Admissions Unveiled: What You Need to Know

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Get answers directly from the source — the medical schools. We asked three medical school admissions professionals frequently asked questions about the application process. Here's what they had to say.

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Getting accepted to medical school is a long journey, and it’s normal to have a ton of questions about the process of applying. With application season right around the corner, we’ve asked three medical school admissions professionals — from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, the University of Arizona College of Medicine - Tucson, and the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine — to answer some of your most pressing questions about the application process.

  • What’s a recurrent weakness amongst applicants that you’ve seen throughout the years?
    • Tanisha Price-Johnson: A recurrent weakness amongst applicants is not being prepared to share why they are interested in a particular medical school — specifically, how they fit the mission of the medical school and demonstrate how their experiences will contribute to the class as a whole. Applicants should conduct their due diligence when applying to medical schools to determine if their aspirations align with the offering of the medical school. 
    • Jerry Yutrzenka: I believe that applicants too often seek out the advice of friends, peers, and the internet as to how to prepare themselves for taking the MCAT® exam or preparing themselves to apply for admission to medical school. While these sources may be helpful, many times the information offered is incomplete/no longer relevant or preys on the fears of applicants. I believe, early on in the process, it is essential to develop a good working relationship with a premed advisor who is knowledgeable and informed about the process of preparing for medical school.
    • Joy Dorscher: A weakness that I often observe in candidates is not being able to articulate why they want to go into medicine. For many applicants, this is a lifelong dream, but they have never really sat down and critically considered what it is about medicine that they find so appealing. 
  • What is the most common mistake applicants make in which admissions may turn away?

    • Tanisha Price-Johnson: While most committee members understand that institutional actions can happen, repetitive behavior is a major concern. An institutional action refers to activities that result in an academic dismissal or expulsion or [a] disciplinary probation, suspension, or expulsion. Examples of these violations include cheating, plagiarism, alcohol-related illness/injury, illegal substance abuse, conduct violations, etc. To the committee, it signals poor judgment on behalf of the applicant and, if the actions are repeated without remorse or lessons learned, the committee may believe the applicant will be unprofessional in medical school.
    • Joy Dorscher: I agree that institutional actions and arrests are a problem. In addition, it can be difficult for committee members to see past an applicant who clearly has started volunteering, shadowing, and gaining hands-on experience in order to turn in a good application. Top applicants demonstrate their altruism over time and in many different ways.
  • What do admissions think about gap years?
    • Tanisha Price-Johnson: Gap years are considered an opportunity to deepen emotional maturity and prepare for the rigors of medical school. Of course, this is dependent upon what an applicant does during the gap year. Academically or medically-related experiences can help strengthen an applicant’s mindset and develop skills where they may be deficient. On the other hand, gap years may also provide an applicant the opportunity to follow their passions before committing to medical school — another way to accomplish something fun while also eliminating potential distractions in medical school. 
    • Jerry Yutrzenka: Gap years are seemingly becoming more prominent for applicants, and they can be very useful in helping the applicant better understand and prepare for their future career. This time away can be a much-needed breather for the applicant, can be a time of introspection, and can possibly provide the applicant with some “real-life” perspectives which may serve to enhance the applicant’s maturity. The applicant should expect to articulate what they did during the gap year and explain how it helped inform them about themselves and as a future physician.
    • Joy Dorscher: The committee looks very favorably on students who decide to take a year to explore other interests and to broaden their own experiences in the medical field. But it is important for the applicant to be deliberate about how they spend their time. That year can go by very quickly and you want to make sure that you have done all that you wanted to do.
  • Leadership is often seen as someone who was president of a club, fraternity, or other organization. But not everyone has the opportunity to hold that title. What kind of leadership do medical schools look for?
    • Tanisha Price-Johnson: I believe this is the foundation of holistic review — we want applicants from diverse backgrounds. This means that an applicant may demonstrate leadership through caring for a loved [one] at home or working while in high school to contribute to the household. Or, [it could be demonstrated by] working as a scribe to earn an income and contribute to the household. Additionally, applicants may come from a community with limited resources, so we consider how they were able to create opportunities for themselves. It is always good for candidates to check with medical schools about what they count as leadership. Most schools are flexible, but it is always good to confirm their expectations. 
    • Joy Dorscher: The idea of the servant leader is one that resonates with the committee. The physician of today must know how to work within a team and therefore may not always be the one in charge. But they will always be asked to serve: to serve that patient, that family, that community. The Mother Theresa model of leadership is very powerful. 
  • What's your best piece of advice for a prehealth student? 
    • Tanisha Price-Johnson: Explore the health professions and thoroughly understand how one can serve others in various capacities. Define your own niche and pursue this opportunity with clarity of the rigor, commitment, and training involved within this very rewarding but also challenging field. 
    • Jerry Yutrzenka: Be aware of and seek out opportunities to learn about/more completely inform themselves about their future career.
    • Joy Dorscher: Know yourself and come ready to learn. Medical school is a challenging time; you will learn a great deal about yourself and what you are capable of. However, if you have not unpacked some of the baggage that you are carrying with you, it will weigh you down and make it impossible for you to demonstrate your best work. Take the time to learn how to deal with stress before you start school, know what you need to do to keep your mind and body healthy, and then do it.
  • Other Topic/Question of Your Choice:
    • Jerry Yutrzenka: There is much said these days about the need to promote better work-life balance and attend to personal wellness. It would be good for applicants to take the opportunity to develop a sense of those things that may lend balance to their lives (sports, the arts, hobbies, relationships, etc.). These areas provide an opportunity to “get away from” some of the daily stresses and help round out who they are as a person.
    • Joy Dorscher: Be who you are — both in the application and in the interview. Trying to be someone else is just too hard, and the committee sees through it anyway. Don’t try to write your application or respond to interview questions in the way you think the school wants you to. The committee is most impressed with the person who is themselves on paper and in the interview. Give the committee the honest and open opportunity to get to know you.

Thank you to the following contributors: 

Joycelyn Dorscher, MD 
Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Admissions 
University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences

Tanisha Price-Johnson, PhD 
Executive Director of Admissions 
Director, Pre-Medical Pathways Program 
Chair, GSA Committee on Admissions 
University of Arizona College of Medicine - Tucson 

Gerald Yutrzenka, PhD 
Associate Dean, Diversity and Inclusion (Emeritus)
Associate Professor (Emeritus), Division of Basic Biomedical Sciences
Pre-Medicine Advisor
University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine

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