How to Get Into Harvard Medical School: Requirements and Strategies

Learn Harvard Medical School’s requirements, acceptance rate, and admissions strategies, plus an HMS personal statement example and secondary essay examples

Getting into Harvard Medical School is a dream for many premed students

Getting into Harvard Medical School is a dream for many premed students

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Part 1: Introduction

Getting into Harvard Medical School (HMS) is a dream shared by so many premed students due to the school’s prestige (it sits atop the U.S. News & World Report medical school rankings most years), incredible array of clinical and research opportunities, and access to a strong personal and professional network.

If you’re like most medical school applicants, you probably view Harvard at best as a long shot. Matriculants’ stats are among the highest, the acceptance rate is low, and the school carries a certain mystique that may lead you to wonder who comprises this special student body.

Our goal in this post is to demystify the admissions process and requirements so you can learn how to get into Harvard Medical School rather than feel dejected about your chances.

Harvard Medical School curriculum overview

Before we dig into admissions statistics and strategies, it’s important to cover Harvard’s two distinct medical school curriculum options:

  • Pathways: The Harvard Pathways program offers a more traditional medical school education involving case-based learning, earlier clinical experiences (i.e., in the first few weeks of the first year), advanced science courses, and a research project. The majority of Harvard med students (~80%) go through the Pathways program.

  • Health Sciences & Technology (HST): HST is a joint program between Harvard and MIT that focuses on biomedical research, basic sciences, and biotechnology. HST students (~20% of each class) begin their clinical experiences later than Pathways students (i.e., mid-way through their second year) and pursue research activities more consistently throughout their medical education. HST students must also complete a research thesis to graduate.

(Recommended viewing: Dr. Edward Hundert, Harvard’s Dean for Medical Education, recorded an informative video describing similarities and differences between Pathways and HST.)

HMS also offers the following dual degree programs:

Except for the MD/PhD program, students apply for dual degree opportunities after being admitted to the MD program.

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Part 2: Harvard Medical School acceptance rate

Below are the Harvard Medical School admissions statistics for the class of 2024:

  • Applications: 6,708

  • Interviews: 798 (11.8%)

  • Acceptance rate: 3.3%

  • Matriculants: 168

While helpful, these statistics don’t fully answer everyone’s favorite question: “How hard is it to get into Harvard Medical School?” To get a better sense of that, let’s review the academic data among accepted students:

  • Average GPA: 3.9

  • Average MCAT: 519.82

Before you throw your hands up in defeat, consider that while Harvard’s average stats are quite high, not everyone getting in has a 3.9 GPA and 520 MCAT score. Given that these are average scores, approximately as many students with lower stats get in as those with higher stats. With a strong extracurricular background and systematic application approach, you’ll increase your odds of getting in.

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Part 3: Harvard Medical School requirements

Coursework

Harvard requires you to complete the following prerequisites prior to enrolling:

  • Biology: One year with lab. Should include cellular and molecular biology.

  • Chemistry: Two years with lab. Should include inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry.

  • Physics: One year. Lab is preferred but not required. (Note: HST applicants should complete additional calculus-based physics courses.)

  • Math: One year, including calculus and statistics. (Note: HST applicants should additional math courses, such as differential equations and linear algebra.)

  • Writing: One year

In addition, Harvard highly encourages coursework in behavioral sciences such as psychology or sociology. They also recommend that you take courses in literature, languages, arts, humanities, and social sciences to be a competitive applicant.

(Suggested reading: Medical School Requirements: The Definitive Guide)

Extracurricular activities

In many ways, the extracurricular activities required or desired by Harvard Medical School are no different than those required by other medical schools. However, given the competitive applicant pool and Harvard’s commitment to recruiting the best med students, it’s important to demonstrate a multi-year commitment to the activities that most interest you, as well as high levels of achievement.

In other words, checking certain boxes—shadowing, patient exposure, community service, research—isn’t sufficient. You’ll want to go deep in a few related areas to develop a clear theme and help your application stand out.

(Recommend reading: How to Choose the Right Extracurricular Activities for Medical School)

  • Research: While the Harvard Med School website “encourages” research, it’s essentially a requirement, as 99 percent of matriculants completed research prior to enrolling, according to MSAR.

  • Shadowing and patient exposure: The vast majority of matriculants shadow physicians and gain patient exposure experiences during their premed years.

  • Community service and volunteering: Most Harvard med students also pursue meaningful and longstanding community service and volunteer experiences before they’re accepted.

Letters of recommendation

HMS allows you to submit up to six letters of recommendation, with the following constraints:

  • At least two letters from science professors (i.e., with whom you took classes for a letter grade)

  • At least one letter from a non-science professor (i.e., with whom you took a graded class)

  • A committee letter/packet from your school (if applicable) counts as one letter toward your six-letter allowance

(Recommended reading: Medical School Letters of Recommendation: The Definitive Guide)

Essays

HMS requires that you apply through AMCAS, which includes the following written sections:

  • Personal statement: An overview of your personal, academic, and extracurricular background and your path to medicine.

  • Work and Activities section: Short descriptions of up to 15 extracurricular activities and awards, with the opportunity to further expand on three of your ‘most meaningful’ experiences.

After you complete your AMCAS application, you’ll also write several secondary essays. Since your medical school personal statement and AMCAS Work and Activities section will be sent to all schools, secondaries offer your best opportunity to demonstrate direct fit between your background and HMS.

Below is a full-length personal statement written by a student who matriculated at HMS and, further down, examples of how to address the current HMS secondary essays.

(Suggested reading: Medical School Secondary Essay Prompts)

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Part 4: Harvard Medical School personal statement example

(Note: This essay was written by a student who matriculated at HMS. All identifying details and names have been changed.)

It was strange to find myself at a hospital without a visitor’s desk or a cash register. I was volunteering at Raul Morales Hospital, a non-governmental organization that provides free medical care to people who are underserved in Mexico City. There I met Mr. Lopez, a middle-aged man who was homeless and suffering from hypertension, liver cirrhosis, and insomnia.  

In the small hospital, I shadowed attending physician Dr. Reyes during her rounds, aided nurses, and helped maintain ward sanitation. While performing my duties, I had many opportunities to interact with a diverse group of patients. I met a homeless woman who wandered all over the country before she ended up in the hospital for breast cancer. I spoke with an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who had to leave his family to earn a living. I also taught a Nicaraguan boy how to use a computer for the first time. Although he left his home to receive a surgery on his deformed spine, he never lost his youthful cheerfulness. All the people in the hospital loved to have him around. The patients in the wards got along well with each other, often playing cards or reading the Bible together. Though most of them had no house to return to, they made their home at the hospital. They welcomed me as a guest in their home, with bright smiles when language was a barrier.

However, there was one patient who did not fit in. He frequently quarreled with the other residents, and the nurses called him hopeless. Maybe they resented his lies when he tried to avoid taking his prescribed drugs or sneak out of the hospital to smoke a cigarette. When I first approached him, he told me to leave him alone. This was Mr. Lopez.

Despite his antics with the nurses, Mr. Lopez always showed respect to one person: Dr. Reyes. During one of Dr. Reyes’s daily rounds, I saw Mr. Lopez smile for the first time. In stark contrast to the way he treated the nurses, he answered the doctor’s questions completely and honestly. Occasionally, he would even crack a joke. Mr. Lopez seemed to find solace in Dr. Reyes even though he could not find it elsewhere. Pleasantly surprised, I asked Dr. Reyes how she had managed to get Mr. Lopez to open up. She told me that a doctor is responsible for gaining a patient’s trust to provide optimal care and that there is no magic recipe for this. It took Dr. Reyes an excruciatingly slow process of trial and error to develop a relationship with Dr. Lopez that transcended dependence. 

So it began. I knew it would be difficult initially to connect with Mr. Lopez because he seemed to dislike most people’s company. Moreover, I still had to report Mr. Lopez whenever he lied to the nurses or tried to sneak out of the hospital. Obviously, that did not endear me to him. Mr. Lopez was only cooperative during meal time—he would always be the first to get in line and especially looked forward to having chicken mole. So, I tried to show Mr. Lopez extra care by saving him some leftovers whenever I oversaw food distribution. When Mr. Lopez looked bored, I sat by him to read books. Soon enough, I knew Mr. Lopez’s tough exterior was cracking because he began waving when he saw me.

With a sense of accomplishment, I realized that doctors are more than purveyors of medical knowledge and that they must lift patients’ spirits in addition to healing their bodies. I was mesmerized by this great responsibility and desired to serve as a true companion who understands and shares patients’ burdens when the weight of the world is buckling their knees.

Considering a doctor’s dual role, it is important to enhance the quality of physical and mental care. Connecting with Mr. Lopez interpersonally sped up the trial-and-error trust-building process that Dr. Reyes alluded. On the other hand, expanding the scientific boundaries can improve the quality of medical treatments. During my time at Raul Morales Hospital, I found that so many prevalent conditions are still poorly understood. For instance, depression is a major risk factor for developing numerous medical conditions, but its causes generally remain mysterious, as was the case for Mr. Lopez. While working in a lab that studies how to improve emotional well-being to boost cancer survivorship rates, I came to believe in the potential of research to aid patients all over the globe. Therefore, I wish to become a physician-scientist who can contribute to improving medical therapy.

I greatly appreciated the lessons I learned from working with Mr. Lopez. and wanted to stay longer to hear more of his stories. Nevertheless, my time in Mexico quickly ran out. On my final day at the hospital, I visited Mr. Lopez last. I slowly sat next to him and attempted to converse as usual. When it came time for me to leave, I reluctantly told him that I had to return to school in America. Mr. Lopez avoided looking into my eyes as I spoke. It was only when I stood up after saying a hesitant farewell that Mr. Lopez finally opened his mouth and uttered the six precious words that continually motivate me to strive to heal the body and the soul: “You will make a good doctor.”

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Part 5: Harvard Medical School secondary essay examples

Here are the current secondary essay prompts for Harvard Medical School along with guidance and examples that illustrate how you should go about answering them.

Question 1: If you have already graduated, briefly (4000 characters max) summarize your activities since graduation.

This is a common question that you’ll see across a number of medical school applications. The main difference you’ll see between schools is the amount of space you’re permitted in your response.

4,000 characters is about 500 words, a significant chunk of space. Harvard has allowed students this kind of space in part because they’re aware different types of students have spent varying amounts of time outside of school, pursuing careers in and out of health. But even if you’re not going to use all 500 words to debrief on your five jobs held since graduation, you should read the word count and recognize that Harvard expects you to treat this as an essay, not just a quick informational prompt.

In other words: you need a thesis to shape how your time since graduation has been spent. Prove that you went in with a plan, a goal, or, better yet, a question you wanted to answer. Explain how you got that answer and how it will make you a better physician. 

Here’s a response by a student we’ll call Cecilia:

As an undergraduate, I always thought I had to choose between the humanities and medicine. I spent most of my college career splitting time. On weekday afternoons and evenings, I was in the lab. On weekend nights, I was at every friends’ art shows, performing in theater productions myself, and hosting literary events. I declared my major, History of Science and Medicine, later than most. I went on to write my thesis on Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, and was hooked on the work of reconciling the humanities and medicine. It took me a long time to see how the two disciplines are intertwined, and I knew I wanted a chance to linger in this rare intellectual space that I feared I’d found too late.

That’s why it was important to me to take enough time between college and medical school to practice integrating the two halves of my intellectual personality. I spent the first year out of school on a Fulbright scholarship in India studying how the practice of traditional medicines like Ayurveda intersect with allopathic medicine, and trying to understand whether the government’s attempt to scientifically validate Ayurvedic practices is a worthwhile approach. The year gave me a chance to learn some Malayalam and to spend time with people who thought about healthcare from a completely different angle than most Western physicians. I think the year also gave me respect for where future patients might be coming from if and when they doubt my authority as a doctor in favor of traditional health practices. I have the vocabulary to address those practices with respect now. 

After the Fulbright, I spent two years as a health and science reporter at the Boston Globe. While at the Globe, where I had interned for one summer in college, I had a chance to explore the challenges of medicine around the state and region. I reported on a small town losing its hospital in Maine, and I got to interview Dr. Atul Gawande several times. I audited a class at Harvard Divinity School about pastoral care, where I met ministers, rabbis, priests, and secular spiritual leaders trying to think about better ways to help people age. It was a true gift to get a chance to think about healthcare from non-clinical perspectives—to meet people who didn’t understand why they were losing their emergency room for an urgent care center, for instance—and understand their pain. It seems so easy to enter the vaunted halls of medicine and take on the jargon of the profession, relying on heuristic vocabulary that in the end abbreviates what it actually is to live in a sick, injured, debilitated or dying body—like the metaphor Sontag so critiques, and which I wrestled with in my thesis. 

During these three years, I’ve also continued my involvement in the arts that have sustained me for my whole life, and this summer, I will be teaching art, dance, and storytelling to young people at a camp for neuro-atypical children, which my own younger brother attends every year. 

I have always known I wanted to be a doctor, and I was premed from the first day of college. But I have also always known that I want to be a full person before embarking on my life as a physician, ready to serve my patients with experience and compassion. I have used these gap years as a way to better converge Cecilia the person with Cecilia the future doctor. 

Question 2: If there is an important aspect of your personal background or identity, not addressed elsewhere in the application, that you would like to share with the Committee, we invite you to do so here. Many applicants will not need to answer this question. Examples might include significant challenges in access to education, unusual socioeconomic factors, identification with a minority culture, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. Briefly explain how such factors have influenced your motivation for a career in medicine. (4000 character maximum)

This is a standard ‘diversity’ question. You can use the answer you’ve already prepared (see our advice on that in our guide to secondary essays). To drive the point home, find a way to connect your experience to something at Harvard.

For instance, this is Richard’s diversity essay with a Harvard connection:

“What’s the weirdest thing about you?”

It was just an icebreaker question during freshman orientation, but looking around at my new classmates at the liberal arts college I’d enrolled in, I knew the answer. In this space, the thing that made me weird was the thing that had also made me at home growing up in Virginia. I had, at many points in my life, known and been in touch with a personal God. I had not just believed; I had been born again. I had felt the presence of a higher power and lived accordingly. And in large chunks of America, that makes me… weird.

It was painful to lose my faith. It began cracking in late middle school and broke entirely when I was in high school. The process was sped along by seeing my brother, who came out when he went to college, shunned by many members of my extended family, though thankfully not by my parents, who never saw a contradiction between the church and their son. But perhaps my faith was fragile, or seeking a test, because once I saw some of the behaviors of my family members manipulate what I had been taught was the infallible word of God, I suddenly found it harder to hear Him, like their misinterpretations were wilfull interruptions to what had previously been a clearer frequency.

I stopped going to church as a senior. On Sundays, I took myself on long walks in the woods near my house. My parents were understanding, and my father actually gave me a copy of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poems, which are about the poet finding God’s meaning in nature.

I haven’t yet found a new vocabulary for what I lost. What I know, though, is that I feel something of what I felt in church activities when I show up to serve others in a healthcare context. I don’t know if the God I once reached daily is looking down on the hours I spend at the Senior Center in Charlottesville, but I know there is something larger than me passing when Ms. Emmeline, stricken with dementia, finally focuses her eyes on mine and asks me to take her for a walk. Part of the reason I am so drawn to Harvard Medical School is because it is an institution that will not only train me to care for patients but also let me think about the human, humane, and spiritual aspects of medicine. From Dr. Tracy Balboni and Michael Balboni’s research to the broader interdisciplinary conversations surrounding medicine, Harvard seems far and away the only institution I’m aware of that commits to not just teaching medicine but also truly reflecting on it.

“I guess,” I tried to speak to my conversation partner during that icebreaker. How could I communicate any of this? “I believe we’re all here for a reason. Does that make me weird?”

Question 3: The Committee on Admissions understands that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted applicants in various ways. If you wish to inform the Committee as to how these events have affected you and have not already done so elsewhere in your application, please use this space to do so. (This is an optional essay; the Committee on Admissions will make no judgment based on your decision to provide a statement or not.) (4000 character maximum)

Let’s break down the intent of this unprecedented prompt: it provides space to explain how the COVID-19 pandemic may have negatively impacted you, allowing you to be seen holistically in the event that the pandemic disrupted your education, test taking, application preparation, or other relevant circumstances.

While it’s highly likely that the pandemic has impacted you in one or more of these ways, keep in mind that this is an optional essay. As such, we don’t recommend using it to excuse relatively minor missteps or outcomes you wish had turned out differently, such as receiving a B in a virtual class when you believe you would have received an A in person.

Rather, an essay that responds to this prompt should discuss reasons why the pandemic has truly kept you from putting your best foot forward. For example, perhaps you were supposed to work in a lab during your gap year but the lab has been shut down since March. Or, to offer another example, maybe you’ve been prevented from taking the MCAT because testing centers near you were closed and then booked solid for months.

Whatever the circumstances are that you believe merit explanation, keep your response concise and factual, remembering that your goal is to explain why the scenario should not prevent you from being considered a strong applicant.

Question 4: The interview season for the 2020-2021 cycle will be held virtually and is anticipated to run from mid-September through January 2021. Please indicate any significant (three or more weeks) restriction on your availability for interviews during this period. If none, please leave this section blank.

This answer is simple—just information!

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Part 6: Harvard Medical School interview

Although HMS sends out secondaries in early July, interviews begin in September each year, lasting until January. In the 2020–2021 application cycle, interviews will be held virtually.

HMS uses a traditional interview format and invited students meet with an average of two different interviewers. Interviewees typically report a relatively low-stress experience and feel that they performed well during the process.

Interviewers will have usually reviewed your application in depth ahead of time and ask questions meant to genuinely understand your personal and professional motivations to pursue medicine rather than try to grill you.

(Recommended reading: How to Ace Your Medical School Interviews)

About the Author

Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is the Founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting and one of the world's foremost experts on medical school admissions. For nearly 20 years, he and his team have helped thousands of students get into medical school using his exclusive approach.


THERE'S NO REASON TO STRUGGLE THROUGH THE MED SCHOOL ADMISSIONS PROCESS ALONE, ESPECIALLY WITH SO MUCH ON THE LINE. SCHEDULE YOUR COMPLIMENTARY 30-MINUTE CONSULTATION TO ENSURE YOU LEAVE NOTHING TO CHANCE.