Getting into medical school: Q&A with an admissions officer


Whether you’re hoping to become the first doctor in your family or you hail from a long line of physicians, navigating the path to medical school can be a daunting experience that takes years of preparation. Providing a peek inside the mind of an admissions officer, associate dean of admissions, Karen M. Murray, MD from New York Medical College answers questions about what the best applicants all have in common and how to avoid the most common medical school application mistakes.

I’ve decided to pursue a career in medicine. How should I prepare to apply to medical school?

Preparing yourself to be a candidate for medical school begins long before the application process, often starting years before you submit your first application.

In those years leading up to medical school, you will need to have taken the necessary pre-requisite classes and become well prepared to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). You should also have pursued endeavors that demonstrate your ability in the sciences and activities that have exposed you to areas that relate to medicine, including a wide range of possibilities —  from working in the arena of scientific research to roles in which you are interacting with patients to the vast array of community service work.

What do the most impressive applicants have in common?

In addition to academic rigor and clear demonstration of an increasing responsibility in activities that show their commitment to a career in medicine — applicants that stand out demonstrate maturity, humility, an affinity toward service and professionalism. At the end of the day, the field of medicine is a service field. Going to medical school means you are committed to providing a service to society.

Are there any common pitfalls to avoid?

Pitfall: Believing countless hours of shadowing is enough to show your interest in medicine

Often students believe that if they’ve done a lot of shadowing, this sufficiently demonstrates their interest in medicine, but shadowing for countless house doesn’t really show us much. In fact, the consensus among medical school admissions is that shadowing is an entry-level activity that students may do during their early state of exploration. But the applicants who distinguish themselves move quickly from shadowing into a medical environment in which they have more responsibility that is more hands-on.

Pitfall: Demonstrating a great deal of breadth, but no real depth

Another common mistake is showing a great deal of breadth of activities but little depth. There is a section on the application to record the number of hours you’ve devoted to each activity. If you are listing hours in the single or low double digits, you may need to rethink your commitment. Ask yourself, “Did I really show commitment to following something through to the end?” While there isn’t a correct number of hours, you definitely want to show that you have invested sufficient time, hard work and passion into that activity.

Pitfall: Substitute fundraising experience for community service

We see a lot of applicants who have a resume full of very robust fundraising, amassed during college. While raising money is often a noble endeavor, it’s not sufficient to only have a background in fundraising. Students who demonstrate a genuine commitment to service are those who go outside their comfort zone, “roll up their sleeves” and work directly with people who are in need of help — tutoring, counseling, mentorship and the like.

Any common med school myths you’d like to debunk?

Myth: It’s a common misconception that anyone thinking of applying to medical school must major in the sciences, when in fact, as long as you complete the pre-requisite courses before applying to medical school, you can pursue any major.

Myth: Another common misconception is that if you get a poor grade in one class, it’s the end of the line for your dream to get into medical school. Many students fear a bad grade may sink their medical school prospects — it won’t. But you do have to be able to show how you used that poor grade to assess your study skills and your approach to learning in order to become a more successful student.  In this case, admissions officers are looking for evidence that students have taken responsibility for their learning and if they received a poor grade, what they did to improve themselves.

Karen Murray is dean of admissions, New York Medical College, Valhalla, NY.

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