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What are Medical Schools Looking For?

Medical schools are looking for candidates who have a strong academic background and intellectual potential, as evidenced by excellent grades and MCAT scores; qualities of leadership, character, and compassion; knowledge of and motivation for the field of medicine; and a broad range of interests and talents. You can meet these requirements by being a dedicated and effective student, by becoming substantively involved in leadership and extracurricular activities on campus, and by volunteering or working in health care related settings.

Medical schools want to be sure that the people they admit can cope with rigorous academic demands. With so many applicants, schools can choose among thousands of excellent students. This means there are 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 many more people interested in medical school than there are places available. In 2019, there were 53,371 applicants for 22,686 spaces, an acceptance rate of 43%. (In 2019, Swarthmore's acceptance rate for the 2 graduating seniors was 50% and the 29 alumni/ae applicants was 69% for an overall acceptance rate of 68%.)

It should be noted that it is currently extremely difficult for students who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents to be accepted at a U.S. medical school. Most schools will not even consider their applications. International students are not eligible for any of the federal financial aid on which so many medical students rely, and if accepted must often escrow tuition payments in advance. Nevertheless, some Swarthmore international students have been accepted to U.S. medical schools. Please make an appointment to see Gigi to discuss your situation.

There are two academic factors that are important for gaining admission to medical school. They are your grade point average (GPA) and your MCAT score.

A. Grade Point Averages

There are two GPAs that are important in applying to medical school. The first is your Swarthmore-only GPA, which includes only those courses that were taken for a grade on the Swarthmore campus. The Health Sciences Advisory Committee uses that average to see how you performed academically in comparison to your classmates.

The second GPA is your AMCAS average. AMCAS is the application service that you must use to apply to nearly all the U.S. allopathic (M.D.) medical schools. AMCAS computes your 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. This is the GPA medical schools use to compare you to other applicants from various colleges and universities. AMCAS will compute your overall average and your average in all courses taken in biology, chemistry, physics and math (known as your BCPM); both are important to medical schools. Veterinary, dental and osteopathic (D.O.) medical schools have very similar centralized applications, which operate in the same way.

Grade point averages are determined by assigning a 4.00 to an A, a 3.67 to an A-, a 3.33 to a B+, a 3.00 to a B, etc. In 2019, the national average GPA for matriculating medical school students was a 3.73 and the Swarthmore average GPA for accepted students was 3.76. The competitive premedical student should therefore aim to have an average of approximately an A- when applying to medical school. Please note: There is no GPA cut-off for obtaining a Health Sciences Advisory Committee letter of recommendation.

Admission to veterinary school requires a GPA of about a B+. At the moment, a B+ average is an acceptable GPA for a top dental school. You should seriously consider dentistry, nursing, podiatry and other specialties if your grade point average is B or below and you want a career in the health professions.

1. Your Swarthmore Grades

At Swarthmore a 3.5 average or above is a solid basis for applying to medical school. Below a 3.5, your chances of admission depend a great deal on trends in the academic record, consistency of cumulative average, strength of science course grades, state of residence, and personal factors. B+'s or better in science courses are, of course, to be desired as science grades (biology, chemistry, physics, and math) are reviewed carefully. Because the number of applications to individual medical schools is so great, most medical schools must play the numbers game, at least initially. For example, in 2019 Tufts University School of Medicine had 12,764 applicants for its first year class of 200, which meant that 1.6% of the students who applied actually matriculated at this medical school. Many medical schools simply look at GPAs and MCAT scores (see below) and on the basis of those two factors decide which students to eliminate first.

Swarthmore has a rigorous grading situation and medical schools are aware of this. In other words, most medical schools know that anyone with a strong B+ - A- 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.

This certainly does not mean that by the end of your freshman year you need a 3.5 average. If you can obtain a B average in your freshman year, you are off to a wonderful start. The freshman year is the hardest. A student's GPA usually increases during the junior and senior years, because by then the student is more accustomed to college-level work and he or she is taking courses in his or her chosen major, instead of required or introductory courses. The GPA should steadily increase.

Students often believe that a C in Organic Chemistry, for example, will preclude them from getting into medical school. It will not hinder them if they have A's in other science courses. If you get a C in Organic I, your best strategy is not to repeat the course, but to get a A- or better in Organic II to show that you can do the work. If you retake a course, the first grade remains on the transcript and medical schools include both grades when they calculate your average.

If you receive a NC in a course, Swarthmore College does not count that course in the required GPA of 2.0 for graduation (because it is not recorded as a credit). It does remain on your transcript, however, and must be included as a zero when calculating your GPA for allopathic medical schools if it was received after your first semester at Swarthmore.

2. The Pass/Fail Option

During the first semester, all grades at Swarthmore are recorded as either CR (Credit) or NC (No Credit). Whether they are good or bad, your grades during the first semester of your freshman year are not uncovered for medical schools - i.e. they are reported as either CR or NC on your transcript. We cannot uncover these grades in order to raise your GPA. When the Health Sciences Advisory Committee computes your Swarthmore-only GPA, it does not include first semester grades.

After the first semester of your freshman year, you may select up to four more courses for CR/NC by informing the Registrar's Office within the first nine weeks of the term in which the course is taken. Do not select any of the required courses for medical, dental or veterinary school (science, math or English) for this designation. While it is fine to take premed requirements CR/NC during your first semester of your freshman year, these courses must have grades if taken after the first semester of the freshman year.

B. Medical College Admission Test

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a computer-based test currently given approximately 25 times each year, mostly in the spring and summer. All of the required science courses (biology, chemistry,physics, statistics, psychology and sociology) should be completed before taking the exam. Test-takers receive their scores within 30 days of the examination. Applicants should plan to take the test in the spring or summer of their application year at the latest. Scores are typically good for two to three years, depending on the school.

The MCAT examination includes a multiple choice Verbal Reasoning test, a Physical Sciences test based on physics and general chemistry, and a  Biological Sciences test based on biology and organic chemistry, and a Behavioral Science test covering psychology and sociology/anthropology.

C. Important Extracurricular and Job Experiences

Swarthmore College offers a wonderful array of activities and student organizations. You are encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities, because of the opportunity to learn to work and communicate with others. Medical schools feel it is far better for students to be deeply involved in two or three activities in which they invest considerable time and energy than to dabble in a large number of activities.

1. Extracurricular Activities

Premedical students often choose to get involved in athletics, musical groups, community service, social or political action groups, resident assistantships, student government, or religious organizations. If you commit yourself to two or three activities and emerge as a leader, you indicate to medical school admissions committees that you can manage your time efficiently, are involved but not overloaded, have learned valuable interpersonal skills, and are committed to making a contribution to your college community.

2. Health Care Related Experiences

Medical schools are looking for individuals with a strong sense of personal responsibility, honesty, emotional maturity, compassion and sensitivity to the feelings of others. If you volunteer either during the school year or the summer in health care related facilities, it shows you are motivated and committed to helping people. It also demonstrates to medical school admissions committees that you have seen firsthand what a medical setting is like, and are making an informed decision to choose medicine as a career. Students have volunteered at Philadelphia hospitals, hospices, abortion clinics, AIDS programs and our local ambulance service.

Career Services administers a winter break Extern Week, and can sometimes arrange externships with alumni/ae doctors. Be on the look out for announcements of the program, and contact Jennifer Barrington, Assistant Director, for more information. Through the Career Services website, you can access a list of Swarthmore alums who are working in health related fields; students have had a great deal of success contacting them for externships and other career help. Many students have also "shadowed" physicians through contacts they have at home.

Veterinary schools require preveterinary students to have spent significant time working with a veterinarian.

3. Research

Research experiences are valuable in many ways. They introduce you to new information, important laboratory techniques, experimental design, the analysis of data, critical thinking, working with a research team and, perhaps, preparation for publication. Sometimes research projects or independent studies can be done with a Swarthmore professor as part of the academic program in a science major and appear on the college transcript. If you are interested in applying to an MD-PhD program, you will need to have had a significant amount of research experience. If you are more interested in pursuing an MD and doing clinical work, it is a plus to have had research experience, but not a necessity.

Some excellent research experiences can be obtained at a university or national laboratory offering an undergraduate summer research program. Last year, for example, the National Institutes of Health, the Mayo Clinic, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the University of Pennsylvania and Baylor College of Medicine were some of the organizations that offered research experiences with stipends to qualified undergraduates. These summer fellowships are competitive and winning one can benefit you both from the laboratory experience and the additional information which usually helps in studying for the MCAT. Directors of admission at medical, dental or veterinary schools look with favor on students who have been awarded these summer fellowships. The Health Sciences Office provides information on our website and via e-mail about many summer research opportunities, especially for those who have completed their sophomore or junior years.  The deadlines for many of these programs fall early in the year in January and February, so be sure to start your search early, if you're interested.