Overview of Profession
Physicians are healthcare professionals responsible for diagnosing and treating human illnesses and diseases. Attracting some of the best and brightest minds, physicians remain at the heart of delivering medical services to individuals across the world. One of the first choices facing students interested in becoming physicians is whether to apply to allopathic (M.D.) or osteopathic (D.O.) schools of medicine. Physicians who graduate from both types of medical schools are able to treat the full range of medical conditions and their medical school training is very similar. The major difference is that osteopathic physicians receive training in the use of manipulative techniques for the treatment of certain medical conditions. There are many more allopathic medical schools (roughly 5:1) and thus more students graduate from these colleges; however, the number of students graduating from osteopathic schools is on the rise. Although both types of schools are very competitive, allopathic schools are more likely to admit students with higher MCAT scores. More information about acceptance rates may be found at http://www.aacom.org/docs/default-source/data-and-trends/2015_mat.pdf?sfvrsn=8. The recommended undergraduate preparation is roughly the same for both medical school types, though osteopathic schools recommend that their applicants have spent time shadowing osteopathic physicians.
As summarized in Appendix A: Recommendation Prerequisites for Healthcare Careers, the coursework of students interested in medical school is heavily concentrated in the sciences. Though students can major or minor in any discipline and still effectively compete for entrance into medical school, there are certain courses that virtually all medical schools expect students to take, and material from these courses is assessed heavily on the MCAT. In addition to the required basic science and mathematics courses listed, advanced courses in biology and chemistry are also strongly recommended. These classes include biochemistry, genetics, cell biology, microbiology and immunology, and organic chemistry. Additionally, because of recently announced changes in the MCAT beginning in 2015, coursework in introductory psychology and sociology are also recommended. Performance in natural science courses is one of the strongest predictors for success on the MCAT and is viewed as an important criterion in the admission formulas of medical schools.
In addition to one’s academic performance, there are additional factors that are considered by medical school admission committees. These include the shadowing of medical professionals, volunteering in healthcare services, and participating in research projects. Students should consult a pre-health advisor for potential shadowing and internship opportunities and talk with their faculty advisors and/or members of the science division regarding possible academic year and summer research opportunities. Participation in these, and similar activities, demonstrate your commitment to caring for others and your interest in learning more about the science that undergirds the medical profession.
Significant attention should be paid to each of the elements required in the medical school application process because there is little room for deviation in successful applications. Pay special attention to the deadlines for taking the MCAT and submitting medical school applications. Each of the medical school application elements is described in the following paragraphs.
The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)
The new MCAT, which was recently updated for the first time since 1991, is a standardized, computer-based examination that measures students’ abilities in the following four areas: Biological and Biochemical Foundations, Chemical and Physical Foundations, Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior, and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills. The total length of the test, including breaks, is 7.5 hours, and aside from the final section, all questions are in a multiple-choice format. The overall MCAT has a mean of 500 and a range of 472 to 528, while the section scores have a mean of 125 and a range of 118 to 132. Additional information and registration materials for the MCAT may be found at https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/mcat/.
The Biological and Biochemical Foundations section contains questions about biomolecules and how they contribute to the structure and function of cells; how molecules, cells, and organs interact to carry out the functions of living organisms; and the complex systems of tissues and organs that sense the internal and external environments of multicellular organisms. The Chemical and Physical Foundations section asks about complex living organisms that transport materials, sense their environment, process signals, and respond to changes, and about how the principles that govern chemical interactions and reactions form the basis for living systems. The Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section involves concepts such as biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors that influence the way individuals react to the world and how those factors influence and change behavior. The Scientific Inquiry and Reasoning Skills section incorporates questions from the following five areas: knowledge of scientific principles, scientific reasoning and problem-solving, reasoning about the design and execution of research, data-based statistical reasoning, and general mathematical concepts and techniques. The final section, Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills, focuses on foundations of comprehension, reasoning within the text, and reasoning beyond the text.
Medical School Applications
Most allopathic medical schools use the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS; https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/) as the primary, common application. Most allopathic medical schools will have secondary applications that will be sent to applicants who are competitive for admission to their programs. Students interested in applying to osteopathic medical schools should complete the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS; http://www.aacom.org/Documents/AACOMASInstructions.pdf). As with the AMCAS, the AACOMAS is a common application that is used as the primary application for Doctor of Osteopathy programs. Both applications ask for an extensive amount of information and will require a great deal of time and effort in completing. Therefore, students should budget a significant amount of time for completing these applications and should be prepared to seek advice from pre-health advisors in order to accurately complete either of these applications.
Both medical school applications will require personal statements. These relatively short (e.g., roughly one page for the AMCAS) pieces provide an opportunity for applicants to discuss their reasons for wanting to become physicians, achievements or experiences that may not be captured in other portions of the common application, personal and academic strengths, and any weaknesses in their applications that need to be explained. It is critically important that this personal essay be engaging, well written, and accurate. We recommend that you meet with one of the pre-health advisors for guidance in crafting your letter. Successful essays typically require many drafts, which should be reviewed by one of the pre-health advisors. Here are a couple links to information about writing personal statements: http://ocs.fas.harvard.edu/personal-statement and http://ocs.yale.edu/content/writing-personal-statement-medical-school.
Letters of Recommendation
Students should obtain four or five recommendations from professionals most familiar with their work and potential for medical school success. Two or three of these should be from science faculty members, at least one should be from a faculty member in another discipline, and up to two letters can come from professionals who have supervised your work on internships, volunteer medical experiences, or research projects. In order to get the most from these letters, contact those being asked for recommendations well in advance of the time in which their letters are needed to be sent to the Pre-Health Committee for consolidation, provide each recommender a copy of your curriculum vitae (document containing a list of your professionally relevant experiences), and offer information about the particular schools in which you are most interested. Be prepared to follow-up with your letter writers to cordially remind them of the deadline for the letter, stressing your appreciation for their willingness to write on your behalf.
Students should provide the Pre-Health Director a list of the individuals who they have asked to write letters on their behalf by December 15 of the year prior to their application for medical school. The final recommendation letters should be forwarded to the Pre-Health Director for review by the committee, who will use the information contained in the recommenders’ letters to write a formal recommendation letter from the Pre-Health Committee. This letter will highlight material provided by each of your recommenders in order to provide medical schools an accurate picture of your potential for medical school success. This letter also will provide medical schools with information about the context of the program from which you are applying; that is, the strengths of the college in preparing students for medical school. The Committee’s letter will be uploaded to the AMCAS application site and similar Doctor of Osteopathy common site.