Given the competitive nature of medical school admissions, many college students struggle with maintaining the high GPA and stellar MCAT scores they believe medical schools care most about.

A variety of factors are considered in a medical school admissions committee’s decision to offer a student acceptance to their medical school, but a clear picture of which ones are most important has yet to be defined.

“A lot of things were unclear to me when I first came to UCLA and I wasn’t sure what was considered important,” said Sean Pham, a third-year biology student. “It would be helpful if the guidelines (for what admissions offices look for) would be clear.”

A recent survey by Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions conducted this past summer may help clarify things for pre-meds. Interviews with 83 of the nation’s top medical schools revealed that GPA and MCAT scores are two of the most important elements of the application, though other experiences and circumstances are considered as well.

When asked what the most and second most important factors were, over three-quarters of admissions officers named undergraduate GPA and MCAT scores, which is not too much of a surprise, said Amjed Mustafa, MCAT Program Manager for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions.

The survey results are in line with the thinking of many students like Pham, who identified GPA and MCAT as being at the top of the list.

According to Lili Fobert, director of admissions for the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, a 3.5 GPA and at least a 10 in each of the MCAT sections, for a total of 30, would be considered competitive at the school.

Students who are just beginning their undergraduate careers should focus on increasing their GPA, while those who are entering the second half of their undergraduate years should place more emphasis on the MCAT, Mustafa said.

“After the third year, the GPA is pretty much still and it will be hard to raise. The MCAT is what students (at that point) still have control over,” he said.

The MCAT, which recently changed from the paper version to a computer-based one, will be offered at least 20 times in the upcoming year as opposed to twice in previous years. However, April and January were the most recommended test-taking months, with 39 percent of admissions officers advising April as the first choice.

Though these two factors make up the greatest percentages, it is not sufficient.

Medical schools like to see strong academic indicators, but being well-rounded is important as well, said Fobert.

“It’s a holistic picture,” she said. “Community type of involvement is also looked at and combined with everything else. You also want them to have a life.”

Many students, like fifth-year biochemistry student Zack Port, feel that GPA and MCAT scores are not as important as most students believe.

“There are a lot of other things medical schools look for. They’re all pieces of a big puzzle that make up the application,” Port said.

The Kaplan survey indicates that 14 percent of admissions officers felt that relevant experience is the leading factor while another 14 percent felt performance during the interview is crucial.

“Schools try to look at quantitative measures and try to supplement that with qualitative measures,” Mustafa said.

Amid the abundance of factors to consider in reviewing an application, competition is a key element in the admissions process.

Sixty percent of admissions officers said that the process has become more competitive in the past five years, though 15 percent say the level has been stagnant.

“The results are not meant to discourage students but rather to alert them,” Mustafa said.

Considering the competition and numerous factors involved in applying to medical school, pre-medical students will have to face many challenges on the road to admissions.

“It’s really important that students test their interest in medicine because they are applying to a graduate school for four years with a long career afterwards,” Fobert said.