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Applying to Medical School

The Selection Process

Every medical school has an Office of Admissions. This office processes the voluminous paperwork associated with the admissions process and usually carries out the initial screening as discussed below. When student files are complete they are referred to the school's admissions committee. Medical school admissions committees have a complicated and difficult task. Selecting future medical students requires assessing diverse information about each applicant in order to make decisions that affect the lives and careers of applicants, the attainment of their schools' educational goals, and those of society as a whole. This information about every applicant includes family, ethnic, and geographic background, activities that may reflect motivation and career aspirations, letters of recommendation, personal statements, academic records, interviews, and MCAT scores.

The selection task is further complicated by the fact that medical schools vary with respect to their educational goals. Some are dedicated to educating primary care physicians and/or physicians for specific sites or regions; many are committed to care for underserved populations. Some seek to educate academic physicians, while others educate missionaries. Various educational missions motivate schools to select students with different characteristics deemed by individual schools to be vital for their specific missions. These attributes may be academic background, geographic origin, ethnic background, career motivations, and value systems.

As an autonomous institution, each medical school has its own selection process and admissions criteria (see profiles, Chapter 7). There is considerable procedural variability among schools and one scheme cannot be applicable for all. Even the makeup of admissions committees is not fixed, although 15 seem to be the average number of members, with representatives coming from the schools' basic and clinical science departments, each serving for terms of one to three years. Some schools have appointed students (usually seniors) to their admissions committee as voting or non-voting members.

The basic selection process takes three steps. At each step some of the variable approaches are noted.

Preliminary Screening

The first step is designed to narrow down the large pool of applications that a school receives to those who merit further serious consideration.

Screening Personnel

After your application and supplementary supporting data (in whole or in part) have been received, your folder will be screened either by two admissions officers independently or by a subcommittee of the school's admissions committee.

Screening Criteria

This is subject to variation and may include:

  • • Total GPA and MCAT percentile (with average GPA levels usually varying between 3.2 and 3.7 and MCAT levels between the 60th and the 80th percentiles).
  • • Total GPA, science GPA, nonscience GPA, and total MCAT scores.
  • • Quantitative data as well as letters of recommendation.
  • • Total application packet including letters of recommendation and application essay.

Supplementary Application

Certain schools have designed their own supplementary applications containing questions that they require you to answer (such as, How do you see yourself ten years from now? What will medicine be like in the next century?) or that are optional (List the medical schools that you have applied to). Receipt of a supplementary application to be completed suggests that the school is interested in you. However, not all schools have supplementary applications and not getting one should not be interpreted as a lack of interest in you. You may also merely receive a postcard asking if you have ever been convicted of a felony.

If you receive a supplementary application, it is essential that you respond promptly. Your application for admission cannot move forward without the information they want. Once your supplementary application is received, as well as your letters of recommendation, the basis is available for determining if you should be invited for an interview, placed on a waiting list, or rejected.


After you have been screened, your application will be rated to determine your eligibility for an interview. You may be invited for an interview promptly if your rating is high, relative to the established numerical standard; you may be placed on an interview-eligible list making it quite likely that you will be invited in due course; you may be placed on hold for further review; or you may be put on an ineligible list. The last classification may result in your receiving a rejection, which may or may not require full committee confirmation.


After your interview, a report drafted by the interviewer will be placed in your file, which subsequently will be presented to the entire committee. It will then be discussed and rated, and depending on the rank it receives, an acceptance, hold, or rejection letter will follow.

In general, there are three areas of consideration that influence admissions committees when formulating their definitive decision as to acceptance, hold, or rejection. These are:

  1. Success potential. Committees are aware that medical school is a demanding program and they want all students to succeed. They need to feel confident that to the best of their ability, this will likely happen with every applicant they accept. They formulate an initial judgment on the basis of the applicant's GPA, science com, and MCAT scores.
  2. Motivation and character. The committee is anxious to enroll individuals who have an intense desire to achieve their professional goal and have the drive to do so. They therefore seek people who have done well in college while being active in various extracurricular activities. This serves to demonstrate their intense energy level, which bodes well for those undertaking medical studies. Similarly, they are impressed by those who have undertaken a challenge, applied their skills, and followed the project to successful conclusion. This information should be obtainable from your application and essay. In addition, your character is an important factor in the assessment process. Entering such a sensitive profession as medicine requires individuals of emotional stability, high ethical standards, and sound personal values. Information in this regard can be obtained from your letters of recommendation and interview evaluation report.
  3. Personal suitability. Given the very large volume of qualified applicants, with more than two applicants for each place, an unbiased, but subjective dimension associated with admission undoubtedly exists. Committee members come with their own vision of suitability for acceptance based on an idealized model that each of them has. This hypothetical image includes considerations such as the school's mission, the need for a level of balance among the sexes, incoming class desire to give disadvantaged students opportunities, a bias toward the undergraduate school where the applicant may have studied, and originally an inner feeling of the suitability of the individual for admission. Therefore, comments by your interviewer(s), especially if they are admissions committee members, and a variety of fortuitous circumstances, including the stage in the admissions cycle when when your application comes up for review, can decisively influence your chances.

Bottom Line

Regarding admissions committees and their operating procedures, it is useful to be aware of the following:

  • • Admissions Committees and admissions procedures vary among medical schools.
  • • The typical Admissions Committee consists of the Dean of Admissions, representatives from the basic and clinical science faculties, and in most cases at least one or more (voting or nonvoting) medical student(s). A small number of committees may also include alumni, a physician-in-training (or resident), and an Admissions Office staff member as nonvoting members.
  • • Admissions Committees set their own criteria for acceptance and prioritize their importance. These criteria frequently differ between state-supported and private institutions.
  • • Admissions criteria for minority or underrepresented applicants differ from those of other applicants and vary from one institution to another.
  • • After screening your AMCAS application, a determination is made regarding whether you should be sent the school's supplementary application. If affirmed, this, plus payment of a fee, will enable your application to be processed further. Not being sent a supplementary form terminates further consideration of your application and is equivalent to rejection.
  • • A special subcommittee initially screens all incoming applications, and supplementary forms, to determine which candidates are most suitable as prospective interviewees. These individuals are usually placed into one of four categories: interview, hold for possible later interview, reinterview, and decline to interview (i.e., reject).
  • • After the interview has taken place, the entire committee will examine each applicant's completed portfolio. These usually include a completed AMCAS application, the secondary form, MCAT scores, letters of recommendation, and the interviewer(s)' evaluation(s). The committee will then be ready to make a definitive decision.
  • • All eligible members will vote on each applicant during each review cycle. Those with the highest number of votes above a cut-off point will receive a letter of acceptance. All other applicants will either be put on a waiting list or rejected, depending on how they are ranked in committee voting.
  • • During subsequent cycles, the committee will review new applicant portfolios as well as those who are on the waiting list.
  • • The admissions process continues until the class is filled and an adequate pool of qualified waiting list applicants is available to replace any accepted applicants who withdraw their names before the start of class.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesGuide to Medical & Dental SchoolsApplying to Medical School - General Considerations, Selection Factors, The Application Process, Recommendations, The Interview, The Selection Process