Research for Pre-Med Students: How Important is this Application Component?

Padya Paramita

Research for Pre-Med Students: How Important is this Application Component?

If you’re currently a pre-med student, you’re probably aware of exactly how cutthroat the admissions landscape has become. Admissions committee members don’t just look for students with the best numbers – they also expect you to bring hands-on experience in the medical field, demonstrating your commitment to the profession. As a result, research for pre-med students is not only recommended, but it has practically become an unspoken expectation for applicants. Furthermore, you need to think of ways to make your research experience stand out.

Having research under your belt helps boost your application if done right. If done poorly, you’ll be just another one of the thousands of applicants with typical work experience on your file. Research can occur in different degrees depending on where your interests lie. Deliberately put some thought into the kind of clinical research or scientific lab work that is available and consider how it might demonstrate your dedication to medicine. To help guide you through the world of research for pre-med students, I’ve outlined what to look for when it comes to research, ways to find such opportunities, and the importance of research experience in the admissions process.

What to Look for in Research for Pre-Med Students

A crucial section of your AMCAS application is the activities list. If you don’t have enough extracurriculars to fill all or the majority of your 15 slots, you won’t be able to compete against top candidates from across the nation. This is when having research experience comes in handy. Start looking at your options as early as freshman year of college. If you do start early, take some time the following year to see how your research interests have developed and what would make sense as a next step. “Research” doesn’t necessarily indicate the stereotypical professor in a white lab coat that you might imagine based on what you’ve seen in movies. When it comes to research for pre-med students, the examples vary. You could be involved in bench research, clinical research, qualitative research, or quantitative research depending on where your interests lie and the kinds of opportunities you can find for students at your level.

Conducting research could include assisting your pre-med advisor in their neuroscience lab or it could take place in a non-science department if there’s a connection to medicine and you’re passionate about the topic. For example, if you assist in a psychological study about how different colors affect moods, you’d still be able to relate your learning to medicine.

You might even find research work with a local doctor, evaluating how different kinds of treatment affect patients. Or, if you travel abroad over the summer or your gap year, you could conduct an independent research project studying the way the climate affects the health of people living within a certain area. The topic itself doesn’t even need to be connected to medicine, but you should show how the skills you gained are relevant to the field. 

How Research Can Benefit You

You might also be wondering what students need to gain from their time immersed in a research-heavy environment. While everyone might not have the chance to be published, if your professor or supervisor includes your name in their paper, it certainly can help distinguish you from other applicants. If you conduct research under an organization, you’ll probably be expected to present your results as well as make a poster. This can help gather all your findings in one place in case you need to revisit the data when filling out the AMCAS. Your research can also start interesting conversations with your interviewer when you reach the decisive third stage of the application process. While preparing for interviews, make sure you review the background and results of your project, as well as practice articulating your reason behind pursuing the opportunity. 

Ways to Gain Experience in Research for Pre-Med Students

You might wonder how to find research opportunities, especially while you’re still in college. Take a look at some of our suggestions below:

  • Check with professors at your school - Reach out to one of your science professors and ask them about openings for research assistant positions at their lab or within the department. If you give them a clear idea of your interests - and specify that you wish to go to medical school - they could have a position or project that might perfectly fit the bill. If not, they may connect you with other professors or researchers who have openings on their teams.
  • Check with affiliated hospitals - Many schools also have affiliated hospitals with plenty of research opportunities. These labs can provide you with the chance to work with MDs, which can help you determine how you work in a medical setting. Plus, a letter of recommendation from a physician who is familiar with your work and believes you’d be a strong fit for medical school would boost your application.
  • Inquire with local labs or other universities - Especially if you live in a college town, chances are, there are other labs around that might also be open to hiring students as assistants for various research-based teams. Browse the websites of universities or inquire at a local research center to check if they are hiring anyone with your qualifications. This also conveys initiative on your part and shows that you are not afraid to go out of your way to seek a new opportunity.
  • Look into summer programs - Different scientific organizations might have openings for you to pursue research for pre-med students during the summer. For example, you might check out the Research Program for Undergraduates program hosted by the National Science Foundation. The program allows you to propose a project and if selected, provides funding to run it. Similarly, you might find other options from institutes that subsidize projects, especially if you check locally. 
  • Full-time research during a gap year - When it comes to research for pre-med students, admissions officers appreciate sustained involvement. Don’t just work in a lab for a month and then drop out. College can be a tough time to fit in several hours of research if you’re juggling other requirements. So, if you decide to take a gap year before medical school, take advantage of the opportunity and conduct research full-time. Typically, this is when students get clinical research positions. You could find a job as a research assistant near you or you could check to see if there are opportunities available abroad.

Importance of Research Experience in the Admissions Process

While research for pre-med students isn’t absolutely mandatory, the majority of your peers will bring some degree of involvement. Your experience should reflect commitment in a lab or another clinical setting over a significant period of time. If you can’t get published, try to seek out a leadership role within your research group. Admissions committees want to know about the knowledge you picked up while participating in research and whether you were actively involved as a member of the team. A strong recommendation from your supervisor can attest to this, so make sure that once you’ve accepted a research position, you continue to work hard.

It also matters how your research experience fits within the context of the rest of your application. Saying you want to be a pediatrician in your personal statement and then conducting research about the impact of air pollution on the elderly won’t make the most sense. So, when thinking an opening on a research team, consider if the position would align with the theme of your application when looked at side-by-side with your other extracurriculars.

The research component can enhance your application if you dedicate a significant amount of time to your project and it supports your application components. When thinking about research for pre-med students, focus on an area you’re passionate about. Seek opportunities where you can collaborate with peers and take on leadership roles. Your commitment to research can help you get an edge over the intense competition you will undoubtedly face once you’re ready to take the plunge and apply.

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