How to Be a Standout Medical School Applicant | MedSchoolCoach

How to Be a Standout Medical School Applicant

Dr. Ziggy Yoediono

Posted in: Applying to Medical School

Join Dr. Ziggy Yoediono and Dr. Blair Nelson as they share invaluable insights for aspiring medical students!

From making the most of your gap year to acing medical school interviews, discover top recommendations and expert advice to boost your application. Whether you’re a traditional student, contemplating a gap year, or just curious about the medical school journey, this blog offers guidance for every step. Dive in and get a head start on your medical dreams!

The journey to medical school can be both exhilarating and daunting. As an aspirant, you’re likely to have a barrage of questions, ranging from academics to extracurriculars, and everything in between. As one of the presenters in the recent webinar, I’ve gathered the most frequently asked questions and paired them with insightful answers to guide you on this ambitious path.

Starting Your College Journey

Your undergraduate years lay the foundation for your medical school application. Embrace every learning opportunity and remember – medical schools are looking for holistic candidates. Begin by seeking guidance early, understand the prerequisites, and prioritize maintaining a competitive GPA.

Choosing Your Major and Courses

While there’s no “best” pre-med major, some do align closely with medical school prerequisites. Biology, Chemistry, and Physics tend to be popular. However, courses like computer science, though not traditional natural sciences, are gaining traction. Regardless of your major, diversify your coursework and ensure you meet all medical school prerequisites. Interestingly, courses from community colleges are generally accepted, but it’s vital to show rigorous coursework from a 4-year institution as well.

Master’s or Bachelor’s – What’s Essential?

In the U.S., a Bachelor’s degree is typically sufficient for medical school. However, a Master’s can provide an edge, especially if you’re part of a 4+1 master’s program. A high GPA in a Master’s program can certainly boost your application.

Maximizing Extracurricular Activities

Extracurriculars provide an avenue to demonstrate dedication, leadership, and a genuine interest in medicine. Engaging in research can lead to valuable experiences and even publications. While there’s no strict rule on the number of shadowing hours, consistency and diversity in experiences are key. Whether it’s through on-ground or virtual shadowing, ensure you’re gaining meaningful insights into the medical profession. Also, consider international volunteer opportunities; they showcase adaptability and a global perspective.

COVID-19 has undeniably impacted many students’ ability to participate in extracurriculars. It’s essential to acknowledge this in your application, focusing on the adaptability and resilience you demonstrated during these trying times.

Gap Years – A Boon or Bane?

Taking a gap year isn’t a setback. In fact, many students leverage this time to gain invaluable experiences, be it research, work, or volunteer opportunities. Medical schools typically view gap years favorably, provided they’re utilized productively.

The Interview Phase

This is your moment to shine, so approach it with a balanced tone – a mix of professionalism and warmth. Preparation is vital, especially for potential ethical scenarios in MMI interviews. Demonstrate your passion, readiness, and knowledge about the medical profession throughout.

Deciphering Letters of Recommendation (LOR)

LORs play a pivotal role in your application. While obtaining them from your current institution is preferable, letters from previous colleges, especially where core courses were taken, hold value. Broadly, recommendations from science professors are vital, but non-traditional courses like behavioral sciences, Physio Psych, and Health Disparities also count. The process of seeking, holding, and submitting LORs is crucial – start early and strategize, especially if you’re considering a gap year.

Partnering with MedSchoolCoach

For tailored guidance, consider services like MedSchoolCoach. Starting early in your college journey, even as a 1st or 2nd-year student, can be beneficial. With packages designed to assist throughout the entire application process, you’re sure to find a perfect fit for your unique needs.

Questions from the Webinar & Answers from Physicians 

Starting the College and Medical School Journey

Q1: What advice would you give to a student just starting their college journey with aspirations for medical school?

A1: Start strong by laying a solid foundation in your core science courses, seek out meaningful extracurriculars that genuinely interest you, and prioritize building relationships with mentors early on. Your journey to medical school is not just about grades; it’s about developing a holistic understanding of the medical profession.

Furthermore, connect with a pre-med adviser at your college so you can understand what premed courses and extracurriculars are required for medical school and learn about ways to get extracurricular opportunities.

Q2: Which undergraduate majors are most recommended for pre-med students?

A2: While many students opt for traditional science majors like Biology or Chemistry due to overlap with pre-med prerequisites, medical schools appreciate diverse backgrounds. Choose a major that you’re passionate about, whether it’s English, Philosophy, or Art – as long as you fulfill the med school prerequisites, your major can stand out and showcase your unique perspective.

Coursework and Prerequisites

Q3: Does computer science count as a science course for medical school prerequisites, even though it isn’t a traditional natural science?

A3: Computer science, while valuable in the ever-evolving world of medicine, isn’t generally counted as a traditional natural science prerequisite by most medical schools. However, having a background in computer science can certainly provide a unique angle to your application, especially as medicine increasingly intersects with technology.

Q4: How do medical schools perceive courses taken at community colleges when reviewing applications?

A4: Medical schools tend to prefer courses taken at four-year institutions, but they also understand that students have varied paths. If you’ve taken prerequisites at a community college, ensure you have a strong academic performance in upper-level courses at a four-year institution to solidify your foundation.

Q5: Are IB High Level credits considered the same as AP credits for medical school prerequisites? Would I need to retake certain courses in college if they’re not recognized?

A5: Whether it’s AP or IB High Level credits, such credits should not be used to test out of premed courses. Medical schools want to see that you took these courses in college; so even if you tested out of a specific premed course, you should still take it in college.

Application Strategy and Competitive Edge

Q6: Does graduating a year early affect my medical school application, even if I maintain a high GPA?

A6: Graduating early can be seen as an achievement, reflecting your academic prowess, especially if you’ve maintained a high GPA. However, it’s essential to ensure you’ve gained adequate clinical, research, and extracurricular experiences during your shortened undergraduate tenure.

Q7: I’m in a 4+1 master’s program and plan to graduate early from college. Does having a master’s degree with a 3.6 GPA give me an advantage for medical school applications?

A7: Having a master’s degree can be an asset, showcasing depth in a particular area of study. A 3.6 GPA in graduate coursework is commendable, but always remember that your undergraduate performance and MCAT scores also play crucial roles in the admission process.

Q8: Is obtaining a Master’s Degree in the USA crucial for a competitive edge in medical school applications, or is a Bachelor’s typically adequate?

A8: While a Bachelor’s is typically sufficient for medical school applications, a Master’s can provide an advantage, especially for students seeking to enhance their academic profiles or delve deeper into specific areas. That said, it’s the holistic picture—including experiences, personal statement, and MCAT scores—that truly matters.

More specifically, getting a Master’s is not necessary to get a competitive edge and you should not pursue a Master’s solely for this reason. You should only pursue a Master’s if you’re passionate about the area and envision it being important to your goals as a future physician.

Q9: For prospective MD-PhD applicants, is it more advantageous to emphasize research over clinical experience?

A9: MD-PhD programs heavily value research, so showcasing a strong research background is crucial. However, balancing this with meaningful clinical experiences demonstrates your commitment to both the scientist and clinician roles in your future dual-degree career.

Q10: As a 2024 applicant dedicating most of my time to MCAT preparation, what work experiences should I prioritize?

A10: MCAT preparation is undeniably crucial, but it’s also important to secure experiences that highlight your commitment to medicine. Prioritize clinical exposure, whether it’s shadowing, scribing, or volunteering, and consider research or community service as secondary enriching endeavors.

Non-Traditional and Contingency Plans

Q11: How might the application process differ for non-traditional postbacc students?

A11: Non-traditional postbacc students often bring unique experiences and perspectives. While the core application process remains the same, it’s essential for non-trads to craft their narrative highlighting their journey, the experiences that led them to medicine, and the value of their diverse background.

Q12: Would you suggest applying to other graduate programs as a backup to medical schools?

A12: Applying to graduate programs can be a viable backup for those looking to bolster their academic credentials or explore other interests. However, ensure that the program aligns with your goals and is not just pursued for the sake of having a plan B.

Extracurricular Activities

Q13: How can I actively participate in research and contribute to publications?

A13: Engage with professors or local researchers in areas of interest, express your desire to contribute, and demonstrate dedication. Building a strong rapport, showcasing initiative, and consistent commitment can lead to increased responsibilities, including contributions to publications.

Q14: Which areas of research are most beneficial for a pre-med student?

A14: While any genuine research interest is valid, biomedical, clinical, or translational research often aligns closely with medical school pursuits. Nevertheless, what truly matters is the depth of your involvement and the skills you gain.

Q15: What are some best practices for gaining meaningful clinical experience as a pre-med student?

A15: Seek out opportunities for direct patient interaction, such as scribing, clinical volunteering, EMT work, hospice volunteering or clinical research. Engage consistently, reflect on your experiences, and aim to understand the physician’s role and healthcare dynamics.

Q16: How crucial is it for me to be a member of campus clubs? While I’m involved in other extracurriculars, I’m not currently in any clubs but am considering joining.

A16: While clubs can offer valuable experiences and leadership opportunities, they aren’t mandatory. It’s the depth and impact of your involvement, not the number of clubs, that truly matters. Focus on meaningful engagement, whether inside or outside of clubs.

Q17: What is the recommended amount of shadowing hours for medical school applicants?

A17: Aim for at least 50-100 hours of shadowing across various specialties to gain a comprehensive understanding. However, quality and reflective insights from these experiences often outweigh the sheer quantity.

Q18: What strategies do you recommend for finding doctors to shadow?

A18: Start by reaching out to family doctors, alumni networks, or local physicians. Professional associations or hospital volunteering can also open doors to shadowing opportunities.

If you’re in college, connect with a premed advisor and join a premed club.

Q19: Is virtual shadowing recognized and valued by medical schools?

A19: Given the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools understand and accept virtual shadowing. However, always ensure it complements, not replaces, in-person experiences when possible.

Q20: How can I demonstrate leadership skills throughout my undergraduate years to strengthen my med school application?

A20: Seek roles in clubs, organizations, or community projects where you can drive initiatives, mentor peers, or coordinate events. Demonstrated leadership can also come from research, teaching roles, or spearheading community service projects.

Q21: How do admissions committees value volunteer work compared to other extracurricular activities?

A21: Volunteer work, especially in clinical settings or community service, is highly valued as it showcases commitment, compassion, and understanding of the medical profession. While it’s an essential aspect, a balanced profile with diverse experiences is equally important.

Q22: How do medical schools perceive international volunteer work?

A22: International volunteer work can be valuable if it’s meaningful and ethically conducted. It’s crucial to demonstrate cultural sensitivity, genuine contributions, and avoid ‘voluntourism’ pitfalls.

Q23: My college experience was significantly impacted for 2 years due to the COVID-19 quarantine. What’s the best way to address this shortage of extracurriculars on my application as a result?

A23: Most medical schools recognize the challenges posed by the pandemic. In your application, focus on resilience, adaptability, and any unique experiences or skills you acquired during this period. It’s about showcasing how you made the most of challenging circumstances.

Many secondary applications have prompts about challenges caused by COVID and/or challenges in general. Therefore, you could address such challenges there.

Gap Years

Q24: How can a student ascertain whether they are ready to apply to medical school or if they should consider taking a gap year?

A24: Students should evaluate their academic preparedness, maturity, and clarity about pursuing medicine. If gaps are identified, especially in experiences or MCAT preparation, a gap year might provide time to strengthen their application.

Q25: As a non-traditional student who decided to pursue medical school a year after graduating, will my decision to delay negatively affect my chances of admission?

A25:Delaying entry isn’t necessarily viewed negatively. What matters is how you utilized that time. Meaningful experiences, personal growth, or additional academic achievements during that period can even be advantageous.

Q26: What productive activities or experiences are recommended during a gap year to strengthen a medical school application?

A26: Consider clinical experiences, research projects, volunteering, or even non-medical pursuits that demonstrate leadership, compassion, or resilience. Any genuine growth or skill development can be valuable.

However, before pursuing any experiences, first assess your candidacy and determine if there are any gaps or weaknesses. If so, you should use your gap year to address them.

Q27: How do medical schools typically perceive candidates who have taken gap years?

A27: Medical schools appreciate gap years when students have used the time productively, gained new experiences, or improved academically. It’s all about how you frame those experiences and the insights you’ve gained.

Q28: How should I address or frame my gap year experiences in my medical school application or interviews?

A28: Highlight the skills acquired, challenges overcome, and insights about medicine gained. Emphasize your enhanced readiness for medical school as a result of these experiences.


Q29: What tone should I adopt during my medical school interview: friendly, formal, or something else?

A29: Aim for a balance: be professional yet genuine and approachable. Your goal is to show your human side while conveying respect for the process.

Q30: If I sense the interviewer seems disengaged, what strategies can I employ to recapture their attention?

A30: Re-engage them by asking a clarifying question, sharing an intriguing anecdote, or demonstrating genuine enthusiasm about a topic. Stay focused and ensure your responses remain concise and impactful.

However, remember: just because an interviewer seems disengaged, unfriendly or even weird, it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. Most likely, it’s the interviewer’s personality. Therefore, remain calm, friendly and professional at all times.

Q31: How can I best prepare for potential ethical scenarios presented in an MMI interview?

A31: Familiarize yourself with common ethical dilemmas in healthcare. Practice addressing these situations by considering all perspectives, showing empathy, and demonstrating a logical thought process.

Q32: What are some common mistakes applicants make during their medical school interviews and how can they be avoided?

A32: Common mistakes include being overly rehearsed, not answering the question directly, and failing to showcase personal insights. Preparation, practicing active listening, and reflecting on your experiences can mitigate these errors.

Q33: How should I approach questions for which I don’t immediately know the answer?

A33: Pause briefly, gather your thoughts, and address the question as best you can. It’s okay to admit when you’re unsure, but try to provide a thoughtful response or relate it to what you do know.

In fact, it’s perfectly fine to say something along the lines of “That’s a great question. I just need a few seconds to think about it.” Then take those few seconds to gather your thoughts.

Q34: How can I effectively demonstrate my passion for medicine and my understanding of the profession during the interview?

A34: Share personal anecdotes that highlight why you’re drawn to medicine. Emphasize your commitment through experiences, express genuine enthusiasm, and showcase your understanding of both the rewards and challenges of the profession.

Letter of Recommendation (LOR)

Q35: For transfer students, is it necessary to obtain LORs from the current institution, or can letters from a previous college where core courses were taken be used?

A35: While LORs from your current institution can provide a fresh perspective on your abilities, it’s entirely acceptable to use letters from a previous college, especially if they relate to core courses and offer valuable insights.

Q36: Can letters from behavioral science professors (e.g., sociology or psychology) be considered as a science recommendation? Similarly, would a letter from a course like Physio Psych, Health Disparities/Health Psych, or Writing in Natural Sciences count as a Science Professor LOR?

A36: Science letters are those that come from biology, chemistry and physics. In general, behavioral sciences are considered non-science letters. However, if there’s a strong science component to the course, it could count. When in doubt, check with specific medical schools for their preferences.

Q37: Does a recommendation from a statistics or calculus professor qualify as a non-science recommendation?

A37: While some schools consider letters from math professors as science letters, others do not. Therefore, check with specific medical schools for their preference.

Q38: How do medical schools determine if a committee letter is available at your university and what specific purpose does it serve? If I can’t obtain a letter from a non-science professor, can a committee letter serve as a substitute?

A38: Medical schools usually know which universities offer committee letters based on prior applicants. If your school offers such a letter, medical schools will definitely want to see one. Committee letters don’t serve as substitutes for individual letters. If you can’t get a non-science LOR but your school offers a committee letter, check with them regarding what to do.

Q39: What is the proper procedure for requesting, holding, and submitting recommendation letters, especially when considering a gap year before applying to medical school? How early should these letters be sought out and collected?

A39: Always request LORs in a respectful, timely manner, ideally several months before application deadlines. If you’re considering a gap year, you can use services like Interfolio to hold and submit letters at a later date. Generally, start seeking LORs at least 6 months to a year in advance, ensuring your recommenders have ample time to craft meaningful letters.

Working with MedSchoolCoach

Q40: When is the ideal time for a student to start using MedSchoolCoach services?

A40: The earlier a student starts, the better. Ideally, students should begin using MedSchoolCoach services early in their undergraduate journey to optimize their pre-medical preparation and strategize for medical school admissions.

Q41: Does MedSchoolCoach assist throughout the entire medical school application process, and are there specific services that increase the likelihood of securing interviews?

A41: Absolutely, MedSchoolCoach assists students throughout the entire application journey, from MCAT preparation to final interviews. Our personalized application review and interview preparation services are especially beneficial for students aiming to secure medical school interviews.

Q42: Are your coaching services available for both 1st and 2nd-year students as well as 3rd and 4th-year students?

A42: Yes, our coaching services cater to students at all stages of their undergraduate journey, from 1st to 4th year. Each stage has its unique challenges, and we’re equipped to guide students through every step.

Q43: What is the cost structure for your services?

A43: The cost varies based on the specific services and packages you’re interested in. It’s best to consult directly with MedSchoolCoach to get detailed pricing information tailored to your needs. Schedule a session with an Enrollment Advisor and they can answer your questions and get you started.

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