Find out what courses and medical school prerequisites to take, which scholarly and extracurricular activities you need, and how to fulfill your premed requirements while standing out in the 2021-2022 medical school application process.
We realize that it can be confusing to know what is really required of medical school applicants. You hear that certain courses might be required by some, but not all, medical schools. While official medical school requirements are listed in the MSAR, you know that there are certain scholarly and extracurricular activities that medical school admissions committees want to see.
The study of medicine requires a fundamental understanding of the sciences and mathematics. Therefore, medical school requirements are focused primarily on biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. However, some medical schools also require students take courses in other disciplines. Medical school admissions committees also need to be convinced that you understand what it means to practice medicine, work with people from different backgrounds, and be an effective member of a team among other attributes. Your priority is to do well academically and explore your curiosities. But, you must also explore your scholarly and extracurricular endeavors in a meaningful way.
The good news is, by reading this article, you will understand the academic, scholarly, and extracurricular medical school requirements so you will be well-positioned when applying to medical school.
1) College Attended Requirements
The vast majority of medical school applicants will enter medical school with an undergraduate college degree. Many students ask if the undergraduate college status or prestige matter when it comes to medical school admissions. There is no clear “yes” or “no” answer to this question. Some undergraduate colleges are especially prestigious or notoriously difficult and medical schools might consider this when evaluating a student’s GPA. In the same way, if a student attends a college that is considered easy, the GPA will be considered within that context.
For example, let’s say Student A went to a very prestigious college which is notorious for giving out very few As. She has a GPA of 3.45 with an upward trend. Now, let’s say student B went to a less prestigious college and earned a 4.0 GPA. Student A, depending on other factors such as the MCAT score and activities, might be considered a more competitive applicant than Student B who went to a much less rigorous undergraduate college. The MCAT is really the great equalizer in this process. So, if Student A and Student B both earned a great MCAT, let’s say a 523, they would both be equally competitive assuming all other factors were equal.
Many students attend less competitive colleges for good reason and medical schools know this! There are also many prestigious state school honors programs that medical school admissions committees consider quite impressive. A high GPA earned at ANY college is impressive especially if it’s matched with a high MCAT score.
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2) Medical School Major Requirement
Applicants often ask me what major “looks good” on an application. My response is always “the one that interests you the most.” Students can major in non-science disciplines. In fact, medical schools are always seeking applicants who are intellectually curious and diverse; they don’t want an entire class of biology and chemistry majors. Regardless of your major, take upper division science classes to prove that you can perform well in them. The bottom line is you can major in any discipline or disciplines your want as a premedical student.
3) Medical School Course Requirements
Premedical requirements might vary from med school to med school. However, the vast majority of medical schools require the following science courses:
- Introductory biology with lab (two semester sequence)
- Inorganic (general) chemistry with lab (two semester sequence)
- Organic chemistry with lab (two semester sequence)
- Physics with lab (two semester sequence)
Some medical schools also make the following a requirement for medical school:
- English (two semesters)
- Calculus or statistics or college mathematics (two semesters)
- Social sciences (psychology, sociology, two semesters)
- Biochemistry (one semester)
- Genetics (one semester)
In addition to the courses listed above, we recommend students take upper level science classes in any discipline.
Since premedical requirements differ, it is important to review each medical school’s required courses before you apply. We recommend taking all required courses at a four year university in the United States or Canada.
More medical schools are moving towards “competency-based” admissions meaning those schools don’t require specific prerequisite, but, prefer to see competency in certain disciplines including biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and the humanities. However, until all medical schools move towards competency-based admissions, we suggest taking all of the traditional medical school prerequisites.
What about advanced placement (AP) credit?
Many students who take AP classes in high school “place out” of some required prerequisites in college. Not all medical schools will accept this AP credit. Therefore, is important to check with individual medical schools regarding specific requirements. I suggest that students seek out this information before starting their freshman year. I have worked with clients who placed out of biology” and took chemistry instead. Not only did this make their high school course load demanding, but, some medical schools would not accept the AP biology credit.
4) Medical School GPA Requirements
Obviously, the higher your GPA, the better. However, the general ballpark cut-off that medical schools use is an overall GPA of 3.5. That said, schools also pay attention to grade trends. Many students do poorly early in college simply because they are not prepared for the academic course load and don’t have the maturity and time management and study skills to do well. If you have an upward grade trend, medical schools may be willing to forgive a poor performance early in college. But, for the really competitive schools, academic excellence throughout college is essential. Average GPAs for accepted students varies from medical school to medical school. The overall average GPA for students accepted to allopathic medical schools always hovers around 3.7.
Most recently, the average GPA for allopathic medical school matriculants was 3.73 overall and 3.66 in science.
5) Medical School MCAT Score Requirement
As mentioned earlier, MCAT scores allow medical schools to compare applicants from different undergraduate colleges. The higher you score on the MCAT® the better. A composite score of 509 on the MCAT® is generally considered the score needed to gain admission to allopathic medical schools. The maximum score a student can earn on the MCAT is 528. An outstanding MCAT score is 518 or above. The overall average score for students accepted to allopathic medical schools in the United States hovers around 511.
The most recent data shows an average MCAT score of 511.5 for students accepted to allopathic medical school with the following breakdown: 127.8 CPBS, 127 CARS, 128.1 BBLS, and 128.6 PSBB.
6) Medical School Scholarly Requirements
Most medical colleges, even those that are not major academic medical centers, want applicants to have research experience. Most students engage in basic science research (either for credit, during the summer, or for employment) or clinical research. However, research in other disciplines will also allow you to learn how to think critically, analyze data, evaluate the literature, solve problems, and ask and then answer a question through experimentation.
If you can’t find a basic science or clinical research experience, consider research in another discipline of interest – psychology, art history, anthropology – or whatever else piques your curiosity. What you learn through research in any discipline can be applied to future research endeavors and help you to practice evidence based medicine. You will also be able to evaluate current studies, which will be necessary throughout your medical education, training, and career. Medical schools are placing more and more value on the importance of scientific inquiry, analytical skills, and the ability to apply knowledge practically. Therefore, significant research experience will be more, and not less, important in coming years.
7) Medical School Extracurricular Requirements
Lending your services to help others in need is always a worthwhile endeavor. Medical schools are seeking people who are compassionate, caring, and empathetic. Demonstrating these traits through community service or volunteer work is important. Medical schools also seek applicants who want to help others in need, including the underserved. Physicians also play significant roles in their communities. Therefore, medical schools value students who demonstrate a commitment to serve their communities.
Service work can be performed in medical and non-medical settings, and both are considered desirable. As mentioned above, medical schools value volunteering in a free clinic, nursing home, hospital, or hospice. Spending time in non-clinical settings, such as a soup kitchen, a tutoring program, or helping to build homes for those who are less fortunate, also demonstrates a commitment to serve.
Shadowing/Exposure to Clinical Medicine
All medical schools want to see that you have varied clinical exposure. This can take the form of doctor shadowing, volunteering in a free clinic, or working abroad in some capacity. Some applicants have difficulty getting accepted to medical school because they never shadowed a physician. If you have never set foot in a doctor’s office or a hospital it is tough to convince someone that you want to be a doctor. Admissions committees want to be sure that you understand what it means to practice medicine in a variety of settings.
I often suggest that students seek out shadowing experiences in emergency departments (EDs). I don’t this because I am an emergency physician but because emergency departments are open 24/7, are always busy, and have a variety of patients with varied clinical presentations. The key is to shadow a spectrum of specialists in different settings.
Other Extracurricular Activities
To show you are an interesting, curious and engaged person, you should ideally demonstrate other passions in the admissions process. Medical schools want to have a group of diverse medical students so having other passions can be appealing.
8) Medical School Letter of Recommendation Requirements
Each medical school’s official letter of recommendation requirements vary. However, we suggest asking for letters from the following people to make the strongest letter portfolio
Medical school committee letter. If your school offers a committee letter, include that in your profile
Science Professors: Have at least one letter from a science professor. However, we recommend two science letters.
Math Professors: If you have only one science letter, be sure to also receive at least one math letter.
Liberal Arts Professor: Ideally, your letter profile should include one liberal arts professor.
Research Principal Investigator (PI): If you did research, try to get a letter from your PI.
Shadowing or Community Service Letter: These letters serve mostly as character reference letters, but, can add to your overall profile.
How do you complete the medical school application?
Most medical schools extend interviews on a rolling basis so it is extremely important to submit your medical school application as close to the application opening date as possible. Ideally you should start working on your personal statement and work and activities entries by April. All three application systems open in early May. AMCAS can be submitted in very late May/early June. Also be aware that AMCAS won’t verify your application until it receives all documentation. Application processing and verification can take up to six weeks. But, if you submit early, this processing often takes much less time. The AMCAS application opens in early May. At that time you can enter all of your application information, request transcripts, and have letters of reference sent to AMCAS. Submitting the earliest applications possible is of the utmost importance.
We realize that all for the requirements you need to be competitive for medical school are daunting. So, stay organized, take it one day at a time, and it will all get done! If you need support along the way, we are here to help you.
Frequently asked questions
What about paid shadowing programs like the Atlantis fellowship?
We discourage applicants from paying for shadowing or observerships such as the Atlantis study abroad fellowship unless you are looking for a work vacation and have extra cash on hand. Atlantis “fellowships” start at $4,800 according to their website. Programs such as Atlantis are not highly respected by admissions committees and you are better of shadowing doctors in your community and learning about challenges facing people in the United States.
How many volunteering hours do I need for medical school?
We discourage applicants from trying to accumulate hours for the sake of your medical school candidacy. How many hours you have often depends on the value of an experience and the opportunity you have to make an impact through that experience. Once an experience becomes boring or if the experience dead ends, meaning that you cannot find anyway to learn something valuable from it or contribute in a meaningful way, it’s time to consider dropping the activity. MedEdits student who have been accepted to medical have had between 30 – 1000 hours of volunteer experience.
What is the best major for medical school?
As we have mentioned in this article, there is no “best major” for medical school. You should major in what interests you most. That said, if you major in a non science, be sure you take upper level science classes in additional to traditional prerequisites to show you can do well and that you have a solid foundation for medical school. Medical school admissions committees want to see mastery in whatever discipline you are interested in. Some students see college as the last opportunity to study a non-science discipline in depth and take advantage of that opportunity. Medical schools, which value intellectual curiosity, appreciate this. Based on the data, no specific major will increase your chances of medical school admission.