This Sunday, 216 first-year students at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine will be welcomed into the school’s community of healers during their White Coat Ceremony. The event is a rite of passage for incoming medical students, as the physician’s white coat is a powerful symbol of the profession. 

To better understand this tradition—and medical school as a whole— we called upon Christian Essman, senior director of admissions and financial aid for the Office of Admissions in the School of Medicine. With more than 15 years of admissions experience, Essman has a deep understanding of what it takes to apply to—and successfully complete—medical school.

As an expert in this area, we asked Essman to share five things to know about medical school. Read on to learn his insights on the application process, the medical profession itself, and what medical school students can expect. 

1. Medicine is still a desirable profession.

The face of medicine is rapidly changing, and there is much discussion and concern about physicians leaving the field. But there is still a tremendous interest in the profession, as evidenced by the 2020-21 admissions cycle in the US. In this recent admissions cycle, applications to medical schools increased a stunning 17% compared to an average increase of 1-3% a year for many years prior. Nationally, there are approximately 52,000-53,000 applicants to allopathic/MD medical schools (as opposed to osteopathic/DO medical schools) each year for slightly more than 22,000 spots. That’s an acceptance rate of about 42%. This year at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, we received nearly 9,000 applications (a new record) and the acceptance rate for our 216 spots was 2%.  

2. The application process to medical school is long.

While a prospective applicant usually spends the majority of their undergraduate years preparing for medical school with required coursework and getting relevant medical and patient-based experiences, the application itself is a year-long process. Medical school applicants are required to complete prerequisite coursework, take the MCAT, submit in-depth primary and secondary applications, collect letters of recommendation, and pass a criminal background check. Some schools require Situational Judgement Tests, and nearly every school requires interviews. By the time an applicant receives an acceptance, they will have gone through multiple layers of vetting. They are the all-stars of the all-stars.    

3. “All-stars” don’t have to have a 4.0 and perfect MCAT score to get into medical school.

We have current students who had a few bouts of less than ideal grades during their time in their undergraduate studies. It’s true. Don’t get me wrong, a strong academic track record is a very important factor in the admissions process, but we understand that the transition from high school to college can be rocky for some, and grit, determination and sticktoitiveness are valuable qualities for physicians to have. In addition to test scores and GPAs, admissions officers also look for many other qualities and life experiences that bring diversity and broad ranges of perspectives to our classes, and ultimately, to the practice of medicine. Our new class of medical students started on July 6, and they exemplify this approach. Our entering students come from more than 90 different colleges and universities, 33 states and four countries. Nearly one-third are 25 years old and above, and 73% graduated from college a year ago or more. Almost 20% of our incoming students self-identify as underrepresented in medicine, 8% self-describe as first-generation college, and 10% self-describe as belonging to the LGBTQ community. In addition, 55% are female, and the range of academic majors, life experiences, and academic credentials is broad. 

4. Medical school is difficult and fun.

These two words aren’t usually associated with each other when describing what the medical school experience can be like… but, again, it’s true! Medical school is a whole new level of smart and it’s no secret that most students will work harder than they have before. The amount of information a medical student has to master can sometimes feel overwhelming.  But students learn together in teams and groups where they create shared experiences and build a unique, collaborative camaraderie with one another (some even find their life partner). In fact, at our medical school, the vast majority of learning is done in small-groups, which makes for a very dynamic, engaging, and fun way to teach and learn from one another. They aren’t studying all the time though and there is frequent time outside of the classroom to have a life as a medical student. At Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, our students are able to continue engaging in things that are important to them such as exercising, checking out restaurants, going to movies with friends, exploring Cleveland, hobbies, and more. Our annual Doc Opera fundraiser exemplifies the CaseMed spirit, with medical students and faculty members coming together in philanthropy via music, song and dance (and a lot of humor). Medical schools want to see their students succeed and that includes not only growing as a scholar and health care practitioner, but also growing as a person too. 

5. You don’t have to know what kind of doctor you want to be before coming to medical school.

Some new medical students arrive knowing that they’ve wanted to be a cardiologist or other specialist all their lives, others arrive with a few career ideas in mind, and others have no clue what kind of doctor they want to be “when they grow up.” All of these are OK! Medical schools don’t expect that incoming students have their future careers completely mapped out. In fact, we encourage exploration and provide many ways to explore different specialty pathways both in and out of the curriculum. Medical students are required to have clinical training experiences in their third and fourth years, called clerkships, which are scheduled in a variety of specialties such as pediatrics, neurology, internal medicine, geriatrics, surgery, among others. Outside of required activities, students participate in electives, research, rotations in other cities, specialty interest groups and shadowing opportunities to further explore career options. Sometimes the student who had their heart set on being a cardiologist all their life (pun intended), actually changes their mind and chooses a completely different specialty!