10 Characteristics to Help You Succeed in Medical School

Cary Jewkes, director of medical admissions

This blog post was originally published on the UVM Continuing and Distance Education blog

You’ve been working for a long time—years and years—to get to this point. It’s easy to get lost in the tangle of medical school applications and expectations, and trying to figure out an answer to the question, “What do they want?” But before you go any further, take a moment—breathe—and think about something else for a few minutes.

Your short-term goal might be to get accepted into medical school, but let’s examine your ultimate goal and the characteristics that will help you achieve that. After all, you’re not trying to be a medical student—that’s just one step (OK, a crucial, unavoidable step) in your goal to becoming a doctor. And I use the word “becoming” purposefully, because it’s a process that you’ll undergo.

I was recently at a conference where I heard about the types of qualities other medical schools value in their applicants. Then, thinking about the things I’d heard around our school, I jotted down a list of traits successful medical students possessed. I came up with 10, read them over and realized something: We’d already identified all these traits and they were, in fact, our “Tenets of Professionalism.”

These 10 tenets were crafted by a committee that spent thousands of hours developing them. They’re part of the University of Vermont College of Medicine student handbook and part of policy, and represent the values the college places on characteristics like social responsibility, humility, and cultural competence. I think they’re worth reading and definitely believe they are worth aspiring to.


Altruism is defined as the unselfish regard for the well-being of others and is essential to engendering trust. Total selflessness is not sustainable and must not be confused with altruism. Self-care fosters balance in the lives of physicians, which ultimately leads to improved patient care.

Compassion and Empathy

Compassion refers to the awareness of, acknowledgement of, and desire to relieve the suffering of others. Empathy refers to the ability to put oneself in another individual’s situation. Compassion and empathy dictate that a person’s individual lifestyle, beliefs, idiosyncrasies, and support systems be respected and taken into consideration.

Accountability and Responsibility

Medical professionals are accountable and responsible to their patients for fulfilling the implied contract governing the patient/physician relationship, to their profession for adhering to medicine’s time-honored ethical principles, and to society for addressing the health needs of the public. Medical professionals are accountable and responsible to their colleagues for maintaining the highest level of professionalism.

Excellence and Scholarship

Excellence in medicine entails conscientious efforts to exceed ordinary expectations during medical education and training and beyond. Scholarship entails curiosity and motivation for life-long learning and improvement.

Duty and Service

Duty is an obligation to serve others, even when the beliefs and values of the person being served differ from one’s own. For the medical professional, duty implies an awareness, sensitivity, and responsiveness to patients and others in need. Service is the sharing of one’s talents, time, and resources with those in need.

Social Responsibility

Medical professionals must promote justice in the health care system, including fair distribution of health care resources. They should work actively to eliminate discrimination in health care, as well as barriers to health, and to advocate for the availability of health care for all. Medical professionals must demonstrate concern for and responsiveness to social problems that endanger the health of members of society. Recognizing its relevance to human health, medical professionals must support and promote environmental sustainability.

Honor and Integrity

Honor and integrity are the consistent regard for the highest standards of behavior. Honor and integrity include truthfulness, fairness, conscientiousness, and faithfulness to commitments and obligations.


Respect is the sincere regard for the autonomy and values of other people—their feelings, needs, thoughts, ideas, wishes, and preferences. This includes patients, those close to them, families, and colleagues.


No matter how well informed, well trained, and knowledgeable a medical professional may be, humility requires medical professionals to develop an awareness of the limitations of our current knowledge, our systems which make use of current knowledge, and our own personal abilities.

Cultural Competence

Cultural competence refers to the ability to interact effectively with people of varying social or cultural backgrounds, different beliefs or practices, different race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability, and veteran status. This requires awareness and recognition of one’s own cultural attitudes and traditions and a sincere curiosity to understand the cultural attitudes and traditions of others. Developing cultural competence results in an increased ability to understand, respect, communicate with, and interact effectively with other people.

How many of these characteristics do you think you have already? Which ones could use some work? Compare experiences you’ve had yourself or incidences in which you’ve observed others and evaluate the traits used to handle the situation. This exercise provides a few things to think about while you’re waiting for the Admissions Committee to deliberate on your application or interview.

-Cary Jewkes is the director of medical student admissions at the UVM College of Medicine.

What are your thoughts about this topic?