Medical school admissions perspective: How to stand out in your applications

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If you are applying to medical school, you may wonder how to make yourself stand out in your applications. We asked Sunny Nakae, PhD, associate dean for student affairs at the University of California, Riverside, School of Medicine, this very question. She offers three areas to focus on — personal mission, growth and grit, and self-reflection.

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One of the most common questions premeds ask is, “How can I stand out on my medical school applications?” We brought this question to Sunny Nakae, PhD, the associate dean for student affairs at the University of California, Riverside, School of Medicine, for her insight from the admission perspective. Beyond the usual preparatory elements of course work, MCAT® scores, health care exposure, leadership, service, and research, Nakae offers three areas of focus: your personal mission, growth and grit, and self-reflection.

Your personal mission

What most admissions committees want you to understand is that we consider many elements simultaneously and we are searching for candidates who fit our institutional missions. Schools may have different missions, but all value diversity among their learners and in the future physician workforce. Committees are drawn to leaders and change agents. We get excited assessing applications that evidence tremendous growth, leadership, and advocacy for others. Take time to consider your personal mission and how it aligns with each school before you apply. Identify aspects of your education that are important to you and focus on schools that share your values and what you seek. Apply to schools that fit your personal mission and that will value the activities and experiences you pursued en route. Here’s a secret: If you clarify your mission effectively, you likely will not appeal to all schools. If you try to be universally appealing and fit every school’s mold, you risk being generic — which doesn’t help you stand out!

Growth and grit

Growth and grit are essential for both strong applications and success in medical school. Candidates who demonstrate growth outside of their comfort zones are usually able to write and reflect in more meaningful ways because they have challenged themselves. Committees appreciate your showing us those qualities through your preparation, but we need you to do more than simply tell us what you accomplished. Share how your experiences shaped you, about the new ideas and people you encountered in your premed journey, and how you truly vetted your decision to pursue a career entirely dedicated to meeting the needs of others. The best way to tell us about your passions, motivations, and commitments is to demonstrate them through your actions.


To showcase your strengths and passions, you must authentically know yourself. Spend a significant amount of time reflecting on and interrogating your motivations. Be able to explain with personal passion and conviction why you want to be a physician. This defined purpose will carry you through medical school. If you find yourself repeating motivations that generally apply to everyone (e.g., “I like people, and I like science”), I urge you to return to the introspection process. If you are unable to craft a personally meaningful motivation, consider seeking additional experiences that will challenge you.

One last piece of advice: professional training is not a race. Admissions committees recognize and value the tremendous diversity of identities and journeys among candidates. Do not compare yourself to others. Own your journey. Medicine is a tough road, and we pursue candidates with the deep conviction that there’s nowhere else they would rather be.

Sunny Nakae, PhD, MSW, is the associate dean for student affairs and an associate professor of social medicine, population, and public health at the University of California, Riverside, School of Medicine.

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