Ways Medical School Applicants Send the Wrong Signal

Azadeh Salek, M.D.

One of the most important questions for a medical school admissions committee when evaluating an applicant is whether that applicant is passionate about becoming a medical doctor. The application to medical school is a great opportunity for applicants to demonstrate this passion.

Sometimes, however, applicants with a genuine interest in the field of medicine shoot themselves in the foot by failing to convey their love for the profession. This may lead admissions committees to question whether the applicant really wants to be in medicine. Four key mistakes may lead admissions committees to question if a med school applicant is truly passionate about the medical field:

-- The application lacks reflection on clinical experiences.

-- The applicant's primary goal is research or public health.

-- The applicant has applied to only a handful of schools.

-- The applicant sounds too idealistic about the role of the physician.

The Application Lacks Reflection on Clinical Experiences

Just about all medical schools expect premed students to explore the medical profession by working in a clinical setting as a volunteer or in a paid capacity. Ideally, applicants should spend some time alongside physicians either observing or assisting them while learning about the role of the physician.

[READ: 4 Steps Premeds Should Take to Maximize Volunteer Clinical Experience.]

Unfortunately, even applicants with solid clinical experiences sometimes fail to reflect on these experiences or to demonstrate how such experiences motivated them to go into medicine. Medical school applicants should use their personal statement, primary application and secondary applications to show a passion for medicine. To achieve this, they need to discuss what they enjoyed most about being involved in patient care and which aspects of the work of physicians appeal to them most. Failing to address such topics by not reflecting on clinical experiences may lead medical schools to question whether the applicant is really committed to the profession.

The Applicant's Primary Goal Is Research or Public Health

A common mistake that applicants make in their personal statement is to draw on their interest in medical research or their passion for addressing population-level health problems as their main impetus for going into medicine.

For example, some applicants dedicate extensive space in their personal statement talking about witnessing disparities in health care or seeing the impact of social determinants on health. They go on to argue that their desire to solve these disparities in health care or to address social determinants drives them to go into medicine. Others use their essay to talk about a yearning to find cures for disease through medical research as their reason for going into medicine.

[Read: 4 Activities That Make Strong Medical School Candidates.]

These are admirable goals and many physicians take part in such activities. However, if an individual's primary objective is to solve the social challenges that affect healthcare or to identify the molecular pathways that lead to cancer, medical schools may question why that individual needs a medical degree.

A medical education provides the opportunity to work in the clinical setting -- caring for individual patients, diagnosing disease and providing medical treatments. Applicants should make sure their interest in these activities shines through in their medical school application.

The Applicant Has Applied to Only a Handful of Schools

Everyone knows that getting into medical school is very competitive. Med schools want to see that you are willing to do whatever it takes to realize your goal of becoming a physician.

[Read: Why Medical School May Not Be the Path for You.]

If you have applied to only a handful of schools, medical schools may wonder if you are really committed to medicine or if your willingness to pursue medicine is contingent on outside factors like location. That said, some people may have extenuating family or life circumstances that limit them. If this is the case with you, it may be worth explaining such circumstances in your application or during the interview.

The Applicant Sounds Too Idealistic About the Role of the Physician

Sometimes admissions committees are left wondering whether an applicant's passion for medicine is based on a falsely idealistic view of the medical profession. The personal statement may focus only on the many positive aspects of being a physician without acknowledging the inherent challenges involved, such as the reality of having to care for patients with incurable illnesses.

Similarly, some applicants use hyperbole in their essay that may call into question whether they have a mature understanding of the role of the physician. Statements like "As a physician I will save lives every day" will lead admissions committees to call into question whether you really understand what kind of profession you are getting into. They may worry that you have not seen the challenges involved in medicine and that once you learn about these challenges, you will be disappointed. Therefore, it is a good idea to demonstrate a realistic understanding of the medical profession to prevent such concerns from arising.

As you work to put together a strong application, remember that medical schools want individuals who are going into medicine for the right reasons and with great conviction. By reflecting on your clinical experience, showing a genuine interest in clinical work, demonstrating a willingness to step out of your comfort zone and conveying a realistic understanding of the medical profession, you will help alleviate questions about whether medicine is the right fit for you.