Written by special contributor
The number of students applying to medical school significantly outnumbers the spots available, and the competition among aspiring physicians is fiercer than ever. Fortunately, we've got the inside scoop on how to create a stellar application — and what it takes may surprise you!
50 years ago, the path to medical school was straightforward in terms of education and experience. Nowadays, the evolving medical field reflects the concept that practitioners should be as diverse as the people they serve. So, in addition to mandatory requirements and excellent grades, schools are looking for well-rounded individuals who will bring a fresh perspective to the field.
Accumulate experience, try not to get overloaded, and choose your program or extracurriculars based on what you love to do.
What's the best way to build a strong med school application?
According to Kaitlyn Kraatz, a former career advisor with Waterloo's Centre for Career Development, it's about "being the best version of yourself and following the path that reflects you as an individual. Accumulate experience, try not to get overloaded, and choose your program or extracurriculars based on what you love to do."
Steps in applying to med school
1. Choose an undergraduate program you love
Before applying to med school, you need to complete at least two years of study at university (in what's called an undergraduate program). Contrary to popular belief, you can apply to medical school from any undergraduate program. In addition, choosing a program because it sounds difficult or is strictly science-based no longer increases your chances of acceptance.
"There are no true pre-med programs anymore, and many medical schools in Ontario don't even have specific prerequisite courses," says Kelsey Ambrose, a Waterloo graduate and medical student. "If you're really serious about pursuing medical school (or another health-related career), choose a program you're interested in and a school where you feel comfortable and supported."
- Fun fact: the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is 50 per cent science-based and 50 per cent driven by the humanities and social sciences.
- Learn how a co-op program can prepare you for med school.
- Learn which Waterloo programs are ideal preparation for 15 different health professions.
2. Research the requirements and application deadlines
No matter where you're applying — in Ontario, within Canada, or abroad — get familiar with the application process and the deadlines.
Applications for medical schools in Ontario are usually due October 1. Canadian schools outside of Ontario have deadlines ranging from August to late September. Applications to medical schools in the U.S. are typically due in June.
"There are a lot of moving pieces," says Erica McDonald, a Waterloo graduate and medical school applicant. "Meet with an advisor who can help you identify weaknesses in your application, structure your courses to meet the prerequisites of your preferred schools, and learn which courses will prepare you to write the MCAT."
Fun fact: gain a competitive edge and avoid a potentially overwhelming situation by starting your application early. The entire process, from the day you begin your application to the date of your reply, is about a year.
3. Get good grades in your university program
Your GPA and MCAT score matter — a lot. While med school admission requirements vary from school to school, academic performance is a must no matter where you're applying. Aim to choose an undergrad program you like and can excel in over one that may "look good" on an application but may not reflect your best grades. If you enjoy what you're doing, you're more likely to succeed, which serves both your candidacy and personal well-being.
"While high academic performance is essential, medical schools say they're tired of seeing the same students and want to know who you are," says Kaitlyn. "Don't cheat yourself out of being a unique candidate."
- Fun fact: if you complete a term with less competitive grades, don't stress. Each medical school views the application process differently, and other areas of your application may balance one bad term.
4. Highlight what makes you unique
The application process offers an opportunity to differentiate yourself from the competition by showcasing your hobbies, volunteerism, awards, etc. Along with joining the campus Pre-Med Club or volunteering at the local hospital (both obvious choices for extracurriculars), be sure to consider the value you'll add to your application by choosing to get involved in activities you're passionate about.
Case in point: Waterloo graduate and medical school applicant Erica's knack for working with people led her to volunteer with the campus First Response team, provide campus tours to prospective students, and become a residence don. She also volunteered with UW WELL-FIT, an exercise program that helps individuals living with cancer maintain their physical well-being, and joined enTECH, a student club that helps people with cancer and older adults build digital literacy skills.
"I volunteered a lot," says Erica. "It did help with my application, but I also really liked everything I was doing."
- Fun fact: start tracking your extracurriculars in high school. They are critical to your application and trying to remember your accomplishments can be difficult by the time you apply.
5. Get connected
Reference letters are an essential part of applying to med school, so move beyond the classroom and use your classes, research opportunities, co-op terms, and internships to build strong connections with professors, employers, and community members willing to act as solid character references.
"I knew the co-op program would be an asset to my application, but I didn't realize how valuable it would be," says Erica. "I accumulated 16 months of clinical research experience, connected with physicians, received reference letters, and learned insider tips and tricks that strengthened my application."
- Fun fact: Erica's co-op experience performing cancer research at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and respiratory research at The Hospital for Sick Children inspired her to add a research specialization to her degree.
Meet with an advisor who can help you identify weaknesses in your application, structure your courses to meet the prerequisites of your preferred schools, and learn which courses will prepare you to write the MCAT.
Didn't get in? Now what?
If, for some reason, you aren't accepted, use it as an opportunity to review and strengthen your application for next time. You can also consider another profession in the growing health-care field. Either way, use the additional time granted to you to build your character, determination, and empathy; critical traits for great physicians and health-care professionals.
The application process, even in the case of a rejection, is about making you a stronger, more relatable person in order to one day better support and empathize with patients
"The application process, even in the case of a rejection, is about making you a stronger, more relatable person in order to one day better support and empathize with patients," says Kaitlyn. "If students are committed, we help them plan for their next application or talk about alternatives, such as a modified timeline. No matter which option you prefer, at Waterloo we always have your back."
With so much competition for admission to med school, students who are highly qualified for careers in health also have many opportunities to pursue related careers in medicine and health.