How to stand out as a medical school applicant

medical school admissions strategy writing
By Wilton

You’ve worked for several years to ready yourself for applying to medical school. Perhaps you’ve taken gap years to beef up your experiences or made a career change. But as you stand on the verge of applying to medical school, one question looms: will it all be enough? 

There’s no question that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to stand out in the medical school applicant pool. Among the top applicants, nearly everyone has a combination of a high GPA/MCAT score, and a slew of research, clinical, and volunteer experiences. In fact, many applicants often have identical activities and experiences on their AMCAS. So, how do you differentiate yourself? 

When you are applying to medical school, your essays are your last chance to create value for yourself as an applicant before the admissions committee determines your fate. Your activities and experiences themselves are obviously important, but it is how you describe them that makes you stand out. As such, an equal amount of time and effort should be devoted to them as you did on your MCAT or clinical experiences. Below are a few tips as you begin drafting your essays: 

1. Show, don't tell

No one will take your word for it if you tell the admissions committee that you are compassionate, hard-working, or resilient. If you want to convey those things to the committee, you must demonstrate it in your writing through a particular patient interaction, anecdote, or other example. Showing through stories makes you more personable on paper, and it allows the committee to come to their own conclusions about your attributes as opposed to being forced to believe something about you. As you begin drafting your essays, really spend some quality time thinking about your experiences. Was there a very memorable patient you encountered while volunteering at the hospital? Did you have a “eureka” moment while working on a research project? These memories are a great starting point. 

2. Reflect on what you have learned 

When talking about a particular story, one of the biggest mistakes that people make is spending too much time on what happened. For example, if a core memory of your desire to become a physician stemmed from shadowing a physician, it can be easy and tempting to get carried away with describing every detail about them. The details are certainly important, but the essay needs to focus on you. After all, admissions committees are trying to paint a picture of who you are. For every story you describe in your essays and every experience you list on your application, you should be able to articulate lessons you learned from those experiences. Perhaps you learned about the importance of teamwork in medicine or gained a critical insight into the issues in our healthcare system. This information lets committees know how you think and creates opportunities for you to impress them with your insights.  

3. Tie your experiences to your future career as a physician 

This tip is obvious when describing clinical or research experiences, but chances are that not every single experience on your application is medically related. However, the skills you gain or lessons you learn from nonclinical experiences can also have clinical relevance. In fact, your nonclinical experiences or interests are an opportunity to convey to the admissions committee something you can contribute that few other applicants can. Medicine overlaps with multiple other fields, and those that come from non-science or non-traditional backgrounds or have other unique experiences should highlight how their unique background can relate to medicine. Someone who is passionate about religious studies can articulate how they plan to use their background to relate to patients with differing faiths or make patient-centered decisions. Someone who has a background in dance may have knowledge on common foot and leg injuries. Most importantly, this tip reinforces the fact that there is no one path to medical school—you create your own! 

Keeping in mind that admissions committees only spend a fixed amount of time on your application, selling yourself on paper is not an easy task. Tutors from Cambridge Coaching can provide critical edits of your essays, as well as guidance on your readiness to apply, so will be you well prepared to stand out.

Wilton is pursuing an MD at Yale School of Medicine (expected graduation in 2026). Previously, he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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