International Students: Get Into U.S. Medical Schools

Thousands of individuals apply to medical schools across the U.S. every year. While the majority have completed their undergraduate degrees domestically, some have bachelor's degrees from another country. These applicants include both citizens of other countries who are looking to move to America for the first time and Americans who received their undergraduate degrees abroad.

Getting accepted to a U.S medical school with an undergraduate degree from abroad can be challenging, not just for international applicants but even for U.S. citizens. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, approximately 15% of applicants who went to college in another country were accepted in 2017 to the 49 U.S. medical schools that took applications from international students. In the 2019 application cycle, about 17% of international applicants to M.D. programs in the U.S. were accepted, according to the AAMC.

If you are considering applying to medical school with an undergraduate degree from abroad, there are a few key points to remember.

Academic Requirements Vary From School to School

Many U.S. med schools require applicants to have a bachelor's degree before matriculation. Even schools that do not require a bachelor's degree will not look favorably at applicants without one. For example, the University of California--Davis School of Medicine states on its website that while a bachelor's degree prior to matriculation is not required for admission, there are no current students in the med school who matriculated without a bachelor's degree.

[Read: Flexibility Is Key for International Prospective Medical Students.]

Many medical schools state that the bachelor's degree must be obtained at an American or Canadian institution. Therefore, students who have received their undergraduate degrees in other countries will not be eligible for admission to all U.S. medical schools that accept international students.

Some med schools will consider students with bachelor's degrees earned outside the U.S. if they complete coursework in the U.S. For example, the website of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio states that students with a bachelor's degree from outside the U.S. or Canada will be considered for admission if they complete at least one year of advanced science-based coursework at an accredited U.S. school before applying.

However, this workaround does not necessarily guarantee admission to med school, nor does it make an applicant highly competitive. In our experience, the most effective way for students with a degree from abroad to get admitted to a U.S. medical school is to obtain a second bachelor's degree in the U.S. This will make the applicant eligible for the greatest number of medical schools and show admissions committees that the individual is capable of excelling in a U.S.-based academic environment.

If earning a bachelor's degree in the U.S. is not feasible, it is important to research each medical school's admissions requirements and identify those that will accept bachelor's degrees from outside the U.S. Again, for many of these med schools, additional coursework in the U.S. will be necessary.

[Read: How to Make Sure You Fulfill Medical School Requirements for Admission.]

Taking courses as a non-degree-seeking student at a university or as part of a postbaccalaureate or special master's program are some of the ways to fulfill the U.S. coursework requirements for med school. Whichever route you take, find a curriculum where you can take challenging upper-division science coursework similar to that offered in the first and second years of medical school. Focus on classes such as physiology, anatomy, immunology, microbiology and biochemistry.

Clinical and Extracurricular Experiences Are Crucial

U.S. med schools seek applicants who have developed an understanding of the medical profession by working in a clinical setting alongside doctors. It is particularly important to show that you have experience working in a health care setting in the U.S. and enjoy being a clinician in this country.

While clinical experience abroad is valuable, if all of your clinical exposure is from another country, you may have a hard time convincing medical schools that you will thrive as a med student and future physician in the American system.

In addition, by getting involved in clinical work in the U.S., you can show medical schools that you are familiar with this country's health care system and work culture. These experiences will also serve as a valuable way to develop strong patient communication skills, which will be crucial to your success as a med student.

[READ: U.S. Health Care System Challenges: What Every Premed Student Should Know.]

Similarly, involvement in extracurricular activities in the U.S. will be an added positive to a med school application for individuals with a bachelor's degree from outside the U.S.

As with those who completed their bachelor's degree in the U.S., becoming involved with organizations or projects that allow you to give back to underserved populations shows compassion and concern for the welfare of others. This is especially important for someone with a degree from abroad because it demonstrates to med schools that you are committed to serving the people of this country.

Playing up Your Strengths as Someone With a Degree From Abroad Can Help

Getting into a U.S. med school with a bachelor's degree from abroad is very challenging, but if you have lived in a different country and gained an international education, you may have a unique perspective that can distinguish you from others. It is important for you to share this perspective and demonstrate how it makes you a well-suited candidate for med school.

For example, if you obtained your degree at an institution where English is not the first language, or learned another language by living in a different country, make sure to highlight this. You can further build on it by showing how your time spent in a foreign country has helped you become familiar with a different culture and taught you to work with peers from another part of the world.

Make sure to share in your application how this type of experience will help you excel when you work as part of a diverse health care team in the U.S., where you will be dealing with peers and patients from many different backgrounds. By focusing on these strengths, you can increase your chances of gaining admission to a U.S. medical school, particularly if you also have academic, clinical and extracurricular experiences in America.