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Dispelling the Myths of Applying to Medical School

Updated on January 25, 2019
Jackie Woodring profile image

Arnold has been faculty at a major medical college, a four year school and a 2 year school where he has guided students into med school.

Dispelling myths about applying to medical school

I have taught for decades in higher education and have seen many students who think they are destined for medical school. They expend untold amounts of money seeking degrees at often expensive colleges and universities and at very high rates, move away from this career choice often for good reasons.

This article seeks to dispel some myths about getting into medical school. It is offered from someone who has professionally guided students in their applications across a near 2 decade career in higher education. The overarching theme is there are going to be people who tell you what you CAN do. What you need to think about is what you SHOULD do to be successful.

Myth #1- I am destined to be a doctor.

That may be true, but remember YOU get yourself into medical school. If a college claims they get students into medical school, run the other direction as fast as you can. And if your advisor has not discussed a back-up plan then they don’t understand fully the difficulty of the process.

According to AMCAS, only about 3% of students who apply to medical actually get in (that’s 3 people out of every one-hundred that apply). You have to be motivated to develop the qualities to successfully apply, including good grades in a demonstrably competitive environment, great scores on the Medical College Aptitude Test (MCAT), a great life profile including community service and leadership experiences and top notch references from physicians and professors. Have you made medical school a priority in your life to accomplish these things?

Myth #2- A doctor is a doctor.

In fact there are several types of physicians including allopathic doctors (MD’s), osteopathic doctors (DO’s), dentists, podiatrists and even chiropractors. Your medical track may evolve over time. And it is important to note that each track has have different levels of difficulty. The conversations herein are really in regards to earning an MD or DO, which are the most difficult to attain.

Myth #3- I must go to an Ivy League university to get into medical school.

There is little doubt that Ivy League schools have a great reputation, but they are also very expensive. Of course medical schools tend to be expensive (unless you are accepted into a school where tuition is free. So far I only know of one school that is trying that right now). So you are going to rack-up considerable debt, unless your family is wealthy of course. Attending a good state college with a great reputation is one way to save some money. Some students opt to earn a community college degree first, but it is wise to tread carefully if you go this route. The preparation at some community colleges and even some programs within community colleges are not a rigorous as others. The AAMC publishes the number of applicants who are accepted to medical schools, if the college reports those findings. It does not cover community colleges however. That is not to say you should not go to community college, just make sure you pick a program with a good reputation for academic rigor.

Myth #4- If I get a degree from Harvard, I will be accepted to medical school easily.

That is never true. The quality of your work determines if you are accepted and it is always weighed against your peers that year who are applying. You might be out of the running one year and a top candidate the next year. It is truly up to you to do what is necessary. And what you might have to do to succeed may be very different from someone else, especially when it comes to time studying for exams.

Myth #5- I need great grades, so I’m not going to major in a science. Or maybe I’ll just take some easy science courses to improve my GPA.

Medical School Admission Committees don’t take seriously courses that are viewed as easy, when compared to courses like physics, organic chemistry and genetics. In fact, organic chemistry was for many years considered to be a good gauge student preparation for the 18 credits hours of intensive science you will get in medical school. So, you are not fooling admission committees by taking several easy courses to increase your GPA.

Also, the MCAT is almost always the first tipping point in determining whether an application will be moved forward. Remember that the MCAT is the MCAT. It is not changing for you, or your colleges policies about medical school applications. In fact, this difficult exam covers only certain topics. I have seen many situations where someone (even college faculty) who point to literally the only student in their program that managed to get into medical school without taking many courses covering disciplines represented on the MCAT. You have to ask yourself what is probable, not what is possible. For example, it is possible that medical school recruiters are going to knock on your door and slap an acceptance letter in your hands tomorrow morning, but it is clearly not probable. Then you have to make decisions about what is probably going to make you specifically well-prepared.

No one should major in a discipline they hate. If you are not inclined to earn a science degree, then don’t. That said, admission committees may simply establish a cut-off MCAT score and move forward only those above the cut-off. And no one publishes data on MCAT performance that correlate the number of science courses to success. If sciences are easier for you, then you may be able take all the minimum required science courses for the MCAT and do well on the exam. In my experience, I have never seen any non-science majors successfully apply to medical school, and I’ve been in this process for nearly 2 decades. They may be out there and things change. But I have not seen any and I have guided many students through this process. So if you will literally shrivel-up and blow away if your application is declined, start practicing the critical reasoning that the MCAT actually measures; what is possible may not be what is probable.

Myth #6- I can just do the minimum number of sciences and earn great MCAT

Firstly, realize that taking the MCAT is a grueling day-long event. It is also costly. In fact, just applying to medical school may cost you hundreds of dollars overall. Students spend weeks preparing for the exam, and many use either the Kaplan or Princeton review guides. Both seem to work well. Needless to say, this is a high stakes process and when you take the MCAT, you are going to be stressed. You may face serious obstacles the day you take the exam (e.g. you may not sleep well the night before. you wake-up with a head cold, our car won’t start, your dog dies, you can’t find the testing site, etc). I have literally heard all the horror stories. At the end of the day, what matters is not what others have been able to do, but what you can do in response to these stressors. Yes, you can take it again, but you will have to pay for it financially and personally. So, it is reasonable to say, that as you prepare in college and life, you have to learn to deal successfully with stress. Science majors train you for the MCAT with greater depth and breadth in context of academic stress.

The MCAT covers specific topics: critical reasoning, psychology, natural sciences, physical sciences, etc. It is wise to take many courses in these topics as possible to be ready. Studying for the MCAT using actual exams is important to make yourself confident that you will do well on the exam. You are the first person you have to convince that you have the stuff to be a doctor. To be ready to take the MCAT (usually during your junior year) you need to take a year of biology, chemistry and physics, Physics can be calculus based or algebra based. You will also need to take some psychology. Critical reasoning is something you can pick-up on the way, but courses in logic and debate are good support for this skill set. In my experience physics is usually the lowest score on the MCAT, especially if the student took the course in a less rigorous setting.

I have actually heard of advisors or counselors telling students to just take an MCAT prep course. I have never understood how educational organizations can make a claim that flies in the face of documented mechanisms of human learning. Iterative learning is necessary for in depth understanding and adequate recall, especially in high stress situations. MCAT prep courses can help, but they will never replace actual time spent in real courses covering these topics or dedicating yourself to a major that reinforces important concepts on the MCAT. If a counselor or advisor suggested just taking a prep test, it is time to leave.

Myth #7- My advisor worked at a real medical school and so they know a lot about the process of getting into medical school.

When I started to advise pre-health profession students, I had considerable experience in research at medical organizations and even as faculty in the Department of Medicine. Your advisor may have a doctorate and a research background, but probably did not serve on medical school admission committees. Personally, I knew nothing about the process until I held a faculty appointment at a four-year school and was designated the health professions advisor. I learned fast, but only because performance in my job required it. And I had contacts who knew much about this career path, but I had to learn.

Most advisors I have seen have no experience in the medical school application process and little motivation to learn, unless they are the health professions advisor. Community Colleges never have such advisors since most of the process happens in years 3 and 4 of college, unless a health professions advisor moved from a 4-year position to a 2-year position. Don’t be afraid to ask your professors qualifications in giving advice to apply to medical school. Please do this carefully, however, you may want them for a reference later. Just ask about their research experience and go from there. Most faculty like to talk about that.

Finally, seeking advice from a physician is a good idea in general. Be aware however that they are also not on admission committees unless they are employed at a medical college. And it may have been quite a while since they were in medical school.

Myth #8- I have to follow a traditional route to get into medical school.

Students do decide to go to medical school after college. I even knew of a seasoned researcher who went to medical school when she was in her 50’s. The non-traditional process is slightly different, but the importance of the MCAT is still paramount.

If you decide to go to medical school in your junior year of college, it is likely you will have a year between college and medical school. Just speak to the health professions advisor about how to proceed.

Finally, if you don’t get in the first time, keep applying. I knew of a student who took the MCAT five times before they were accepted. There are schools in the Caribbean also, but there the issue is licensing and finding a good residency in the US. Your residency is going to be your area of specialization and being trained by skilled physicians is very important to your future.

These bits of wisdom pertain to clearly obvious issues I have seen with pre-med students in my career as a college professor and health professions advisor. Tread softly but ask penetrating questions as you go forward. Many well intended people may give you what they think is good advice, but it has to be right for you and in today’s application process.

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