3 Tips for International Students Applying to U.S. Medical Schools

Learn the best strategy to gain acceptance to American M.D. programs.

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Some universities warn international students that it’s very difficult for them to gain admission to a U.S. medical school
Some universities warn international students that it’s very difficult for them to gain admission to a U.S. medical school.

If you're an aspiring medical student hoping to attend a U.S. medical school and you are not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, you have probably heard that it's extremely difficult for international students to be admitted to or pay for a U.S. medical school.

Premedical advisory websites from undergraduate institutions around the country advise their students that it is very unlikely that international students can attend, or find the financial resources to attend, an American medical school. Yale University even goes one step further, advising prospective undergraduate students to think carefully about applying with the intention of eventually attending a U.S. medical institution.

[Learn how to transfer from foreign medical schools.]

The biggest difficulty students from overseas, or those without certain legal residency statuses, face is the inability to access federal student loan funding. The Yale website also notes that scholarships to attend medical school are rare for even U.S. applicants, let alone those from abroad.

Association of American Medical Colleges admissions statistics from 2011 note that 88.4 percent of foreign applicants didn't matriculate to a U.S. institution, versus a range of approximately 40 percent to 60 percent of applicants from each U.S. state. Public institutions, it also emphasized, rarely admit out-of-state U.S. applicants, and virtually no international ones, due to funding constraints.

If you want to attend an American medical school, what is the best strategy?

1. Research early: This may sound obvious, but depending on your stage in the medical school search process, thorough research can be very important to avoid potential disappointment or missed opportunities.

It is important to decide, for example, where you want to complete your undergraduate work. Determining the financial aid policies for international students at your schools of choice is even more important, as some schools require four years of tuition deposited up front into an escrow (or third party) account, or proof of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of assets.

If schools do not specifically require financial information, it may be needed anyway to apply for a F-1 student visa.

A good place to start is the website of the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions, which provides a comprehensive list of school-specific policies regarding how they define "international students" and what opportunities may be available to those students.

[See what you should know before applying to U.S. colleges.]

2. Consider completing some coursework in the U.S.: The schools that do admit international applicants typically require a bachelor's degree issued by a U.S. institution, or at least one year of U.S.-based coursework. The schools prefer that the coursework at a U.S. school be in the sciences.

If you are already finishing, or have finished, your undergraduate degree outside the United States—or Canada for some schools—it may be worth your while to plan a year of coursework at an American institution. That will help you not only meet requirements and open doors to applying to more schools, but it will also help you determine whether studying in the United States is ultimately right for you.

3. Consider M.D./Ph.D. programs: Because slots for these positions are usually fully funded, due to the Ph.D. component, international students are generally thought to fare slightly better in gaining admission and funding for pursuing a medical education through this route in the United States.

However, international students are subject to the same requirements, must have a solid research track record, and should be committed to a career as a physician-scientist. Schools value applicants' career ambitions heavily, as it can cost more than $350,000 to train students in these programs. A list of institutions offering positions via the Medical Scientist Training Program is available through the National Institutes of Health.

Don't be discouraged if you are determined to attend a medical school in the United States. In 2011, 174 non-U.S. applicants matriculated at a U.S. medical school, according to the AAMC.

Many schools have the same admissions standards for domestic and foreign applicants and would offer admission in the same manner, although for foreign admits, they are contingent on financing. There are also school-specific loan programs, such as at Yale, in addition to programs offered by major banks, some of which require American cosigners. 

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.