Overview: Choosing to become a physician and applying to medical school


Medicine is a multifaceted career that is simultaneously intellectually challenging, emotionally and physically demanding, time-intensive, and personally satisfying. People are often attracted to careers in medicine because they like science and desire to help people directly with their medical needs.  Your journey to becoming a medical professional should begin with assessing whether or not working in the health care field is right for you. Volunteering or working in a clinical setting in addition to job shadowing can help you explore careers in medicine and to assess which health care profession you would like to pursue.

The path to becoming a physician is a long and arduous one that requires several years of higher education and clinical training. Being a physician also requires lifelong learning as new treatments and procedures are developed, and physicians are required to pursue continuing medical education and certification credits.  Physicians have highly responsible leadership roles in effecting patient care, and they may be called upon to contribute to community health programs or health care policy discussion. The AAMC web site has an excellent section (Considering a Medical Career) to help students consider whether or not a career in medicine is right for them.

Note for international students:

It is very difficult for international students without permanent residency to gain admission to U.S. medical schools. In 2013 only 115 international students matriculated into allopathic US medical schools, thereby representing 0.5 % of the entering medical students.
(115 international matriculants / 20,055 total matriculants in the US)

Medical school financing is generally supported through U.S. government loans that are not available to international students; therefore many medical schools will not accept applications from international students. Furthermore, the medical schools that consider applications from international students will often require accepted international students to provide "evidence of ability to pay" in the form of an escrow bank account with the funds to pay for four years of tuition, fees, books, and living expenses. The cost for four years of medical school ranges widely from $150,000 to more than $250,000.

Applying to medical school

Applying to medical school is not only an exciting process, but it is also time-consuming and expensive. This process is so thorough because medical schools are interested in assuring that your academic credentials, science ability/potential, personal qualities (e.g. leadership, motivation, maturity, integrity, energy, ability to get along well with people), exploration of medicine and dedication to the service of others predict success in medical school and the profession. The admissions process allows you to give the schools an idea of your strengths in each of these areas.

The process of applying to medical school takes over a year from submitting the primary application to matriculation. (Refer to the Medical School Application Timeline for a detailed overview of the application calendar.) The summer prior to intended matriculation the applicant prepares and submits the primary and secondary medical school applications. Applicants chosen for interviews can be invited anytime from September to March of the following year, with admissions decisions being offered anytime from October through the spring. Applicants who are put on medical school wait lists may receive an acceptance at any time up until the first day of medical school.

The prehealth advisor is available to help guide you through all stages of the medical school application process. This web page summarizes key steps in the process, and web pages within this section of the Office of Health Professions web site attempt to answer most of the questions you will have as you embark upon this enterprise. Early in your college career you should meet regularly with the prehealth advisor as you explore careers in medicine and attend some of the seminars and discussions given by physicians and medical students. Starting junior year you should attend the workshops given by the prehealth advisor on the medical school application process and information sessions given by medical school admissions officers, even if you are considering taking a glide year(s) before applying to medical school.

There are no ways to guarantee admission to medical school; however developing strong analytical skills, spending time in service to others, and cultivating a passion for medicine will help to you to be the best applicant that you can be.

What are medical schools looking for in successful applicants?

Schools will assess your academic credentials by reviewing your transcripts and your MCAT scores. Through your list of work and activities, your personal statement, your letters of recommendation and the interview, admissions committees will assess your personal qualities, insight into the practice of medicine, and your dedication to service to others.

Imagine that you are a member of a medical school admissions committee reviewing your application. Consider the following:

  • Do your credentials show a passion for a science-based career? Do your credentials indicate that you have the potential to handle an intensive full load of medical school classes?
  • Do your experiences show that you are committed to a service profession and that you desire to work with sick patients and with diverse populations?
  • How have you explored the medical profession and what demonstrates that you understand the nature of the challenges and the commitment to a medical career?
  • How have you developed leadership skills through your extracurricular or work activities?
  • Collectively, do your experiences convey an industrious work ethic and the ability to set and achieve long-term goals?

Grade point averages (GPAs)

The centralized medical school application services (AMCAS, AACOMAS, and TMDSAS) generate grade point averages for medical school applicants that standardize differences in grading systems (i.e. semester hours vs. quarter hours etc) across universities. The medical schools assess the cumulative GPAs and also look for improved performance through college.

An undergraduate science and math GPA and an overall undergraduate GPA are calculated by the application services. Note that the undergraduate GPAs include all undergraduate level courses ever taken by the applicant, including undergraduate courses taken in high school or after graduation from college. Thus it is possible for applicants to take undergraduate level science courses after graduating from college in order to enhance their cumulative science and math GPAs and overall GPAs.

In 2013 there were more than 49,000 applicants for admission to allopathic medical school for the 20,343 places available for matriculation in the fall of 2014; thus nationally in 2014 41% of the allopathic medical school applicants were accepted.

The national average GPAs for accepted allopathic medical school students in 2014 were 3.63 for the science and math GPA and 3.77 for the overall GPA.  The AAMC has extensive tables of statistics regarding medical school admissions on the FACTS: Applicants, Matriculants, Enrollment, Graduates, M.D.-Ph.D., and Residency Applicants Data section of the AAMC web site.

In 2013 for osteopathic medical schools, there were 17,944 applicants for the 6192 places for available for matriculation in the fall 2014 entering class; thus nationally in 2014, 34% of the osteopathic medical school applicants were accepted.

The national average GPAs for accepted osteopathic medical school applicants for matriculation in 2014 were 3.39 for the science GPA and 3.51 for the overall GPA.
(Source:  2014 Osteopathic Medical College Applicant and Matriculant Profile)

For the period from 2009 - 2014 62% of all Bryn Mawr applicants were accepted to either an allopathic or an osteopathic medcial school.

Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores

The ability to perform well on standardized tests is essential for admission to medical school and for subsequent licensure examinations. Although individual medical schools place different levels of emphasis on the MCAT scores, they are especially important because they are the only common metric among all applicants.

For the 2014 entering medical school class the national averages of accepted allopathic medical school applicants were 10.0 in Verbal Reasoning, 10.6 in Physical Sciences, and 10.9 in Biological Sciences.
Source: FACTS: Applicants, Matriculants, Enrollment, Graduates, M.D.-Ph.D., and Residency Applicants Data  

For applicants accepted for matriculation to osteopathic medical school in the fall of 2014, the national average MCAT scores were 8.90 in Verbal Reasoning, 8.80 in Physical Sciences, and 9.51 in Biological Sciences.
(Source:  2014 Osteopathic Medical College Applicant and Matriculant Profile)

Note that the MCAT is being revised and a new MCAT will be launched in April of 2015.  Students can find more information including about the new MCAT on the AAMC's MCAT2015 for Students web site.  The prehealth advisor will also provide updated information about the new MCAT as it becomes available.

Experiences in health care and knowledge of the field

From the Prehealth Society to focus groups to programs sponsored by the Office of Health Professions Advising, there are many opportunities in the Bryn Mawr community to learn about the medical profession. You should also try to spend some time shadowing a physician to get an up-close view of the practice of medicine.

Although observation of health care delivery is valuable, experiential learning - learning by doing - is one of the best ways for you to gain first-hand exposure to the challenges and rewards of the medical profession. Volunteering or working in a setting that provides patient-interaction experience will help you assess the field while also demonstrating your motivation for serving those in need.

Many medical school applicants present the requisite GPAs and MCAT score necessary for admission. You also need to demonstrate that you have the emotional maturity, compassion, and dedication to service - a passion for medicine - that is necessary to succeed in this demanding career.  The AAMC has a web page with perspectives on finding health care related opportunities and the importance getting medically related experience.

Extracurricular and work accomplishments

Medical schools are looking for well-rounded, interesting individuals who can work as a team or step into a leadership role. Through your employment and involvement in campus and community organizations, you can demonstrate that you are ready to assume the responsibilities of a physician.  In this role you will be working with all segments of the population, so your activities should include working with people from backgrounds different from your own and with people outside of your college-peer group; cultural sensitivity and excellent communication skills are essential.

Medical schools are not looking for a seemingly endless list of extracurricular activities. They are evaluating the length and depth of involvement to your activities as well as how you have been able to grow personally from your experiences. Continuity and commitment should be emphasized over quantity with little personal investment.

Recommendation letters

Recommendations from faculty and other supervisors provide medical schools with additional perspectives on your personal and professional qualities. You should choose recommenders whom you have come to know well and whom you have worked with closely. The premedical committee letter presents an overall synopsis of your undergraduate (and post-college) career and a unifying context to your experiences.

When to submit the medical school applications

It is essential to submit the medical school applications early in the application cycle with the goal of having your application file complete at the medical schools no later than the end of August to early September. The application consists of two parts: a common web-based application (AMCAS for allopathic schools, AACOMAS for osteopathic schools, and TMDSAS for Texas medical schools) and a supplemental application from individual medical schools. The common applications require applicants to enter detailed course information and grades, describe extracurricular, work, and service experiences, and write a one-page personal statement. The school-specific supplemental applications often have additional essays for the applicant to write. Refer to the medical school application timeline for a detailed overview of the application process.

A completed application file means that the medical schools have received your common application, school-specific supplemental application, MCAT scores, and the premedical committee letter/packet of recommendations. Medical schools will not review files and consider applicants for interviews until their files are complete. The admissions committees screen the completed applications and invite a very limited group of qualified applicants for a campus interview.

When to apply to medical school

Approximately 20% of Bryn Mawr's medical school applicants choose to apply to medical school during the summer after their junior year for matriculation in medical school in the late summer following graduation. These students complete the prerequisite courses by the end of their junior year, take the MCAT during the spring or early summer before senior year, and are active in the application process during their senior year. In addition to strong GPAs and MCAT scores, to be competitive applicants these students should have acquired medically-related volunteer or work experience that demonstrates a sincere commitment to and insight into a career in medicine.

Each year the majority of Bryn Mawr's medical school applicants are alumnae who have graduated within the past 1-3 years. In fact, medical schools look favorably on applicants who are more mature and bring some “working world” experience with them when they begin their medical studies. Nationally the average age of the entering medical school student is 24. Interestingly, a recent survey by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports that in 2011 50% of entering medical school students had a "gap period' of at least one year between graduating from undergraduate college and starting medical school. (Source: 2013 Medical School Admissions Requirements Getting Started, published by the Association of American Medical Colleges, page 15)  The Office of Health Professions Advising will provide advising services to all alumnae, regardless of when they graduated.

There are many reasons to consider waiting until after graduation to apply to medical school. Some students choose this path in order to take advantage of the small liberal arts college experience without the stress of the application process whereas others have specific work or service experiences that they would like to pursue before starting medical school.

More importantly for many applicants, applying after graduation enables them to present a complete profile of their undergraduate careers such as receiving graduation honors, honors for thesis work, leadership roles held as a senior, and recommendation letters from their senior year work. If a student does not have a competitive GPA at the end of junior year, taking additional science courses senior year, or after graduation if necessary, can help the student enhance her cumulative science GPA before applying to medical school.

For seniors who apply to medical school for matriculation in the August following graduation, the medical schools will only be reviewing work and accomplishments attained by the summer following junior year. An application submitted following graduation will present a more comprehensive depiction of the applicant's academic achievements and extracurricular accomplishments.

In 2009 the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin presented a feature article entitled Finding Directions to Health Care Work about young undergraduate alumnae in medicine and their diverse and inspiring glide year experiences. You can read this article to learn how some former Bryn Mawr students approached their undergraduate years and post-college experiences before matriculating in medical school.

Interviews and Decisions

Medical school admissions committees start reviewing applications in mid-summer to select applicants for interviews. The interview is a key part of the admissions process in which medical schools want to get to know you better and to learn in more depth about your experiences. The interview season generally lasts from September to March.

Most medical schools make admissions decisions on a rolling basis throughout the interview season whereas others do not make decisions until after all selected applicants have been interviewed.