They carefully review personal statements, letters of recommendation, professional experience and interview responses to develop a complete picture of who you are and why you want to pursue a life in medicine.
What they look for is not a secret. Most medical schools list the qualities they seek on their web site. These attributes range from a background in community medicine and research experience to leadership and language abilities.
There are some common characteristics that all med schools value in an applicant.
The majority of successful applicants have some experience in a hospital, clinic, hospice or other health care setting. Some premeds find part-time paying positions as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), nurse's aids or organ and blood bank workers, while other nontraditional applicants may have had full–time careers in health care.
For a more in–depth experience in primary care, some undergrads set up a preceptorship with a willing physician. In a preceptorship, a physician allows a clueless undergrad to tag along quietly. You'll have the opportunity to observe the physician's activities, often in a number of different health care environments (office, hospital, community and occasional field trips to conventions). The best preceptors are doctors with great people skills, patience and a passion for education.
You should aim to hold a volunteer or paid position for at least six months. You will be able to speak far more effectively about why you want to become a physician, and you will know what the practice (rather than just the study) of medicine is actually like.
Academic research experience is not required by most medical schools, but it is certainly valued. Getting involved with research is easier than you might think–labs are always looking for drones (undergrads, in other words) to help with the unlovely business of test–tube cleaning and organism counting. With a bit of luck, the program will allow you to participate more fully, by conducting experiments and writing about the results. Additionally, many universities and private companies sponsor summer internship programs in medically related fields. One final note, medical research is essential for those applicants planning on pursuing an MD/PhD or Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP)
Needless to say, medical schools admit students who have displayed a strong aptitude for science. But they also look for applicants with an interest in the wider world. Diversity comes in all flavors: academic, extracurriculars, experience. So the minor in art, the years on the cross-country team and the short-stories you published all count.
Medical school is lengthy, challenging, and physically strenuous. Admissions committees want to know if you can commit to something over a long period of time. The best evidence of this is long-term commitment to research, volunteerism, or clinical work. Don't sneeze at a violin hobby, a club sport, or anything else you've pursued for several years.
Altruism distinguishes a strong medical school applicant from a mediocre one. Volunteer work and community service (anything from working on a local public health campaign to joining the the Peace Corps) speak most strongly to this quality. Many schools expect you to explain how service to others has informed your decision to become a doctor.
Teaching experience is always an asset to a medical school application because it suggests an ability to communicate clearly and confidently. If you are teaching in an underserved community (say, working as a tutor at a Boys & Girls Club), you're also likely to develop your compassion and humanity.
If you haven't spent much time at the soup kitchen or community health clinic, don't despair. There are other noble and just reasons to decide to pursue medicine. Did you have a personal experience with illness, injury, or death that sparked your interest? Did a role model or family member inspire you to become a doctor? How have you demonstrated a genuine concern for the well–being of other people?
Medical schools look for individuals who have a strong interest in science and a wide-ranging intellect. They want to graduate physicians who listen to their patients and use their acquired talents to heal them. There is no magic combination of scores or personal qualities that will create an unbroken path into medical school, so sell yourself, not someone else.