Use Research Experience to Elevate Medical School Applications | Medical School Admissions Doctor
After Abraham Flexner, known as the father of modern medical education, reviewed the quality of medical schools in the early 1900s, many changes were initiated to improve them. One of his suggestions that is still appreciated today was the idea that students participate in scientific research.
A med school applicant who has carried out research is a step ahead or, some might say, multiple steps ahead.
From the point of view of an admissions committee – even those at schools that don’t think of themselves as research schools – an applicant’s interest in research indicates valuable qualities. Curiosity and the ability to inquire are what keep medicine and medical practitioners from stagnating.
Having attended many white coat ceremonies, I frequently hear deans brag about the research the incoming class has to their credit before they begin the first day of medical school.
Students who are both curious and hardworking are more attractive as candidates. These students are likely to go the extra mile in many endeavors. They have demonstrated persistence and the ability to persevere. These are needed qualities in medicine, even if the research seems boring to outsiders.
Research is highly valued at top-tier schools. Without a research background, some applicants will be screened out of interviews, even though they have good grades and a solid MCAT score. However, a student with a research background will likely be perceived by admissions committee members as inquisitive and willing to think creatively.
If a student works with a research team long enough, he or she may be given responsibility for an offshoot project, perhaps from a question they posed to the primary investigator. Being given a golden opportunity like that is something you will want to highlight in your application, as well as in the recommendation letter you should ask your primary investigator to write.
A former undergraduate student I mentored had decent grades when she graduated, but had not done well on the MCAT. She spent the next two years doing research with a team of scientists and clinicians who were chosen because they had a reputation for mentoring and high productivity in papers and presentations.
Every team member was encouraged to think out of the box and come up with ways to collaborate across areas of expertise. The student grew tremendously from the work and connections with team members’ projects.
Research was a priority for her and she took ownership of any assignment she was given. She worked as long and as hard as any postdoctoral or medical student in the group and proved her value to the team. She co-authored multiple papers and posters.
Because of her efforts, the primary investigator arranged to pay for her to attend a large symposium in Switzerland. To the best of my knowledge, she was the only presenter at the meeting who had only a bachelor’s degree. When she applied to medical school that summer, she had fabulous recommendation letters as well as faculty willing to call interviewers on her behalf. Medical schools that accepted her could tell that she had maturity and a work ethic that would bring her to the top of the class.
That was the case, and when she applied for residency, she won interviews to the top programs in her specialty. I felt so proud when she contacted me to discuss how she wanted to rank the programs. Her top two reached out to her, trying to win her favor. She received her first choice and was a star at the very competitive medical center.
Medical school applicants should reach out very early to medical centers that offer a variety of programs. For example, the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio offers a summer program for high school juniors and seniors to see what medical clinicians and researchers do. Many other medical centers offer similar opportunities.
In programs like these, a student may gain helpful contacts for later years. Because of changes in compliance regulations, high school students may not be permitted as much hands-on activity as allowed in the past, but you can start to build a network to contact in the future.
As an undergraduate, you can find lots of research positions where you have time to take federal compliance and research ethics courses to do the actual research work. Once you get a foot in the door, ask people to identify the best mentors and then try to meet them. Check papers and abstracts for clues as to who is more inclusive of trainees. Let these primary investigators know you would love to work with them, even if there is no salary available.
Another option is to find out if a professor in your undergraduate school has any research projects you can work on. If not, the professor may be able to link you to a colleague there or elsewhere. Timid students need to overcome any hesitancy and ask for this kind of help. Professors perceive students who ask to be more invested.
The best opportunities won’t drop into your lap; you will have to find them. See what options you can locate and then think about what drives your interest. If you have passion for the topic, you will work harder and feel more motivated and engaged. You will be more likely, as a result, to have a better experience and come across to others as being invested in the project.
The more work you put into it, the more the team will put into mentoring you. Even if posters and papers are not part of the bargain, you will still have a worthy activity to add to your medical school application, a new network and a great letter of recommendation.
Some med school admissions committees accept any kind of hypothesis-driven research. Basic science, clinical research, humanities research and other kinds are acceptable to many schools. Reviewers will be interested in your thoughtful descriptions of your research and enthusiasm for your research team and project.
This cannot be ignored. If you hint that you didn’t like the team or the project, or worse yet complain, it may sound like you are not truly interested in scientific inquiry. Even if you didn’t select your project well or didn’t have the option to find a good match, this is not the time to air your grievances.
If you are lucky enough to be on a paper or poster, that is another feather in your cap. Volunteer to help with other projects that might offer these opportunities. If you are looking for a way to stand out from other medical school applicants, strongly consider research. If you can start early, do it. If you can continue with a good team over a period of years, you have a significant advantage.
I have seen some terrific projects come from students who worked with a professor a couple of hours every week for two or three years, and other students who remained with a research team for multiple summers. There is no one path, only a world full of opportunities.