What Makes a “Perfect” Pre-med

by Rebecca Gao

What medical schools actually look for in a competitive applicant often differs vastly from popular perception. Students have created a mythical “perfect” medical school applicant whom all pre-meds aspire to emulate. The difficulty of earning that medical school acceptance letter has spawned a number of interesting rumors which pervade undergraduate culture.

According to Alan Wong, a pre-med freshman majoring in Biological Sciences, the “perfect” pre-med possesses “the character that would make a person respected in any walk of life…a successful premed is…highly intelligent and perceptive, but ultimately, integrity of character and intention are of paramount importance.”

Said Tiffany Sun, a pre-med freshman majoring in Biological Sciences, “I’ve heard that pre-meds have to log a certain number of hospital volunteering hours and do a lot of ‘hard science’ research in labs. They have to do all sorts of crazy stuff like publish papers and get 4.0 grades and join like six to seven pre-med organizations.”

Said CeCe Sun, a junior in the Baccalaureate-MD program, “A lot of students have the misconception that a certain mold of student will be the most successful in matriculating to med school, and that’s simply not true.”

According to Anh Nguyen, a current Emergency Physician and a graduate of the USC Keck School of Medicine, “Apart from the paper requirements, committees hope to have a well-rounded class, so there are no ‘ideal candidates.’

“As long as you have a passion, [medically related or not], and can share that well on paper and the interview, you would be deemed good for the student body,” Nguyen said.

For example, a pre-med student does not have to major in the sciences.

“At Keck, just under 50% of applicants were science majors and a little over 50% were actually non science majors like business, engineering, liberal arts, etc,” said Gina Camello, the Pre-health-Advising Program Administrator.

“Actually, English majors in general score significantly higher on the MCAT than science majors, possibly because they have honed their critical thinking skills.”

MCATs and GPA are only one part of the application.

“The beauty of premed is that everything is taken holistically into consideration: grade trends, disadvantaged situations…special programs catering to a certain population, etc,” Camello said. “That’s the good thing about med school as opposed to law school, which almost only looks at your LSAT and GPA.”

According to Camello, there are three areas of the medical school application: academics (G.P.A. and MCAT scores), the personal piece (application supplements, letters of recommendation, your personal statement, and your interview), and co-curriculars or extracurriculars (being an athlete, a single-parent, or president of an organization.) <– Please Highlight this in the story somehow! Most important Part!

“[A]s long as these three components are completed, the applicant is ready,” Camello said.

“There’s a big myth that you have to be ready to go to medical school directly after college,” she said. “Your anticipated graduation date does not drive your application. I get plenty of students who panic when they become seniors thinking that time is running out. Everyone is on a very individualized path; when to apply to med school is a personal choice and readiness factor.”

In fact, it might be wise to take a gap year after college to conduct research, travel, or pursue other interests.

Said Camello, “The average age at Keck is 25-26, which immediately tells you that the students may have delayed applying to medical school. Some may have taken a gap year, come from other professional careers, or taken time off to become more-rounded and…find out if they really want to pursue medicine…it gets the maturity factor going and helps in developing a bedside manner.”

Said Ganesh Nagaraj, a first-year medical student at the University of Illinois, “I took a year off between graduating from [UC Berkeley] to find a job and work a bit and to have more time to perfect my application without having to juggle schoolwork with writing my personal statement and supplemental essays.”

According to Camello, there may even be a growing trend towards more non-traditional students as successful applicants.

“At UCSF, a very popular school, the ‘traditional’ applicant is the nontraditional student there,” Camello said. “The standard student did not just come out of undergrad, which is true for any med school, but especially UCSF.”

Said Camello, “Every school has a different snapshot, depending on the mission of each institution. In order to find a school that’s a good fit for the applicant, a great deal of time and research into the various medical schools is needed.

“Doing independent research about the schools is just as important as going through the motions of being a pre-med.”

A medical school’s viewbook, (link?) which every school has, is crucial in researching the “feel” of the school. The viewbook shows the philosophy of the medical school, what they’re looking for in applicants, and what students can hope to gain uniquely from this particular school.

Said Camello, “when you’re applying to school, notice when they value something, when known they’re known for something, when they go out of their way to be good at something” in order to tailor your application to the mission statement of the school.

Each school looks for a different type of applicant, though. The AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges) has a publication with resources to guide applicants based on their portfolios to their best match. For example, UCSF is a heavily research-based school while Keck focuses on clinical experience.

Public versus private schools also have very different conditions. A public school such as a UC asks an applicant to list if he or she has been disadvantaged.

“UCs really take notice of those disadvantaged educationally, socially, financially and take it into account,” Camello said.

UCSF’s admissions committee also wants “people who have traveled the distance,” she said. “They have a lot of people who are in the service, people with profound stories such as a woman who lived in her car for years while still putting herself through school, people who are really dedicated to the cause [of medicine], people who relate to service and really live it.”

Said Camello, “Keck also goes to great lengths to diversify our incoming class. Age and life conditions, not just ethnicity, factor in to the diversification of incoming class.

“There is no cookie-cutter student; it’s a matter of consistency throughout your time as a pre-med.”

One thought on “What Makes a “Perfect” Pre-med

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