Understand the Factors Behind Medical School Admissions

Integrity and diversity can be as important as GPA and MCAT scores in medical school applications.

By + More
Medical school applicants should ensure that admissions committees understand how their interests fit the institution’s academic goals.
Medical school applicants should ensure that admissions committees understand how their interests fit the institution’s academic goals.

While GPA and MCAT scores are still very important to medical school admissions directors, there are other factors that influence the admissions decision. Most admissions committees now take a holistic approach to selection and build a cohort where students will benefit and learn from each other.

A diverse class can increase student understanding of and compassion for a wide variety of individuals. This includes diverse ethnicities, life experiences, educational and geographic backgrounds, gender orientation and approaches to problem-solving.

[Consider the pros and cons of attending a new medical school.]

With medical schools trending toward filling classes with diverse students who can learn from one another, prospective applicants will gain an edge if they show admissions committees how their unique perspectives will benefit a class. There are several guidelines students should follow to achieve this goal.

First, be a thoughtful applicant. Remember that each school selects students who fit its mission. Prepare by reading the school's mission statement and other related information online.

There are similarities and differences between each school. Some medical schools emphasize increasing the number of primary care physicians. Others are known for producing academic physicians who are interested in medical practice and research.

Whatever outcome a school aims for, applicants need to ensure that application screeners or interviewers understand why a student believes he or she is a good fit for that institution.

One applicant, a biomedical engineering student from a small university, loved research and teamwork. She readily accepted coaching to improve her performance and saw parallels between her undergraduate education and the Cleveland Clinic, including small group learning, expectations that came from feedback to the individual student and student acceptance of faculty feedback.

In an interview with the Cleveland Clinic, she described the school saying, "This is the Montessori of medical schools. I don't think there is another place that could beat this for my learning style."

Students must also understand "the sacrifice factor" in applying to medical school. Our own committee describes this as the need for medical students to volunteer in notable ways.

[See this list of the 10 most selective medical schools.]

Physicians might not want to give up free time to be on call, but that is the life they chose. Admissions committee members want to see that students already recognize that they get great satisfaction from serving others and do so willingly.

One-day events that require little free time from the student are unlikely to impress. The motto at our institution is "patients first." That means that, even when it's inconvenient, the expectation is that the physician and medical student will put the patient ahead of their own wishes.

If a colleague needs your help in caring for their patient, you do whatever necessary to bring about the best outcome for the patient, and we expect students to mirror that attitude. Shadowing physicians at work and observing the perseverance and hours required helps applicants know if they will really enjoy the lifestyle.

Finally, demonstrate integrity in your medical school application. Group and team activities are important in showing the applicant can both follow and lead. A doctor must be able to do both.

[Find out how to combat growing medical residency competition.]

Servant leadership is absolutely critical in today's health care system. Operating room procedure mandates that every team member participate and, regardless of position, be able to halt the procedure to avoid a mistake.

Respect for what every employee brings to the enterprise is a must. An applicant can appear arrogant if he or she doesn't give credit to others who have helped along the way, or fails to show respect for people with less education or resources.

Integrity is critical to gaining the trust of patients and physician colleagues. Humility and honesty are treasured in every institution where I have worked. Distorting the truth on an application or during an interview can lead faculty to imagine that the student might do that with a patient or on a medical record.

Our admissions committee will always look at grades and test scores. But you can become a much stronger applicant by demonstrating your passion for medicine, highlighting how your goals align with the school's mission and showing your integrity and humility.

Kathleen Franco, M.D., is associate dean of admissions and student affairs at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. She previously served both as director of residency training and director of medical student training in psychiatry at Cleveland Clinic. She is board-certified in psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine and attended Medical College of Ohio – Toledo.