Learn how to become a successful applicant to medical school.
Major in Anything
Health Professions is not a major. You should major in a discipline that interests you. Indeed, we have found that students do best when they are intrinsically motivated and passionate about what they are studying. With thoughtful planning, medical school or other health professions school admissions requirements can be fulfilled along with the requirements for any major. It’s a myth that students should major in biology or other science majors in order to get into medical school.
How Competitive Is Medical School Admission?
First, let us make a few general comments about premedical preparation and getting into medical school.
The numbers of applications are very high. In 2018, 52,777 individual students applied to allopathic (M.D.) medical schools, making for 849,678 total applications to medical schools, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. A total of 21,622 students eventually matriculated to allopathic medical school, or about 40% of applicants. View the Applicants and Matriculants Data page on the Association of American Medical Colleges website.
The number of applications for osteopathic (D.O.) medical schools has likewise been growing. In 2017, 20,836 applicants in 2016 submitted 189,320 applications, and 7,575 ultimately attended a D.O. school, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. View the Reports on Applicants page on the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine website.
There are clearly many, many more qualified applicants than there are seats in medical school classes. A typical private medical school receives 10,000-12,000 applications, interviews approximately 650 applicants, and accepts approximately 300 students to fill a class of 140. Many truly excellent candidates do not get interviewed, let alone accepted. Moreover, the typical entering student is older — more than 24 years old at many medical schools, at least two years out of college.
Clearly, students are accumulating meaningful experiences in basic and applied research, clinical work, volunteer settings, and even in business settings prior to entering medical school. Consequently, whereas 35 years ago most students applied to medical school at the earliest possible time, i.e., after their third year of college after completing the basic premedical requirements and then taking medical school admissions tests (MCAT), today most successful applicants take a longer, less direct path to medical school.
All things being equal, e.g., science and non-science grades, MCAT scores, etc., medical schools prefer older and more “seasoned” applicants. After all, many medical students begin seeing patients in the first month of medical school, and it takes a certain level of maturity and experience to handle this well. In addition, medical school is very expensive and training takes many years, making medical education very costly. Application itself costs thousands of dollars. We say this only to emphasize that you should think of getting into medical school as more of a “marathon” than a “sprint.” Apply when you have the experiences to both make a good decision and to be a competitive applicant.
So how do you become a successful applicant for medical school and other health professions at Holy Cross? You will:
- need to demonstrate competency in the natural sciences, mathematics, social sciences, statistics, and demonstrate the ability to read critically and write clearly in English.
- perform well on the MCAT
- demonstrate personal integrity, interpersonal skills, leadership, and maturity
- Show a clear dedication to serving to others by engaging in hands-on work in clinical and other caring environments
Given the breadth of academic requirements, the need to demonstrate personal integrity and commitment to medicine through appropriate clinical, service, and leadership experience, the demands of the MCAT, and given the normalcy of older applicants, you should feel no rush to fit everything into your first three years at Holy Cross and thus be able to apply as soon as possible.
In fact, it will be almost impossible for many students to apply at the end of their junior year. For this reason, you should consider alternative paths to medical school, most significantly paths that include four years of course work at Holy Cross, paths that include a range of both required and recommended premedical science courses, paths that include a year of study abroad or participation in an academic concentration at Holy Cross, the honors program, and other opportunities offered by our liberal arts college. You should also consider paths to medical school that extend beyond four years at Holy Cross; paths that include significant research, clinical, business, or volunteer experiences after graduation. The Health Professions Advising Office provides advice and support to all alumni, two, three, four, or more years or more years since graduating from Holy Cross.
One last important note about documenting credentials: recommendation letters are the essential document used to evaluate student engagement in class and extracurricular activities. Strong letters speak to an applicant's ability as well as character and personality, and it is the responsibility of the applicant to solicit such letters. Therefore, it is critical for students to get to know their professors and supervisors from an early stage.
Performance in Science Coursework
Medical schools consider grades in all science courses: biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. They pay particular attention to the core laboratory sciences.
For recent application cycles, the median science GPA for students admitted to allopathic (M.D.) medical schools was about 3.6 (see Association of American Medical Colleges Applicants and Matriculants Data) and 3.5 for students matriculating to osteopathic (DO) schools (see American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Reports on Matriculants).
However, there is no set figure for medical school admission: medical schools take into account the difficulty of the academic schedule, grade trajectory, distribution of grades, additional courses taken, attitude and work habits, and other factors when evaluating a science GPA. There is no specific GPA that will guarantee admission or rejection.
If a student struggles in an early science course, the student can show competency by performing well on a later, related course and on the relevant MCAT section.
For example, if a student struggles in the first organic chemistry class, strong grades in the second semester of organic chemistry and biochemistry may allay concerns by medical school admissions committees. Struggles in introductory biology can be addressed by performing well in such classes as genetics, microbiology, etc. Sometimes, post-baccalaureate coursework may be required (see below). To apply after the junior year, an applicant needs to have a near-flawless record, and a significantly higher GPA and MCAT score than a senior or graduate. Medical schools value the maturity and experience gained by the extra time and are cautious about senior grades they cannot observe.
Medical schools are as concerned with grades in humanities and social sciences as they are for science courses. After all, most medical schools expect a year of English and social sciences in addition to laboratory coursework. For medical and osteopathic schools, the median overall GPA for accepted students is higher than the median science GPA (3.7 for medical schools (Association of American Medical Colleges), 3.5 for osteopathic medicine (American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine). Again, allowances are usually made for limited grade inflation at Holy Cross.
Course Paths for Completing MCAT Requirements
Three-Year Path to Take MCAT
To go to medical school without a "gap year" between graduation from Holy Cross and medical school, a student must take the MCAT by May of the junior year.
It is possible to complete all 15 courses that cover the material tested on the MCAT in three years. However, this is a difficult sequence that is not generally recommended. Most students take some time to adjust to college, and it is important not to overload too early.
- Chem 181, 221 and possibly Biol 161, 162 or Phys 115, 116 and
Math 135, or Math 133
- College common area requirements, English, and/or social science course
- Chem 222, 231; and possibly Biol 161, 162 or Phys 115, 116 or
statistics (in major or Math 220), English, and/or social science course
- Major courses, electives
- College common area requirements (Sociology and Psychology should be completed by the end of the second year)
- Biol 161, 162 and Phys 115, 116 (if not taken earlier)
- Statistics, English/literature (if not already taken)
- Major courses, electives, and College common area requirements
- Take MCAT in spring by May
The three-year path described above requires that students complete at least one year in which they are enrolled in two laboratory courses simultaneously.
This is particularly difficult to accomplish for many students who take multiple laboratory courses during the third year as they must also prepare to take the MCAT by May. Students estimate that MCAT preparation is the equivalent to about two regular courses on top of the normal load.
Four-Year Path to Take MCAT
For reasons discussed above, a four-year path is much more reasonable for the majority of Holy Cross students.
The essential structure of the four-year path is that chemistry should be started by the second year so a course in biochemistry can be taken in the fall of the junior or senior year. In the years that the core chemistry sequence is not taken, biology and physics is taken. In this way, students can avoid having two laboratory classes in the same year. However, strong students should strongly consider taking biology in the second year if possible, allowing additional electives to be taken later. Social sciences should be taken in the first two years and English/literature and statistics courses taken at any time.
A four-year sequence of courses has many advantages over a three-year sequence, one of which is that students do not have to take two laboratory courses simultaneously. But it also has the advantage of offering the student the opportunity to take more than just the required science courses when biology is taken in the second year so that genetics, microbiology, or other important health-related courses can be taken during the third or fourth year. Furthermore, it allows the student more time to prepare for the MCAT, and separates preparation for the MCAT, to a significant extent, from enrollment in required courses.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, a four-year sequence permits students to explore different areas and programs of study, construct a major, and to gain valuable clinical and service experiences. Students can participate in study abroad, enroll in academic internships, do independent research, work in a nursing home, etc., while also effectively completing premedical requirements when they use all four years at Holy Cross (though when a student studies away from Holy Cross this necessitates taking multiple laboratories in at least one semester).
Both the three-year and four-year paths presume that students take laboratory courses in their first year. Even here, however, there is flexibility. For a variety of reasons, students may postpone the science courses until the second year. These students should begin the sequence of required science courses as described in the three-year path above.