Learn how to gain admission to one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country, plus a Harvard Medical School personal statement example
Part 1: Introduction
Getting into Harvard Medical School (HMS) is a dream shared by so many premed students due to the school’s prestige (it sits atop the US News & World Report medical school rankings most years), incredible array of clinical and research opportunities, and access to a strong personal and professional network.
If you’re like most medical school applicants, you probably view Harvard at best as a long shot. Matriculants’ stats are among the highest, the acceptance rate is low, and the school carries a certain mystique that may lead you wonder who comprises this special student body.
My goal is to uncover the admissions process so you can learn how to get into Harvard Medical School rather than feel dejected about your chances.
Harvard Medical School Curriculum Overview
Before we dig into admissions statistics and strategies, it’s important to cover Harvard’s two distinct medical school curriculum options:
The Harvard Pathways program offers a more traditional medical school education involving case-based learning, earlier clinical experiences (i.e., in the first few weeks of their first year), advanced science courses, and a research project. The majority of Harvard med students (~80%) go through the Pathways program.
Health Sciences & Technology (HST)
HST is a joint program between Harvard and MIT that focuses on biomedical research, basic sciences, and biotechnology. HST students (~20% of each class) begin their clinical experiences later than Pathways students (i.e., mid-way through their second year) and pursue research activities more consistently throughout their medical education. HST students also must complete a research thesis to graduate.
(Recommended viewing: Dr. Edward Hundert, Harvard’s Dean for Medical Education, recorded an informative video describing similarities and differences between Pathways and HST.)
HMS offers the following dual-degree programs:
Except for the MD/PhD program, students apply for dual-degree opportunities after being admitted to the MD program.
Part 2: Harvard Medical School Acceptance Rate
Below are the Harvard Medical School admissions statistics for the Class of 2022:
Interviews: 889 (12.85%)
Matriculants: 165 (2.39%)
Unfortunately, there is no publicly available data on the number of accepted students, so it’s unclear what the exact acceptance rate is. That said, below 5% is a safe bet.
Regardless, the acceptance rate doesn’t answer the real question: “How hard is it to get into Harvard Medical School?” To get a better sense of that, let’s review the academic data among accepted students:
Average GPA: 3.9 (MSAR reports a 3.93 median total GPA and science GPA)
Average MCAT: 518.72 (MSAR reports a 520 median MCAT)
Before you throw your hands up in defeat, consider the GPA and MCAT ranges among accepted students, provided by MSAR:
Total GPA: 3.75 (10th %ile) to 4.00 (90th %ile)
Science GPA: 3.69 (10th %ile) to 4.00 (90th %ile)
MCAT: 513 (10th %ile) to 525 (90th %ile)
While Harvard’s preferred stats are quite high, not everyone getting in has a 3.9 GPA and 520 MCAT score. (In fact, given these median scores, just as many students with lower stats get in as those with higher stats.) With a strong extracurricular background and systematic application approach, you’ll increase your odds of getting in.
Part 3: Harvard Medical School Requirements
Harvard requires you to complete the following prerequisites prior to enrolling:
Biology: One year with lab. Should include cellular and molecular biology.
Chemistry: Two years with lab. Should include inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry.
Physics: One year. Lab is preferred but not required. (Note: HST applicants should complete additional calculus-based physics courses.)
Math: One year, including calculus and statistics. (Note: HST applicants should additional math courses, such as differential equations and linear algebra.)
Writing: One year
In addition, Harvard recommends that you take courses in literature, languages, arts, humanities, and social sciences to be a competitive applicant.
In many ways, the extracurricular activities required or desired by Harvard Med School are no different than those required by other medical schools. However, given the competitive applicant pool and Harvard’s commitment to recruiting the best med students, it’s important to demonstrate a multi-year commitment to activities that most interest you, as well as high levels of achievement.
In other words, checking certain boxes—shadowing, patient exposure, community service, research—isn’t sufficient. You’ll want to go deep in a few related areas to develop a clear theme and help your application stand out.
(Recommend reading: How to Choose the Right Extracurricular Activities for Medical School)
While the Harvard Med School website “encourages” research, it’s essentially a requirement, as 98% of matriculants completed research prior to enrolling, according to MSAR.
Shadowing & Patient Exposure
The vast majority of matriculants shadow physicians and gain patient exposure experiences during their premed years.
Community Service & Volunteering
Most Harvard med students also pursue meaningful and longstanding community service and volunteer experiences before they’re accepted.
Letters of Evaluation
HMS allows you to submit up to six letters of recommendation, with the following constraints:
At least two letters from science professors (i.e., with whom you took classes for a letter grade)
At least one letter from a non-science professor (i.e., with whom you took a graded class)
A committee letter/packet from your school (if applicable) counts as one letter toward your six-letter allowance
(Recommended reading: Medical School Letters of Recommendation: The Definitive Guide)
HMS requires that you complete AMCAS, which includes the following written sections:
Personal statement: An overview of your personal, academic, and extracurricular background and your path to medicine.
Work and Activities section: Short descriptions of up to 15 extracurricular activities and awards, with the opportunity to further expand on 3 of your ‘most meaningful’ experiences.
HMS requires that you respond to several secondary essay prompts after submitting AMCAS. Since your medical school personal statement and Work and Activities section will be sent to all schools, secondaries offer your best opportunity to demonstrate direct fit between your background and HMS.
A complete list of all med school secondary essay prompts, including Harvard’s, can be found here.
Although HMS sends out secondaries in early July, interviews begin in September each year.
HMS uses a traditional interview format and invited students meet with an average of two different interviewers. Interviewees typically report a relatively low-stress experience and feel that they performed well during the process.
Interviewers will have usually reviewed your application in depth ahead of time and ask questions meant to genuinely understand your personal and professional motivations to pursue medicine rather than try to grill you.
(Recommended reading: How to Ace Your Medical School Interviews)
Part 4: Harvard Medical School Personal Statement Example
(Note: This essay was written by a student who matriculated at HMS. All identifying details and names have been changed.)
It was strange to find myself at a hospital without a visitor’s desk or a cash register. I was volunteering at Raul Morales Hospital, a non-governmental organization that provides free medical care to people who are underserved in Mexico City. There I met Mr. Lopez, a middle-aged man who was homeless and suffering from hypertension, liver cirrhosis, and insomnia.
In the small hospital, I shadowed attending physician Dr. Reyes during her rounds, aided nurses, and helped maintain ward sanitation. While performing my duties, I had many opportunities to interact with a diverse group of patients. I met a homeless woman who wandered all over the country before she ended up in the hospital for breast cancer. I spoke with an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who had to leave his family to earn a living. I also taught a Nicaraguan boy how to use a computer for the first time. Although he left his home to receive a surgery on his deformed spine, he never lost his youthful cheerfulness. All the people in the hospital loved to have him around. The patients in the wards got along well with each other, often playing cards or reading the Bible together. Though most of them had no house to return to, they made their home at the hospital. They welcomed me as a guest in their home, with bright smiles when language was a barrier.
However, there was one patient who did not fit in. He frequently quarreled with the other residents, and the nurses called him hopeless. Maybe they resented his lies when he tried to avoid taking his prescribed drugs or sneak out of the hospital to smoke a cigarette. When I first approached him, he told me to leave him alone. This was Mr. Lopez.
Despite his antics with the nurses, Mr. Lopez always showed respect to one person—Dr. Reyes. During one of Dr. Reyes’s daily rounds, I saw Mr. Lopez smile for the first time. In stark contrast to the way he treated the nurses, he answered the doctor’s questions completely and honestly. Occasionally, he would even crack a joke. Mr. Lopez seemed to find solace in Dr. Reyes even though he could not find it elsewhere. Pleasantly surprised, I asked Dr. Reyes how she had managed to get Mr. Lopez to open up. She told me that a doctor is responsible for gaining a patient’s trust to provide optimal care and that there is no magic recipe for this. It took Dr. Reyes an excruciatingly slow process of trial and error to develop a relationship with Dr. Lopez that transcended dependence.
So it began. I knew it would be difficult initially to connect with Mr. Lopez because he seemed to dislike most people’s company. Moreover, I still had to report Mr. Lopez whenever he lied to the nurses or tried to sneak out of the hospital. Obviously, that did not endear me to him. Mr. Lopez was only cooperative during meal time—he would always be the first to get in line and especially looked forward to having chicken mole So, I tried to show Mr. Lopez extra care by saving him some leftovers whenever I oversaw food distribution. When Mr. Lopez looked bored, I sat by him to read books. Soon enough, I knew Mr. Lopez’s tough exterior was cracking because he began waving when he saw me.
With a sense of accomplishment, I realized that doctors are more than purveyors of medical knowledge and that they must lift patients’ spirits in addition to healing their bodies. I was mesmerized by this great responsibility and desired to serve as a true companion who understands and shares patients’ burdens when the weight of the world is buckling their knees.
Considering a doctor’s dual role, it is important to enhance the quality of physical and mental care. Connecting with Mr. Lopez interpersonally sped up the trial-and-error trust-building process that Dr. Reyes alluded. On the other hand, expanding the scientific boundaries can improve the quality of medical treatments. During my time at Raul Morales Hospital, I found that so many prevalent conditions are still poorly understood. For instance, depression is a major risk factor for developing numerous medical conditions, but its causes generally remain mysterious, as was the case for Mr. Lopez. While working in a lab that studies how to improve emotional well-being to boost cancer survivorship rates , I came to believe in the potential of research to aid patients all over the globe. Therefore, I wish to become a physician-scientist who can contribute to improving medical therapy.
I greatly appreciated the lessons I learned from working with Mr. Lopez. and wanted to stay longer to hear more of his stories. Nevertheless, my time in Mexico quickly ran out. On my final day at the hospital, I visited Mr. Lopez last. I slowly sat next to him and attempted to converse as usual. When it came time for me to leave, I reluctantly told him that I had to return to school in America. Mr. Lopez avoided looking into my eyes as I spoke. It was only when I stood up after saying a hesitant farewell that Mr. Lopez finally opened his mouth and uttered the six precious words that continually motivate me to strive to heal the body and the soul: “You will make a good doctor.”