Medicine continues to be the most popular health career to which Southwestern students aspire. Careful planning from Day One can make you the most prepared and competitive candidate possible for medical school.
Planning for Medical School
SU students are well-qualified for and capable of attending graduate and professional school. They must ask themselves, however:
Do I Really Want to Be a Doctor?
What’s not to like about a career in medicine? Medicine has prestige, helps people, makes good money and is a known quantity – after all, everyone has been to a doctor. Many students begin college interested in medical careers, but over time and with more exploration, many find other fields which interest them more. The Center for Career & Professional Development and SU faculty can advise you realistically on whether your credentials show promise for admission to medical school, but only you can decide if that is what you really want to do. Gaining exposure to the health field is crucial for your own decision-making and also shows your commitment to prospective medical schools. Volunteering at local hospitals or clinics, reading information about professional schools and medicine as a career, joining one of the campus pre-health organizations, talking with or job-shadowing healthcare professionals and even earning a certification to work part-time in the healthcare (e.g. emergency medical technician, certified nurse’s assistant, pharmacy technician, etc.) are all great ways to explore medicine.
MD or DO?
Before you apply to medical school you should know that there are two types of medical training: Allopathic and Osteopathic. Allopathic medical schools are the traditional medical schools that confer MD degrees. Osteopathic schools confer DO degrees. They are very similar except that Osteopathic schools have additional courses in Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT). To learn more about the differences between an MD and DO see https://medicalschoolhq.net/md-vs-do-what-are-the-differences-and-similarities/. To find out more about Osteopathic Medicine go to www.aacom.org.
What are Medical Schools Looking For?
About 22,712 students nationwide entered medical school in 2022-2023 (according to the Association of American Medical Colleges), 2,143 of whom were in Texas (according to the Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Service). The average statistical profile of a student accepted into medical school in 2022-2023 was:
Nationwide: 3.75 GPA (3.68 science GPA); 511.9 total MCAT score (127.9 Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; 127.0 Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills; 128.2 Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; 128.9 Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior)
Texas: 3.82 GPA (3.77 science GPA); 511.7 total MCAT score (127.9 Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; 126.8 Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills; 128.1 Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; 128.9 Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior)
Admission to medical school is extremely competitive. Schools will examine your grade point average for both science and non-science courses. These grades and standardized test scores on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) are generally the criteria used to make initial selections from the applicant pool, so it is important to develop good study habits in your first year.
In addition to strong numbers, medical schools seek well-rounded applicants with diverse out-of-class experiences, including healthcare- and science-related activities. The essays you write as part of your medical school application, along with supportive letters of recommendation from faculty, will document these experiences. For more information, see below.
Once you move from “applicant” to “interviewee,” your selection is based on overall characteristics including motivation, experience, and communication skills. You need solid interviewing and communication skills.
What Type of Major Looks Best?
Many applicants believe that medical schools want science majors or that certain programs prefer liberal arts majors. In actuality, medical schools have no preference for what your major is as long as you do well and meet the basic entrance requirements. In Texas about half of applicants are non-science majors (of which psychology is the most common major). We suggest that you choose the major that most interests you for several reasons: First, you are more likely to do well and actually finish the degree in a field of your interest. Second, exploring more broadly provides good insurance if you should happen to change directions or postpone entry. If your chosen major does not include the prerequisite courses for medical school in its curriculum, you must complete them either as science credit hours or elective credit hours. Since many science courses build upon each other, introductory biology and general chemistry are good courses to complete during your first year in order to get through the curriculum in a timely manner. However, be careful and do not overextend yourself, especially if your high school preparation is not as strong as it could be.
What Courses are Required for Medical School?
The minimum entrance requirements for medical school in Texas are as follows, each of which must be completed with a grade of “C” or better:
- 2 semesters of English
- 1 semester of Statistics or Calculus (some schools require statistics, others require statistics OR calculus)
- 2 semesters of Introductory Biology with lab and 2 semesters of Upper-Level Biology
- 2 semesters of General Chemistry with lab and 2 semesters of Organic Chemistry with lab
- 2 semesters of Physics with lab (at SU, calculus is a pre-requisite for taking physics)
- 1 semester of Biochemistry
Some medical schools also require additional courses in calculus, comparative morphology, and quantitative analysis; others do not accept AP credits for prerequisite coursework. Behavioral sciences and biochemistry questions are also be included on the MCAT. Although medical schools may not currently require these courses, they may be helpful in preparing for the MCAT. Principles of Psychology and an introductory sociology course (Social Patterns and Processes OR Social Problems) are the two courses at Southwestern that may be helpful in preparing for the behavioral sciences questions on the MCAT. Always check with the medical schools in which you are interested early in your undergraduate career for specific course requirements.
What is the MCAT and When Should I Take It?
The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is a standardized, computerized examination designed to assess problem solving, critical thinking, and writing skills in addition to the examinee’s knowledge of science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine. The latest you should plan to take the MCAT if you intend to go to medical school in the year right after graduation from SU is in the spring of your junior year, so that you can apply (and interview) early. You will need to have taken the requisite pre-med coursework by the time you take the MCAT in order to do well on the exam. For further information about the MCAT, see below.
First-Year: Depending on your high school preparation, begin the academic requirements for med school your first semester. In the best-case scenario, you would start general chemistry along with either introductory biology, calculus, or statistics. Develop your study habits and increase your reading efficiency.
Make an appointment with Dr. Maria Cuevas, SU’s faculty pre-med advisor, to introduce yourself. Also communicate with your academic advisor and/or the Center for Career & Professional Development to get advice. Get your feet on the ground solidly in terms of your academics and then begin investigating out-of-class experiences to round out your overall educational process.
Sophomore: Continue building a solid academic record. Acquire out-of-class experiences like leadership in campus organizations, non-health-related service, and laboratory research. Shadow physicians (for more information, see SU’s Health Professions Shadowing page. Volunteer or work in a hospital or clinic. Keep good records of your experiences to make it easier to relate them on applications in the future. Review your progress with your advisors to make sure you are staying on track. Learn as much as you can about medicine and other health-related fields by reading, watching public-TV specials, and interviewing and shadowing doctors. Be active in pre-health profession clubs. Attend workshops offered on-campus.
Applying to Medical School
Numerous websites now centralize the medical school admission process. They also require fees to use. Make sure you explore each thoroughly before beginning the actual applications.
Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR)
MSAR is an online database produced by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in collaboration with medical schools and combined B.S./M.D. programs. The guide contains various resources, including school-specific admission requirements, applicant and acceptee statistics, medical education process information and tips on how to choose the right school for you. The guide is updated annually and can be purchased from the AAMC’s website: https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/applying-medical-school-process/medical-school-admission-requirements/
The American Medical College Application Service® (AMCAS®)
AMCAS (www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/ ) is a non-profit, centralized application processing service that is only available to applicants to the first-year entering classes at participating U.S. medical schools. Most medical schools use AMCAS as the primary application method (including some private medical schools in Texas). Advanced standing and transfer applicants should contact the medical schools directly for assistance. Regardless of the number of medical schools to which you apply, you submit just one online application to AMCAS. AMCAS does not render any admission decisions and does not advise applicants where to apply.
Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS)
TMSDAS (https://www.tmdsas.com/ ) is the centralized application processing service for applicants to the first-year entering classes at all of the public (and some private) medical, dental and veterinary schools in the state of Texas. TMDSAS does not process advanced standing or transfer student applications. Advanced standing and transfer applicants should contact the schools directly for application instructions. TMDSAS serves only as an information clearinghouse and does not influence the schools’ review of the application nor their selection of applicants to interview and accept. In addition to the centralized application, schools may also require supplementary materials that must be submitted directly to the institutions.
The AAMC Fee Assistance Program (FAP) (https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/fap/ ) assists MCAT examinees and AMCAS applicants who, without financial assistance, would be unable to take the MCAT or apply to medical schools that use the AMCAS application. FAP eligibility decisions are tied directly to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ poverty level guidelines.
Components of the Application
Medical school applications collect data about your identifying information, schools attended, criminal history, coursework, work experience, leadership and other out-of-class activities, clinical and research experience and more. The main components include:
Academic record/GPA: Do your grades reflect academic excellence, rigorous coursework, upward trends and overcoming obstacles? Schools will look at coursework loads (ideally > 15 credits per semester), how many upper-division courses you took, whether you pursued an honor’s thesis, as well as a year-to-year GPA trend (rising is better than falling). All of these factors will be considered in your own academic context, including the size of your home community and high school, your high school class rank, your parents’ educational background and non-academic activities which required extended time-commitment, such as employment, athletics, band, leadership in an organization, etc. Doing well at SU when coming from a less rigorous high school or being among the first in your family to have attended college, for example, may make your accomplishments shine even more.
MCAT: The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a computerized standardized examination designed to assess problem solving and critical thinking skills in addition to the examinee’s knowledge of science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine. The test takes about seven and a half hours to complete and comprises four multiple choice sections, each scored on a scale ranging from 118 to 132 for a total score ranging from 472 to 528. A 500 score falls in the 50th percentile. A score of 508 falls in the 75th percentile. The sections are Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior, Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.
The MCAT is offered approximately 30 times throughout the year at hundreds of test sites. The latest you should plan to take these tests is in the spring of the year before you desire to enter medical school, so that you can apply (and interview) early. You can register for your desired test date beginning 12 weeks in advance. Popular test dates fill up quickly - be sure to sign up for your slot as soon as registration opens. Never take the actual MCAT for practice. Most students also take an MCAT preparation course. See the Pre-Medical Resources section below for more information.
Not only will schools consider your MCAT and MCAT subtest scores, they will review your SAT/ACT scores as well. A rising trend in standardized test scores is helpful.
Non-academic experiences: Schools seek candidates with well-rounded interests and participation outside the classroom in activities both related to medicine and more broadly. Examples include clinical (e.g., volunteering in a doctor’s office, hospital, abroad), volunteer (e.g., elder care, suicide hotline, Habitat for Humanity) and leadership (e.g., student government, academic organizations, athletics) experiences. Schools will evaluate not only breadth but also depth – it’s more important to dig deep into a few experiences than to be in every student organization, for example. In addition to exposure to medical or dental environments, research experience can be valuable. Your clinical experiences especially not only serve to show the medical schools that you know what you’re getting yourself into and are still committed to it, but they also help you test and confirm your decision to enter medicine as a career field. You will be better prepared to write your application essays and to interview by both making the time to gain the experience, as well as keeping good records of it.
Personal statement and “optional” essays: The personal statement (or any other narrative parts of your application) should be well written using good English grammar and not include typos. Do NOT count on spell-check alone. Have your professors, the Writing Center, the Center for Career & Professional Development, or at least another person review any and all narrative responses before submission. Though your statement should be authentic and personalized, we suggest you do NOT include religious references, political references or Greek Life references (unless you have/had a leadership role). By law, your religious and political views are protected, but if you choose to share them, you run the risk that a reader may hold biases against you for your views. You may decide it’s worth falling on your sword to mention those topics, but do so with your eyes wide open. Things you’ve only told your therapist should of course not appear. Some essays are described as “optional,” but in medical school “optional” and “extra credit” are required! Take the opportunity to share more about yourself in these so-called optional essays. Typical topics often include barriers you have overcome and contributions you could make to medicine based on your background. For more information, see Writing Personal Statements (PDF).
Letters of recommendation: Supportive letters of recommendation (usually three letters, at least one from a professor) are extremely valuable. These letters are basically character references so they should come from someone who knows you well. Usually these are professors with whom you’ve had significant contact (e.g. several courses, collaborative research, academic advising, etc.) and rarely physicians. Ideally you have been working to cultivate relationships with faculty throughout your undergraduate career, but you can also increase the strength of your relationship with a prospective recommender by requesting to speak with her/him in office hours about your medical school interests.
Secondary applications: Numerous institutions also require secondary application materials, besides the centralized TMSDAS or AMCAS applications. Secondary applications may comprise additional essay questions as well as other materials, such as the CASPer exam. The CASPer test is an online screening tool designed to evaluate key personal and professional characteristics that make for successful students and graduates.
Other: In addition to the official materials you submit as your application, realize that all encounters you have with evaluators from the medical schools (in person or virtual) can affect their impression. To that end, reviewing your online “brand” is an important part of applying for any opportunity these days. It would not be uncommon for someone at a medical school to research you online, so do a trial run and search for yourself. Don’t be fooled by privacy settings. If someone really wants to find you, they can find a way. Keep your social media presence positive, professional and discrete. Keep your opinions to yourself. Employ the grandmother rule (i.e. if you wouldn’t share it with your grandmother, don’t post it online). And most of all, remember that you can’t take it back.
Having a positive online brand is not only about limiting negative information. It’s also about creating a positive public record. Personal blogs, LinkedIn profiles and other websites where you can document your academic, extracurricular, research, volunteerism and employment success stories can be helpful.
The interview is a very important step in the selection process. Interviews are offered on a rolling basis and take place between August and January annually. You will receive an email inviting you to interview on a specific date (which is generally non-negotiable). Your interview will likely consist of several meetings with different evaluators, as well as tours and lunch. Interviews may also be conducted virtually. Be assured that you are being evaluated each step along the way and remain professional throughout. For more details on preparing for an interview, including researching the organization, interview attire and possible interview questions, please see our “Interviewing for Medical School” handout. An increasingly common interview structure is called Multiple Mini Interviews (MMIs). The AAMC’s interview resource page is also a valuable resource.
The actual logistical process of applying to medical school typically begins about two years before the semester of entry (e.g. fall of your junior year for admission in the fall right after graduation from SU). An important fact to know is that 75% of all interviews come from applications received between May 1 and June 1 each year. Though you could theoretically apply at a later point in the cycle, your chances are best when you apply early! The approximate timeline below can help you plan:
September-December: Meet with Faculty Pre-Med Advisor and/or the Center for Career & Professional Development to plan your strategy. Start soliciting letters of recommendation.
January-April: Study for MCAT.
February/March: Register for MCAT. Follow up on letters of recommendation.
April/May: Take MCAT.
June/July: Apply to medical schools by June 15. Send recommendation letters. Summer MCATs
August-December: Interviews. Fall MCATs.
January-April: Acceptance letters. Complete financial aid forms ASAP.
August: Enter medical school!
SU Faculty Pre-Health Advisor Dr. Maria Cuevas, firstname.lastname@example.org, in the biology department leads the campus Pre-Med Committee, which writes letters of recommendation for students.
The Center for Career & Professional Development also provides general pre-med advising, reviews resumes, applications and essays and offers practice medical school interviews. We also bring healthcare professionals to campus and facilitate off-campus job shadowing so you can explore career options. For a wide array of helpful links, see link to the left. You can also join the Health | Wellness | Life Science Career Community for targeted communications and networking opportunities, and the student Pre-Health Organization and/or Beta Beta Beta (biology honor) sponsor various pre-med-related events.