As a medical school admissions consultant and as the former director of both the Johns Hopkins and Goucher Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Programs, I have extensive experience guiding medical school applicants. I am fortunate that many of my former advisees have been admitted to top-ranked schools. Recently, Harvard medical students weighed in regarding what it takes to get into Harvard medical school.
What qualities and experiences did they have that allowed them to stand out in the application process amidst thousands of other applicants? How did they get into schools like Harvard, Stanford, UCSF, Penn, Yale, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins? In an effort to provide information to prospective medical school applicants, I list below the distinguishing traits of those who were admitted to the top schools. Here’s a list that captures the essential qualities of these applicants:
1. Academic excellence + honors/awards: Without exception, all of the applicants who were admitted to the top-ranked schools had the academic goods. This translates into a solid MCAT score (usually above the 90th percentile) and good grades (3.7+ on average). These numbers prove that these applicants are likely to succeed in medical school. Moreover, their grades were consistently excellent (good grades in both the humanities and science, without significant dips in performance at any stage). Past academic success usually predicts future academic success; applicants with outstanding academic credentials pose little risk to medical schools in terms of academic success. These schools also favor applicants who have won national awards/honors, such as Phi Beta Kappa, Truman/Goldwater/Rhodes Scholarships, etc.
2. Leadership skills: Applicants who are admitted to the top schools usually have some proven leadership ability, whether it be holding an office for a student group in college or establishing a new organization either as an undergraduate or following graduation. Successful applicants at the top schools had bold ideas, followed them through to completion, and ensured that the organizations they ran were in good health when they left, thereby continuing their legacy. The top-ranked schools want future leaders in medicine; they are grooming the next generation of leaders in the profession, thus they are interested in students’ leadership potential.
3. Making a difference: Have you gone outside your comfort zone to make a difference for someone else? This might entail working for the Peace Corps or Teach for America, or volunteering for a community service organization (or starting an organization yourself–see above, under leadership) for enough time to make a difference, usually at least a year. The successful applicant’s true commitment to others–and their altruism–is readily evident in their medical school application. The top medical schools want individuals who are passionately dedicated to a worthwhile cause that benefits others. The medical schools believe that such passion will translate into making a difference in the future, for patients.
4. Collegiality + Professionalism: Applicants admitted to the top schools (or any school) exhibit maturity and professionalism, and have a track record of doing so. This information is usually gleaned from the letters sent to the medical schools on an applicant’s behalf; what others say about you backs up (or not) what you present about yourself. Remember that you are about to enter a profession, with a code of conduct and an expectation for professional behavior. The way you’ve conducted yourself in the past and through the application process will be noted by the school. Medical schools also seek applicants who will add value to the incoming class by virtue of their collegiality and willingness to be a good “team player” with other students. Ask yourself how you’ll add value to a medical school class: what will you contribute and how supportive will you be of your fellow classmates? The medical schools will ask the same question when they weigh your application.
5: Positive Character Traits: Medical school applicants admitted to the top schools possessed outstanding character traits, not all uniform in nature. The applicants had different distinguishing character elements but all of these traits would add something to a medical school class. One applicant, for example, was an inspiring and outgoing leader (with a track record of leadership) while another was a more quiet, behind-the-scenes creative type who brilliantly came up with solutions to intractable problems (shown through past experience in research). Distinguishing character traits are usually shown by applicants’ choices of experiences (what was important for them to get involved in, and why?) and are attested to in the letters written on an applicant’s behalf. Think about your character traits: what are they and why might they add value to the medical profession? You should know this to put forth the best application possible.
6. Research Experience: While research is not required it can be beneficial to have for a variety of reasons. Those who have engaged in research, whether in the sciences or the humanities, have learned how to pose research questions and see a hypothesis through to completion (or assisted in doing so). Applicants who have gained experience in research have also learned to understand and question scientific papers they may read in the future. The “top” medical schools are interested in pushing the medical profession forward and advancing scientific knowledge. Many of the highly-ranked medical schools are research-focused and appreciate it if applicants have engaged in research.
The above list provides some important things to think about as you begin to craft your application and put your best foot forward. If you have any questions about your application feel free to email me at email@example.com.
–Liza Thompson, Expert Medical School Admissions Consulting
Posted in 2014 and updated in 2020