Applying to Study Osteopathic Medicine

Applying to Study Osteopathic Medicine

Summary: The AACOMAS application for osteopathic med school applicants has some similar elements to the AMCAS, but the weight put on personal and professional qualities, letters of recommendation, and philosophical alignment with the principles of osteopathic medicine make this application unique. Not only must you demonstrate academics and extracurriculars similar to applicants for allopathic medical programs, you must also show the admissions committee your dedication to the osteopathic approach to medicine, which takes into account things like social and environmental impact on individual wellness, and the body's own healing capabilities. 

What is Osteopathic Medicine?

For many, when we think of “physicians”, we often think of MD’s - medical doctors. Conventional, or “allopathic”, medical care generally means diagnosing and treating symptoms and diseases with medication or other external interventions to reduce or eliminate those symptoms and diseases. However, there is another variety of practicing physician: osteopathic physicians, or DO’s.

DO’s are fully licensed physicians who complete medical schooling with the same rigors as MD’s – which is to say, DO’s are not “alternative” medical practitioners. Rather, they are trained in diagnosing and treating illness, and their practice of medicine is often quite similar to that of MD’s, though the emphasis on the role of treatment and the approach to wellness differs in some significant respects. DO’s are able to prescribe medication, perform surgery, pursue specializations, and act as primary care providers; however, they tend to focus on preventative care, take care not to overuse medicinal treatments, and consider the body as a systemic unit with the capacity to heal itself naturally in many ways. Osteopaths also learn a technique called "Osteopathic Medical Manipulation" (OMM), which is learned in addition to standard coursework. OMM is a series of movements and physical manipulations that can alleviate pain.

The “Tenets of Osteopathic Medicine”, according to the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), are as follows:

  • The body is a unit; the person is a unit of body, mind, and spirit.
  • The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing, and health maintenance.
  • Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated.
  • Rational treatment is based upon an understanding of the basic principles of body unity, self-regulation, and the interrelationship of structure and function.

Follow this link to learn more about the similarities and differences between the MD and DO.

Applying to Osteopathic Medical School: General Requirements

Applying to osteopathic medical school requires a different application process than AMCAS or TMDSAS. Instead, you apply through the AACOMAS, or American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service. The admissions requirements for osteopathic medical schools include GPA, standardized test scores, and similar “soft skills” to those required for allopathic medical school, and the process is competitive, though osteopathic medical schools are generally considered somewhat less competitive than their allopathic counterparts. While the mean scores fluctuate from year-to-year, overall GPA scores tend to be above 3.5, and total MCAT scores above 502. It is crucial that you look into such information yourself, as this is just a very general guideline; these scores change each year, and there are additional divisions and cut-offs within each of these categories (e.g., science and non-science GPA, the breakdown of MCAT scores, etc.). Osteopathic medical school prerequisites are generally comparable to allopathic programs, and some schools incorporate the CASPer test into their review process.

Check out our comprehensive list of easiest medical schools to get into, including both MD and DO programs!

That said, while GPA and standardized test scores are important, and while most medical programs utilize "holistic review" these days (whereby applicants are evaluated based on a wealth of qualities and competencies - including, but not limited to, quantitative data, volunteering and extracurriculars, leadership positions, research, etc.), DO programs often put a good deal of weight on the non-numerical aspects of each applicant's file, including community involvement, motivations for studying medicine, and letters of recommendation. Because osteopathic medicine is not just a mode of practice, but a philosophical principle, it is critical that you are able to demonstrate that you are a "good fit" for such programs, on both an academic and personal level. 

Just as the AAMC has certain core qualities expected of future medical professionals, so does the AACOM. Osteopathic medical schools want students who are well-rounded with strong communication and interpersonal skills, and applicants are encouraged to volunteer in and serve their communities, as many DO's encourage community-based approaches to medicine, and consider the impact of social and environmental factors on an individual's health and well-being. Applicants are encouraged to participate in a variety of extracurriculars, to take on leadership positions, and to acquire some clinical experience, similar to applicants to allopathic programs. As well, some knowledge of osteopathic medicine, a specific motivation to pursue osteopathic medicine, and experience shadowing a DO are all looked on favorably.  As well, many DO programs actively recruit traditionally under-represented minority students and non-traditional applicants, and many schools have a proven record of acknowledging the potential of such candidates and fostering their development. 

In general, applicants to osteopathic medical programs will have completed a bachelor’s degree, and the AACOM notes that many applicants pursue a master’s or doctoral degree prior to applying (though these are certainly not required). It’s also worth mentioning that many osteopathic medical schools themselves offer dual degree programs, wherein students can receive a DO degree (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) and an additional degree, such as a Master of Arts (MA), Master of Business Administration (MBA), Juris Doctor (JD), Doctorate (PhD), and many more. Not all DO programs have joint degree options, and not all DO programs with joint degree options offer the same joint degrees, so if you are interested in pursuing this option, be sure to review the information on the AACOM website to confirm which schools offer the program you’re seeking. 

Finally, note that some – but not all – schools and colleges of osteopathic medicine will accept international students. Each school or college has its own set of policies, restrictions, and requirements for international applicants, so there is no standard, overriding norm with regard to admission of non-U.S. citizens and temporary residents. If you intend to apply as an international student, you must carefully review each school’s policies before applying.

Applying to Osteopathic Medical School: The Application Process

Transcripts and Standardized Test Scores

As with most application services, the first step in applying to osteopathic medical school requires creating an account on the AACOMAS website. After this, you must arrange to have your official transcripts and official MCAT scores sent to the AACOMAS. You may have to take a CASPer situational judgment test, though this requirement varies by school.

Reference Letters

You’ll also need to secure med school reference letters, which must be submitted directly by the evaluators. Each applicant can enter contact information for up to 6 evaluators. The letters are submitted electronically, using a specific portal on the AACOMAS website, “Letters by Liaison”. Note that some programs are very specific about the kinds of evaluator who can submit letters of recommendation, including their role and/or their relationship with the student for whom they are writing the letter. You are required to look into this and verify the appropriateness of your referees prior to requesting they submit an evaluation. Requests for evaluation are sent through the AACOMAS application system; you simply fill in the necessary information (including an email address for each evaluator), and they will receive a prompt requesting that they submit their evaluation.

Recall, DO programs tend to put significant weight on the non-numerical aspects of your application (though, of course, high marks and scores are necessary), including letters of recommendation. You must start building strong relationships early in your academic career, so that you are able to secure referees who are not only able to speak highly of you, but who can do so with specificity. Despite what some may think, a strong letter of recommendation is not one that simply says, "I know this student and they are awesome!" (or some more refined version of that). A truly exceptional reference letter for medical school (or any program) is often longer than you may assume - at least a full page - with nuanced and well-developed reflections on who you are as a student, a researcher, a colleague, and as a person. It should be able to point to specific instances and interactions that demonstrate your strongest qualities, and this means that your letter-writers must be people who actually know you rather well, at least in a professional sense (indeed, they can't be "too close" to you, or else the evaluation will not seem objective). So, the professor whose 200-student course you enjoyed 2.5 years ago is likely not the best person to write you a letter of recommendation, unless you have remained in contact and worked together in some significant way following the class. 

As well, a letter of that caliber takes time - again, more than you may think. Even if you know your evaluator well, they will usually still want to go back through the work you've submitted in the past, have a meeting with you to understand what aspects of your work and personality you think they can speak to most effectively, spend some time mulling all this over, write at least two drafts of the letter before submitting it, and so on. So, in sum, this is not something that you should pursue from just anyone, and whomever you do choose must be given a reasonable amount of time to do this work for you. If they believe in your capabilities, they will be glad to put in all this work for the sake of your success, but do understand that this isn't usually something that can be cranked out with a few days' notice. Regardless of whether you pursue the DO or the MD, start building these relationships as early as you can, as this will make things much easier when you get to the application stage. 

Check out this video on how to secure outstanding letters of recommendation:

Personal Statement

Most U.S. medical school applications have a personal statement requirement, and the AACOMAS is no different. As part of your application, you will compose an essay that gives admissions committees an idea of who you are, what you’ve done, and why you’re interested in pursuing osteopathic medicine. The personal statement submitted to AACOMAS will be shared with all of the osteopathic schools to which you’re applying.

The AACOMAS personal statement is a maximum of 4,500 characters (including spaces), and the aim of this short essay is to effectively communicate why you are an exceptional candidate for osteopathic medicine. This means that you must have a general working knowledge of the principles of osteopathic medicine, as outlined by the AOA, and you should be able to demonstrate how these principles, and the values behind them, have shaped your life and your approach to your pursuit of the goal of practicing medicine. This does NOT mean simply feeding these principles back to the admissions committee – they know what the principles are, so they don’t need you to repeat them back. 

Rather, it is imperative that you thoroughly review these principles, that you carefully consider them in light of your own experiences and aspirations, and that you definitively reflect all of this in your application materials, particularly your personal statement. Osteopathic medicine puts particular emphasis not just on diseases, but on the social and environmental factors of each individual patient and the ways in which these impact health. This means that, as an applicant, you must demonstrate your interest in such factors, as well as experiences in your education, research, work, or other aspects of your life that draw you toward such an approach. Thinking through the common question, "Why do you want to be a doctor?" through the lens of osteopathic medicine, is a great way to brainstorm toward this essay.

If you are someone who is particularly interested in social determinants of health and think of the human body as a set of interconnected systems that must be looked at holistically, then the DO is likely a good path for you. However, you must ensure that your personal statement does more "showing" than "telling" in this regard. That is, it's not enough to simply state that these are principles that interest you and that you tend to abide by; you must be able to back up such claims with evidence. Will your transcript demonstrate that you've taken some medical sociology courses? If so, awesome! Discuss the ways in which such a course impacted your understanding of health and wellness. If not, then this is something to add to your list of courses to complete prior to beginning medical school, since our everyday intuitions about such things are often quite different - and not nearly so nuanced - as the actual scholarship in this area. Obviously, they don't expect you to be an expert - you're not a doctor, yet! But, you need to show that you've put in the preliminary work necessary to pursue this as a serious course of study. You need to draw on your own experiences and life narrative to show how you have lived, and how you will continue to abide by, these values and principles. 

Because of all this, it is not advisable to try to simply rehash an AMCAS medical school personal statement, if you’re applying to both allopathic and osteopathic programs. While many of the values and characteristics desired in successful applicants are similar, the perspectives of these two types of medical care are different enough that what works for one will likely not work for the other - if it would, there wouldn’t be two separate programs, two separate applications, etc.! The very fact that you cannot apply to a DO program through AMCAS should indicate the distinctiveness of these two medical perspectives. You still want to highlight your strengths, discuss the “why” behind your decision to pursue a career as a physician, and draw your reader in with compelling prose, of course. But, what you emphasize and how you support it will likely vary, depending on your audience; something that convinces an MD committee may not similarly impact a DO committee, and vice versa. For any medical school application, however, your personal statement must demonstrate your passion, dedication, and suitability for the profession, offer the reasons why you want to become a doctor, have a compelling introduction and conclusion, and be grammatically impeccable.

Here’s a ridiculously simple way to ensure your med school personal statement is flawless:

Check out our list of the top 10 mistakes you MUST avoid in your med school essays and personal statements!


After Submitting Your AACOMAS Application

After you’ve completed all the sections and pressed “Submit”, most of the sections will be locked and you will no longer be able to edit your submission. However, if there are sections that need updating because the information was not available at the time of submission, some changes are possible. These include: adding programs with deadlines that haven’t passed (note that various schools and programs have different deadlines, so you must check and double-check to ensure everything will be submitted on time to all of your chosen schools and programs); adding new test scores, experiences, achievements, and the like (though you are not allowed to edit or delete existing entries); and, after your application has been verified, you can update courses you’d previously listed as “in progress” or planned, or courses added for the next term of your current enrollment. You cannot go back and add anything to previous years, even if you just made a mistake or forgot to add a course or experience, so be very careful and thorough in your initial application submission. As well, note that this is just a general overview, and is in no way a substitute for carefully reviewing the application guidelines through AACOMAS.

Once you've completed all of this, you just sit back and wait (and hope) for the treasured interview invitation! 

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BeMo Academic Consulting

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