3 things to know about research and MD admissions

medical school admissions research strategy
By John R.

“Do I need to do research to get into medical school and if so how much?” 

As an admissions coach, I hear this question a lot. The short answer is no, but the caveat is that research can usually help the application. Applicants can, and often are, successful in getting into medical school without meaningful research experience. However, medical school admissions is becoming an increasingly competitive landscape, and impactful research can play an important role in helping secure a spot in medical school. Here are three things to keep in mind as you consider research in the context of your medical school candidacy.  

1. When does doing research make a difference?  

How does research really factor into the admissions process? Firstly, strong research can make an already outstanding application really shine. The truth of the matter is that very few applicants will have meaningful research experience by the time they apply, and showing productivity in the biomedical research field will help your application stand out among many other stellar applicants. This usually plays an important role for research-oriented medical schools, which tend to be considered “top” medical schools (since many ranking systems rely on research funding dollars when calculating rank). As such, it makes sense that applicants with a strong research background will have a certain advantage at these institutions that place more emphasis on research. 

Research can also make up for a weakness in one’s application. While a low MCAT score or GPA can hurt one’s chances of getting into medical school, there are many applicants with lower than average scores that are very successful. Research productivity is one way to help overcome such weaknesses in one’s application. Keep in mind that medical schools want an accomplished and diverse student body that will not only study to become a doctor during medical school, but also develop their adjacent interests to become leaders in various medically-related areas such as research, healthcare policy, social activism and advocacy, etc.  Showing that you have a passion for research and that it is something you intend to continue in medical school and as a physician will impress the admissions committee and may help overcome other perceived weaknesses in your application. 

2. Not all research experiences are equal 

A common pitfall of applicants who have been involved in research is doing research for the sake of doing research. This is something that admissions committees can see through more easily than you might expect. An example of this might be an applicant who has been involved with research during undergraduate in multiple labs in unrelated fields for relatively short periods of time. While applicants might be tempted to have multiple different research experiences to include in their application, it is often times more impactful to have fewer or even a single research experience where you have demonstrated longitudinal commitment and productivity to your area of study. Ideally, this would culminate in some form of peer-reviewed publication, whether that be an abstract, scientific conference presentation, or full-length manuscript. These publications are difficult to get, especially before medical school, and very few applicants will have them by the time they apply. While having publications is certainly not required, having one or more publications shows that you were integral in the research project and demonstrates a longitudinal commitment to the research. This goes a long way in the admissions process and will help your application stand out. 

3. Know how to talk about your research 

If you do choose to be involved with research and include it in your application, it is extremely important that you be able to speak about it if asked during an interview. This goes for all experiences that you include in your application, but it is especially important for your research experience(s). It is another common pitfall of including many different research experiences or labs that you were only involved with for short periods of time. You should expect to be asked about any research experiences you put on your application and must be able to speak knowledgeably about your role in the research. As a general rule of thumb, you should be comfortable speaking about the following elements of any research experience you include on your application: 

  • What was the purpose of the research? Be able to explain the disease or problem you are studying and the gap in current understanding or treatment.
  • What was your role in the project? Explain your part in the study, whether it be a leading role or helping with one component of the larger study.
  • Why does this research matter? So what? Have a short and compelling answer to why this research matters and how it will further the field.
  • What are the next step? Be able to describe the current state of the project even if you are no longer involved. Was the research published or presented at a conference? Will there be any follow-up studies?

If you can answer these four questions in a succinct manner when your interviewer asks you about your research experience you will impress them and show them that you were truly involved in the research. Remember, the ultimate goal is not only to show that you had a meaningful research  experience, but also to convince them that you have a passion for biomedical research and plan to continue research during medical school and ultimately incorporate it into your practice one day to advance patient care. 

Summary

You do not need to do research to be a competitive applicant, but it can absolutely help make you a stronger applicant and overcome weaknesses in other aspects of your application.

Showing longitudinal commitment to your research experience is preferable to having many different research experiences. Although it is not required, having a publication result from your research shows longitudinal commitment and productivity and will go a long way in showing you are serious about research. 

If you plan to include your research experience in your application, it is very important that you can speak comfortably about the research, your role in the project, and why the research is important.

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