How Hard Is It to Get into Medical School?

Admissions statistics, mistakes, and strategies to get in despite increasing competition

How hard is it to get into medical school.jpg

How hard is it to get into medical school? 

If you’re like most premed students, you’ve heard horror stories about qualified applicants who didn’t get in anywhere—the first, second, or even third time they applied. Heck, you may even be a reapplicant. 

Regardless, you may be confused about how you could possibly get in after going to great lengths to “do everything right”—achieving a strong GPA and MCAT score, satisfying your extracurricular requirements, obtaining meaningful recommendation letters, and so on. 

Before you lose hope about your chances of getting into your dream med schools—or, worse, give up completely—I’d like to dig into the details about the current state of medical school admissions so you can understand what you’re actually up against. Then, I’ll list mistakes applicants routinely make and offer high-level strategies to help you get one step closer to becoming physician.

Medical school acceptance rates

The news is flooded with reports on doctor shortages in the United States, especially in low-income and rural areas, as well as in fields like primary care, family medicine, and psychiatry. 

On top of that, a few medical schools are opening up each year to train new doctors and address some of our country’s healthcare access issues.

In combination, you would think that these factors would make it easier to get into med school.

As our healthcare needs are growing and we’re producing more physicians than ever, interest in health careers has grown to an all-time high. Of course, this means that more students are applying to medical school than ever, faster than the available medical school seats, and certainly lagging behind our growing physician demand.

Data published by the AAMC shows that between the 2009-2010 and 2018-2019 academic years (i.e., the last 10 years), the total number of medical school applicants grew from 42,268 to 52,777, a nearly 25% increase.

Of those applicants, only 18,390 matriculated during the 2009-2010 academic year (44%), and 21,622 during the 2018-2019 academic year (41%).

In summary, you’re facing not only increased competition, but also lower admissions odds than ever.

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How strong is the medical school applicant pool?

While the overall matriculation rate to US medical schools is at an all-time low, it may simply be due to a larger number of applications from less-qualified students.

Therefore, it’s important to know the stats with which applicants apply today relative to years past. For this, we turn to the average GPA and MCAT score of med school applicants and matriculants.

Among applicants for the 2018-2019 entering class, the average cumulative GPA and MCAT score were 505.6 and 3.57, respectively, up from 504.7 and 3.56 for the 2017-2018 entering class.

Among 2018-2019 matriculants, the average cumulative GPA and MCAT score were 511.2 and 3.72, respectively, again up from the 2017-2018 entering class averages of 510.4 and 3.71.

(Note: This upward statistical trend is longstanding and shows no signs of slowing down.)

Taken together, it appears that not only are you competing with more students, but also that those students’ scores are higher than they have ever been.

(Further reading: What MCAT Score Do You Need to Get Into Medical School?)

How you can get into medical school despite increasing competition

My goal for this article is not to depress you. Rather, I want to shed light on what you’re up against and offer strategies to maximize your odds of getting in.

It’s true that many students apply to medical school each year and that your competition is fierce. It’s also true that many applicants: a) are borderline qualified or unqualified; b) make serious application mistakes; or c) both.

Therefore, if you have solid stats and apply the right way, your odds of getting into medical school will be higher than the roughly 40% overall.

I’ll now highlight various application mistakes that students routinely make—and what you should do instead to stand out to admissions committees.

(Note: The rest of this articles assumes that you have competitive or somewhat competitive stats and that you’ve pursued or are in the process of pursuing the right premed extracurricular activities, including gaining sufficient shadowing, patient exposure, community service, and volunteer hours.)

Mistake #1: Applying to too many reach schools

I’ve observed a significant number of applicants who apply to too many reach schools—25-50% or even higher—that they have little to no chance of getting into.

In other words, what some applicants consider to be "target" or “safety" schools are often much tougher than they think to get accepted to.

If you apply to too many reach schools, your number of competitiveapplications will be far fewer than you think. For instance, if you apply to 30 schools but 15 of them are realistically out of reach for you, you’re only really applying to 15 schools, which is a low number.

A lot of students feel they should apply to the Stanfords and Harvards of the world, thinking, “Why not? What if something crazy happens and I get accepted? Can’t hurt to apply!” 

Except it canhurt. Not only is it expensive to apply to medical school, it’s also very effortful. Almost every school you apply to will ask you to complete a secondary application (i.e., more essays), which often leads to what I call “secondary fatigue.” And when secondary fatigue kicks in, effort and work quality decline.

What you should do instead

You’ll want to be incredibly thoughtful about which schools you apply to—and how many.

Because school selection is one of the most important—and underrated—components of successful medical school admissions, we put in significant effort to help our students choose the right schools.

Depending on your stats, my recommendation is to initially apply to somewhere between 15-25 carefully selected schools, with the following rough breakdown for the typical applicant:

  •  3-5 “reach” schools

  • 7-8 “target” schools

  • 6-7 “undershoot” schools

  • Bonus: 3-5 “far undershoot” schools

Less than 15, and you risk not achieving the right balance of competitiveness. More than 25, and you risk even greater secondary fatigue.

Once you’ve gotten close to submitting applications to your initial list, you can look to add more schools, recycling or modifying the secondary essays you’ve already written. It’s not crazy to apply to 35 or even 40 schools using this approach.

(Further reading: Where to Apply to Medical School to Maximize Admissions OddsAverage GPA and MCAT Score for Every Medical School)

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Mistake #2: Spending too much time on the personal statement at the expense of other essays

I often ask premed students about their #1 struggle or worry when it comes to medical school applications.

Their #1 response? How to write their personal statement.

It’s a valid concern; the personal statement is incredibly important, yet difficult to get just right.

However, many students spend weeks, even months on their personal statement, but fail to give enough attention to acing the AMCAS Work and Activities section and secondary essays.

Medical schools practice holistic admissions, meaning they evaluate every part of your application together in hopes of understanding your readiness for medicine.

What you should do instead

Each aspect of your application tells a different part of your story.

For example, whereas your personal statement provides a bird’s eye view of who you are and your road to medicine, the AMCAS Work and Activities section offers a detailed look into how you’ve spent your time to understand what it means to be a physician, as well as your accomplishments and growth along the way. Moreover, your secondary essays provide an opportunity to tell medical schools why you’ll be a strong fit for their institution specifically.

Applications that are weak outside of the personal statement are akin to incomplete stories. They leave the reader with more questions and hesitations.

Therefore, I encourage you to devote similar levels of effort to every part of your application, working to ensure that different sections work cohesively to demonstrate to admissions committees why you want to be a physician, why you would be an excellent physician, and why you would be a great fit at their school.

(Further reading: Medical School Personal Statement: The Ultimate Guide)

Mistake #3: Trying too hard to write about the “perfect” topics

Another very common question I receive about personal statements and secondary essays is, “Would it be a good idea to write about [X/Y/Z] topic?”

And most of the time, my answer is the same: “Every topic can lead to a strong or weak essay depending on how compellingly it’s written.”

In other words, there’s rarely such a thing as a “good” or “bad” essay topic, only strong or weak execution. 

Oftentimes, students have great personal stories to share that demonstrate their unique qualities, but they don’t think admissions committees will be interested in reading about them.

For example, they might say, “But that’s not directly related to medicine,” “I don’t think med schools want to hear about that,” or “Don’t adcoms expect students to write about [topic]?”

What you should do instead 

I discourage students from this type of mind reading because guess what? The essay topics most students “think” will impress admissions committees are often incredibly similar, leading them to write cliché essays. 

Therefore, I recommend that you first think of the qualities you want to demonstrate in your essay and then consider when in your life you’ve demonstrated those qualities. 

That way, you’re much more likely to come up with a topic that reflects who you uniquely are and is much easier to write about. 

Mistake #4: Asking too many people for essay feedback

Like many things in life, more feedback on your essay isn’t necessarily better.

Recently, one of my students rewrote an entire essay despite loving their original idea because their undergraduate advisor suggested another topic.

Unfortunately, their second essay wasn’t as strong as their original one, nor did it convey the ideas they hoped to.

Anyone you send your essays to will have an opinion on how to change it. While everyone means well, know that each additional set of eyes can dilute your voice and weaken the points you're hoping to make.

What you should do instead

I'm not saying that you shouldn't show your work to anyone else, but I encourage you to run your essays by no more than two people who know you—and the medical school admissions process—well.

Moreover, if your work accurately captures what you're hoping to convey, is grammatically correct, and engagingly written, you should confidently move on to the next essay.

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Mistake #5: Submitting applications too late 

Most medical schools practice rolling admissions, which means that they’ll invite and accept students on a rolling basis, until all seats are filled.

You’ll have more seats available to you the earlier you apply. Conversely, submitting applications too late will lead to competing against a larger applicant pool for fewer spots.

Medical schools post application deadlines on their website, but these are quite misleading. Specifically, the closer you submit to posted deadlines, the lower your overall admissions odds.

What you should do instead

You should submit high-quality applications as early as possible. AMCAS tends to open at the very beginning of June each year, and secondaries are sent to students whose primary applications are verified as early as early July.

Be careful, however, not to rush to submit your applications if your essays are subpar. Submitting lower quality materials can hurt you more than submitting early can help you. 

It's much better to submit a fantastic application several days to weeks later than you'd hoped rather than submit a so-so application ASAP.

(Further reading: The Ideal Medical School Application Timeline)

Mistake #6: Preparing for admissions interviews the wrong way 

Receiving medical school interview invitations is one of the most exciting parts of the application process, second only to receiving acceptances.

After their initial celebrations, applicants tend to get anxious about how they’re going to respond to various questions and prompts. (e.g., “Tell me about yourself.” and “What are your thoughts on the Affordable Care Act?”)

Applicants often overworry about the wrong things (e.g., questions about things like healthcare policy rarely come up, and there are time-tested approaches to answering them well without intimate knowledge of the subject) and underworry about critically important aspects of the interview. (e.g., focusing on sociability and answer delivery in addition to the content of responses) 

What you should do instead

While it’s important to practice common questions like, “Why do you want to be a doctor?” you should also look up and practice school-specific questions, develop strategies to tackle any MMI question, and go through mock interviews with folks knowledgeable about the med school interview process. 

When you have practice interviews, ask your interviewer to give you feedback on response content and how you presented. If your official interviewer likes you, they’re far more likely to appraise you favorably. 

(Further reading: How to Ace Your Medical School Interviews)

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