How to Succeed in the Application Process as an International Medical Student

Padya Paramita

How to Succeed in the Application Process as an International Medical Student

No matter where you’re from, gaining admission into an American medical school is incredibly difficult. More than half of all medical applicants don’t get into any programs every year. On top of that, if you’re an international medical student, your odds are even lower because not all schools offer a spot to international applicants. According to the AAMC, in 2018, there were 52,777 applicants to U.S. medical schools. Only 1195 (2.26%) were international students and only 97 (8%) of those students were accepted and enrolled, compared to a rate of 40.9% for US students. 

If it’s your dream, you shouldn’t give up without trying. But, it’s important to understand how rare and difficult gaining acceptance is. Knowing these odds, if you’re still willing to take the plunge and apply to US schools, this blog outlines what you need to know and how you need to best prepare your application in order to cover your bases and give your best shot as an international medical student

Understanding Your Chances

To start, it’s important to note that your options of where to apply are quite limited if you’re an international medical student. Out of the 141 accredited medical schools, only 49 allow applicants from outside the United States. 

It’s also important to consider financial aid. International medical students do not qualify for aid at many American MD programs, including federal student aid, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and Direct PLUS loans. Under some conditions, you may be able to obtain need-based or merit-based scholarships, but those opportunities are few and far between and are more likely if you are pursuing an MD/PhD. There are American medical schools that accept international students which require you to have one year or even the full four years of tuition in escrow at the time of enrollment. With the average cost of medical school for 4 years ranging between $165,000-240,000, this is a huge financial investment right upfront.

International medical students should also take into account their long-term goals after medical school. Although international applicants who train at an American Medical Association accredited medical school may be able to secure a postgraduate training spot in the US without US citizenship, it may be more difficult to become licensed and practice medicine in the US after your residency depending on your visa status.

Knowing all of this information, if you still wish to proceed, here are the other important components that will help you succeed in the very competitive landscape of admissions for international medical students.

Building a School List

As I mentioned above, your school list options are very limited. It’s important to know that you can’t apply to every medical school as an international medical student. The programs you can choose from are:

  • Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University
  • Alpert Medical School at Brown University
  • Boston University School of Medicine
  • Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine
  • Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science
  • Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
  • Creighton University School of Medicine
  • Duke University School of Medicine
  • Emory University School of Medicine
  • Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth
  • Georgetown University School of Medicine
  • George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
  • Harvard Medical School
  • Howard University College of Medicine
  • Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
  • Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
  • Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University
  • Loma Linda University School of Medicine
  • Mayo Medical School
  • Medical College of Wisconsin
  • Michigan State University College of Human Medicine
  • New York Medical College
  • Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Oakland University School of Medicine
  • Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine
  • Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Rutgers Johnson Medical School
  • Stanford University School of Medicine
  • State University of New York Upstate Medical University
  • Stony Brook University School of Medicine
  • Tulane University School of Medicine
  • University of California Davis School of Medicine
  • University of California Los Angeles Geffen School of Medicine
  • University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine
  • University of Connecticut School of Medicine
  • University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine
  • University of Kentucky College of Medicine
  • University of Maryland School of Medicine
  • University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
  • University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry
  • University of Utah School of Medicine
  • University of Virginia School of Medicine
  • Vanderbilt School of Medicine
  • Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine
  • Wayne State University School of Medicine
  • Weill Cornell Medical College
  • West Virginia University School of Medicine
  • Yale School of Medicine

You might have noticed that many of the schools on the list are top schools—Ivy League universities and other highly ranked institutions like Johns Hopkins, UChicago, and Stanford, Mayo, and Mount Sinai. These schools tend to have more successful residency placements in the national match and can afford to take the risk of accepting international students whom they might need to sponsor. 

GPA and Coursework

The requirements for students who aren't US citizens or permanent residents applying to US medical schools are extremely restricted. 99% of the time, schools expect you to have some level of coursework completed in the United States or Canada to keep up with the high standards of a medical education. These schools require you to convert your GPA into a 4.0 scale for fair comparison with other students. If you are currently at an undergraduate institution outside of the US, UK, or Canada, you will have to complete significant additional coursework (30 credit hours) in the US to qualify for admission.

The average GPA for top schools is mostly above 3.8. Although many schools have transitioned to a more holistic admissions process, academic performance is still a strong indicator of future prowess in the classroom and is crucial to get your foot in the door throughout the admissions process. You should especially aim to keep a high science GPA at both your local institutions and any courses you have taken in the US/Canada. 


An essential component asked by all medical schools is the MCAT score. Not all countries offer the MCAT but if you’re an international medical student hoping to get into a program in the US, you’ll need this score. Aside from the US and nations under the US such as Puerto Rico and Guam, can find your country below or arrange for a sitting in one of the following nations:

  • Australia
  • China
  • France
  • Germany
  • Hong Kong
  • Israel
  • Japan
  • Lebanon
  • Qatar
  • Singapore
  • South Africa
  • Taiwan
  • UK

You can check the dates for 2021 MCAT sessions in each country on the official AAMC website. Make sure you are following travel protocols the countries may have set due to COVID-19. If you want to stand out, you need a competitive MCAT score. Plus, MCAT performance has been linked to future performance on USMLE and board certification examinations. The median MCAT score at many top schools is above 511, with some of them at 520. 

Personal Statement

The AMCAS primary application also requires you to submit a personal statement, an essay that explains your motivations behind applying to medical school and tells a story that is unique to you. As an international medical student, you can use this component to your advantage. You can talk about experiences that no American student has certainly had, and you might even talk about how you experience as an international student has exceptionally prepared you for medical school. It’s also important to showcase through this essay why studying medicine at an American school can help you rather than pursuing the profession in your home country. Whether it’s due to a particular specialization, or there’s a specific facility or resource in the United States that is absolutely necessary for reaching your goals, you must outline your reasons in the medical school personal statement.

If admissions committee members see that you’ve thought carefully about your goals, and a US medical school can truly help you, that will be another positive in your direction as you try to beat the extremely difficult odds.

Extracurricular Activities

The AMCAS includes an activities and work experiences section where you have to outline your extracurriculars—both medicine-related and those that have no connection to medicine, or even science, but may still have helped you gain skills and traits that people look for in doctors. The standard for students pursuing medical school includes significant experience in the field, especially ones that allow patient interaction. As a student from outside the country, you’re already at a disadvantage. So, don’t waste your time participating in common activities such as pre-med clubs or working as a medical scribe. You need to step out of your comfort zone, show initiative, and a genuine interest in medicine. 

So if you’re an international medical student looking to boost your chances, definitely look for shadowing, volunteer, and internship opportunities, whether in the US or your home country. You may work at a research lab and have a publication in a well-known medical journal. Or, you might demonstrate your leadership abilities and start your own foundation that supports the medical needs of certain industry workers in your country. 

If you have other interests outside medicine, such as being a chef or a competitive powerlifter, these are also experiences that can help you stand out as they would showcase your versatility and determination, and make for a really interesting personal statement. 

The medical school admissions process is already incredibly cutthroat and competitive. On top of this, if you’re interested in MD programs as an international medical student, you are definitely stepping into a very challenging battlefield. Try your best to read up on the requirements and best ways to succeed. Make sure you give yourself plenty of preparation time to complete the right coursework, take the MCAT, and pursue extracurriculars that will help you stand out. Best of luck!

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