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Should You Apply? Factors Affecting Your Application

Medical schools are looking for applicants with strong records of academic achievement and ability, excellent interpersonal skills, evidence of compassion and concern for others, maturity, and a well-informed motivation for medicine. They try to determine who are the best candidates (from among thousands of excellent ones) by looking at grades; MCATs; extracurricular, employment and leadership activities; community service; life experiences; and direct exposure to medicine and clinical practice.

If there is a significant weakness in your application, it may make sense for you to hold off on applying until you have had the chance to rectify it. It is very expensive to apply to medical school, in terms of money, time and effort. Don't rush to do it before you have a reasonable chance of acceptance. In fact, most of Swarthmore's applicants each year are alums, many of whom have taken an extra year or more after college to take additional courses, work in labs and clinics, serve in the Peace Corps, or do other interesting, worthwhile activities. Gigi would be happy to talk with any student who is wondering whether he or she should apply this year.

A. Course Requirements

Before applying to medical school, be sure you have completed the required coursework. For most medical schools, that will be 4 semesters of chemistry with lab, 2 of biology with lab, 2 of physics with lab, 2 of math (typically one semester each of calculus  and statistics) and 2 of English. AP credit may only be used for math. For most schools, taking English or a math course during your application year is fine, but you should complete all your science requirements before applying. As of 2015, the MCAT includes a section on social and behavioral sciences and it is recommended that students take a course in psychology and sociology/anthropology to prepare for that test.

For general information about which Swarthmore courses meet medical school requirements, check our Guide to Premedical Studies at Swarthmore College. It is wise to use Medical School Admission Requirements, available on-line by the Association of American Medical Colleges, to check the requirements for each school in which you may be interested.  

B. Grade Point Average

By far the most important factor affecting your application is your grade point average (GPA), calculated by assigning an A a value of 4.0, an A- a value of 3.7 and a B+ a value of 3.4 etc. Medical schools want to be sure that the people they admit can cope with rigorous academic demands, and because there are so many applicants, they can choose only those with the strongest records. This means there are many people who are compassionate and dedicated, who would succeed in medical school, but will not get a chance because there are so many applicants with top grades and scores.

There are three GPAs that are important in applying to medical school: your Swarthmore-only GPA, and your AMCAS Total GPA and BCPM GPA. Your Swarthmore-only GPA includes only those courses that were taken on the Swarthmore campus. The Health Sciences Advisory Committee uses that average to see how you performed academically in comparison to your classmates and that is an important factor in determining your Committee rating.

AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) is the application service you must use to apply to nearly all the U.S. allopathic medical schools. AMCAS computes your Total GPA using all college-level courses you've taken through any U.S. or Canadian college or university, including summer school courses, exchange and cross-registration programs, most study abroad programs, and college courses that you took in high school. Because medical schools are particularly interested in applicants' abilities in the sciences, your BCPM GPA is also computed by AMCAS and includes all courses you've taken in biology, chemistry, physics, and math.

What grade point average is necessary to become a serious contender for admission to medical school? Nationally, the average AMCAS GPA in 2018 for matriculating students was 3.72. The average AMCAS GPA for accepted Swarthmore applicants was 3.56. Our experience at Swarthmore is that a strong B+/A- average is a solid basis for applying. This places a student nearly in the top half of the graduating class, which had a median GPA of 3.63 in 2019.

With a GPA under 3.5, your chances of admission depend a great deal on trends in the academic record, strength of science course grades, MCAT scores, state residency, and personal factors. A GPA below 3.2 makes the success of an applicant less likely at an allopathic school, although some osteopathic schools may consider applicants with GPAs down to 3.0 if the science work is good. B+'s or better in your science courses are, of course, to be desired as science grades (biology, chemistry, physics, and math) are reviewed carefully. Not all medical schools play the numbers game, but many do. Because of the thousands of applications they receive, some schools simply look at GPAs and MCAT scores and on the basis of those two factors decide whom to eliminate first. However, there may be some particular strengths, experiences or factors in your candidacy that would allow you to be accepted with a somewhat lower GPA.

The fact remains that how well you have done at Swarthmore is the major determinant in gaining entrance to medical school. Swarthmore is a very selective institution with high achieving students and a distinguished faculty. Most medical schools know that anyone with higher than a B+ average from here has done a good job in a very competitive situation. Many medical schools rate undergraduate colleges on selectivity and competitiveness, and Swarthmore has a top rating in these categories. Some medical schools even make a slight upward adjustment to a Swarthmore GPA.

C. Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

In 2015, the MCAT format and content changed. Among other things, it now includes a social and behavioral science component. It is recommended that students take an introductory course in psychology and one in sociology or anthropology to prepare.

The MCAT assesses mastery of basic concepts in biology, chemistry (general and organic) and physics; facility with scientific problem solving and critical thinking; and writing skills.

The MCAT includes four sections: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior;  and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills. 

The MCAT is a 7.5 hour, computerized exam with two optional breaks. The exam will be offered on 30 different dates in 2020 at testing centers around the United States and in select sites internationally.

The MCAT grades each of the four sections on a scale of 118 (low) to 132 (high). Students will receive a score for each of the four sections. The scores of the 4 sections are combined to create a total score. The total score ranges from 472-528.

In addition to your grades at Swarthmore, medical schools are very interested in how well you do on the Medical College Admission Test. Validation studies show a correlation between MCAT scores and grades in the first two years of medical school curriculum and on the National Board Exams. (A score of 512 or above with at least 126 on each section is considered a solid score.) However, many students have been accepted with somewhat lower scores, due to other strengths in their applications. Once you have received your scores, please do not hesitate to contact Gigi to discuss your own circumstances.

D. Health Care Related Experiences

Medical schools look carefully at the health care related experiences that their applicants have had in college and beyond. Students who have been involved in a clinical setting, either as an employee, volunteer or intern, show medical schools that they are very motivated to learn as much as they can about the practice of medicine, and that they are making a knowledgeable career choice because they have observed medicine first-hand. It also is a way of demonstrating compassion and concern for others, which are very important attributes for physicians to have.

Students have worked in public health clinics, emergency rooms, ambulance corps, children's hospitals, hospices, doctors' offices, geriatric homes and other settings. Medical schools are interested in applicants who have made a sustained commitment to these activities, and who have gained some insight from them.

Students have also "shadowed" physicians at work. Alumni Relations offers some externship programs over winter break that allow this. In addition, through the Career Services website, you can generate a customized list of Swarthmore alums working in health care in particular geographic locations. You can contact them and ask whether they would permit you to spend time with them at work. Other students have used contacts through friends and family at home to create shadowing opportunities.