Part 1: Introduction

When listing off the top ten medical schools in the United States, Columbia Medical School will likely make your cut. Known for its excellent faculty, challenging academics and residency opportunities, Columbia Medical School is very selective. Their acceptance rate is slightly higher than Brown or Washington University, but it’s still very low at less than four percent. If Columbia Medical School is your dream school, or if they’re among your top choices, then this article is for you. 

We’ve created a definitive guide for you, detailing everything you need to know to have the very best shot at getting into Columbia Medical School. In this guide, we’ll discuss the different programs that Columbia offers, as well as their tuition costs, secondary application essays (samples included!), and interview process. This five-part guide will prepare you to confidently apply to Columbia Medical School. 

Part 2: Programs at Columbia Medical School

You have four application routes to choose from when it comes to applying. 

  • Traditional MD program that takes four years to complete
  • Three-year PhD-to-MD program for students who hold a science PhD
  • Columbia’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) that grants students the coveted MD-PhD degree
  • The Columbia-Bassett MD program that focuses on rural healthcare

Each program is unique and has its advantages. The Columbia-Bassett track is nearly impossible to get into, with only ten students from the four-year MD program being accepted. But this track is almost guaranteed to get you into your top residency choice. 

Let’s take a look at where each route takes you. 

Traditional MD Program

The traditional, four-year MD program focuses on science and medicine for your first two years. In your third and fourth years, you get to branch out and take elective courses and clerkships, as well as spend time in medical offices and hospitals to gain hands-on experience and prepare you to become a doctor. Each student can choose their own, unique path to becoming a doctor. Additionally, Columbia offers a fifth year of study to students who want to focus on research.

Three-Year MD-to-PhD Program

This program is only for students who already have a PhD in science. With that PhD in hand, these students go through the following program.

  • Preclinical courses: 16 months
  • Major clinical year: 12 months
  • Electives, board preparation and interviews: 5 months

These students aren’t required to complete a scholarly project. Their major clinical year involves residency applications.

Columbia Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) / MD-PhD Program

Don’t let the similar names confuse you. While the MD-to-PhD is for students who already hold a PhD, the MD-PhD program is for incoming students who want to earn both an MD and a PhD. Students in this program focus on research and medicine as they study to become doctors. The program is small with only a dozen students admitted per year. Each student gets to choose courses specific to their interests. Epidemiology, neurobiology, cancer biology and immunology are just a few of the courses that the MD-PhD program offers. 

In addition to being small, student-focused and curriculum-rich, this program is also diverse, with US natives and international students who come from 48 different undergraduate universities in the United States. 

Students who are enrolled in the MD-PhD program usually have a two-year gap between earning their bachelor’s degree and continuing their education at Columbia Medical School. The most popular programs are the Integrated Program in Cellular, Molecular and Biomedical Studies (CMBS) and the Doctoral Program in Neurobiology and Behavior. Students who are admitted into either of these programs are focused on research.

The Columbia Bassett MD Program

The elite Columbia-Bassett program trains students to become doctors in rural areas. The program has students in NYC for their first year and a half, and then they spend the rest of their schooling in Central New York State, where they receive training in performance improvement and trauma-informed care. The training these students receive prepares them for residency. They are known to match with their first choice. 

Cost of Attendance at Columbia Medical School

Columbia Medical School greatly helped its students by instituting scholarships in place of student loans. The change took place in 2018 and was backed with a $300 million scholarship fund. If you qualify for financial aid, you’ll be receiving scholarship money instead of student loans, making the cost of your education more reasonable. 

There are variables and conditions. Your family can’t make more than or have assets exceeding $125,000 per year. If your family does, you’ll be paying out of pocket, and Columbia is just under $100,000 per year, or $50,000 per semester. 

But if your family earns less than $125,000 per year, you’re eligible and any student loans that would have been included in your financial aid offer will be replaced with scholarship money. So, if you’re in the right financial range, you’ll graduate from Columbia without any student loans from tuition. 

Part 3: Getting In Is Hard: Stats for Columbia Medical School

For the class of 2024, Columbia Medical School received 7,297 applicants but only invited 878 to interview, bringing them to a 12 percent acceptance rate. The most recent data for Columbia shows that they accepted 250 students (3.5 percent) for their incoming year. 

The Grades You Need to Get In

Columbia Medical School is extremely picky. They expect you to be at the very top of your academic game. For the most recently accepted incoming class, the median GPA was 3.91 and the median MCAT score was 521. With scores that high, Columbia has set a prestigious precedent for hopeful applicants. Pairing your high scores with outstanding application essays will help you get a coveted interview at Columbia. 

Part 4: Secondary Application Essays (with samples) for Columbia Medical School

The first step to applying for medical school is to submit your American Medical College Application Service application. The AMCAS application is a system used by medical schools across the nation. After submitting this application, you’ll then submit your secondary application directly to Columbia Medical School. 

Applications for Columbia Medical School open in July. Since they use a rolling admissions system, you’ll get an answer sooner if you apply early. However, if you don’t apply in July, Columbia accepts applications through October. 

Part of the secondary application includes essay prompts. For many students, answering essay prompts can feel daunting and unnerving. There isn’t a single correct way to answer a question, and you don’t know who will read it or how they will take what you say. Where a resume is straightforward with detailed information, an essay allows you to get personal.

As part of its grueling application process, Columbia Medical School requires answers to seven different essay prompts for the MD program alone. Additional essays are required if you apply for any of the other programs we described above. 

Because we know how challenging this might seem, we’ve rounded up all of Columbia’s questions for you and given you detailed insights into why they ask the questions they ask and how to answer them. We want you to be as prepared as possible. 

Before we dive in, we want to remind you that you don’t have to write all these essays at once. We highly recommend starting your application early enough that you can take time to write thoughtful responses to each essay prompt. 

Columbia Medical School’s Essay Prompts

Question #1 If you didn’t complete your bachelor’s degree in the traditional eight-semester time-frame, please explain why. (250 words)

There’s no need to answer this question if you didn’t take time away from your studies. If you did, you need to answer the question, but don’t feel like you have to write a full 250 words. Just be sure to include the following information.

  • Provide dates and the duration of time for your break
  • Give your reason why. Did you decide to take a break, or did you need to?
  • Provide specific details as to what you did. Don’t overshare, but don’t under share, either. Honesty is important here.
  • Highlight the positives from your break. Taking time away from school can sometimes be seen in a negative light. But if your time away bettered you as a person, tell this to the admissions committee. Don’t be afraid to even show them why you wanted or needed to take this time off.

Example:

Knowing my ultimate goal was to be a doctor, I was eager to fast-track my education and graduate with my bachelor’s degree as quickly as possible. I took courses in the fall and spring, as well as all the summer courses that were available. However, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Zimbabwe to administer vaccines to infants who were in a rural area and who didn’t have easy access to medical care. The parents of these children desperately wanted to protect them from infectious diseases but didn’t have the means to get them to the doctor. This summer program allowed me to assist in vaccinating these children and thus protecting their futures.

The summer electives offered at my university could not possibly have given me the real-world training and experience that my time in Zimbabwe did. Seeing modern medicine go to a poor, rural, underserved community further ignited the fire inside me to become a doctor and help everyone receive the healthcare that they need.

This answer works well because it combines the student’s passion with real-world opportunities and experience in the field. The response is also straightforward.

Question #2 Did you have a job during college? Any job during the school year or summer should be included, along with how many hours you worked each week. (300 words)

If you didn’t work, a simple response will work. “I chose not to work while I was in school so I could focus on earning high grades in my classes. Mastering the material was what mattered the most to me.” There’s no shame in simply being a full-time student. 

Here’s a sample essay if you did work.

My financial aid package covered most–but not all–of my expenses. To stay out of debt, I took a job at the university bookstore. This was a blessing, as it allowed me to work around my class schedule. I never had to worry about being scheduled when I would be in class or the lab. While I applied for a position in tech support, I began as a sales clerk, ringing up purchases. That was the only open position. I stayed in that position for a year until a position in tech support became available. There, I was able to use my skillset from high school computer science courses to help students fix basic problems with their laptops. This saved them time and money by not having to buy new parts or prematurely replace their computers. I stayed in this position until I graduated.

This essay works because it demonstrates a strong work ethic while keeping academics as a high priority. It also shows humility. It can be hard to take what’s available instead of what you want. But this student took what was available, worked hard and was ultimately moved into the position they wanted. Their hard work paid off, and they graduated debt-free.  

Question #3 If you have your bachelor’s degree, please tell us what has occupied your time since then. (300 words)

This is a very common question, so we recommend writing a basic essay and then tailoring it to each university. An excellent format for this type of essay begins with a thesis statement defending what you’ve spent your time doing. Relevant experience will appropriately prove the value of how you’ve spent your time. End your essay by sharing what you’ve learned and how your experience has made you a better person

Example:
After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in English, I set out to find a job in technical writing. I wanted to gain experience writing about subjects that are more difficult to understand. I became an independent contractor for a company that summarizes technical documents. It was perfect for me. I learned to summarize multiple pages of dense information into several paragraphs. This taught me to be clear and succinct and to make information more clear for a broader audience. 

Being an independent contractor allowed me to set my schedule. I was able to volunteer at the local outreach center where discounted clothes were sold to families in need. A lot of people came to our outreach center to find extra resources to help get them on their feet. Being a small part of getting them where they wanted to be was a privilege and a great way to spend my spare time. 

To prepare myself for medical school, I rotated my work schedule between morning, evening, and night shifts, and worked anywhere from 8-20 hours straight. I wanted to condition my body to be prepared for overnight hospital shifts and long rotations, and I couldn’t think of a better way to do that.

I still work as an independent contractor but plan to leave this job right before I start medical school. My volunteer time has been interrupted by COVID-19, but I participate in any way I can, including being at the outreach center to answer phone calls and help with contactless pick-up orders. 

My interim time between my bachelor’s degree and medical school has taught me how to effectively manage my time, improve myself as a person and keep my focus on achieving my long-term goals.

This essay works because it has a clear thesis with proof that they are preparing themselves for medical school by working at a job that will improve their skill set as a doctor. Their experience has been personally enriching, and they are ready to continue forward on their journey. 

Question #4 Please tell us about your most meaningful leadership positions. (300 words)

You can consult your AMCAS application for this question. Go over your resume and CV, and pull out your most meaningful leadership roles to highlight. Don’t worry if you weren’t the president of a club or shift lead at work. Leadership can happen in a lot of different settings. Speaking up in a hard situation or finding a place where you can be yourself are also great examples.

Here’s an example:

After growing up in a strict Catholic family, college was a cultural shock for me. Almost no one in any of my freshman-level courses shared my faith. I had been more sheltered as a child than I realized, and this concerned me. I wanted to broaden my horizons while also staying true to my faith.

Halfway through my first semester, I learned that there was a student organization called Catholics on Campus. I joined this organization and met tons of fellow students. I even met someone who was in one of my classes! We became really good friends and still talk to this day. In the Catholics on Campus group, we made a goal to make one new friend every week who wasn’t Catholic. I wasn’t the only one who had been sheltered growing up. We all wanted to branch out. 

At the end of the semester, we had a potluck meeting where each of us invited one of the friends we had made. I was asked to speak at the meeting, and I shared how much I had grown by meeting other Catholics, as well as making new friends of different faiths. I’m thankful for the friends I made through Catholics on Campus. My faith means a lot to me, but so does mingling with a diverse group of people.

This experience taught me that I love public speaking and organizing events. I volunteered several different times throughout my undergraduate studies to organize events–both for Catholics on Campus and for the other student organizations I joined. When I look back on my undergraduate studies, I’m proud of my involvement in different student organizations. My time at USC would not have been the same otherwise.

This essay works because it shows growth and development. This student stepped outside their comfort zone and found a group of like-minded people, while also making friends with a more diverse group. This shows growth and leadership potential. Speaking at the concluding meeting for the semester also shows leadership skills to help bring the group together. Finally, taking those skills and using them to further branch out and organize events for different student organizations shows continued growth over a longer period of time. This suggests that their leadership skills can still grow and develop more.

Question #5 Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons seeks after a diverse population, both for faculty and students. Please explain to us how your background and experiences will add to this focal point and help you in your future career as a doctor. (300 words)

This question is a classic diversity question. Shemmassian Consulting has a great guide for writing diversity essays. The most important aspect of this essay is to take your experience and convince the admissions committee that it will benefit Columbia Medical School. 

Question #6 Is there anything else you want to tell us? (400 words)

With this being the sixth question you are asked, you might feel exhausted or like there’s nothing left to say. If that’s the case, you can skip this question. But this is also an opportunity to elaborate on anything you haven’t found space for somewhere else. The following topics would be appropriate to discuss here:

  • Your volunteer work. If volunteering is important to you and has taken up a significant amount of your time, this would be a great place to share some of those experiences. We highly recommend tying them back to Columbia Medical School, and how your experience would make you a good fit and add to the diversity of their student population.
  • Research experience. This essay would be good for students who aren’t interested in the dual PhD/MD program. If you have a significant amount of research under your belt, we recommend writing your essay on this topic.
  • Achievements, awards, anything that will impress. Maybe you were born in France but grew up in Mexico before emigrating to the United States, so you speak French, Spanish and English fluently, and you’re working to become fluent in American Sign Language. This would be a fantastic way to show your diversity and convince Columbia Medical School that you would be a great addition to their student body.

You’re almost done. If you’re applying to the Columbia MSTP (dual PhD/MD) program, you’ll need to answer these questions as well.

MSTP Question #1 What academic honors have you received? (examples include prizes/awards, scholarships, fellowships, etc.) (5000 characters)

If you’re applying to the PhD/MD program, you have some accolades to your name. Take pride in what you’ve accomplished, and share this with Columbia Medical School. They need to know what sets you apart from the rest of their applicants. After all, they only accept ten students into this prestigious group! We don’t recommend writing about topics that you’ve mentioned in other essays. This is your chance to discuss something new that will impress the admissions committee.

MSTP Question #2 What are your major research interests? (20 words)
Okay, it’s crunch time. There’s no room for wordiness here. In one sentence, state what you have researched. Be as descriptive as possible. 

Example:
My research focuses on the genetic sequences of Autism Spectrum Disorder to find new medications for treatment.

MSTP Question #3 PhD Goals (5000 characters)

Unlike the last question, you’ll have plenty of space to answer this. Shemmassian Consulting has a guide for this type of question. And here at Medical Aid, we’re prepared to help you. We offer packages to review your secondary application, including your essays. Visit our website for more information. Our website is also a great place to explore internship opportunities that will provide you with the kind of experience you need for your essays.

MSTP Question #5 Additional Information (5000 words)
Don’t feel like you have to answer this question. You’ve already had plenty of space to provide extra information. If you do write an essay here, make sure it’s very important and not something you could have included in your MD prompt. 

The last question you might need to answer is if you’re applying for Columbia Medical School’s Columbia-Bassett program.

What part of the Columbia-Bassett track is most ideal for you?
You are competing for a spot among nine other students. It’s tough to get in. Since this program is for doctors who want to focus on rural medicine, this is an important question to get right. 

Make sure to tackle these points:

  • Do you have a connection to rural areas?
  • Do you foresee challenges? Do you believe you can overcome those challenges?
  • Now, turn those challenges into positives that you can’t wait to tackle.

In one sense, it’s stressful to only have one question to answer for this section. It means you only have one chance to impress the Columbia-Bassett admissions committee. On the other hand, it’s a blessing, since you only have to worry about one question! Carefully answer it, but don’t overthink it. 

Part 5: Preparing for Your Interview at Columbia Medical School

Congratulations if you receive an invitation to interview from Columbia Medical School. This is a huge accomplishment since only 12 percent of applicants are lucky enough to get an interview. 

Columbia Medical School uses the traditional medical school interview format, so you’ll get asked questions like, “Why is Columbia Medical School right for you?” “What contributions will you bring to our university?” “How will you contribute to our university’s diversity?” They will focus on how you’ve prepared for medical school at Columbia. 

Prepare your answers to these questions to the best of your ability, and remember to breathe. Remember that you’re on your A-game if you’re interviewing with Columbia Medical School. Answer with confidence, even if you’re nervous!

Due to COVID-19 and safety regulations, the 2020-2021 application cycle is being held virtually. This means you won’t need to travel to Columbia for your interview.