I graduated from CSUF in May of 2011, and I majored in Cell and Developmental biology. Cal State Fullerton was a good fit for me because it was affordable, really placed an emphasis on students, and had a great pre-health advising office. After meeting and interacting with a huge number of applicants during interviews, I think that there are a few qualities that are very common when it comes to being successful in the medical school application process. These include good grades and test scores, clinical experiences, passions in areas completely separate from medicine, substantive research experience (usually), and early application.
My first piece of advice is to get good grades. It is very, very difficult to get into medical school without a respectable GPA. Extracurriculars can’t make up for bad grades, and while ECs can always be improved, it’s difficult to bring up a bad GPA. As far as the MCAT, I think it’s really an opportunity to make yourself stand out, and in many cases is more important than your grades. The “competition” when it comes to admissions will include graduates from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Columbia, and other similarly ranked schools (you’ll see them at every interview). It’s a validation of practically your entire education if you can best these students on the MCAT. I would advise doing thousands of practice problems, focusing on taking practice exams under real conditions (AAMC, Kaplan, and Berkeley Review all offer practice tests).
I’m a firm believer that longevity and commitment in extracurriculars will get you pretty far in medical school admissions. I’ve been told by several admissions committee members that too many applicants “check the boxes” when it comes to their activities, spending a few hours volunteering at one place, a month at another, trying to pad resumes without ever really doing anything substantial. When you find something you like, stay there. Do something there, get promoted, fix problems, make changes. Clinical experience is absolutely essential, and I recommend the Clinical Care Extenders Program in Long Beach. I was there for several years, and I feel that I got an awesome overview of medicine in general while volunteering in the OR, ER, NICU, outpatient surgery center, and pediatrics department (among others). I found that I was really interested in neonatal medicine, so I became the volunteer coordinator for the neonatal intensive care unit. I also think it’s important to find something you like away from school, the hospital, or the lab. For me, it was volunteering at the Orange County Animal Care Shelter. I’m a big animal person, and the shelter was a place where I enjoyed being.
Most successful medical school applicants have done research. If you think you might be interested in research, there are quite a few opportunities at CSUF. Publications are not necessary, but it’s great to have something to show for your work (this might be a poster presentation at a conference). I did research for a few years in the lab of Dr. Chandra Srinivasan in the biochemistry department at CSUF, then was accepted to the Bridges to Stem Cell Research (BSCR) program run by Dr. Nilay Patel. The BSCR program was amazing, and I got to do some very interesting research with Dr. Alison Miyamoto, followed by a full-time research internship at CHOC with Dr. Phil Schwartz. The BSCR, HHMI, and SCERP programs are definitely worth looking into.
Finally, I really encourage applicants to apply early. The benefits of applying in June are huge. Ask for your letters of recommendation early enough that they’ll be ready when you are, not the other way around. Get a few people to read over your personal statement. When it comes to interviews, dress nicely and try to be passionate about who you are and what you’ve done. Medical school interviews are a lot less scary than they sound. I didn’t do any mock interviews, but they might be helpful for calming the nerves. I’m always available to answer any questions about my experiences with the application process (email@example.com). It’s a little daunting, but so worth it!