Mike Got Into Harvard Med School as an International Student. Here’s How.

I spend about a third of every single month thinking about medical school and what I have to do to get in. It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if I were to be diagnosed with medical school admission O.C.D. (obsessive-compulsive disorder).

We all know the chance of an international student getting into medical school in the U.S. is razor thin. My friend Mike (at his request, I’m not using his real name), a fellow Nigerian who attended Bates College, is one of those who has done it. He will be matriculating at Harvard Medical School this fall.

I talked to Mike to find out how he got in and what advice he has for me, and for other prospective international medical students.

1) Be prepared and certain

Mike says that the difficulty of getting into an American school prompted him to take two years off after college in order to be sure this path was really what he wanted, and also to acquire more experience before applying to medical schools.

“I wasn’t sure of medical school,” he told me. “It was always a rollercoaster. I didn’t know whether I was best suited for medical school or a graduate school, so I decided to take two years off to solidify my experience.”

Finding that experience was no piece of cake. Mike wanted to spend his gap years in an immunology lab at Harvard Medical School. But he sent more than ten emails before receiving an encouraging reply. After his first of two years at HMS doing research and getting clinical experience, Mike says he felt ready to finally face the heat of applying to U.S. medical schools (aka holy of holies).

2) Cast a wide net

Mike’s strategy was to apply to as many medical schools as possible that would accept international students, including MD/PhD programs. “I had to call the admissions offices of all the schools I applied to before I sent my applications, just to confirm they accepted F-1 students,” he said.

Mike applied to 18 medical schools in total (half MD, half MD/PhD) through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), which allows you to submit your application to one place and have it distributed to many schools (like the medical school version of the Common Application).

3) Apply early

AMCAS opens for applications in June of the year before you would plan to matriculate. “It takes one month for applications to be verified by AMCAS [before they are sent on to be reviewed by the schools], so I sent my application three weeks after applications opened” Mike said.

He added that applying so early meant that “they check your application with the initial few hundreds, and it is usually less competitive then. Fewer spots are available late in the application cycle.”

From his initial AMCAS application, Mike received 15 “secondaries,” which are follow up applications that ask for materials specific to that school (whereas the AMCAS application is very general), and completed applications to 14 schools. Some schools extend secondaries to all applicants and others only to a selected number.

Mike was eventually asked to interview at eight schools, and was offered spots at seven, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Yale and Dartmouth, with great financial packages.

4) Emphasize fit and personal story

What does he think is the secret? Mike says anyone with a 3.5 GPA and 30 on the MCAT stands a chance at getting accepted, but ultimately, he said, “It’s the fit. A 30 on the MCATs will make them read your application, but the most important thing they look out for is the fit.”

Obviously, he is not talking about looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger – it’s about being able to explain why you belong at that school.

“I painted a story about myself and what I hoped to do in life,” Mike explained. “So during my interviews, most of the questions were based on my activities and story.” Mike had worked with underprivileged minorities during his undergraduate years, so he says it was logical to emphasize his passion for healthcare equality in his application, showing how that related to his medical ambitions.

5) Build a good support network

He clearly had the grades and the story to go with it, but Mike also credits a huge chunk of his success to supportive mentors and advisers. He says he had strong recommendations from professors and mentors he came to know during his time at Bates and working at Harvard. And he had advisers who helped him understand the reality of getting into medical school and were willing to guide him no matter which route he decided to take.

“They knew the stakes of medicine and they still supported me no matter what I did or what the data showed,” Mike said of those who helped him along the way.

Mike’s story is rare, but not unique. He’s not even the only African student I know who will be matriculating at Harvard this fall. A friend from Zimbabwe will also be joining him. That friend followed a more traditional path, applying to medical school straight after undergrad.

Mike says he knows another African friend who will be matriculating at Dartmouth. She also took a year or two off before applying to broaden her experience.

It is certain that though the road may look so bleak, there can be hope. Mike’s story is one that truly exemplifies the truth that we are all architects of our individual journeys. To sail far, we need to be prepared. And if being prepared means taking a year or two off, well that should be done with no regret.

As our conversation came to an end, I asked Mike for a concise piece of advice for F-1 pre-med students. His response?

Be motivated. Go for what you want no matter what. Develop a good relationship with your advisor.

Follow Promise’s med school journey on his personal blog, The F-1 Medical Case.


  1. thanks man for all this, i,m greatly inspired i,m ultimately focused and determined to get into medical school, nomatter what

  2. I’m a Pakistani, currently in Nigeria doing my A levels. I also have searched for the right educational scholarship programmes and have a life-size dream of studying at Harvard Med school. Since the time I started searching for all the tips and suggestions, I was always turned down and ended up in getting very little info. I really don’t know whether this A levels is an undergraduate programme or what but all I got to hear from my friends and colleagues was that I should apply early but my professor suggests after the completion of this course. This has made me very double-minded and even though reading through this immensely motivating story of this guy I am finding it hard to know all the details and necessary guidelines to lead me towards the correct path……………….I am a very capable student with a good sense of character building skills and good academic records by the grace of God, please i want you to help me and guide me a bit because may afford to study in Harvard but that too seems difficult from now…………………………………….

    1. Hassan; I think “Mike” offered up some interesting tips. I understand how you very much want to study at Harvard in particular, but a better strategy might be to try for admissions at a number of schools. There are many fine institutions in the U.S. where you could receive a top caliber education. Also, it took him a great deal of work – years off after college to work on the admissions, a large set of strong recommendations, and time. All of these things can be difficult to gather. But I guess the lesson of his story is not to be discouraged: keep at it, and also realize that an admission to another high quality school may suit you even better. Good luck!

  3. Applying early is key. My school is known for its international population and they accept almost half of the freshman on early action or early decision. With that in mind, early decision is a great way to show your prospective school that you’re committed to going there and it greatly helps your chances of getting accepted.

  4. I am a 10th grader from India aspiring to study medicine in USA. I desire to go through scholarship, as My family isn’t the wealthiest in Delhi. I have searched a number of sites for the same, but everyone is just giving the outline of it. Can you explain me the um.. Whole procedure i e visas scholarships financial help tests etc?

    1. Hey, I’m from India too. I also spent about my many hours on internet searching about the same.
      Now, I’m in 1st year MBBS at KGMC.
      Since you mentioned here is the link from the same blog about medical school scholarship:

      Please see that the Normal Course is:
      A Bachelor Degree –> MD –> Residency –> Fellowship

      Since it require the same hard work, my advise would be: Prepare for AIPMT/NEET. Please prepare sincerely, and get admission in colleges like AIIMS/JIPMER/MAMC.
      After you get an admission, start preparing for USMLE Exam and get into a residency program of your choice.

      More about medical education: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_education_in_the_United_States

  5. I’m so sorry. I completely forgot its your friend that got accepted not you!! So the questions are refering to him then…lol

  6. Congratulations !! As an international student who is thinking about doing med school in America, I really found your story very inspirational and motivating. I was so discouraged about the whole thing until now. I am planning on starting my undergrad in the fall of 2014 in the States but I’m not sue what degree to do…I was thinking biomedical engineering. What undergrad degree did u do??
    And also how are you going to finance the program cause most med schools I have seen require international students to pay up front for the 4 years or put it in an escrow account.
    Are you receiving any financial aid or scholarships??
    Look forward to hearing from you!!

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