How Medical School Admissions Work

Medical school students
Why are these two students smiling? They were among the select few to be chosen for admission to medical school.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), medical schools admitted about 46 percent of applicants between 2005 and 2007. This means fewer than half of those applying for a medical school were accepted. With statistics like that, you have to make your application stand out in the crowd.

Your preparation for the medical school admissions process begins with your college undergraduate work. You'll need an academic record that gives you a competitive edge, especially in the courses required for medical school. Pre-med programs in colleges can help you focus on that goal, even if you're not majoring in biological sciences.


When the admissions process begins, it might be as much as a year from the time you select the schools to the receipt of your acceptance letters. You'll start by selecting and applying to several schools, meeting all the requirements of each initial application. For schools where you make the first cut, you'll complete and submit secondary applications, and for schools where you make the second cut, you'll go in for interviews.

This article describes this process, including what courses you need to take as a college undergraduate, what you'll need for your applications, how application services can help and what to expect for secondary applications and interviews.


What Courses to Take Before Medical School

Stack of books
If you want to be chosen to get into medical school, you'll have quite a stack of work to get done.

Medical schools are less concerned about what you've majored in and more concerned with the overall body of your coursework. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports that most schools require completing a certain number of credit hours in the following areas:

  • Physics
  • Inorganic/General Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Biology
  • English

Each specific school you're applying to may have its own additional requirements. For example, some may require a certain amount of biochemistry, zoology, or behavioral sciences such as psychology and anthropology.


You should also be wary of how Advanced Placement (AP) and College Level Examination Placement (CLEP) credits are counted in these requirements. For example, some medical schools may not accept AP Biology credit as a replacement for taking one or more undergraduate biology courses. Before applying, check with each medical school to determine whether you'll need to take a certain course that you have AP or CLEP credit for.

Even though your major doesn't matter, your courses, club memberships, employment and volunteer activities can make you more competitive in medical school admissions. Medical schools encourage you to take advanced/honors courses, independent study and complete research work while you're a college undergrad. Also, consider joining a club or academic fraternity for prospective health professionals at your college.

No matter what your major, a pre-med program can help. If your college has a pre-med program, it probably has advisors to answer questions and to offer advice and services that prepare you for medical school and a medical career. The pre-med program might also have selected coursework for those going to medical school, designed to get you started on that path even before you're admitted.

Use your undergraduate activities to build relationships with professors and medical professionals. These contacts could lead to the good letters of recommendation you'll need for your medical school applications.


Know Your Medical School Application Requirements

Most medical school application deadlines are in the fall months. To give yourself time to complete and submit all your applications, you'll want to start the process the summer before your last year of undergraduate studies. Be sure your test scores, required courses and initial application forms are finished in time for submission.

If you haven't selected the schools to which you want to apply, start with some research. First, you might decide if you're interested in either research or primary care, and then select schools focused on your choice. If you know what area of medicine you want to focus on, you might select schools well known for their work in that area. Location and cost may also be factors in your decision. Research each school's Web site, read medical journal articles about the work at each school, and look at neutral resources that evaluate schools according to academic and other criteria. The better you feel about your choice, the more you'll be able to show that in your applications and interviews.


After you have your list, usually 10-12 medical schools, find out the admission requirements for each school. Each year, the AAMC publishes the "Medical School Admission Requirements" (MSAR), a comprehensive admissions guide for medical schools in the United States and Canada. Purchase a copy for yourself or access the copy in your college's reference section. Use the MSAR alongside each medical school's Web site to determine all the school's requirements. Some of the things you'll need to know are:

  • What's the application deadline?
  • What's the application fee?
  • What tests are required, and how soon before or after the deadline will I need to take the tests?
  • Do I need to submit my college transcript and/or test scores with the application?
  • What kind of recommendation letters do I need?
  • Is the medical school participating in a special program to make the application process easier?

If the answer to the last question is "yes," this could save you a lot of time and money. Go on to the next page to find out more about these services.


Medical School Application Services

When you're applying to medical schools, using application services can help you make the most of your time and money. Each program covers a group of participating institutions, giving you one place to send your test scores and college transcripts for those schools. Plus, they can significantly trim your application costs when you're applying to several schools under the same service. Use the MSAR or a medical school's Web site to see in which application service a school is participating.

One of the largest of these services is the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). This service is part of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the same group that publishes the MSAR. AMCAS has an application fee of $160 to your first designated school, plus $31 for each additional school.


Other application services offer further discounts based on where you're from. The Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS) has an application fee of only $75 to the first school if you're a Texas resident, and $120 for non-residents. Canadian residents can apply to up to three schools using the Ontario Medical School Application Service (OMSAS) for $115 Canadian (about $111 in the United States). As in AMCAS, these services let you apply to each additional school in the service at a deeply discounted rate ($10 each for TMDSAS and $38 Canadian each for OMSAS).

For each application service, you'll also need to submit your college transcripts and test scores. If you're taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), given by the AAMC, any school participating in AMCAS will be able to access your score without any action on your part. Check the MCAT Web site for information on how to release your scores to a different application service, or how to send your scores to a school that does not use an application service.

Even if a school is using an application service, it still sets its own deadlines and requirements. Be sure to know everything you'll need to have submitted to each school by its application deadline.


Submitting the First Application

When you've determined the requirements for each medical school to which you're applying, you're ready to complete and submit your first round of applications. Most applications require test scores, letters of recommendation and a personal statement along with the application form.

Your official college transcripts are usually required at the same time or soon after your application forms. An "official" transcript is printed and stamped with the college's official seal and it's mailed directly from the college registrar. Many schools will charge a fee for each official transcript, and you'll need to send one to each medical school or application service. If you've done your required coursework at more than one college, you'll need official transcripts sent from each college.


Your test scores are also required on or soon after the application due date. Check a test's Web site to find out how to send a score report to each medical school. If you're taking the MCAT, any school participating in AMCAS can access your score automatically. Non-AMCAS schools, though, require you to authorize AMCAS to send your scores to a different application service, or require you to print and submit your score report.

Use your academic and professional relationships as a source for your letters of recommendation. Traditionally, letter writers send their recommendations directly to each school. Some schools participating in an application service might also accept letters submitted to that service. For example, for 2010, all but 14 of the AMCAS schools accepted letters sent to AMCAS [source: AMCAS]. Be sure to follow each school's requirements for how to send in letters of recommendation.

Another common requirement for first applications is a personal statement. There are books, workshops and online services just for teaching you how to write a good personal statement and other essays on your medical applications. Ultimately, it's up to you to write a compelling story about who you are and what's driving you to be a health professional. Get feedback to help during your writing process and review the statement several times before submitting it.


Secondary Applications and Interviews

Many medical schools start processing applications by screening candidates. Some of the things schools will look for in the first pass are whether you've met the minimum requirements for the school and whether you have a strong GPA and MCAT scores.

Even after considering the numbers, the school's admissions staff still may need to cut the number of applicants who move on to the next step. The admissions staff evaluates your personal statement and letters of recommendation, comparing your responses to other candidates. They may also consider non-academic parts of your application, such as your extracurricular activities.


If you make it through this preliminary consideration, you may be asked to complete a secondary application. Such applications are usually more personal and require you to write short essay responses to questions. Give yourself time to complete a secondary application and submit it, along with any additional application fee, before the school's deadline.

If you make it through the screening of applications, you'll be invited to interview at the medical school. This might be a series of one-on-one interviews or a question-and-answer session with a committee. Prepare for interviews by learning more about the school's mission and accomplishments, and use this knowledge to shape how you interact with the professors and administrators you're interviewing with. For each interview, dress professionally, be on time and be polite and honest in your responses. Also, be ready to answer personal, ethical and political questions related to being a physician.

Don't have a lot of experience with essay questions or interviews? Look to your undergraduate college for help. If the college has a pre-med program, it probably has books, advisors and special services to help you. You might have professors or medical school graduates read and critique your essay responses and offer suggestions. Also, you might schedule mock interviews with your advisor or mentors to practice for the big event.

So your applications are in, and your interviews are finished. What next? Look forward to the arrival of the acceptance letter! When you're accepted to enroll in a medical school, you can start enrolling in classes and applying for financial aid. If you're accepted to multiple schools, be sure to send a letter thanking each school you're not attending and politely declining their offer for enrollment.

Check the vitals on the next page for more medical school admissions resources.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • "Medical School Admissions." (Jan. 17, 2010)
  • Association of Amercian Medical Colleges. "Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR), 2007-2008, United States and Canada." 2007.
  • Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). "2010 MCAT Essentials." (Jan. 6, 2010)
  • Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). "About the AAMC." (Jan. 6, 2010)
  • Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). "About the MCAT Exam." (Jan. 6, 2010)
  • Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Data Warehouse. "Applicant Matriculant File, Table 24: MCAT and GPA Grid for Applicants and Acceptees to U.S. Medical Schools, 2005-2007 (aggregated)." Feb. 22, 2008. (Jan. 12, 2010)
  • Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). "Releasing Scores." (Jan. 12, 2010)
  • American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). "AMCAS Letters." (Jan. 17, 2010)
  • CALS Health Professions Advising Center. "FAQs: Application Process - How, When, Where, How many…" North Carolina State University. (Jan. 13, 2010)
  • CALS Health Professions Advising Center. "FAQs: Letters of Recommendation." North Carolina State University. (Jan. 13, 2010)
  • Goldstein, Mark A., M.D. and Goldstein, Myrna Chandler. "The Definitive Guide to Medical School Admission." Font & Center Press. 1996.
  • Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. "Application Information." Texas A&M University. Aug. 4, 2009. (Jan. 12, 2010)
  • Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Service. "Medical Application: TMDSAS Application Instructions." 2009. (Jan. 12, 2010)