MD/PhD admissions: the myths and the facts

MD/PhD admissions strategy
By Amara

The MD/PhD admissions is a competitive and complicated process. That said, there are a lot of misconceptions about what makes a compelling application. Let's debunk four of the most common myths about MD/PhD applications!

Myth #1: I need to have publications to get into MD/PhD programs

Fact: Publications are not required for admission to MD/PhD programs. Programs understand that research can be unpredictable and that lack of a publication does not mean that the research you did was not meaningful and high quality. On the flip side, just having your name on a paper if you did not contribute substantially or intellectually to the work isn’t necessarily helpful. What is more important is that you show an ability to communicate your research findings in some way. This can include presenting at conferences, including regional and other more local conferences, or writing your work up as a thesis. Your ability to communicate your work is also something that your letters of recommendation can speak to.

Myth #2: I have to take a gap year(s) in order to have enough research experience for MD/PhD programs

Fact: You can get sufficient research experience during your undergraduate time. It's all about quality over quantity. Programs want to see that you’ve worked independently, taken some ownership over a project, and contributed intellectually. This can be done during you undergraduate training, especially if you are able to take advantage of summers to get more full-time research experience. There are programs at many universities, such as SURP, that can provide funding to support summer research. Of course, if you decide later on during college that you are interested in MD/PhD or are unable to get sufficient research exposure for another reason, then it may make sense to take some time after graduation to pursue research. You can find opportunities by directly emailing the principle investigators, looking at job postings at institutions of interest, or applying for programs such as the NIH postbac program.  

Myth #3: I have to have perfect GPA & MCAT scores to get into MD/PhD programs

Fact: There are a wide range of scores for students that are successfully admitted to MD/PhD programs. Many programs publish score ranges on their websites rather than just averages. For example, the GPA range of accepted students at Cornell is 3.43-4.00 and MCAT percentiles from 81-100. Similarly, the Harvard website lists the GPA range as 3.64-4.00 and MCAT range from 511-528. There are no absolute requirements and programs largely utilize wholistic review processes that take your whole application into account. 

Myth #4: I have to have extensive clinical experience to get into MD/PhD programs

Fact: You do need clinical exposure but you may need less than you think. It is okay (and even expected!) that you have less clinical experience than your MD-only counterparts. This is because your research will take up much of your extracurricular time. It’s also important to make sure that you have had enough clinical exposure that you are confident you want to be a clinician. Clinical experiences can include shadowing, working as an EMT, or volunteering in a clinical setting. It’s important to note that other experiences that are not strictly clinical also “count” (although you do need some clinical exposures too), these include any activities that demonstrate your humanism and dedication to helping others.  

Amara is currently in her final year of the MD/PhD program at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and will be starting her residency in Neurology next year. She holds an undergraduate degree from Princeton.

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