What do Medical Schools Look For? 19 Key Traits

What do Medical Schools Look For? 19 Traits Your Application Must Convey!

Have you ever asked yourself, “what do medical schools look for in applicants?” When reading and evaluating thousands of applications from qualified students, which traits, activities, themes, and perspectives are they looking for?

To answer this question, we put together a comprehensive list of the major qualities and characteristics that medical schools look for in a candidate.

What do medical schools look for? 19 Key Traits:

  1. Psychological maturity – Medical schools want to know that you can endure, process, and respond effectively to stressful or potentially disturbing circumstances.  
  1. Character, honesty and integrity – Medical schools aren’t just looking for good students. They want to know that the doctors who have trained at their school are also good people.
  1. Compassion, empathy, and altruism – Good doctors help their patients. Great doctors do it because they have a genuine concern for their patients. They desire to understand and remedy not only a patient’s illness or injury, but also their state of mind and psychological well-being. In short, caring is critical.
  1. Respectfulness, sensitivity, and understanding of others – You must, no matter what happens, treat your patients and fellow practitioners with dignity and respect.
  1. Interpersonal skills – Nobody wants to work alongside – much less be treated by – an irritable, abrasive doctor. You should be capable of conducting yourself amicably in a number of settings, if you expect to become an outstanding physician.
  1. Cultural competence – As a physician, you will need to communicate and work with individuals from varying backgrounds. For example, it is not uncommon for individuals to pick up a second language during their residency. Harvard Medical School’s website makes this point, saying, “Mastery of a foreign language, although not required, is a valuable skill that expands intellectual and cultural horizons and that reinforces preparation for patient care in a multicultural society.” In order to be a truly outstanding candidate, you must show that you are capable of bridging cultural boundaries – both ethnic as well as socio-economic.
  1. Social consciousness – Medical schools want alumni who are committed to improving the world around them. This is why volunteer work and community service – regardless of whether it is medically-related – is such a central facet of the medical school application.
  1. Self-discipline and work ethic – becoming a doctor is an incredibly arduous task. Working as a doctor, doubly so. To be a successful medical student and doctor, you must have an indefatigable work ethic, and the discipline to hone your work ethic to cultivate your medical knowledge and skill-sets.
  1. Commitment to medicine – It is crucial that admissions officers believe that you know what you’re getting yourself into, and that you won’t decide in two or three years that the medical field is not a good fit for you. A long-term and sustained commitment to medicine is crucial.
  1. Persistence, resilience, and perseverance – Medical school, and medicine generally, can be incredibly frustrating and difficult. Thus, admissions committees are eager to see that an applicant is persistent in achieving their goals, and doesn’t quit when the going gets tough.
  1. Reliability and accountability – As a physician, patients will literally rely on you to save their lives. Teammates – fellow physicians, nurses, etc. – will also rely on you in providing accurate, up-to-date, and competent directions and care. Demonstrating that you are someone who can be relied upon – that you are someone who does what you say you will, and does so competently – is a crucial component in conveying that you will be an outstanding physician.
  1. Good Judgment – As a doctor, you will need to exercise good judgment, especially when you’re under pressure. Medical schools want to accept students who can exercise sound judgment inside the classroom as well as the emergency room.
  1. Excellent communication skills – This is a key trait to think about in asking “what do medical schools look for.” You should able to deliver your thoughts concisely and accurately, to fellow professionals as well as laymen. In terms of the admissions process, this comes across in both your written communication on your application, as well as your verbal communication during interviews. 
  1. Excellent listening skills – Medical schools want to know that you can listen to – and more importantly, understand – what you are being told. This includes lectures from faculty, discussions with fellow physicians, and interactions with patients.  
  1. Leadership – As a doctor, you will be charged with leading entire teams of medical professionals. You must be capable of earning the respect of fellow teammates, commanding their attention, and delegating tasks to maximize the effectiveness of your team’s efforts.
  1. Teamwork – You will also need to be capable of playing secondary or supporting roles in a team effort. Showing that you can put your ego aside and work as part of a team – whether acting as the leader or not – is important in conveying that you contribute positively as a medical student and physician.
  1. Practical medical experience – Although for the most part, your medical experiences will be addressed in the AMCAS “Activities/Work” section, it never hurts to add additional tidbits of background that convey your extensive experience with or exposure to medical practice.
  1. Research experience – Academic research is not required by most medical schools, but it is highly valued by all. Again, while your research experience should be addressed in the “Work/Activities” section of the AMCAS application, you can address these experiences in greater depth in your personal statement. Showing a proficiency and enthusiasm for research will help demonstrate that you can successfully perform the research tasks required by most medical schools.
  1. Likeability – The last, but certainly not least important goal of your application is to make yourself likable. Ultimately, whether you are admitted will depend on whether an admissions officer or committee is willing to advocate for you. If your credentials make you a borderline candidate, or you are applying to an especially competitive program, you will need admissions officers to feel strongly about getting you admitted.

When crafting your medical school personal statement, activities list, letters of recommendation, and secondary essays, you should continue to ask yourself: what do medical schools look for? Keep these traits in mind. As you tell your story and build your application, you will need to exhibit some, if not all, of these absolutely crucial qualities!

About the Author


Joel Butterly, Co-founder and CEO of InGenius Prep, is an experienced admissions counselor and entrepreneur. Joel comes from a rich educational background—his immediate family alone has 14 Ivy League Degrees—from Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Dartmouth.

Joel attended Dartmouth College, where he studied Government, Geography, and the Philosophy of Ethics. He was inducted early into Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated Summa Cum Laude. He graduated with a double major in Government and International Studies, and a minor in Ethical Philosophy.

After Dartmouth, Joel attended Yale Law School, where he served on the executive board of the Journal on Regulation, as well as the Law School’s entrepreneurship society.

Joel currently resides at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. He lives with his fiance – Emily – who teaches and is receiving her PhD in Medieval History from Yale.