The Path to MD: Getting into Medical School


the path to md

A lot of people have asked me over the years for advice on getting into medical school and dermatology residency, so I am kicking off a new blog series on “The Path to MD.” There is definitely no one surefire way to get into medical school or into dermatology, but these are some general tips based off of my own experience and my colleagues’. There are SO many ways to tackle these topics and think about medical school and residency; I’m already having tons of ideas that I can’t wait to share with you!

Please send me questions or leave a comment if you have any thoughts or want me to cover any other topics related to these. I’ll keep it in a Q&A format for easier reading.

Today’s post will center on Step 1: getting into medical school.

Q: What is the “secret formula” to getting into medical school?

The short answer is, there is none. The best advice I can give you is to stick out from the crowd of thousands of applicants applying with you. Keep in mind, you need the basics to make it past the first round filter: a solid science and overall GPA, good letters of recommendation from people who know you well and can strongly vouch for you, decent MCAT score, extracurricular activities that show your interest in medicine, etc. But the majority of applicants will have those qualifications. What makes you different, what piques the interest of someone reading your file, will be something else. Whatever that something else is depends on your interests, talents, and passions.

Be exceptional in something that excites you, whether it’s scientific or clinical research, community service, technology, patient advocacy, health policy, etc. It’s better to be absolutely outstanding at one thing that shows your dedication and ability to succeed rather than mediocre at several things.

So when you’re choosing where to spend your precious time, focus on opportunities that have a lot of room for growth and potential for you to lead and expand the activity. For Stanford specifically, based on the qualities I saw in my classmates, I can say that the school prides itself on attracting well rounded students who have demonstrated either some form of entrepreneurship and leadership or have proven success in research (basic science, clinical, translational, etc). As always, medical schools do not want a class of students who are all the same. Do something you love that’s somehow related to health, something you’re very good at, and take it far. You’ll be golden.

Q: How important is the MCAT?

I think of the MCAT the way I think of all standardized tests (SAT, USMLE Step 1, step 2, etc.). Your score helps you get your foot in the door for consideration but does not make or break your chances of getting into medical school. I know people with high scores (>40’s) who got rejected from all medical schools, and I know people with scores in the high 20’s to low 30’s who got into top 5 medical schools. The MCAT is only one piece of the puzzle. If you knock it out of the park, that’s great and will definitely help supplement the rest of your application. If you aren’t satisfied with your score, it’s not the end of the world – make up for it by having other outstanding qualities in your application.

Q: What extracurricular activities should I do?

I touched on this already above, but just to really hit it home: do something that genuinely interests you, and you will naturally excel at it. When you are a freshman, you might not know what you like, so I encourage you to try different activities. In my time at Stanford as an undergraduate, I did basic science research in a neurosurgery lab working with mice, started a global health publication, volunteered at the free clinics, and helped with global health community service groups such as FACE AIDS and SIRUM. The summers are a great time to explore longer projects, so take advantage of them! I went to Ghana one summer with Unite For Sight, working at eye camps in rural villages, and another summer traveled to India to teach at paramedics training programs. Whatever you do, do it well, and have something to show for your time spent on that activity. If you spend a lot of time in lab, try to have a publication in a peer-reviewed journal. If you join a service group or work at a free clinic, try to take on a leadership role. Show that you are devoted to these activities and that you really went the extra mile.

The other great thing about excelling in extracurriculars is getting solid letters of recommendations from your mentors.

Q: What is the interview process like?

There are some schools that follow the MMI format (multiple mini interviews) and some that still follow the traditional route for interviews. When I interviewed at Stanford for medical school back in 2008, I had two hour-long interviews, one with a faculty member (I still remember to this day: Dr. Miklos in the second floor of CCSR) and one with a student (now a rockstar resident at Harvard!). That was the traditional interview method: two somewhat casual one on one conversations about me and why I wanted to go to (stay at) Stanford Medical School. Common questions asked across all the schools I interviewed at included:

  • Why do you want to be a doctor? (Practice this one many many many times over and make sure it’s convincing and genuine. “Helping people” is too generic and overused. Make it personal and practice with people.)
  • Tell me about X extracurricular activity (If you list it on your application, know the details of the activity inside out. For example, if you do basic science research and you’re interviewing with a basic science faculty member, he/she might ask you specific details of your research. Be prepared to talk about your subject to the depth that you profess in your application.)
  • Why do you want to come to X for Medical School? (Research each school beforehand and be able to talk about specific reasons why you want to go here. If could be a specific faculty member you want to work with, specific resources that the school has, particular fields that the school is known for that you’re interested in, etc.)
  • What do you like to do for fun?

The MMI format is a little bit more intimidating but is supposed to be a better judge of an applicant’s communication and social skills. You rotate through a series of rooms with one to two interviewers in each room. Each room has a card on the outside of the door that tells you what to expect inside the room. It could be a “What would you do in this scenario” question or a “Tell me about this part of your application” question; I’ve ever heard of “tell me about this health policy” questions. The important thing to remember is to breathe, be yourself, and try to be likable. If you got an interview, that means you look great on paper and the school is interested. Now you have to show that you have a personality to back it up.

Q: What about the personal statement?

Why do you want to go into medicine and what makes you a great future doctor? This is your chance to tell your story. My best advice here is to keep a consistent theme throughout your narrative. If you mainly want to go into medicine to do basic science research, explain that desire and use your experiences thus far to support your interest. If you’re mostly interested in global health, here’s the chance to share what you’ve done so far to explore this field and what you’re hoping to do in the future. Tie all your experiences into a common theme and use it to explain what you’ve done in the past and what you’ll do as a physician down the line. Johns Hopkins has a great and somewhat humorous tutorial on how to write a good personal statement that I highly recommend. Also, ask a few folks that know you well or are in medicine to read your statement. Ask them, does this accurately portray who I am and why I want to go to medical school?

Q: What is medical school like at Stanford?

I LOVED my time at Stanford (after 9 years at that institution, I guess I’m a little biased…). I could write a whole blogpost on this topic along. It is such a special place that is uniquely situated right in the heart of Silicon Valley where so much innovation in tech is happening. That energy definitely pervades throughout the Stanford campus. The school is always looking to improve, whether it is integrating tech into the anatomy lab or restructuring the whole medical school curriculum. One of the things that really stood out to me was the support for entrepreneurial endeavors, be it tech that you love or research. Several of my classmates stopped out to do a health related startup and Stanford really helped them with that. Stanford is extremely supportive of students doing extracurricular activities. When I was there, we were given grants to do research year-round, including research that took place abroad. I am so thankful to Stanford for giving me a year off to be the inaugural Stanford-NBC Global Health Media Fellow, a year-long experience combining medicine and journalism. Read more about my blogposts related to the fellowship here. The general gist is if you’re passionate about something, Stanford will go out of its way to support you.

photo credit: Let me see those hands via photopin (license)

4 Comments on The Path to MD: Getting into Medical School

  1. tanya
    September 16, 2015 at 2:24 pm (2 years ago)

    hello Joyce, I loved your blog and I am an aspiring doctor. I will be applying to undergrad this year. what are some tips to excel at applying and making sure you stand out?

    • Joyce
      September 16, 2015 at 9:14 pm (2 years ago)

      Hi Tanya, thanks for stopping by. I think a lot of the same tips I wrote in this post for getting into medical school applies to college as well. Know your story well and tie together your strengths and your extracurriculars and background experiences into a common cohesive theme. Try to show leadership in your activities and how you take things to the next level. Good luck!

  2. Julia Nguyen
    March 9, 2016 at 12:39 pm (2 years ago)

    Hi Joyce, thanks for your post. My son is interested in going into Dermatology. I’m wondering if there’s more competition due to more females interested in this field then males. Or is it about the same ration of gender in this field? Thanks.

    • Joyce
      March 11, 2016 at 6:35 pm (2 years ago)

      Hi Julia, there are more females than males in dermatology (at NYU derm, we have five men in a class of 25 residents) but I do not think that puts your son at a disadvantage in any way. If anything, it may even be an advantage because it’ll be something that sets him apart from the rest of the interviewees!


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