It’s no secret that applying to medical school is a competitive affair. Admissions officers look for not only an impressive academic performance but also a range of medically relevant experiences, all conveyed in the most compelling and authentic way possible. It’s stressful, but doable—and putting effort into distinguishing yourself from other applicants can give you a big leg up.

One of the most concrete and effective ways to boost your candidacy is to conduct original research before you apply to med school. (Your increased science knowledge will help boost your MCAT score, too.) Conducting research isn’t officially required, and many med schools will consider applicants without research experience. But if you’re interested in attending a top-tier school connected with a leading research university, amassing significant research experience in college is particularly important.

How do I get research experience?

Unless you’ve participated in a high school research program, your first exposure to research will most likely be in a college classroom. Courses in biology, chemistry and physics often incorporate laboratory research known as “benchwork.” In social science classes, you’ll most likely be asked to conduct small-scale psychology studies, such as experiments regarding learning, memory, or motivation. (One student we know conducted an experiment in her introduction to psychology course exploring students’ concepts of social norms, including how close students who didn’t know each other felt comfortable sitting on the school’s quad.)

Build on this initial exposure by exploring extracurricular research opportunities at your college. Think about the courses and professors you’ve been most drawn to and research which of them run a lab of their own. Once you’ve determined your top-choice lab to work in—based on both your excitement to work with this particular professor and your interest in their field—cultivate a relationship and ask if you might join the lab. (Bonus: this professor could serve as an excellent recommender.)

What about research opportunities outside of my university?

If you don’t find what you’re looking for at your school, or want to build on the work you’ve done in labs there, consider conducting research over the summer through a university or medical school program. At Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, for example, 50 college students each year spend the summer working in a laboratory matched to their interests. Throughout the summer, they meet in small groups with other students and attend faculty seminars and workshops; the program culminates in a poster presentation. At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, students in the Summer Lab Science Program work with laboratory employees to analyze blood, tissue, and bodily fluid specimens.

If you’ve narrowed down your interest to a specific disease or condition, consider applying to work in a specialized lab. Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York, for example, focuses exclusively on cancer science, and gives rising college seniors a chance to spend ten weeks conducting lab work and attending weekly lectures. At the Joslin Summer Research Student Internship Program in Boston, students focus exclusively on diabetes-related biomedical research.

If you’ve isolated an interest in a medical specialty rather than a disease, consider pursuing research with that specific patient population. For example, if you’re most interested in pediatrics, you might pursue research at a children’s hospital, such as Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

What benefits does research offer beyond the line on my resume?

Beyond helping you get into med school, conducting research will help you build your knowledge base and explore the nuances of your scientific interests. If you love the experience, you might be inclined to commit time to research in med school and beyond. And if you learn that it’s not really your thing—that you’re committed to working directly with patients as much of the time as possible—having research experience is still valuable: it’ll help you more thoroughly understand the underpinnings of patient treatment options.

Applying to med school is a complex undertaking! If you would like guidance on any aspect of your pre-med preparation or med school application process, contact Collegiate Gateway. As always, we’re happy to help!