Applying to the University of Washington Medical School
General Admission Information
Some statistics on the 2001 entering class: Fifty-seven percent of the class is female; last year it was fifty percent. The ages of the entrants range from 21 to 40 with an average age of 26. All 178 entrants have at least a bachelor's degree (62 BA's and 101 BS's) and 15 have advanced degrees. The mean undergraduate GPA is 3.64 and the average MCAT score is 10 for verbal reasoning, 10.5 for physical sciences, 10.7 for biological sciences and between P and Q for the writing sample. This year there was a 6% decline in the applicant pool nationally but a 5% increase at the University of Washington. There are still roughly six applicants for every available spot at UW.
According to Dr. Werner Samson, the Assistant Dean of Admissions, it is important to remember that it is not only numbers (i.e. GPA or MCAT) that get people accepted. Although these measures do indicate to some extent the potential for success in a medical school program, other variables are also important. "Frequently individuals who present something 'unique' and who excel in one endeavor or another have the advantage over individuals who follow the straight 'premed' route, doing volunteer work here and there simply to make it 'look good on the application.' In-depth community involvement and accomplishment and expertise in fields other than medicine (such as sports or music or leadership activities) will give the applicant additional 'brownie points.'"
Process of Admission
In terms of the process of admission, the UW School of Medicine Admissions Committee roughly breaks down the elements of application by weighing the applicant's GPA, MCAT and other application materials as 50% and the interview as the remaining 50%. This year they interviewed 748 applicants to fill a class of 178. As previously mentioned, numbers are only part of the picture. Thirty to 35% of achievement is predicted by GPA and MCAT numbers. While this is not insignificant, of equal importance is the applicant's ability to express his or her motivation and dedication. Desirable candidates are flexible, resilient, honest, warm, compassionate, and able to deal with their own limitations and failure, including the prospect of no longer being top of the class.
The admissions committee concedes that for students coming from schools with narrative evaluations like Evergreen the MCAT does become more important as this is the only quantitative measure they have. While this may seem unfair, it is important to recognize that the admissions committee's primary concern is that students be prepared to handle medical school. They do not want to fill a spot with a student who will drop out because of an inability to do the work, which includes test taking. This eliminates a space for another candidate who may have been very capable. Moreover, a medical career requires a number of standardized exams, in medical school as well as for licensure and board certification, and an ability to take multiple choice tests and to memorize well are important for success in this field. It does not end with the MCAT!
According to Dr. Samson, age of the applicant is irrelevant. Older applicants, however, should be able to explain why they are interested in a career change at this point in life. What's most important is that the applicant has a real sense of what medicine is about and why he or she wants to pursue this field, in part because it costs the state $100,000 per student for a medical education and it can be harder to justify when someone will have a relatively short career. Prior to the 1999 admission of a 47-year-old, the oldest student accepted at U.W. Medical School was 40 at the time of matriculation.
Candidates who are rejected can write to Dr. Samson to find out the areas that need improvement. To strengthen your reapplication you might improve MCAT scores, increase your awareness of current issues or add to your experience. This year's class does consist of 40 reapplicants who strengthened previous areas of weakness, 12 of these were admitted after receiving two rejections. One applicant was admitted after 4 rejections! Successful reapplicants usually demonstrate personal growth, have done something special like the Peace Corps and/or have a better understanding of medicine than they may have had previously. Reapplicants should include updated letters of reference to reflect this growth.
Courses and Requirements
The requirements of candidates for UW's School of Medicine include: Biology (8 semester, 12 quarter hours), Chemistry (12 semester or 18 quarter hours--any combination of inorganic, organic, biochemistry or molecular biology), Physics (4 semester or 6 quarter hours) and other science subjects (8 semester or 12 quarter hours) which can be fulfilled by taking courses in any of the above categories. Starting with the class entering in fall 2000, students will be expected to have a reasonable grasp of biochemistry (see addendum). You can fulfill this requirement through any type of course in which it might be covered, such as cell biology or genetics; you do not have to specifically show biochemistry as a course title. U.W. will ask you to underline on your application the course you took that covered this information but they say they will not be policing this. It is in your best interest to make sure you understand the concepts listed on the biochemistry/molecular biology addendum, however, or you will be left behind once you start your courses in medical school. They will no longer teach these basic concepts.
It is important to note that while many candidates do have BS degrees, this is not a requirement. In fact, those who have degrees in non-science fields are at an advantage because they stand out as being more well-rounded and well able to juggle complicated schedules. This year, 61 entrants had BA degrees. Typically, TESC students fulfill the science requirements with Foundations of Natural Science (now called Introduction to Natural Science) or Matter and Motion (plus some biology), followed by Molecule to Organism. These courses should be completed prior to taking the MCAT since the science preparation provided is critical to doing well on the test.
Some researchers who are working on U.W.'s Genome Project and looking at the future of medicine also advise taking a computer programming or web class and plenty of computational classes. It is their view that the future of medicine will be in the analysis of pathways, systems and networks. By the way, it is possible to work with some of these researchers as an undergraduate during the summer.
In addition to your course work it is helpful but not mandatory to have some hands-on experience such as an internship or long-term volunteer position that involves working with people. This does not necessarily have to be in a health-related environment although that may be helpful in terms of developing a more realistic understanding of medicine which is very important to be able to articulate to the committee. (Realize that about 80% of practicing physicians had no medical experience prior to entering medical school.) Even a volunteer position can be meaningful if the candidate utilizes the opportunity to talk with patients and maximize his or her learning. Concrete examples of interactions with patients can work well in the interview to support your application. Expect to be asked about your follow-up with a patient you met through such an experience. Also, if you are interested in an MD/Ph.D. program, research is particularly important.
Additionally, many candidates express the desire to work in primary care in a rural area on their applications because they know this is an area of need and because UW is ranked #1 in primary care. An applicant making this claim needs to be prepared to support the assertion with some realistic experience such as job shadowing of a rural doctor during the summer. Applicants who are weeded out are those who seem primarily interested in medicine as a "sure thing" and who are unaware of the possibility that with an increase in managed care there may be an excess of 160,000 doctors by the year 2000. Some fields such as anesthesiology are already overpopulated. As a side note, approximately 11 - 14% of U.W. School of Medicine graduates enter rural practices, 55% enter primary care. However, U.W. is also interested in training researchers. It is ranked #1 for NIH research. In fact, two of the ten Genome centers worldwide are at the U.W.
According to Dr. Samson, it is important to avoid incompletes or withdrawals from courses. A pattern of this does not reflect well on the candidate. If you do poorly in a class, it is his opinion that it is preferable to take a harder class and really do well than to repeat the original class. There is generally a time limit of five years on science courses and of three years on MCAT scores with some rare exceptions such as a student who has been out of the country with the Peace Corps and unable to take the test again.
The interview is a very important part of the admissions process (approximately 50%) and is a chance for a candidate to shine. UW interviewed 748 applicants to fill 178 spots for the 2000 entering class. Interviews are automatically granted to applicants with high GPA's (3.5 and up) and MCAT's (9s and higher) through the initial computer screening. Those applicants rejected by the computer are screened by two people to assess extenuating circumstances/experience. If these two individuals disagree on a course of action, a third screener will read the application. Thus, if a candidate performed poorly as a freshman ten years previously and has a lower GPA as a result, but has done very well since then and demonstrates the ability to achieve in medical school, he or she may still be interviewed. Dr. Samson reviews all rejected applicants as well and periodically finds a few to add to the interview pool.
The interview itself usually lasts approximately 40-50 minutes and is conducted by a committee of three consisting of a medical student, a doctor and a member of the medical school faculty. This is the ideal makeup of the group, but due to scheduling difficulties this is not always possible. For instance, the group may consist of three cardiologists. In any case, it is important to listen to introductions so that you do not put your foot in your mouth when answering questions. For example, you don't want to support your case for a job in primary care by saying that specialists don't really work with patients in a meaningful way when there may be several specialists on the interview committee.
One member of the interview committee will have your entire application packet and know all the information about you; the others will not know anything about your GPA or MCAT so they remain unbiased. Of great importance to Dr. Samson is that candidates are aware of the world outside of premed studies and he suggests reading the New York Times on a daily basis. The health section is available online at http://yourhealthdaily.com. He may ask who one's senator is or about recent health care reform or other questions about current events, so be up to date on a variety of topics. Several medical school representatives mentioned reading periodicals like Time or Newsweek and reading books outside of class. The non-science part of the New England Journal of Medicine was also mentioned. Know what's going on in society in general and in the medical field in particular.
The committee is looking for information in four areas during the interview:
1. They want to understand what has motivated you to consider medical school. How much do you know about health care and its realities?
2. They look for personal characteristics such as maturity (a biggie), warmth, interpersonal skills and a sense of world issues. They want to feel like the interview has been a conversation.
3. Problem solving skills are also assessed. You may be asked about an ethical issue or given a hypothetical example. Explain your thinking and approach the issue from all sides. The actual side you choose is not as important as your thought processes and demonstrating flexibility. Be willing to re-evaluate your position if appropriate.
4. Finally, the committee is assessing your suitability to the field of medicine you are planning to pursue. Are you perhaps more suited to research than patient care?
You also want to be prepared to back up the claims you have made in your personal statement. It reflects well on you if, for example, you can say that you followed up on the progress of a patient even after you had left the internship/volunteer position. Also, if you have been recognized in some way or received an award or scholarship, it is important to be able to answer questions about this. For instance, how competitive was the scholarship? Who was it in memory of? As there are no set questions, be prepared to be asked about your unique experience. Certainly do think about why they should choose you over all their other applicants. What distinguishes you from the pack? Why do you want to be a doctor?
Finally, have some questions ready for the committee that demonstrate your interest. Don't ask obvious questions. If you've had a really good, conversational interview, you may not have many questions left, though, and that's also okay. Do let the committee know information about your application that you feel is important but that maybe they didn't ask you about. Most important, be yourself, try to relax and let them know who you are. Interest them in your experience and show them that you can think about issues from different angles. You might want to check out a web site with other applicants' feedback on the interview process--of course this represents people's individual experiences and will have biases. The site is http://www.interviewfeedback.com/.
After the interview, candidates are ranked as outstanding, competitive or are rejected. An executive committee takes this information and weighs the entire application to make the final decision. Rejected candidates are notified immediately so that they may make other plans or appeal if they are so inclined by writing to Dr. Samson. Please do not telephone.
Many students have not made it past the interview process because they do not show the flexibility and maturity necessary for medical school. Another common comment in the files of students not accepted has to do with their lack of true understanding of what being in medicine really entails. So do your homework! Shadow some doctors and see what it's all about.
Letters of Recommendation
Another area of importance is the letter of recommendation. It is very important that these rate you as excellent or outstanding since competition is fierce and a strong letter can make the difference in breaking a tie between two similarly qualified candidates. This means that the letter should be personalized and should contribute to the committee's understanding of you. A generic letter that states your ranking in a class and then sums up that you would be a good doctor does not help. So, if a TA knows you better than the professor, it is better to get a letter from him or her. Ideally, get to know your professors and work closely with them. Then they can attest to your ability to handle stress, to work hard, to show warmth, and so forth. Three to four good letters rather than six or twelve so-so ones is a better bet.
Your essay is also very important. It should explain your interest in medicine and give the committee a sense of who you are, your motivation and whether or not you seem to be able to handle the rigors of medical school. Of course you want it to be well written and error free as well. Try not to use too many "I's" or "me's" so that you don't sound too self-centered or cocky (Dr. Samson uses 17 as his cutoff). You do want your voice to come through; periodically the admissions committee will ask for a copy of your writing sample from the MCAT to compare with your personal statement. They might do this if they are concerned you might not have written your personal statement yourself. Also, if you end up reapplying, don't use the same essay you used the year before as this makes you appear lazy or disinterested. We are happy to give you feedback on your essays here in Career Development.
According to Dr. Samson, the timing of your application is unimportant. He says that UW admits ten percent of each interviewing group. However, some medical students have felt that it does make a difference and an early application increased their probability of being accepted.
The admissions committee also warned premed advisors about the importance that students have both strong study skills and very strong support systems as the stresses of medical school can magnify academic weaknesses as well as personal problems. They have folks on their staff to help you once you are admitted so do take advantage of this if you have any concerns. It is important to have support systems in place and to address any need for accommodations early on.
New regulations require a background search by Washington State Patrol. Applicants to medical school who are Washington residents will be disqualified if convicted of offenses occurring in Washington. A criminal background check will be conducted and you will be required to carry a wallet sized certificate indicating your clearance.
A final area of importance is financial aid. Be sure to apply for aid as early as possible, even if you are not sure you'll want it. You do need to reapply each year--put the dates on your calendar so you don't miss them when things get busy. The average debt of medical school graduates is at least $90,000 so be prepared. It's important to check with every medical school to which you are applying to find out their financial aid deadlines and prioritize when you need to get materials sent. At UW, by the way, you can now enter your information electronically. Their deadline for the FAFSA is February 28. Be aware that many students wait until the last minute and web sites can get tied up. Also be aware of any time differences that might impact your applications getting in on time. Five o'clock here is not five o'clock on the east coast!
Even though you are looking at graduate school, you do need to provide parental income information. Some schools will use this more than others and won't care if you're old and married; they still want it. U.W. will take the information into consideration with their scholarships. They also only want information on the last parent you were dependent on; some schools want information on both sets of parents if they have divorced and remarried. Check with every school to which you are applying.
A good source of scholarships is: www.finaid.org. You may also try the Department of Education at: www.ed.gov (go to money matters once you get the homepage). It is important to know that many schools will make use of your credit report so check yours, especially if you have a common name (mistakes have been made), and make sure you look like a good risk.
Essential Content of Pre-med Courses in Molecular Biology/Biochemistry:
Know the chemical nature of DNA, RNA, genes, and in general how genes are organized in chromosomes.
Understand the nature of eukaryotic DNA replication.
Be familiar with transcription of genes and intron splicing.
Have an overview of the mechanism of protein synthesis.
Understand principles of recombinant DNA technology (e.g. restriction endonucleases, PCR, southern blots, transformation).
Proteins and Enzymes:
Understand pH, pKa, and buffers.
Understand how proteins fold, and how ligand binding and enzymatic activity depend upon three-dimensional folding.
Understand principles of enzyme kinetics (Km, Vmax, competitive inhibition, allostery, and regulation by phosphorylation).
Understand principles of energetics (e.g. free energy change, equilibrium constants, concentration gradients, and redox potentials).
Understand glycolysis, the TCA cycle, and how ATP is produced by oxidative phosphorylation.
Be familiar with how fatty acids are oxidized and synthesized.
Be familiar with patterns of amino acid catabolism and the urea cycle.
Understand the nature of phospholipids, lipid bilayers and membranes.
Have an overview of nucleotide biosynthesis.
A Note about Foreign Medical Schools
Depending on statistics being cited, foreign med schools (Caribbean ones particularly, not Canadian) have a much poorer pass rate on basic licensing exams, perhaps as low as 30% of those who take it. Additionally, these students find it much more difficult to obtain residencies, with about 44% finding a match versus 93% for U.S. med school students. And, it is likely the number of residencies will be declining in the future as a way to curb the number of doctors coming into the system in light of the anticipated overabundance. Graduates of osteopathic colleges fared better with 64% of those interested finding allopathic residencies.
All of this may sound a bit overwhelming, but medical school is hard work and not to be entered into lightly. We are here to help you with this process in any way we can, and you'll find it becomes clearer as you go through it. We do have alumni available to talk with you about the process as well. Early planning and organization are the key. Good luck!