“You can’t get through medical school if you don’t have a strong will and a strong constitution,” says Ken Jeong, Korean-American comedian and former physician. First off, however, one has to get into medical school, and that also requires a strong will, persistence, and determination. The medical school application process is lengthy; you’ll need to be organized and make an extensive checklist to keep track of deadlines. Some prospective students forget to consider how their academic research background factors into the admission process. 

Admissions officers for medical schools are trained in analyzing and systematically assessing hundreds of applications annually. “While expectations, missions, policies, and requirements are unique to each medical school, many schools look for students who demonstrate an ability to handle challenging coursework and have the personal attributes needed to work with people,” says the Association of American Medical Colleges. Sometimes overlooked by prospective med students, academic research can be vital to impressing med school admissions officers and can help tip the admissions decision in your favor. Here are some reasons why you’ll want to plan ahead and get started on your research project in advance to strengthen your medical school application. 

1. Academic research factors into the evaluation of your application

Medical school application requirements, deadlines, and criteria are specific to each individual school. However, ProspectiveDoctor.com's list offers an excellent overview of what you will need if you want to apply to medical school:

  1. A strong GPA with excellence in the sciences
  2. A good MCAT test score
  3. Volunteering or community service hours in a medical or patient setting
  4. Academic research that is impactful or useful
  5. Demonstrable leadership experience
  6. A thoughtful and authentic personal statement or essay, along with references
  7. A great interview in which you shine

An important factor admissions officers look for, and one that is rarely highlighted, is relevant and impressive academic research, number seven in the list. According to ProsepctiveDoctor.com, a strong academic research background and experience in a higher educational setting shows, “Your interest in and ability to advance medical knowledge. Moreover, multi-year research projects, presentations, and publications can help you demonstrate your academic promise, as well as your willingness to pursue a research career, which is especially prized at the highest-ranked medical schools.”

Perhaps in your undergraduate thesis you ran a trial or led a research project in a lab or at your local hospital; or maybe you worked with a professor as his or her assistant and you were able to help author a research paper; even better, what if you designed and completed ground-breaking innovative research that got national attention? All of these options will make you stand out to admissions officers when they are sifting through hundreds of applications.

2. Academic research is not always required, but highly valued

Not all medical schools require you to have extensive academic research experience, however. The Princeton Review explains, “Research shows schools that you have an idea of what it takes to get to the research discoveries in med school. Standout research experiences for your application last a minimum of one semester, but ideally a full year, involved in lab research. [...] Medical research is essential for those applicants planning on pursuing an MD/PhD.”

The US News and World Report interviewed Dr. Fred M. Jacobs, executive vice president of St. George's University – an international medical school – and former chair of its department of medicine. He says, “Compelling research experience can improve the candidacy of a premed with strong academic qualifications. However, it cannot compensate for a subpar academic performance.” Don’t forget that research comes secondary to performing well overall in all your science coursework.

3. Academic research demonstrates you hands-on science knowledge

If you are able to fit in academic research in your coursework as an undergraduate, then it will show med school admissions officers your hands-on science knowledge. Dr. Sarah Carlson, a vascular surgery resident at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, says, “Quite frankly, medicine isn't for everyone, so it's best if you do some soul-searching and spend some time with the people who have the job you want. Most doctors are happy to sit down with students who are considering a career in medicine." Designing and implementing your own research will give you the hands-on experience and might provide you an edge in the admissions process.

4. Academic research goes hand-in-hand with good internship experience

Internships can provide valuable experience for prospective students, letting them experience, firsthand, how the medical system works, and what the future workforce might look like for them. GapMedics.com recommends, “Consider applying for a research internship before you complete your medical school application. If you cannot locate an internship, you may be able to volunteer to assist with research at labs, pharmaceutical companies or even a neighboring university.” An internship experience in a research lab can offer you experience and key insight into your future career path. It might also tip the scales in your favor with the med school admissions officers!

5. Academic research gets you involved in the medical process early on

Yet another positive aspect of academic research experience prior to applying to medical school is that it allows you to get involved in the medical process early on. This gives you a head start; it could position you in an advantageous spot compared to your peers who don’t have research experience. Christina Buska, in her article 5 Essentials for a Standout Med School Application, stresses the importance of academic research. She explains, “Getting involved as early as possible will give you the opportunity to earn more merits and a better chance of getting your name put on a paper, this being an ultimate asset for an application. Finding research is also not as grueling as it sounds. it’s very simple; you can either Google the research that is around you and contact faculty via email, or ask a professor or doctor if they know of any opportunities.”

6. Academic research teaches and trains you to work with an academic advisor

One of the most important soft skills you’ll need in med school is knowing how to work with people. If you conduct academic research early on, especially as an undergrad, you’ll get training on how to work effectively with an academic advisor. Windsor University School of Medicine suggests, “Gaining some research experience will show your interest, ability as well as willingness to strengthen your academic and clinical knowledge. It also shows that you are well-prepared to handle all the challenges of medical school. Also ask your academic advisors, or premed advisors for any social sciences, clinical and humanities research opportunities.” An advisor will be able to help you along with your research project and they will likely be able to write you a stellar recommendation to your medical school of choice. Also, the invaluable interpersonal skills of communication, dialogue, assessment, and much more, will likely help your med school application rise to the top of the pile.

Whatever academic research you pursue, make sure you pick something you’re passionate about. Med school admissions officers are trained to tell if you are not being authentic. If you are conducting research that really matters to you personally, and ultimately professionally too, that will shine through in your application and help you get into your dream medical school. Be strategic, but also be bold in your pursuits. Your persistence and determination will pay off!