Is Low Stress Med School Admissions Possible?

Note to Readers: I’m hitting the road this afternoon for a four-day trip. Because of this, I’m posting Friday’s article one day early so that you’ll get a full three pieces this week. Please excuse me if I’m slow to moderate comments or answer e-mails in the near future, my computer access will be limited. Enjoy your weekend!

Med School Mania

Crazy Medical StudentStudents looking to medical school are often some of the most overworked, overstressed students on campus. It has become accepted wisdom that going pre-med is one of the toughest academic paths you can follow.

But does it have to be this way?

Over the past few months, I’ve heard from a variety of students who have recently gone through the med school admissions process. I also had the privilege of talking with someone who could offer an insider view of how the admissions decisions are made at an elite medical institution (which will remain nameless). In this article, I have two goals. First, I want to draw from these conversations to identify the factors that really matter for med school admissions. Second, I want to discuss how to design a low stress schedule that still maximizes these key areas.

Following the standard Study Hacks approach, my goal is not to offer hidden shortcuts, but, instead, to help you eliminate the waste and inefficiency that makes what could be a reasonable journey unnecessarily hard.

What Matters for Med School

To the best of my understanding, the following factors are what matter for a med school admissions decision:

  1. Where you went to school.
  2. Your G.P.A.
  3. Your MCAT score.
  4. Evidence that you have a real interest in medicine and a good understanding of what the lifestyle entails.

That’s it. Keep this in mind: med school is not college. The admission decisions do not come down to who has the more extravagant (and punishing) collection of extracurricular activities and the hardest possible combination of majors. For most schools, if you have high grades and MCATs, and a solid collection of relevant activities, you’ll get in. A big goal of this article will be to free you from the degenerate mindset that if you’re not suffering on your way toward med school then you’re doing something wrong.

How to Accomplish these Goal with a Minimum of Stress

The happiest med-school bound students I’ve met, have followed, more or less, the following advice:

  1. Major in whatever you want. Just make sure you also take the required pre-med courses.
  2. Spread out your pre-med courses to avoid killer terms.
  3. Don’t participate in any time-consuming extracurricular activities during the school year. Just do light things that you find fun and that relax you without eating up your time. (Worry not, we’ll return to when you can do extracurriculars in points 6 and 7.)
  4. Make your courses your main focus. If you find yourself working late the night before exams, you have too much on your plate. Cut back on activities and spread out hard courses more to keep your schedules more manageable.
  5. Definitely do not double-major in biology or chemistry and something else hard. This will make avoiding killer semesters almost impossible. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to avoid majoring in biology or chemistry all together. For someone who is not naturally drawn to these subjects, taking the required pre-med courses is easier than taking the required pre-med courses plus all the other courses needed for those particular majors. A lot of pre-med types feel like they are so supposed to have punishing course loads. This is not true. Go out of your way to avoid it.
  6. Every summer, focus on something that exposes you to the real world practice of medicine. This is perhaps the most important point underpinning this low-stress philosophy: isolate med school related extracurriculars to the summers. The resulting stress reduction is intense without reducing your impressiveness.
  7. If you’re competing for spots in the best possible med schools — those in which all applicants have top GPA’s and MCATs, here’s the secret to making your extracurricular pop: organize your own program. Often this entails taking an experience from earlier summers than adapting it somewhere new. For example, perhaps you intern at a clinic one summer, then the next summer you organize a similar internship program at a different clinic. Another insider tip: consider a senior thesis on a topic involving community-level health issues. This provides the rationale — and makes it easier to find student funds — to launch a pilot program or gather firsthand experience. Under no circumstances, however, should you try to pile up a large quantity of vaguely related extracurriculars during your school year. I know this is your instinct. I know this is what you think got you into college. But med school is not college! Such an approach will saturate your schedule in stress, and it still won’t provide more impact four summers of focused, medicine-related, self-initiated work.
  8. Start studying for the MCAT very early. Get to the point that you can score high without breaking a sweat. These are really important. Much more so then the things that cause pre-meds the most stress (i.e., too many majors, too hard course loads, too many unnecessary extracurriculars.) Take advantage of this reality by putting your focus here, where you’ll get the most bang for your buck.

Why This Works

This approach generates what has been identified to me as the ideal med school applicant: someone with high grades, high MCAT scores, and a solid collection of relevant medical activities. The key, however, is that you can accomplish these goals without having to have your semesters overflow with multiple hard courses and demanding activities. Or so I hypothesize…

As usual, I conclude by turning things over to you guys — the real experts. What are your insider tips for finding a relaxed path into med school?

(photo by Okky Pyykko)

27 thoughts on “Is Low Stress Med School Admissions Possible?”

  1. I feel that low stress medical school admission has to be not only possible, but it has to be the reality. Medical School is filled with plenty of MCAT-esque hurdles such as the USMLE step 1 (MCAT’s bigger brother for residency), clinical shelf exams, and numerous other exams. It is absolutely critical to develop a zen mind set early on so that your existence is not just one bolus of stress after the other. All of these obstacles are not necessarily the most difficult things to get past, but the people who know what is in their path well ahead of time, will be able to beat the crowd of those who do not understand the path ahead of them. Interested in a particular specialty? Do some research with the department in the pre-clinical years. Get to know faculty who can vouch for you. Don’t get caught with your pants down way too late in the game for those holy grail residency spots (Dermatology, Plastic Surgery, Urology, etc…).

  2. As an undergraduate in a Canadian university (and aiming primarily for a Canadian med school), I was wondering if this article would apply within Canada.

    From what I’ve heard, there is a huge requirement for not only GPA, but extracurricular activities as well such as varsity sports, volunteer work, and undergraduate research. Does anyone else have any further information on this topic I could refer to as a reference??

  3. I teach organic chemistry, I’ve seen the stressed out students. The stressed out ones seem to have no real interest in the class besides the coveted A. The people who actually get the A are the students who let their natural curiosity drive them. You can memorize every reaction individually, or you can look for patterns and have a deep understanding of how molecules work. The students who do the latter tend to hold on to the material better and I assume have less ‘relearning’ stress before the MCAT.

  4. @Ed and Mark. Take this with a grain of salt though as I’m not fully informed on these ideas:

    One issue with the whole “where-you-went-to-school” thing is that many med schools have quotas of how many students from each school they accept. For most med schools, I’d guess that you’d have to come from a fairly respective school (defined as a 1st or 2nd Tier school by USA Today Rankings).

    I’d also guess that Cal’s talking mostly about Ivy League med schools which pretty much seem to favor candidates that went to Ivy League schools (the original 8 plus Stanford). For evidence, check out the undergrad schools of the students in Harvard’s MD-PhD program…pretty much former Harvard/MIT students.

  5. My issue with all of this is with your suggestion about not having any time-consuming extra-curriculars. If I am involved in an organization I find fun and relaxing, yet I wish to take it in a new direction and develop it further should I do that even if it’s time intensive? And what kind of time commitment counts as time intensive?

  6. My issue with all of this is with your suggestion about not having any time-consuming extra-curriculars. If I am involved in an organization I find fun and relaxing, yet I wish to take it in a new direction and develop it further should I do that even if it’s time intensive?

    From my experience, stress increases quicker with the quantity of activities than the total time spent. That is, a single activity, even if it requires a fair amount of time, can be low stress so long as it doesn’t generate a huge number of deadlines and you have control over when you invest the time. On the other handle, multiple small activities, each with its own deadlines, can create a pile-up effect that causes the most damage.

    how would this differ from other grad school programs, ie. CS?

    See this previous article.

  7. Ok, I only plan to be involved in 2 activities during the school year: club (recreational, non-competitive)fencing, and in a school program which hosts students for overnights. The first is purely for fun, and the 2nd one has a requirement of 2 overnights a semester but it is a set your own deadline thing.
    I think it would satisfy the rules you gave then 🙂
    This was a great article, and a tremendous help in planning things out! Thank you for your prompt reply as well.

  8. Wait, as someone mentioned earlier, does the undergraduate school you go to really matter? Care to explain why?

    I think it matters. But I’m interested in hearing from those who think otherwise…

    k, I only plan to be involved in 2 activities during the school year: club (recreational, non-competitive)fencing, and in a school program which hosts students for overnights. The first is purely for fun, and the 2nd one has a requirement of 2 overnights a semester but it is a set your own deadline thing.

    That’s absolutely in the spirit of my article, and sounds like an excellent, interesting, relaxed semester is ahead of you.

  9. From everything I’ve read on this matter (and I’ve read a lot because unfortunately my pre-med advisor has given me a lot of incorrect advise), I’ve discovered that:

    1. It does not matter where you went as an undergrad, as long as you do well. If there is a question about your grades compared to another applicant’s grades at a “better” institution, they will look at your MCAT scores. A woman on the admissions committee at the David Geffen School of Medicine (UCLA) said that it doesn’t even matter if you take classes at a community college.

    2. I believe you wrote about the difference between being the CEO of your own company and being a club president in one of your articles. The same theory applies to medical school. Do exceptional things that will show the admissions committee who you are as a person. And do them because you enjoy them, not just to get admitted.

    3. Chill out. Most pre-meds are way too uptight. Enjoy life. Figure out who you are and what you enjoy doing. That will help you get in more than you think.

  10. Want a non-stressed path to medicine? Go to Graduate school after your undergrad and get out of the undergrad panic. It seems so many people think they HAVE to go straight out of Undergrad – NOT TRUE! I really think there should be a requirement of taking a year or two off before med school, just to mature more as a person and to find out if you’re happier without thinking about medicine. My experience of applying was vastly different while in Grad school as compared to Undergrad. It’s just amazing to me the difference between Grad students and Undergrads in the way they (at least for me) think about their career and the medical profession. I realized that it’s not stressful at all if you are doing it with the right motivation and genuinely want to become a great physician (and having an advanced degree on your resume never hurts!)

  11. So if I go to CSUN and do very good that will be ok or go to UCLA and do average in GPA which will work for medical school?

    For most major medical schools you can find online a matrix that tells you your chances of getting in for each GPA/MCAT combination. You need scores that give you a relatively high percent here. If you’re at a lesser known college for your undergraduate years you’ll have to do a little better.

  12. I’d be interested to find out how much this applies to vet school. I’ve heard it can be even tougher to get into than med, as there are fewer schools in the US. Any thoughts?

  13. I’d be interested to find out how much this applies to vet school. I’ve heard it can be even tougher to get into than med, as there are fewer schools in the US. Any thoughts?

    Great question. I don’t know anything about vet school admissions, but if someone out there does, please share…

  14. Hello everybody! Cal, that was a very thought-provoking article. If this blog is still running, I’d like your opinion on my current college standing. — I’m a first year undergrad Chemistry major. I’ve considered a switch to Biology, however I’ve seriously considered Biomedical Engineering. The latter major is very appealing to me, but I have not (all my life) wanted to be a Biomedical engineer. I’d like to explore this. — What are your feelings on leading a Zen Valedictorian lifestyle as a BME major? Think it’s possible? Also, how would it look to medical schools if a student was a Music/PreMed Major? Thanks!

  15. what you have pinpointed are very true

    1. i went to a top private college
    2. i have to do maths, high maths, physics, chemistry and biology because its the standard set of courses to do in my home country, so i dont get to choose which course to do, however grades are very important here
    3. had several positions in high school – but irrelevant in application – included hospital attachment and volunteering work in application forms – they love it!

    so basically you have nailed it, for a non-med background person

  16. Hey I am very interested in an MD/PhD program. Does everything you stated above apply except that your activities should be foucused mainly around research? Also I was just wondering I am on the Track team where I go to school, it is very time consuming but I love it, is that okay? Lastly is shadowing a doctor an important part of the process? I have been trying but have not been able to find opportunities? Does anyone know, it is one of the weak points I can identify in my application.

  17. Cal, what are your thoughts on majoring in something time intensive like engineering or CS if we are actually personally interested in it?

  18. I’ve just finished my first year doing medicine and the one thing I would say is that the admission is hard for a reason, it is a difficult course and most of our year agree that its a big step up from past experience. In my feedback from places I’d applied to I found I was successful because I came across as a real, generally relaxed person who had the whole process in perspective as just one part of my life yet I was still passionate about medicine and switched on when it came to discussing relevant scientific/ethical matters. This post definitely would lead you to appear like this and probably help you get in. There are people in my year who have degrees in philosophy/computing/business so don’t feel limited to medical related things, I took business and language courses before medicine as well as the required chem/bio things. Good luck to you all, it is so enjoyable and to look back on a year and see it completed and passed is so satisfying.


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