MCAT percentile ranks released by AAMC, effective May 1, 2018—April 30, 2019.
Obviously, you should shoot for the highest score possible, but to give you an idea of a score that can get you in the door and receive an interview: you should be shooting for an MCAT score of 507-508. Anything higher will be smiled upon by the admissions committee. Anything lower, admissions committees will either disregard, or they will be hard-pressed to look through your application more thoroughly to see what makes you stand out.
Again, a lower score should not stop you from applying, but you should have a discussion with our mentors as to how you can overcome this.
Research is a tricky thing.
If you love research, this requirement is not difficult. However, research is an underrated marginalizing factor as well. Some schools do not have the resources to provide adequate research opportunities. Also, many entering high school students are entering undergrad with research under their belt and connections to start in labs as soon as they step foot on campus.
Despite this, you must engage in research opportunities. It shows that you practically apply what you learn in your course and that you can take information, interpret it, and disseminate it effectively. This is not trivial. While it seems like just something you’re checking off, this is the skillset that ALL physicians must-have – whether or not you decide to go into academic medicine or private practice. The reason for this is that medicine is a constantly changing field. There are new therapies, interventions, treatment algorithms that come out on an everyday basis. Excellent physicians must be able to sift through this information efficiently and incorporate it into their daily practices. It is called Evidence-based medicine.
That being said, get your hands-on research right now if you haven’t already. It may not be the most exciting research at first, but any research opportunity will teach you the fundamental research methods that you can apply. It is also essential to start early so that you can talk intelligibly about a longitudinal research opportunity that you undertook in an interview. I have interviewed many candidates that have had all this fantastic research on their CV, but could not explain it to save their life. Don’t be that person.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are VERY significant. Medical schools receive thousands of applications. I know, personally, when I would go through apps, the first thing I would look at is MCAT and GPA. This is only because we would receive fact sheets on each student, and it would start with your contact information, schools attended, MCAT, and then your GPA. After looking through hundreds of applications, it is hard not to overlook the numbers (it’s human nature).
After the numbers, though, the next thing I would look it how they performed on interview day – most likely ensuring that there were no red flags (ex, rude to other interviewees, spaced out during a tour, etc.). Immediately, following that, I would look at their letters of recommendation. I want to see if somebody is endorsing this person’s work ethic and character. I look at this before I even look at the rest of the AMCAS, including research, volunteering, etc. It’s hard to know what’s real if you don’t hear it from another human being, unfortunately.
That being said, make sure that you have strong letter writers that can genuinely attest to these things mentioned above. A fluffy, fake letter can be sniffed from like the first three sentences, trust me. If I read a mediocre letter, that applicant fell low on the list, unfortunately.
It is okay to ask letter writers, “Will you write me a strong letter?” You can say it more eloquently than that, but it is vital that you ensure this. The letter writer should not be offended by this question because many people understand the weight of these things.
Also, be sure to give your letter writers plenty of time. These individuals are usually very busy. You should ask two months in advance – 1 month at the very least.
A quality personal statement is largely overlooked by many applicants. Many applicants make the mistake of basically re-writing their CV (see CV section) in prose (essay) form. We do not want to read, I promise. Again, after going through hundreds of applications, we want to know about YOU. What makes you, you? Hence, personal statement. I cannot stress this enough.
Many times, a personal statement may take 3, 4, or 5 (maybe even more) iterations to get it right. It is more than worth the time, though. Not only can this statement help with your application, but it can also help you to receive scholarships. I’ve seen it multiple times.
Please take your time on this. We can help you.