How to Get Into Top Medical Schools

US News & World Report
By Ilana Kowarski
April 16, 2018

Recommendation letters and extracurricular activities can help premeds get into their dream schools.

At many of the nation’s most prestigious medical schools, it is extraordinarily difficult to get accepted. At both Harvard Medical School and Stanford University School of Medicine, less than 4 percent of applicants are admitted.

To receive an acceptance letter at a med school that is rated highly in the U.S. News rankings for either research or primary care medicine, applicants typically need more than solid grades and a great MCAT score, experts say. In addition to stellar academic records, admitted students at top medical schools typically have exceptional recommendation letters, compelling extracurricular activities and evidence of a strong commitment to medicine.

Here are the qualities experts say a medical school applicant needs in order to be seriously considered by a selective medical school.

Compelling Endorsements
Experts say it’s hard to get into a top medical school without strong recommendation letters.

“The reality is this: Most recommendation letters are mediocre at best,” said Dr. Olatokunbo Famakinwa, an alumna of the Yale School of Medicine, a practicing physician and a medical school admissions consultant, via email. “A letter that simply states that you attended class regularly and received an A+ will not do much to help you stand out. Recommendation letters should really highlight your intellectual curiosity, commitment to service, and ability to work with others. This is what makes applicants memorable.”

Dr. McGreggor Crowley, an admissions counselor at the education consulting firm IvyWise, says that recommendation letters often tip the scales in the medical school admissions process.

“Top applicants tend to have highly personalized letters with anecdotes that provide depth and additional complexity to the applicant’s file,” Crowley, a former member of the Harvard Medical School admissions committee, said via email. “Often, top applicants will have more than the recommended number of letters.”

Crowley said that applicants can use recommendation letters to highlight their personal strengths. So students who excel at scientific research or public service might have more than one reference who discusses that specific talent, he said.

According to Famakinwa, who is better known by her nickname “Dr. Toks,” premeds can boost their chances of receiving exceptional recommendation letters by providing their references with the free recommendation letter writing guide produced by the Association of American Medical Colleges. She says premeds can also assist their med school references by providing a copy of their resume and personal statement, because references who know how premeds are selling themselves are better equipped to offer a persuasive recommendation.

Accomplishments Outside of the Classroom
According to Crowley, the top medical schools seek students who have distinguished themselves both academically and through extracurricular activities.

“These top applicants usually are impacting their school community in a significant manner,” Crowley said. “They are the leaders of larger organizations on campus, or they are identifying community problems, then devising strategies to address these problems. They are the movers and shakers of their college or university, which can be a tough thing to do while carrying a tough academic course load.”

Aanika Balaji, a second-year student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says she suspects one reason she was chosen for admission at Johns Hopkins was that she had participated in many activities outside of school while she was an undergraduate. While attending college at the University of Arizona, Balaji volunteered at clinics in U.S.-Mexico border towns, spent two years shadowing an OB-GYN physician and conducted research at a breast cancer research lab where she worked for four years.

“What helped me stand out was that although I was extremely involved in school, I had a balance outside of it,” Balaji said via email. “It’s easy to forget what life is like outside the bubble of school and the fantasy of medicine. I worked at Sears part time as a cashier during the holidays and quickly learned how interpersonal skills are necessary to talk to customers, and these same skills could be applied to patient interactions. I was able to spend a week in Honduras volunteering in a clinic and felt like I was thrown into another world.”

Balaji says another asset she highlighted in her med school application was that she had conducted a significant amount of clinical research during college, including a project where she investigated the viability of a peptide therapy for breast cancer. She also won several research grants during college, including a prize which allowed her to conduct research abroad in Sweden.

An additional important advantage Balaji says she had is taking a creative nonfiction class in college. In the class, she learned how to write elegant personal essays and illustrate her points using anecdotes rather than telling her reader what to think.

Experts say top medical school admissions officers want to make sure that prospective medical students understand the large investment of time and effort involved in becoming a doctor, so they like to see proof that premeds have done a significant amount of soul-searching and career exploration.

Famakinwa said top med schools strive to avoid enrolling students who are pursuing a medical career simply to please family members or peers.

“When applying to medical school, it is important to show the admissions committee that you have carefully thought about your decision to enter medicine,” she said. “Many students apply to medical school because their parents told them to do so or as a ‘back-up’ plan; becoming a physician is truly a lifetime commitment that requires a tremendous amount of dedication and personal sacrifice.”

Famakinwa said medical school applicants should avoid making statements in their essays or interviews that make them come across as naive about or unaware of the challenges of medicine. Premeds should make an effort to demonstrate that they have the grit and maturity necessary to endure and overcome adversity, since medical training is not easy, she added.

Anna Fang, a first-year student at Harvard Medical School, says she believes one factor which helped her get into Harvard was the fact that her application clearly outlined why she was pursuing medicine and what experiences had prepared her to pursue this calling.

“I believe that my biggest strength in my application was my ability to communicate the meaning behind every experience I have had and demonstrate how it has shaped me to excel as a physician,” Fang said via email.