Tips for Medical School Applicants With Criminal Records

A criminal record doesn’t have to hold you back as an M.D. applicant.

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It's anyone's worst nightmare—getting caught up in the legal system. Whether it's a result of a night of indiscretion or something more serious, a criminal charge or conviction could be one of the factors medical school admissions committees use when making decisions.

What should you do if you have a criminal record?

Medical schools in the United States and overseas have struggled with the question of how to handle criminal records in admissions. Even medical schools sometimes don't get it right. In 2007, the prestigious Karolinska Institutet in Sweden matriculated an applicant convicted of murder, which raised tough ethical issues. Though the vast majority of applicants need not worry about such serious crimes, it's important to address any criminal record in the admissions process.

[See three reasons to include an M.D. application addendum.]

Most medical schools ask applicants to disclose prior convictions. Some schools only ask about felonies, while others want to know about anything other than a minor traffic violation (such as a speeding ticket). The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has a national background check service that reviews databases for a list of participating schools, which are listed on the website. Some medical schools in certain states, such as Illinois, perform additional checks.

Having a criminal record affects an applicant's review in the admissions process in the following two ways.

• Convictions: This is one of a variety of factors that are checked. A charge that was dismissed is very different from a conviction or no contest plea. Note that once a charge is filed by the relevant city or district attorney's office, it may still appear in a background check even if it was later dropped. If you were arrested, you were likely fingerprinted, and many schools fingerprint incoming students and run the prints through a national databank.

• Nature of crime: Committees are reluctant to admit students who may not be able to get eventual credentials or state licenses. They will be looking at whether any convictions involved crimes that raise doubts about a student's fitness to eventually practice medicine.

[Learn why medical schools value applicants' personal qualities.]

Types of crimes that usually concern admissions committees are those that involve dishonesty (such as cheating or fraud) or possible risks to patients (such as drug offenses or sexual and violent crimes). They also keep in mind how the public may view the offense and whether it could be a predictor of future destructive behaviors or crimes.

Also keep in mind that crimes that may not seem related to medicine at first glance (such as a DUI) may be problematic, depending on the circumstances.

If you have a criminal record, there are two important things to remember in order to best position yourself in the admissions process.

• Disclosure: Withholding all or part of a criminal record could lead to a rescinding of an acceptance, or if discovered later on, even dismissal from medical school. Schools consider withholding this information to be a form of dishonesty.

If in doubt, obtain your police records on your own to see where you stand, especially as questions now include military discharge history and misdemeanors.

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Mitigating factors: Committees typically view the context of the circumstances leading to the conviction and any steps taken toward rehabilitation favorably. They like applicants to have reflected on the incident and to attempt to show mitigating circumstances and steps taken to address problems.

Including any extenuating circumstances at the time (such as a recent family death) and whether it was an isolated event is important. Good ways to address rehabilitation are documenting treatment at a drug rehab facility or engaging in volunteer work in the community.

Applying to medical school seems hard enough; with a criminal record it can be doubly so. The best way to deal with this issue is by explaining what happened and why, lessons you learned, and steps you've taken to ensure it will not be repeated. 

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How to Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.