These are questions from a recent Q&A session with the excellent pre-med society at BYU-Idaho. We wanted to make sure each submitted question gets the attention it deserves.
What would a competitive medical application include?
Admissions committees are looking for an ideal applicant. Not the ideal application. This difference is subtle but important. Your application should communicate a message to the admissions committee regarding you as a person and not simply check off boxes. This perspective will help you figure out which extracurriculars would be good for you to do and which types of activities you need more of.
This is what I mean by “reverse engineering” your application. The ideal applicant is a person who is hardworking, professional, empathetic, altruistic, intelligent, and easy to work with. This is someone medical schools want to horde for themselves. Use your activities to support the narrative you want and let your letter writers corroborate your story.
The elements of the application that you use to build this flattering narrative fall into the following categories:
- GPA and MCAT score: obviously, the higher the better, but it’s not the end of the world if you have an average or slightly below average score if you tell a good story with the rest of your application. A solid science GPA is thought to be 3.7+ and MCAT of >510 will get you interviews at most programs. Always tricky to tell what scores would “guarantee” an acceptance because schools look at more than grades (thankfully).
- Volunteering: Total of 100-200 hours split amongst several different activities
- Community volunteering: several different activities showing you care about underserved populations or those who are less fortunate than you.
- Healthcare volunteering: helps demonstrate adequate exposure and understanding of the medical field.
- Work experience: Not generally required but can be helpful to show work ethic and give you depth. Medical scribing is VERY popular, so you won’t stand out, but it’s excellent preparation. I worked in a physical therapy department in the hospital. One of my classmates was a firefighter. Others never worked a normal job and had only been students.
- Research: 0-100 hours. Obviously better if it comes with a publication, but experience is experience. I had about 60 hours of research with a poster presentation. Kevin had a ton of research and was a published author.
- Leadership experience: You want 1-3 experiences within the recent past (<4 years). Mission leadership is great to put here, but you will want something you can point to in the recent past as well. Tutoring typically counts as leadership.
- Shadowing: 70+ hours. If you plan on telling people you want to do a specific specialty in your personal statement and during interviews, you had better have substantial exposure in that specialty. The best bet is to get a mix of primary care exposure and some specialty exposure. And shadowing family members is not generally accepted. Neither is shadowing residents. They want to protect you from my jaded self 😂.
- Other items like the personal statement, letters of rec, secondary applications, letters of interest or intent, etc.
- Note: a lot of programs will post their recommendations for specific # of hours and # of experiences. It can vary depending on how prestigious the institution is. If you have your heart set on a program, check out their website or politely ask to get in touch with a current student.
There can be wide variability in what you see in real life. Someone with below average scores may be accepted because they have made a case that they are a very hard worker, demonstrated commitment to the medical field, and they care about underserved populations. Do your best to gather a variety of activities that fit into each category. Follow your passions and pick things that you would be excited to talk about in an interview. Try and identify where there are gaps or weak points in your application narrative and try to address them.
Having a variety of experiences is a plus, but if you have a passion project, it’s okay lean into it and maybe you can show multiple attributes with one activity (assuming leadership responsibilities within a volunteer organization for example). Consult with your pre-med advisors about specific hours and for honest feedback on your activities.
We are always being told to be more holistic. I can’t think of anything to get unique and fantastic service or leadership. Do you have any ideas you might suggest trying at BYU-Idaho?
Never view yourself at a disadvantage. If you don’t feel that you have the opportunities you need, create them.
This is straight up wisdom from Kevin. It has served both of us so well over the years. If ever we had a clickbait “one simple trick” for getting into medical school or matching to a top residency, this would be it. If you’re having trouble finding established volunteer activities in your area, research projects, or whatever, why couldn’t you create some yourself? I bet there are a bunch of other students who could use some extra volunteer hours as well. And by talking with other students, you might stumble upon ideas or experiences that you didn’t know were out there.
A few “off the cuff” examples might look like this:
Organize a fun run or walk-a-thon for a cause. Make healthy shopping lists and recipe cards for heart healthy or diabetic friendly diets to give to local clinics. Organize a coat drive/food drive. Create a service group with a clever name with your friends and go around looking for service opportunities in your community. Organize a group to make care packages for people experiencing homelessness. Form a journal club.
Give me a couple hours and a white monster and I could probably get you a few more.
Imagine how good an activity would look on your application if you could say that you championed an idea, obtained funds from local sponsors, organized an event, and made a difference in your community?
There’s no limit to the good you can do. And I’m confident each of you have unique talents and interests and could come up with some really great service activities. And if you organize the activity, it doubles as leadership experience.
What did you do for service hours?
We participated in a mix of established activities through the university as well as some self-directed projects. We helped with blood drives, organized coat drives, volunteered at foodbanks, environmental clean-up projects, tutoring, volunteered at hospitals, residency programs, church service opportunities, and pretty much anything else we thought would help us show we cared about people and our community.
I remember deciding that I would say “yes” to anything that came through my email. I just told myself I would apply to every leadership role, serve on any committee, join any interest group, participate in journal clubs, and go to any service project for two months and see what happened. I ended up meeting a bunch of new people and found new opportunities that I had never heard about before. And eventually I had 5-6 solid activities where I could put in a few hours a month and started building up my “application narrative”. I could pick and choose which activities were the most fun/interesting or that would put me in contact with excellent potential letter writers.
If you could go back in time and do it over with what you have learned, what would you do differently to make yourself even more competitive as a candidate for medical school?
The answer to this question depends on how far back you want me to go. I don’t know if I would’ve changed my major or anything like that. Anything will do. Some would say doing a unique major can make you stand out, which is true, but it’s also potentially a lot of work for not a lot of benefit. Do something you’re genuinely interested in or do something that could be a good back-up plan if medicine loses its luster at any point along the path. Beyond this, I would recommend:
- Get started on volunteer activities as early as possible. Having longitudinal experiences looks good and will lower your stress later on.
- Be interesting. Learn new skills, try new things, find new hobbies, develop your talents. This adds depth to who you are as a person and makes you memorable.
- Make friends with an English major or a writing professor. You’re gunna have to write a personal statement and it’s going to blow.
- I would make research a priority. It is becoming more important and if you’re hoping to go the MD route, it will help.
- Pay attention in Biostats. Hands down the most important class I took in undergrad. Biostats is on every boards exam you take in medical school. Understanding stats helps you understand research. It makes you more valuable to people who do research. You will have an easier time getting research projects if you have experience with stats.
- I would recommend looking into Anki flashcards. This free flashcard app is the secret sauce of medical school and I think if I would’ve used it during undergrad, I would’ve done even better on the MCAT. I’m sure there are pre-made MCAT decks out there on reddit.
Next, I’ll tackle some of the questions about our advice for the MCAT. Stay tuned for that.