So you want to be a doctor: Applying to Medical School
Contributor Michelle Li
So you want to be a doctor?
While most first-year students don’t know exactly what they want to do in the future, pre-meds typically have their ideal future painted out for them. Some may have even said “I want to be a doctor” as early as middle school, after gaining their first exposure to science in science classes.
I’m not going to sugar coat it for you — the Canadian medical school application process is rigorous, exhausting and fiercely competitive. Thousands of students across the country work diligently to make sure their application is “perfect”. This process can be incredibly overwhelming and confusing, but we’re here to help you get an idea of it earlier on.
Medical school applications typically require these components: your grade point average (GPA), personal statements, letters of recommendation and the medical college admissions test (MCAT). However, not all medical school applications are the same so it’s important to do your research and check the requirements for each school of interest.
Let’s break down the components of the application process.
Competitive applicants for Ontario medical schools usually have their GPAs fall within the 3.70 - 4.0 range, with variations for each school. The way your GPA is calculated differs at each school and is usually called wGPA (weighted GPA). Queens University will look at the last two years, UOttawa weighs upper years more heavily than earlier years, McMaster University will look at all grades and Western University looks at your best two years. Some schools even drop some of your lowest courses (i.e. University of Toronto) or look at your best two years (i.e Schulich School of Medicine).
While we all know that achieving a high GPA is one of our ultimate goals in our undergraduate career, it is important to note that this isn’t the only deciding factor for admission into medical school. You can calculate your GPA by referring to the OMSAS website and converting your grades there based on the school you attend, you also need to calculate your GPA by converting each percentage into GPA scale and then averaging it out. However, some medical schools may look at different combination of years (i.e. Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry will also look at your best two years alongside your cumulative GPA from all your years of study). Although you may feel that your GPA isn’t the best for a particular school, your wGPA may look different at another school, so don’t feel discouraged!
The second “scored” component to the application is the notorious MCAT. The MCAT is a standardized test required for admission to most medical schools in the U.S. and Canada (the exceptions in Ontario being UOttawa and Northern Ontario School of Medicine). The test focuses on providing medical schools with more insight on students’ problem solving and critical thinking skills. Ever since 2015, the test formatting and scoring has been altered and contains 4 sections: chemical and physical foundations of biological systems, critical analysis and reasoning skills, biological and biochemical foundations of living systems and psychological, social, and biological foundations of behaviour. It is also important to note that the MCAT scores are valid for two to three years but it is still good to double check with the specific schools as this may not apply to all schools. It is also good to keep in mind that you will only be allowed to take the MCAT seven times in a lifetime.
When should I take the MCAT?
While there may not be a definitive date/year to write the MCAT, students often tend to prepare and take the MCAT during one summer of their undergrad career.
Some people may take the MCAT as early as the summer of second year; however, this may not be ideal for everyone, and that is okay! You may still be determining what you want to do in the future or decide that you need to spend your summer working instead. Take everything at your own pace, set your own individual plan that suits you best.
It’s important to remember that you should be writing the test whenever you feel ready. Don’t feel pressured to write it just because all your friends are; you will only be given a few attempts to write it and for Ontario medical schools they will only look at your most recent attempt (even if you do worse on your rewrite) so deciding to rewrite can be a challenging decision.
Which preparation books should I study from?
There are many companies out there that aim to provide potential MCAT test takers with resources. The three most common preparation book series are Examkrackers, Kaplan and the Princeton Review. However, since preparation books differ in this organization and depth of content, each book series will be suited for different students. This also means that different books will work for different students. Students may decide to self-study or take a course if they feel like they require external motivation and a fixed schedule, so it all depends on your own study style. Prep courses include preparation books so it is a good idea to take a look at each prep company’s course style and price for more information. We will provide a separate article that goes into detail about different preparation book series.
Some medical schools (for Ontario: McMaster University and UOttawa) also require a Computer-based Assessment for Sampling Personal Characteristics (CASPer) for admission consideration which can be completed at home on your own computer. CASPer is a 90 minute web-based situational judgement test mainly used to evaluate students’ personal and professional characteristics (i.e. communication skills, ethics and problem solving). It typically consists of 12 stations, each one consisting of a short video/directed text which are then followed by three questions relating to the material that was presented in the video/question. The content they cover include situational challenges and self-reflective questions with the overall purpose of determining how an individual will behave in certain situations. The test dates that are available vary with each medical school so be sure to check it out on the respective medical schools’ websites.
Personal Statements/Essays and Letters of Recommendation
Hold up! Grades and standardized test scores aren’t all. Most medical schools want to get to know you beyond the numbers they receive from your transcript, so they’ll ask you to provide answers to essay questions or personal statements.
Personal statements help medical schools get a better sense of your individuality. Admissions committees want to ensure they are recruiting students that demonstrate the personality traits and emotional characteristics that they believe medical students should have, and these traits can shine in an essay.
Personal statements ask various questions and give students a chance to discuss their achievements, experiences, choices and aspirations. It is important for students to be genuine in their statement and elaborate on their own unique experiences, instead of just writing what they think admissions boards would want to hear. Remember, you want to stand out from the thousands of applicants! It is also important to note that personal statements should be edited rigorously, to ensure that the statements are of the highest caliber they can be. It is beneficial to also get feedback from peers and mentors who know you well.
Another way medical schools “get to know you” is through letters of recommendations. Please check the requirements for these, because they may ask for one academic reference and one non-academic. For Ontario medical schools, they require 3 letters of recommendation and at least one has to be non-academic.
You want to ensure that the people writing these letters can thoroughly vouch for your achievements and experiences. Hopefully, they know you well enough that they can write a detailed letter instead of something vague and general.
Autobiographical Sketch (ABS)
This portion of the application gives admissions boards an opportunity to learn more about you. This section typically contains 4-5 sections including employment, volunteer activities, extracurricular activities, awards and accomplishments and research. It is important to note that quality is more important than quantity. While these sections give applicants space to write down anything you’ve done since you were 16, this doesn’t mean that you should write fill up all slots given. However, it is still a good idea to list all relevant experiences but they should all have a purpose, add to an overall theme or showcase unique characteristics about yourself (i.e. not a volunteering event you did for a few hours). It is also important to remember that you won’t have a lot of room to expand on what you’ve done (only a few characters), so concision is key!
So when does the application process all go down? Most students aim to apply for medical schools during their undergraduate degree. But be careful. Some schools may accept you after you’ve completed 3 years of undergrad, and some may only accept you upon completion of your degree. You can apply to McMaster University, Queen’s University, UOttawa and University of Toronto in 3rd year, and Western University in your 4th year. It is important to learn about the key dates that apply to the specific year you will be applying.
Canadian medical school applications are usually due on the first week of October. However, the due dates vary from province to province. This year, the application for Ontario schools was due on Oct. 1, 2018 while UBC’s was due on Sept 14th. More information regarding specific medical schools can all be found on their respective websites.
Prior to these dates, students should have already written the MCAT and received their results. Ideally students should have their MCAT scores before they begin their medical school applications; however, you can write it and have your score submitted after your application is submitted, check on the AAMC website! Emails inviting students for an interview are typically sent out in January and acceptances are typically sent out in May of the following year. However, interview invites can come out on a rolling basis until March.
Because there are many deadlines that vary across universities, provinces and countries it is important to check admissions information from the actual medical school website or the admissions committee as opposed to forums!
You can do this!
While this whole process might seem incredibly intimidating and stressful, it is important to remember why you are doing it in the first place.
It’s okay if you have to rewrite the MCAT or apply to medical school a few times. Of the ~2500 applicants at each school, a total of 150 incoming class members are chosen on average.
Throughout your undergraduate years, there will also be many resources that will aid and guide you in the long and complicated process. Whether that be academic counselling or even student-led clubs with like-minded individuals such as BMSA!
There are also many options to consider if you don’t get accepted right after undergrad. Many students go on to graduate studies, research or work. These experiences can show medical schools you took the time to continue pursuing activities you enjoyed and provide an opportunity to discuss how these experiences have enhanced your knowledge and helped you grow as a person. There have been instances where students didn’t do so well in their undergraduate studies so they opted to take a 5th year before applying again for medical school and getting in.
Ultimately, medicine is not a race. There’s no rush in getting into medical school and everyone will go at their own pace. Students have applied multiple times before getting in, which comes to show that as long as you have your heart and mind set on this goal you can succeed!