A Sneak Peek at the Medical School Application Process


When you tell people you’re interested in becoming a doctor, you probably hear concerned comments about the challenges of going through the medical school application process. Their words don’t get you down, because you’ve tackled big projects before. Your approach has always been to separate every venture into small, manageable pieces.

Pursuing medical school can work the same way. You know looking at each component of the application individually can help you stay organized and on track. Not only does this help you understand which application items need to be completed right away, but it also allows you to start thinking about how you can prepare for future tasks.

We rounded up some expert insight to lay out your medical school application agenda. Read on for more information about each step.

8 Steps to prepare for in the medical school application process

1. Take the MCAT early

Whether you’re in college, taking a gap year, or have been working a full-time job for a while, taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is one of the first things you’ll need to complete. Most college students, after devoting a considerable amount of time to studying, take the exam during the spring semester of their final year of college. This timeline also works well if you have already completed your undergraduate studies.

It takes a little over one month to get your MCAT results back, and it’s nice to know where you stand early on. Karen Ganss, assistant director for Rural Health Scholars at Southern Utah University (SUU), says taking the MCAT during the spring ensures you’ll have enough time to retake it if you aren’t satisfied with your initial performance.

Most US students apply to at least some schools using the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), which allows you to submit before you have your final MCAT scores. This is also true for students submitting through Canada’s Ontario Medical School Application Service (OMSAS).

Schools located outside of the US and Canada that may not participate in these application systems typically have a similar policy. In most cases you can submit your application through the school’s website prior to receiving your MCAT score.

2. Figure out which schools you will apply to

Before you start filling out any portion of the medical school application, you’re going to want to spend some time comparing schools. Ganss warns students not be too picky early on. “I normally recommend students apply to 15 to 20 different medical schools across the US, and sometimes abroad, in order to increase their chances of gaining interviews and acceptances,” she explains.

"See what type of student the medical school wants and make sure it’s a good fit."

This is also a good time to start figuring out how to tailor your application to each program. “See what type of student the medical school wants and make sure it’s a good fit,” says Bob Ryan, dean of admissions at St. George’s University (SGU).

Many applicants find it helpful to subscribe to Medical School Admission Requirements from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). This resource allows you to easily compare what’s required from different schools, but individual programs also spell out expectations on their websites.

3. Ask for letters of recommendation

Like with your MCAT results, letters of recommendation do not have to be complete before you submit an application through AMCAS or OMSAS. It’s still a good idea to contact potential recommenders during the spring to ensure you end up with strong letters. “It’s better for a student to choose another letter-writer if their first choice will not write them one that is absolutely stellar,” Ganss says.

"It’s better for a student to choose another letter-writer if their first choice will not write them one that is absolutely stellar."

You also want to make sure every recommendation has a lot of substance. “A good letter speaks to your academic ability, teamwork skills, and if it’s from a non-academic, your passion for the volunteer work you’ve done,” Ryan recommends. He also suggests checking to see if your college has a pre-med committee that writes recommendations.

Try to ask for all recommendations in person and make sure to give your letter writers any materials that will assist them. It’s also important to note that some schools, including programs in Texas and the Caribbean, do not participate in the typical application services. You can often email your recommendations or have your references upload their letters directly to the school’s online system, but make sure you inquire. Lastly, don’t forget to write thank-you notes to each writer.

4. Complete and submit applications

You can figure out how to tackle the actual applications once you know which schools you’re considering. You may end up applying to multiple programs with AMCAS, OSMAS, or the Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS), plus a few schools that use their own application. Each of these options will be slightly different so be sure to read over everything involved before you start.

Regardless of the applications you will be working on, you should set aside a fair amount of time for writing and reviewing essays. The most notable one is your personal statement. This essay should highlight how your experiences led you to pursue a career in medicine.

5. Be prepared for secondary applications

Secondary applications are school-specific essays designed to get a better sense of who you are and determine if you have the makings of a quality doctor. Not every school sends out supplemental applications, but you will likely get some. Don’t underestimate the time you’ll need to set aside for these essays. According to Ganss, “Secondaries become a part-time job for most students.”

“Secondaries become a part-time job for most students.”

There are typically word or character limits for secondary applications, so make sure you stay focused and address the questions instead of dancing around them. Looking over past essay prompts is a good way to know what you should expect.

6. Attend medical school interviews

Medical school interviews typically begin in September and can continue all the way through the spring. Getting an invitation means a program is seriously considering offering you a seat, so you’ll need to be properly prepared. The AAMC recommends you do plenty of research on the school and practice talking through potential interview questions with a friend or mentor. You also might consider attending some type of workshop or mock interview to find out what you can do to improve.

Attending interviews is a good opportunity to see the individual campuses and get a feel for the programs. Take advantage of this by getting a tour of the facilities, talking to current students, and asking the admissions team any lingering questions.

7. Complete any required courses you still need

Applicants who are still completing their undergraduate degree will have the opportunity to complete any unfulfilled medical school course requirements during their senior year. If you are applying after you’ve finished college, make sure you complete any additional coursework that’s required. Medical schools retain the right to withdraw acceptance if you fail to follow through with finishing the necessary classes.

8. Pay fee and hold spots

Now comes the hard part – patiently waiting to hear if you’ve been accepted to medical school. Programs can start sending letters as early as October, but some applicants don’t hear until much later. Those who get waitlisted sometimes don’t learn of their acceptance until a few weeks before the program starts in the fall.

If you’re lucky enough to get accepted, you might be tempted to go with the first offer than comes your way. You’re better off taking a step back, according to Ganss. “I would have the student come talk to me individually to discuss their options, including their timeline, goals, and strength of their application,” she adds.

Though you should check with the school to make sure you follow their procedures, you typically need to respond to an offer of acceptance within two weeks and pay a fee in order to reserve a spot while you make your final decision. The AAMC suggests making your final decision and withdrawing offers from schools you don’t plan to attend by the end of April, but be sure to verify this timeline with each school.

Start your journey

You can see that applying to medical school involves careful planning. Though there are a lot of steps, you need to pay attention to each one to stay on track for your desired start date.

It’s never too early to start thinking about portions of the medical school application process that are further down the road, either. This is especially true for interviews. Make sure you’re prepared by reading our article, “How to Prepare for Medical School Interviews.”

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