How to Get into Harvard Medical School

Padya Paramita

How to Get into Harvard Medical School

As the number one ranked MD institution in the United States, Harvard Medical School (HMS) is unsurprisingly a dream for many aspiring physicians. Given the competitiveness, it’s all the more difficult for applicants to receive that coveted “yes” letter. With an acceptance rate of only 3.3%, Harvard denies over 6,000 applicants each year. Since a high GPA and MCAT score won’t be enough to separate you from the pile, you might wonder exactly how to get into Harvard Medical School.

In 2019, HMS accepted only 227 out of over 6,800 candidates. You may not know where to even start building your profile to be good enough for one of these highly coveted spots. To guide you through the question of how to get into Harvard Medical School, I have gone over how HMS evaluates applications, the admitted students’ academic profile, how you should prepare your activities list and personal statement, along with recent secondary essay prompts and interview questions you should practice to make sure you present the best version of yourself to this admissions committee.

Selection Criteria

Like most other medical schools, HMS evaluates your application holistically. Only having a strong MCAT score or sustained involvement in a medicine-related extracurricular won’t give you a particular edge over other candidates. You’ll need to bring your A-game in all of the following areas:

  • Academic records
  • Applicant essay(s)
  • MCAT scores
  • Letters of evaluation
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Summer occupations
  • Life experiences
  • Experience in the health field, including research or community work

Each of the above criteria plays an important part in demonstrating your fit for the school. Your course selection, GPA, and letters of evaluation convey your academic excellence and potential to succeed in an environment as challenging as Harvard. Your extracurriculars and life experiences showcase your dedication to medicine and help admissions committee members determine whether you have the characteristics necessary to be a doctor. Let’s unpack each of these components further.

Academic Requirements

In order to qualify for admission at the top medical school in the country, you’ll of course need a very strong GPA, particularly, a standout science GPA. You’ll also need to make sure that your MCAT score is as high as possible. The average GPA for admitted students is 3.9, while the average MCAT score is 519.06. Although Harvard doesn’t screen for a particular GPA or MCAT score, you’ll want to at least come close to matching these numbers in order to keep up with your peers. Alongside maintaining high grades and studying hard for the test, you must make sure you meet Harvard Medical School’s prerequisite courses:

  • 1 year of biology (cellular and molecular) + lab experience
  • 2 years of chemistry (four courses) including inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry + lab experience
  • 1 year of physics - lab experience is recommended but not required
  • 1 year of math, including one semester each of calculus and statistics (preferably biostatistics) 
  • 1 year of writing intensive courses

Most of these are typical of pre-med prerequisites, so you’ll probably get these under your belt in order to get your foot in the door at the majority of medical schools. As you plan your upcoming courses with your pre-med advisor, it can be easy to overlook humanities classes. But if you know early on that you’re curious about how to get into Harvard medical school, you need to make sure you’ve covered at least a year of writing intensive courses.

Letters of Evaluation

Your letters of evaluation should personally speak towards your capabilities. You are allowed to submit up to 6 letters. Harvard expects the following from your recommendations:

  • At least 2 letters should be from professors in the sciences who have taught you.
  • At least 1 letter should be written by a professor who is not in the sciences.
  • Harvard expects to receive letters from all research supervisors for applicants to the MD-PhD program as well as applicants to the MD program. You may submit more than the 6-letter maximum if the additional letters are from research supervisors.
  • If you want to add a committee letter or packet, you must count it as 1 letter toward the 6-letter maximum.
  • Although Harvard Medical School does not require letters of recommendation from employers, if you have been out of school and working, you should have a letter sent from your workplace.

As you can tell, HMS expects a balance in who the writers are. They want to know what you’re like in a variety of contexts - as a student, mentee, and employee in order to get a clearer picture of your presence in different capacities. While you don’t have to submit the maximum of 6, if you add recommenders who know you in a different context than the mandatory writers and you believe they’ll add valuable information, you should go for it.

Let them know early on that you’re thinking about applying to medical school so that they can speak concretely to your achievements and performance when the time comes. 

Extracurriculars and Personal Statement

As you think about how to get into Harvard Medical School, you must plan your extracurriculars ensure they meet the high standards set by Harvard Medical School admits. Simply volunteering once a year or working in a common role such as a medical scribe isn’t enough. For a school as competitive as HMS, your AMCAS activities list must demonstrate a unique and continuous dedication to the field of medicine.

Try to establish yourself as a leader, no matter where in medicine your interests lie. In the past, admitted students have worked closely in research labs, been published in journals, and gone above and beyond to help their communities. When choosing your activities, prioritize experiences that allow for patient interaction and clinical exposure if possible. Think carefully about honing the characteristics that people look for in doctors - empathy, communication, dependability - and consider how these can play out into your involvement outside the classroom. 

It definitely helps for you to develop an application persona - a theme that your application components follow so that your materials stand out. You might be a budding pediatrician, and thus prioritize working with children. Or, you could be interested in public policy alongside medicine to drive change in your town’s healthcare system. Strategize the angle of your application to ensure you are memorable.

It is essential to make your experiences unique to you Some of the best hands-on MD experiences have become common because of the access to doctors or patients they provide. If you have a lab tech position, EMT work, or a medical mission trip on your resume, don’t panic. Think about how you can have an impact to make these different. 

If you have your eyes set on Harvard Medical School specifically, you need a lot of breadth and depth with your activities. There are 15 slots on the AMCAS experiences section – if you’re targeting HMS, the majority of these spots have to be filled with impressive entries. Focus your time into figuring out how to tailor these activities to your own profile, and how they can help you stand out.

Personal Statement

Alongside taking advantage of the AMCAS activities and experiences section, your personal statement must make you shine. By expanding your conviction towards the profession in an effective way, use your essay to let admissions committee members know who you are and what you can bring to Harvard Medical School. Is there a part of your story that you believe distinguishes you from others? What can you bring to the MD program that others can’t? Think about your topic carefully before you sit down to write and go over multiple drafts in order to submit the most polished version possible. 

Secondary Essays

You should submit your AMCAS application ideally soon after the portal opens. This is for the number one ranked school – there’s no room for slacking here. You need to be on your A-game and submit as soon as you can!

Then, you’ll have to wait for your secondary essays to roll into your inbox. Take advantage of the waiting period to start preparing outlines and drafts for your responses. Even though you won’t know for certain what the topic(s) will be selected for the year you apply, go over some of the common prompts that Harvard Medical School has used in the past (they have been similar year to year). The following questions have been asked by HMS over the last several application cycles:

  • If you have already graduated, briefly (4000 characters max) summarize your activities since graduation.
  • If there is an important aspect of your personal background or identity, not addressed elsewhere in the application, that you would like to share with the Committee, we invite you to do so here. Many applicants will not need to answer this question. Examples might include significant challenges in access to education, unusual socioeconomic factors, identification with a minority culture, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. Briefly explain how such factors have influenced your motivation for a career in medicine. (4000 character maximum)

These are typical questions for MD secondaries in general – not only will you have to answer prompts like these for Harvard, but other schools too. If you’ve taken one or more gap years, the admissions team wants to know how you’ve utilized the time after you’ve graduated. They want to understand how you’ve built on your love for medicine and whether you’ve actively sought out experiences that have allowed you to gain a unique perspective. Be truthful, but still frame your activities in a way that displays your passion for the field. 

The second prompt reflects Harvard’s commitment to admitting students from a variety of backgrounds. If you believe there’s a part of your culture or identity that has played a significant role in your decision to pursue medicine, this is the place to talk about it. If you’re not from a minority background, you might still have a hobby or part of your identity that is important to you. Brainstorm your essay, paying special attention to what you haven’t already discussed in the rest of your application. If you’ve talked about this part of your identity in your personal statement or elsewhere, Harvard explicitly states that you shouldn’t repeat it in your secondary essay. Think about a different side of you that can still help you stand out from other applicants.

Common Interview Questions

Receiving an interview for Harvard Medical School isn’t an easy task! Only 14% of applicants were invited to interview last year. That said, even statistically, your chances of an acceptance letter increase significantly if you receive an interview invite. The best way to prepare is by practicing. Go over the following interview questions that Harvard Medical School candidates have encountered in the past to make sure you articulate your interests, goals, and love for medicine to the best of your ability. These include:

  • At Harvard Medical School we want students who have a true passion for medicine. What appeals to you most, about working in the medical field?
  • In your opinion, what is the most concerning issue facing the medical industry today?
  • It is important that Harvard Medical School exercises great discernment when choosing applicants. What is your plan if you are not accepted into medical school this year?
  • Medical school is expensive. Have you made a solid financial plan for tuition costs at Harvard Medical School and beyond?
  • Tell us about your overall academic performance, so far. Where have you excelled, and where could you improve?
  • Why should we accept you over another medical student with the same qualifications?
  • What do you feel is the single most important quality a physician should possess?
  • At Harvard Medical School we believe in the continual development of our students, both professionally and personally. What is your self-development plan?
  • What is your favorite area of medicine so far? Which is your least favorite? Why?
  • If you could meet anyone in the history of medicine, who would you choose and why?
  • What questions do you have for us about Harvard Medical School?

These questions are geared towards getting to know you and determining how you would fit in with the environment at HMS. In answering each of these, you must remember that your goal is to stand out. From reading these, you can tell that Harvard admissions committee members clearly expect you to reflect on why they should admit you over similar candidates. Think about what you can bring that makes your perspective a unique one. Some questions are more logistical and based around your plans, such as about financial aid or what you would do if medical school doesn’t work out. This is a chance for you to convey your maturity and show that you are an ambitious and organized individual.

Don’t provide common or one-worded answers. Conduct research on HMS resources beforehand and let the interviewer understand why you would be an asset to the program. Even though interviews are the final stage that may seem miles away at this point, keep these questions at the back of your mind as you continue looking into how to get into Harvard Medical School.

Other Points of Consideration for Prospective Applicants

You might also have questions regarding your major, where you attended college, or if a non-traditional applicant has a fair chance when it comes to how to get into Harvard Medical School

  • Does your undergraduate major matter? - Although the majority of members of the incoming class studied STEM during their time in college, HMS does not prefer science majors over non-science graduates. Like most other medical schools, your application isn’t screened by whether you’re an English major or a Biology major. As long as you’ve taken the required prerequisite classes, you should be all set. In fact, the school states on its website that, “students are urged to strive not for specialized training but for a balanced, liberal education.”
  • Does your undergraduate institution play a part in your admissions decision? - You don’t need to have graduated from Harvard University or any other Ivy League institution in order to be admitted to Harvard Medical School. The admissions committee evaluates students on the basis of how much they have challenged themselves academically and personally, regardless of where they completed their undergraduate education. Harvard wants to know more about your talents and interests rather than where you went to college.
  • What if you’re a non-traditional student? - If you’re wondering how to get into Harvard Medical School as an older applicant or someone who’s had a change of career path before switching to medicine, you don’t have to worry. Harvard Medical School is currently home to students between the ages of 21-33. HMS defines non-traditional applicants as “those who have an established career, have a partner, spouse, or family, or have been out of school for two years or longer.” If you fit this description, you’re still absolutely welcome to apply to the MD program. In fact, you might have a more unique story to tell than someone who’s followed a typical pre-med path, thus making your file even more interesting.

Timeline and Deadlines

If you’re wondering how to get into Harvard Medical School, you definitely need to know when the applications open and when they’re due. Make sure you have everything ready on time - particularly all the materials required by the AMCAS. The earlier you send in your files, the better! Submitting early can also further demonstrate your commitment to the school. 

Timeframe Component
Early May AMCAS opens
May 28, 2020 AMCAS application becomes available for submission
July 10, 2020 The AMCAS transmits all verified applications to HMS
Early July HMS secondary application becomes available for submission
September Interviews begin
October 15 Final deadline for AMCAS application
October 22 Final deadline for HMS secondary application and any other remaining scores or letters
October 31 AMCAS transcript submission deadline
January Interviews conclude
Early March Students are notified whether they’ve been accepted, denied, or waitlisted.

Don’t just rush and submit poor work just so that you can get everything in early. That completely defeats the point of meeting the standards that HMS expects. That being said, you should absolutely not wait until the deadline to submit. If you want a genuine shot at how to get into Harvard Medical School, make sure you give yourself plenty of time before the AMCAS opens so that you can provide the institution with your best work, and still be one of the first group of candidates who have completed their primary application. Harvard Medical School notifies students of their admissions decision in early March – all candidates are contacted on the same date. 

There’s no formulaic answer to the query of how to get into Harvard Medical School because the medical school admissions landscape is extremely unpredictable. During a time when most applicants get denied from any medical school, admission into the top institution is naturally all the more difficult. But, if you start planning early, maintain top grades and scores, push yourself in your extracurriculars, and write stellar essays, you’ll give yourself a fair shot during this process. It’s a stressful one, but with hard work, the end result could surprise you. Good luck!

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