Pre-med students know they need to work hard, but what makes the path to medical school challenging? Mainly, it’s because students must pass prerequisite medical school courses and do extracurricular activities, including shadowing, community service, and volunteering. On top of that, they must face the notoriously tricky MCAT exam, which requires careful planning and massive preparation.
Amidst all these things, pre-med students need to have good relationships with their mentors and professors if they want positive recommendation letters. They also need to take care of application deadlines, application essays, and, later on, interview preparation.
The list of things to take care of doesn’t even end here. As you can imagine, balancing all these tasks can be very overwhelming. However, the key to staying in control is to stay informed. This post will provide the basic information you need to handle medical school requirements.
All medical schools in the United States require applicants to have successfully completed a four-year degree at an approved institution or university. It makes no difference if you have a BA or BS; both are acceptable.
“Four-year” doesn’t necessarily imply that you must attend school for four years. For instance, by enrolling in additional classes each term, you can finish your degree in three or three and a half years instead of four. A BS/MD program can also be used to fulfill the degree requirement.
Some candidates elect to pursue postgraduate degrees prior to enrolling in medical schools, but it is not compulsory. Additionally, your degree does not matter; it can be anything from public policy to biology. What does matter is that you complete the required courses you need for matriculation.
The most confusing thing about medical school is that the requirements vary so much from school to school. A student may meet the course prerequisites for Harvard Medical School but not for another program.
The following general courses are listed on the AAMC website as prerequisites for medical schools:
- Biology: One year with lab, be careful as AP Biology credit is not widely accepted
- English: One year
- Chemistry (organic chemistry): Two years with labs, AP Chemistry credit is more acceptable
The list above shows the minimum requirements; however, it might still be vague since many schools require more specific courses.
You should strive for even more than the suggested minimums given the competitive nature of medical school admissions. In fact, we advise you to take courses that satisfy the prerequisites of all medical schools so that you can apply anywhere. The list below shows which courses you should take:
- Biology: Two semesters or three-quarters of lecture + two semesters of laboratory
- General chemistry: Two semesters or two-quarters of lecture + two semesters of laboratory
- Organic chemistry: Two semesters or two-quarters of lecture + one semester of laboratory (typically called synthesis lab)
- Biochemistry: One semester of lecture + no laboratory required.
- Physics: Two semesters or three-quarters of lecture + two semesters of laboratory
- Math: Two semesters (must include statistics and calculus)
- English: Two semesters or three-quarters of lecture (writing must be part of the course)
You will be able to apply to any medical school if you finish the courses mentioned above.
We have another recommendation: enroll in courses in the humanities, including the arts, languages, literature, and social sciences. You don’t have to take classes in all of these areas, but you should try to take classes in at least some of them. Enrolling in different classes will add diversity to your resume, something that medical schools will definitely take into consideration.
Like with your degree, you must finish your pre-med requirements before starting medical school. Therefore, you can apply to medical school with unfinished prerequisite coursework. You’ll be fine as long as you finish them before starting medical school.
Additionally, some medical schools may not accept AP credits to fulfill their criteria, even if your undergraduate college recognizes them. To be safe, you should look at the websites of the schools you’re most interested in to make sure you don’t miss any coursework during the application process.
Does Your Pre-med Major Matter?
You should know that your pre-med major doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether you choose anthropology, biology, chemistry, English, history, or physics as long as you take the required courses for medical school.
Furthermore, there is no best pre-med major. Assuming all other factors are similar, an applicant with a science GPA of 3.7 and a 3.8 overall GPA in English will be just as competitive as one in biochemistry.
You should therefore give priority to focusing on a subject that interests you and in which you believe you can excel. Your GPA may be higher if you pick a less difficult major. (Some students also complain about having a slightly lower GPA because they attend an academically rigorous school.)
Students usually ask if having a minor or double major can increase their chances of getting into medical school. While certain admissions committee members may be impressed by your variety of interests and activities, we have not seen a double major or a minor as a key criterion for admission to medical school. Therefore, if you like, you can pursue a second major or minor, but it probably won’t significantly impact your application.
The majority of medical schools don’t publish minimum GPA requirements.
Furthermore, regardless of your GPA and MCAT score, the majority of medical schools will immediately send you their secondary application after your original application has been approved.
Although “holistic admissions” is frequently mentioned, and there are no minimum GPA requirements, medical schools have high yet fluctuating grade standards. Recently, successful applicants had an average GPA of 3.74 across all MD programs.
If you have a poor GPA, it will be significantly more difficult for you to get into medical school. Some students start their undergraduate careers by enrolling in too many classes or extracurricular activities which negatively affects their grades. Having a few lower-grade terms early on will make the remainder of college more of a challenge.
Students often ask if their GPA is good enough to get into medical school and if there is a cutoff point that medical schools use when looking at applications. Some do, and some don’t, but the most important thing is that you do is apply to a balanced list of schools based on your stats.
Make sure your GPA is above the school’s 10th percentile before purchasing Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR). Below that, admission to that institution will be exceedingly unlikely. Overall, earning higher grades will give you a more competitive application.
If you want to attend medical school, you’ll need to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) unless you’re already enrolled in a specific BS/MD program or another early assurance program. Unfortunately, some BS/MD and early assurance programs also require you to get a certain minimum MCAT score to remain eligible.
To get accepted at a medical school, you need to have taken the MCAT within the last three years. If it has been more than three years since your last MCAT, you will probably need to take it again.
The summer following the sophomore year is often when students take the MCAT for the first time. Students who want to apply to medical school straight away should do so in January of their junior year. However, in order to maximize your score on the MCAT, you typically need to give yourself three to four months to prepare. Cram studying for one to two months is more likely to lead to burnout.
You should strive to score as high as possible on the MCAT. Your minimum target score should be 508 if you want to enroll in an MD program. This is a very conservative goal considering that many medical schools report matriculants with higher average MCAT scores. Additionally, students who started medical school in the fall of 2021 had an average MCAT score of 511.9.
Extracurricular Activity Requirements
Pre-med students who take their studies and extracurricular commitments seriously tend to have full schedules.
Because all competitive medical school applicants have good-to-excellent grades and MCAT scores, statistics aren’t a useful differentiator; they just tell admissions committees whether an applicant is academically prepared. As a result, the members of the medical school admissions committee (adcoms) consider how you have spent your free time when they review your application.
Typically, medical schools require the following from applicants:
- Shadowing experience: Shadowing is the practice of observing medical professionals in any type of healthcare facility, including an operation room, outpatient clinic, community clinic, etc. Ideally, you should see doctors from two or three different specialties in a variety of contexts.
- Clinical experience: This category is also known as patient exposure or clinical volunteering. It differs from shadowing in that you will provide care to a single patient in a 1:1 setting. A common clinical experience is working as a medical assistant (MA) or emergency medical technician (EMT).
- Community service: This can also be called non-clinical volunteering. Depending on your interests, you might tutor children from underprivileged backgrounds, contribute through a nonprofit, etc.
- Research experience: You can acquire research in “dry lab” (typically clinical) or “wet lab” environments (aka experimental lab, where you handle various chemicals). The objective is to show that you have an interest in academic medicine, particularly if you want to enroll in MD programs. There is no explicit mention of the need for research experience on many medical school web pages. However, the majority of top-ranked medical school candidates have at least one year of research experience, ideally in the same lab. Though they are not essential, publications enhance your research experiences in the eyes of adcoms. However, many successful applicants do not have publications. Additionally, research does not have to be strictly medically based; explore whatever you are passionate about.
Medical school letter of recommendation standards can be complicated because they vary from school to school. However, here are some basics that you shouldn’t overlook:
- Two letters from a science professor
- One letter from a professor in another field
- Two to three letters from someone who has mentored you outside of the classroom, such as your research lab’s principal investigator (PI).
You might receive a committee letter from your school along with your other letters of reference, depending on the college you attend. However, many schools do not give committee letters; therefore, you don’t need to worry if you don’t have one.
Certain professors or other letter writers might also ask you to create your own letter, which they will then edit, approve, and submit on your behalf.
It cannot be stressed enough that your letters’ quality, not quantity, matters most. Just because a school says they’ll accept up to six letters doesn’t imply you should send in six. To increase your chances, you should put emphasis on submitting excellent letters.
The primary applications—AMCAS, AACOMAS, and TMDSAS—are centralized application systems that gather your demographic data, academic background, and recommendation letters in addition to your personal statement and Work and Activities section (basically an extended CV).
Primary applications usually become available in May of each year, but as medical schools admit students on a rolling basis, it’s preferable to start early. To put it another way, the earlier you submit, the better. Your primary application will be forwarded to each of the medical schools on your list shortly after you submit it.
After submitting your primary application, you will receive secondary applications that are specific to each medical school. To be competitive, aim to submit your secondary essays within two weeks after receiving the prompts.
During the application process, you may be busiest when you are writing secondary essays. Use prompts from past years to pre-write your essays, as you will probably need to generate more written work than at any other stage in your academic career. If you receive a large number of applications at once, you may become overwhelmed.
While waiting for interviews, take advantage of sending update letters if applicable, but make sure the school accepts them first! In general, your chances of being accepted into medical school are better the earlier you receive interview invites. Interviews roll from October to March, so the process can seem very slow.
Typically, there are three types of medical school interviews: traditional, MMI (multiple mini-interview), or a combination of the two.
In addition to practicing for the different types of interviews, you should also consider the questions you might be asked at each institution as part of your preparation. On our blog, you can learn more about various interview formats.
What to do After the Interview
The most difficult part is waiting for interviews or admissions decisions. You could send medical schools update letters at this time, such as letters of interest or letters of intent, to let them know what you’ve been up to during the application round and to express your continued interest in their program.
Although the number of requirements for medical school can seem overwhelming, we hope that this guide will be helpful as you balance your different academic, extracurricular, and application requirements. You can get in touch with the Jack Westin team for more personalized advice about how to get into your ideal medical school here.