31 October 2007

Selecting Medical School Applicants for Interview

Many medical schools are in the “thick” of the process of screening applicants and selecting those applicants that they wish to invite for interview. This process generally falls along the lines of first, making sure that the applicant meets the minimum requirements for said medical school in terms of undergraduate grade point average (undergraduate GPA) and scores on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). While most medical schools will review the entire application, in terms of figuring out how to get 8,000 -10,000 applications pared down to a workable number for closer scrutiny, we screen by undergraduate GPA and MCAT scores. There just is not a better way to make the preliminary cut than these two factors.

In the case of those who do not make the preliminary cut, we generally send these applications for a secondary screen by administrative staff who are looking for criteria that we have flagged so that many of those cut by the undergraduate GPA /MCAT screen might make it back into the secondary screen if our administrative staff keys in on something in the personal statement, coursework or letters of recommendation that we should discuss in the admissions committee.

Those applications who DO make the preliminary screen are divided among the admissions committee members who read every work on the application and decide if we want to invite the applicant for interview. In short, do we want to meet this applicant? Would they be a good fit for our medical school? Do they show promise of being able to get through our very demanding curriculum? Do we want to know more about this applicant? In short, we invite applicants that we strongly feel will make good physicians based on the material that is present in their AMCAS applications.

That being said, as applicants are filling out those AMCAS applications, they need to be sure that the information in the AMCAS is as accurate as possible and as clear as possible. Many people have been rejected for interview based on a poorly written personal statement. These rejected applicant may have had the GPA/MCAT score but neglecting to write a strong personal statement is like heading out on a long automobile trip and draining the oil out of your engine. You are just not going to get very far even if your engine appeared to be in great shape. You need to have a well-written and coherent personal statement.

On the other hand, a great personal statement/letters of recommendation will not make up for very poor academics. If your academics are poor, take the time to get them as high as possible keeping in mind that the average undergraduate GPA for medical school matriculants is 3.6/4 and the average MCAT score is 30 with no single score less than 8. Some schools may have considerable variation around their means but my medical school does not.

Are schools “forgiving” of a poor undergraduate start but a very strong finish? To a certain extent this is true but there are academic “holes” that can be too deep to climb out of without years of “damage control”. In short, if medicine is your goal, work diligently and consistently at a high level. Don’t count of anything being “forgiven” and keep in mind that no allopathic medical school in this country is searching for applicants. We have far more applications than we need.

We try to make sure that every application is screened at least twice before sending out that dreaded rejection letter. This is a monumental task that seems to take longer and longer each year. Again, keep in mind that one of my medical schools received more than 10,000 applications for 110 spots in the entering freshman class last year. This year, we have already broken last years numbers. There are just too many good applicants out there.

As I read through the applications, I always look at how many hours of coursework an applicant has taken in any given year as well as the grades earned. In addition, I look at the content of those hours. If a student took three laboratory courses in one year and managed to earn a 4.0 GPA versus a student who took one lab course along with general education requirements and barely managed a 3.0, I tend to look more favorably on the first student. We also make allowances for things like full-time employment versus full-time student.

We look at the age of academic work. A student may have earned high grades 10 years ago but without recent academic work or a recent MCAT score, we generally will not offer admission. Many things change over the course of ten years including the ability to jump into a very demanding academic challenge. In most cases, we ask for some recent coursework in addition to MCAT scores not more than three years old.

In terms of multiple MCAT attempts, we tend not to accept students who have more than three attempts. If a student retakes, we expect the score to go up. If not, that is usually a signal that the student wasn’t prepared on any of the attempts. To keep taking that exam and scoring mediocre scores is generally a very bad idea. If your first score is not what you wanted, do a thorough analysis of your performance and correct your deficiencies. To just keep taking that test without doing additional preparation or changing your method of preparation, is not using sound judgment no matter what your undergraduate GPA.

Graduate school GPA does not overcome a poor undergraduate GPA. As a graduate student, you are expected to maintain a minimum GPA and you are expected to do well. While earning a graduate degree can enhance your application, there are huge differences between graduate school and medical school. In the case of special masters programs that are specifically designed for pre-medical students who need application enhancement, you need to do very well in these programs. Just taking the coursework will not work, you have to take the coursework and make yourself “stand out” from the rest of your classmates in these programs. It goes without saying that we scrutinize the performance of special masters students very carefully and take into consideration strongly, your letters of recommendation from your SM professors.

I have written the above so that those folks who are in the process of contemplating application to medical school might definitely understand how important it is to have a complete and strong entire application. You are considered within the context of how competitive you are with the rest of our applicant pool and how competitive you are with the national applicant pool. We are given AMCAS data as it becomes available and we adjust our standards according to the data that we receive. For the past five years, undergraduate GPAs and MCAT scores have been increasing. We don’t expect that this trend will reverse.

The number of applicants had increased slightly this year. We don’t’ know if this is a national trend or just a trend for our school. In general, many people look at medicine as a very lucrative career and seek out admission to medical school for this reason especially when the national economy is not as strong as in previous years.