What are my chances? Read before asking. [Updated 2019]

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Mar 14, 2002
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Hey everyone,

To help demystify this process, I want to address the frequently asked admissions question about what does it take to get into a program. The standard disclaimer applies. We're anonymous Internet guys and we don't know you personally. You may look great on paper but not get in for some reason. You may see people who didn't look so good on paper that do get in. So take everything with a grain of salt. Remember too that interview matters, you should have a strong reason for wanting to do this, and a set of poor essays may hurt you substantially. But, before you post to ask about YOUR CHANCES, make sure you understand this stuff, cause it applies to everyone.

For the official view, see the AAMC's site, which has recently (Lucca edit: 2019) posted a wealth of new data here.

The following is just one guy's opinion...

1) What is considered a good GPA and MCAT for MSTP admissions?

To summarize the AAMC FACTS Table 10 linked above as of Jan. 2019:
All Applicant Stats: GPA 3.64 (SD .34) / MCAT 510.1 (9.6)
All Matriculant Stats: 3.79 (SD 0.19, Range = 2.5 - 4.0) / MCAT 515.6 (SD 5.6, Range = 497 - 528)

There is considerable overlap over the applicant and matriculant stat distributions, which brings us to arguably the most important component of your MD/PhD application: research experience

2) What is considered good research experience for MD/PhD students?

This is a hard thing to define. The one thing you need most is strong letters of recommendation from the labs you have worked in. The other thing you will need is a good knowledge of your research in your interview. We generally speak in terms of years of research experience, so I'll make the general recommendation:

>2 years of experience is recommended for everyone who applies. The more in-depth and independent it is, of course the better off you'll be. The more time you spend at it, the better off you'll be. Start doing research as early as possible in undergrad and do it often. If you are planning to perform basic science research for your PhD (I suspect >90% of MD/PhDs), the time you spend should be all or mostly basic science research. If you are planning to perform other types of research during your PhD (social science, economics, etc...), you should try to perform research as close to that as possible during your undergraduate time.

As of 2019, about 50% of MD/PhD matriculants will have taken 1-2 or more years off to pursue an independent research project.

3) Do I need to publish to get into a program or into a top program?

NO. For the one millionth time. NO. It may help, but it is certainly not required. We know that a lot of factors go into publishing and many times these factors are completely out of an undergrad's control. I had nothing published when I applied and that is true for at least half of the people in my year (including the international student).

4) So what about my MDApplicants profile?

What are the general guidelines for success that we moderators are thinking about?

GPA -- Excellent 3.9+, Good 3.7X-3.8X, Ok 3.6+
MCAT -- Excellent 518+, Good 514 - 517, Ok 512+
Research Experience -- Excellent 4+ years, Good 2+, Ok 1.5+

If you fulfill all the ok categories but no excellent categories you are a borderline applicant in general. If you have all the excellent categories, you will likely get in, again as a rule of thumb. So if you have two oks and an excellent in one category? You're looking better.

Can you be below the ok level in one of these and still get in? It depends on just how far off you are. It will help tremendously if you have excellents in the others.

5) Do I need the GRE?

Usually, no. The exception is for social science applicants. We do have one report that for internationals applying for Bioengineering at Stanford you need to have a GRE score. So there are rare exceptions, but they are rare.

6) Does my undergrad institution, major, or course load matter?

For undergrad institution, this is a hard thing to judge. In general, if at all it doesn't matter much. Personally, I went from no name state school to big name MSTP with no publications. Stick to the guidelines in question 4.

It is often debated whether science vs. non-science major really matters or not. Among the different science/engineering majors, not really. But, if you had a really hard major don't expect any sympathy if your numbers aren't high. That's just the way it is.

Does course load matter? No. Nobody is going to stare so intently at your transcript as to say "Well there were many hard courses they took" or "Wow look at how many courses they completed per semester". Keep up your GPA no matter what, as that is the real dealmaker. If that means taking easier courses and a lighter course load so you can keep that 4.0 and do research, do it.

7) What about other extracirriculars?

The extent to which these matter depends in part on the school. For MD/PhD by far the most important EC is your research experience. You do want to have some amount of volunteering and/or shadowing to convince people you know something about the MD side as well. Different programs are different in this regard, but it's best to cover your bases by showing that you have some knowledge about what you're going into on the MD side.

You do not need an extensive EC list. Everyone knows that many EC lists are a lot of filler anyways. If you have an extensive EC list, in general it's not going to help you much for MD/PhD admissions (sorry!). It comes back to the research experience.

8) To which and how many schools should I apply?

Sorry, I have no data on this one to suggest how to maximize your chances. Maebea tells us that the number of schools people are applying to on average these days is about a dozen whereas years ago it was more on the order of 4. Does this mean you need to apply to a dozen now to be sure to have the best chances? I just don't know the answer.

You can flame me all you want for saying this, but the USNews Research Rankings mean more for MD/PhDs than they do for MDs. They take into account NIH funding heavily into the rankings and the numbers they give include affiliated institutions (unlike the NIH rankings). It's no coincidence that the correlation of top-40 USNews research ranking to a school being MSTP funded is almost 1:1 out of the 40 programs. So for this reason you can roughly gauge program competitiveness from the USNews rankings. The more funding the school has, in general the more prestigious it is, the more big name labs there are, and the more opportunities you will have overall, and so the more people will want to go there in general. Add some competitiveness points for programs in generally desirable locations for students (big cities on coasts mostly) and take away some points for programs in less desirable locations. [Lucca: Neuronix wrote this, but FWIW I agree]

So take that info and do with it what you like. There is no hard and fast rule and it's going to come down to opinion. Should you apply to USNews ranking schools 1-20 and see which one sticks? Should you pick 4 top-10 schools, 4 10-20, and 4 less than 20? Should you pick where to apply based on some other ranking system such as the school being strong in your area of interest? It's all up to you.

If you have a location bias that is fine. Remember that NYC and California (the most common location biases) are more competitive in general. If you limit yourself to applying to just in those places, consider yourself warned. If you are applying for social science PhDs, note that your application will not be welcome at all programs. See this thread: MD/PhD Programs in Epidemiology

9) Do schools consider me for MD as well as MD/PhD? Should I apply to both?

There are some schools where you will be considered for MD as well as MD/PhD completely independently (WashU and UMich come to mind). There are many schools where you are only considered for MD after rejection from the MD/PhD program. This rejection often comes late in the season and puts you at a disadvantage for MD. There are also a handful of schools which will flat out not consider you for MD when rejected from MD/PhD (UPenn comes to mind). This changes a bit from program to program, year to year.

So keeping that in mind, yes it will hurt your MD chances to apply MD/PhD at many schools. If you want to know in particular for X school try a search on this forum or contact that school directly.

On the reverse side some MD/PhD interviews will want to know if you are applying for MD to gauge your seriousness in applying MD/PhD. If you are also applying to MD programs you should have a strong reason.

So consider the applying to both very cautiously. If you are a borderline MD/PhD applicant it may make sense to apply to both if you want to maximize your chances of getting in THIS YEAR. If you have a strong reason for regional bias, it may make sense to apply to the MD programs in that area as well. But if you fulfill two or three of my excellent criteria it probably makes less sense to apply MD if you are serious about MD/PhD.

10) I'm not a US citizen or permanent resident. What about me?

I am not the expert on this topic, but in general I will make a few comments.

First, they will expect you to have been in the USA a significant amount of time--at least for your undergraduate studies. A certain amount of leeway may apply for closely related countries such as Canada.

Second, because the NIH funding is restricted, the competition for these spots is increased and many programs do not take international students at all. Do a search in the forum and you will find threads that discuss this more fully. For this reason, you should aim for excellence in all 3 of the categories in question 4.

Third, not all schools will accept international applications. See this AAMC list: https://www.aamc.org/students/download/62760/data/faqtable.pdf


Please PM me if you have any suggestions, ideas, or questions pertaining to this short guide. I will ask that the mods also PM me instead of posting additions so we can keep this clear and concise.

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