After Abraham Flexner reviewed the quality of medical schools in the early 1900s, many changes were initiated to improve them. One of his suggestions that is still appreciated today was the idea that students participate in scientific research. A medical school applicant who has carried out research is a step ahead.
From the point of view of an admissions committee, an applicant's interest in research indicates valuable qualities – even those at schools that don’t think of themselves as research schools. Curiosity and the ability to inquire are what keep medicine and medical practitioners from stagnating.
A student who is both curious and hardworking is more attractive as a candidate. This student is likely to go the extra mile in many endeavors.
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Research is highly valued at top-tier schools. Without a research background, some applicants will be screened out of interviews, even though they have good grades and a solid MCAT score. However, a student with a research background will likely be perceived by admissions committee members as inquisitive and willing to think creatively.
A former undergraduate I mentored had decent grades when she graduated, but had not done well on the MCAT. She spent the next two years doing research with a team of scientists and clinicians, chosen because they had a reputation for mentoring.
Research was a priority for her and she took ownership of any assignment she was given. She worked as long and as hard as any postdoctoral or medical student in the group and proved her value to the team.
She co-authored multiple papers and posters. Because of her efforts, the primary investigator arranged to pay for her to attend a large symposium in Switzerland. To the best of my knowledge, she was the only presenter at the meeting who had only a bachelor's degree.
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When she applied to medical school that summer, she had fabulous recommendation letters as well as faculty willing to call interviewers on her behalf. Medical schools that accepted her could tell that she had maturity and a work ethic that would bring her to the top of the class.
That was the case, and when she applied for residency, she won interviews to the top programs in her specialty. I felt so proud when she contacted me to discuss how she wanted to rank the programs. She received her first choice and I am sure she will be a star.
Medical school applicants in today's market should reach out to medical centers that offer a variety of programs. For example, Cleveland Clinic offers a summer program for high school juniors and seniors and another for undergraduates. Many other medical centers offer similar opportunities.
Once you get a foot in the door, ask people to identify the best mentors and then try to meet them. Check papers and abstracts for clues as to who is more inclusive of trainees. Let these people know you would love to work with them, even if there is no salary available.
Another option is to find out if a professor in your undergraduate school has any research projects you can work on. If not, the professor may be able to link you to a colleague there or at another facility. Even if posters and papers are not part of the bargain, you will still have a worthy activity to add to your medical school application.
At my school, we accept any kind of hypothesis-driven research. Basic science, clinical research, humanities research and other kinds are acceptable to our admissions committee. Medical schools will be interested in your thoughtful descriptions of your research and enthusiasm for your research team and project. If you are lucky enough to be on a paper or poster, that is another feather in your cap.
If you are looking for a way to stand out from other medical school applicants, you should strongly consider research. If you can start early, do it. If you can continue with a good team over a period of years, you have a significant advantage.
I have seen some terrific projects come from students who worked with a professor a couple of hours every week for two or three years, and other students who remained with a research team for multiple summers. There is no one path, only a world full of opportunities.