Understanding the Holistic Review for Medical School Applicants

Since 2007, the AAMC has encouraged medical schools to use a holistic review process when evaluating prospective medical students. The goal of this initiative is to improve the quality and diversity of physicians trained. This is because research has shown that academic success does not reliably predict a student’s future achievements as a medical student or physician. The practice of medicine is extremely complex and requires more than academic intelligence.  In order to succeed, physicians need to have strong interpersonal skills, the ability to take a leadership role, and be compassionate. Furthermore, holistic review processes allow schools to select students who have values and goals that closely align with the mission of the school. Boston University School of Medicine was one of the first medical schools to implement a holistic review process at all stages of the admissions process. Data from their school shows that since implementing the holistic review, their students demonstrated better interpersonal skills and were more open to new ideas. Furthermore, there was no significant change in the average GPA and MCAT scores for students admitted under the holistic review process. This data was very reassuring to other medical schools, and now most of them use a holistic review in their admissions process.

A Look at the Holistic Review

A medical school applicant should be aware of what the holistic review means and present themselves in a manner that will benefit them in a holistic review process. Holistic review is a method in which medical schools give consideration to multiple ways that applicants can show that they are suitable for admission. Schools realize that a student’s background can affect all aspects of their life. Therefore, rather than looking at only grades and test scores, schools are now looking at those numbers while taking other factors into account. Most schools use a technique known as the “E-A-M model” which looks at three metrics when evaluating prospective students: experience, attributes, and metrics. Experience includes educational background, community service, research experience, and leadership roles. Attributes are an applicant’s personal characteristics- including values, beliefs, maturity, and intellectual curiosity. The metrics section of the holistic review is the traditional portion of the review process. During this step, an applicant’s grades and MCAT scores are evaluated.

During the ‘E’ and ‘A’ portions the holistic review, schools typically look for 7 characteristics. These are time management skills, ability to communicate effectively, leadership, exposure to medically related environments, compassion, interests outside of medicine, and interpersonal skills. The personal statement is the ideal way for a medical school applicant to ensure that they do well in the holistic review. By using the personal statement to demonstrate these seven characteristics, an applicant will catch the attention of medical school admissions committees.

Time Management Skills:

More and more, physicians are expected to see more patients in less time. Therefore, it is imperative that a physician develop good time management skills if they are to succeed. In addition, medical school is a very fast paced, and labor intensive undertaking. If a student hopes to meet the requirements of medical training, they must know how to effectively manage their schedule. For this reason, schools seek students who already know how to manage their time efficiently.

Communication skills

Physicians who are able to communicate effectively are viewed more favorably by patients, are more successful, and are less likely to be accused of malpractice. The human body is very complex and difficult for the average person to understand. Patients look to their physician to explain their diagnosis, treatment options, and answer their questions thoroughly and in a way that they understand. Although many medical school applicants are able to understand the academic work taught in medical school, only some are able to communicate with others effectively. Applicants with both skills are very desirable to medical schools.


Doctors are the leaders of the healthcare team. Nurses, pharmacists, medical assistants, and other healthcare providers look to physicians to lead the group in caring for their patients. Medical schools want to admit students who have strong leadership skills. Students who have held leadership roles prior to entering medical school are viewed favorably by admissions committees.

Exposure to medically related environments

Healthcare is often an intense experience. Many times healthcare professionals are faced with frightening situations, unpleasant odors, and distressing sights. Not everybody is well-suited for such a career. It is therefore a good idea for prospective medical students to gain some exposure to the medical field prior to medical school. Admissions committees find it reassuring when applicants have shadowed a physician or volunteered in a healthcare facility.


Physicians care for people when they are in distress. Compassion is a necessary attribute to effectively care for patients. Multiple surveys demonstrate that patients rate physician quality based on their satisfaction with doctor-patient interactions. Medical school look for compassionate people to admit to their classes.

Interests outside of medicine

Although medical school is a time-consuming undertaking, schools want to admit well-balanced people with interests other than medicine. An applicant need not have an impressive hobby, or be very skilled at it. However, simply having diverse interests is very appealing to medical school admissions committees.

Interpersonal skills

 Physicians are the leaders of the healthcare team. The job requires effective interactions with many people. In order to provide the best care to their patients, a physician must possess the interpersonal skills to work with the other members of the team. In addition, a physician must be able to interact with a diverse patient population to provide care.

The holistic review provides medical school applicants opportunities other than GPA and MCAT scores to demonstrate that they are attractive candidates for admission. If executed properly, the medical school personal statement can demonstrate to medical schools that a candidate has the necessary attributes to be a successful medical student and physician.