How to Apply to an Osteopathic Medical School

UNLIKE ALLOPATHIC medical schools, which grant Medical Doctor or M.D. degrees, osteopathic medical schools provide Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine or D.O. degrees. Both M.D. and D.O. programs can lead to a career as a physician, but the application process for each type of program is different.

M.D. programs typically ask prospective students to submit their credentials and essays via the American Medical College Application Service known as AMCAS, a digital application portal that is administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges. In contrast, D.O. programs usually utilize the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service, known as AACOMAS.

Paige Johnson, an osteopathic medical student at A.T. Still University of Health Sciences—Kirksville in Missouri, says anyone applying to both M.D. and D.O. programs should ensure that their D.O. applications convey an interest in osteopathic medicine, which is a type of medicine that emphasizes hands-on therapies.

Johnson says that the personal statement component of a D.O. application is an opportunity for students to explain why they are interested in getting an osteopathic medical education. Along with her studies as a medical student, Johnson is also a predoctoral osteopathic manipulative medicine fellow receiving intensive training in the touch-based diagnosis and treatment techniques that are distinctive to osteopathic medicine.

Johnson says it is common for aspiring doctors who have little interest in osteopathic medicine to apply to osteopathic medical schools because they view these schools as fallback options in case they don’t get accepted into allopathic medical schools. However, medical school admissions counselors can sense a lack of enthusiasm, Johnson warns, so she advises aspiring doctors to only apply to osteopathic schools if they are truly excited about receiving osteopathic training.

“You’re not going to be happy if you’re going to a school that doesn’t align with your personal values,” she says.

Officials of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, or AACOM, recommend that osteopathic medical school applicants research what osteopathic medicine involves.

Jayme Bograd, AACOM’s director of application services, student affairs and recruitment, and her colleague Andrea Cyterski-Acosta, the chair of AACOM’s Council of Osteopathic Medical School Admissions Officers, wrote in a joint official statement that there are more similarities than differences between the M.D. and D.O. pathways into physician careers, but it’s clear when applicants are not familiar with osteopathic medicine.

Johnson explains that D.O. programs include some coursework that is distinct from that of M.D. programs. “We do differentiate our training with our extra manipulative courses and with our holistic approach,” she says. Osteopathic medical school applicants should consider conducting research into the history and philosophy of osteopathic medicine, Johnson adds. “If they have no idea what osteopathic medicine is or they have some vague idea, you know, just do a quick Google search,” she says. “Read up on it. Make sure you know what you’re applying for.”

John D. Schriner, associate dean of admissions and student affairs at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, says he likes to see evidence that applicants have a serious interest in osteopathic medicine, such as if they shadowed an osteopathic physician or if they had an osteopathic physician write them a recommendation letter. Another key way to demonstrate interest in osteopathic medicine in a D.O. application is to discuss osteopathic medicine in the personal statement, Schriner says. It is a mistake for a medical school applicant to copy and paste whatever personal statement he or she used for the AMCAS application into his or her AACOMAS application, he adds.

Beyond experience with and enthusiasm about osteopathic medicine, some other qualities Schriner says he looks for are excellent academic credentials and altruistic extracurricular activities.

Bograd and Cyterski-Acosta, who in addition to her role at AACOM is also the associate dean of admissions at the University of the Incarnate Ward School of Osteopathic Medicine in Texas, say osteopathic medical schools use a holistic admissions process. That means that these schools examine the entirety of an application before making an admissions decision and osteopathic med school applicants should carefully fill out every component of the application, Bograd and Cyterski-Acosta say.

Dr. Kenneth Steier, executive dean of the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York, says a combination of solid academic credentials, strong soft skills and medically relevant extracurricular activities are all necessary for admission into an osteopathic medical school.

“A high GPA, specifically in the sciences, and MCAT scores are two of the most important components to a strong application,” he wrote in an email. “However, we also look for well-rounded students who display good communication and leadership skills. Relevant experience is also important, for example, volunteering at a hospital or shadowing a D.O.”

Steier says osteopathic medical school hopefuls should work to ensure that their MCAT scores are as high as possible, and that they should devote a significant amount of time to writing and polishing the personal statement.

“Students should research the MCAT requirements for the schools they are applying to and confirm that they meet the minimum,” Steier says. “Sometimes this requires students to take the MCAT multiple times. Outside of the required hard data, students should spend quality time drafting their personal statement. It should be well written, with proper grammar and punctuation, and explain why they want to be a physician. I also recommend that students show their statement to other people, specifically doctors, for feedback.”

Schriner adds that extracurrricular activities that showcase a student’s compassion and his or her civic-mindedness are a major plus, because they show the student has the empathy necessary to practice medicine effectively. “I want to see students getting out of their comfort zone, maybe pushing themselves a little bit, and reaching out and helping others (who) are having a really tough time.”

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