You’ve never dreaded others asking you about your intended career goals, because you’ve always had a clear direction. Pursuing a career in medicine is the only path you’ve ever considered. Becoming a doctor almost feels inevitable.
You worked hard in college and maintained focus while applying to medical schools, but things aren’t quite working out the way you had hoped. You’ve been rejected from medical school, and you’re feeling unsure of how to proceed.
Is it time to start thinking about other careers? Should I complete a postbaccalaureate program? Do I need to rethink my application strategy?
It can be overwhelming to figure out your next move, so we’re here to offer some help. We even reached out to some doctors who’ve been there themselves. Keep reading to learn more about your options and get firsthand advice on how to set yourself on the right path.
How to proceed after being rejected from medical school
1. Allow yourself to recover
You’re probably feeling disappointed if you didn’t receive an acceptance letter — that’s okay. “Take some time to heal,” suggests Dr. Kimberly Brown, Emergency Medicine Resident Physician at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center. “It’s a blow to your ego.”
"Take some time to heal."
Maybe you just need a few days to mope. Or perhaps this is a good time to focus on establishing some healthy habits. Everyone processes setbacks differently, so do whatever works best for you.
2. Evaluate your career options
After you’ve given yourself some time to heal, start thinking critically about why you’re pursuing medicine. The road to becoming a doctor is long. Not everyone is cut out for it.
Reflecting on your reasons for wanting to become a doctor can help you understand if you’re making the right choice. “For those who want a quick fix or are trying to do it for other people – pressure from family, pressure from friends – medicine might not be the best route,” advises Dr. Katrina von Kriegenbergh, Pain Management Physician at The Pain & Rehabilitation Medical Group and St. George’s University (SGU) grad.
"If you aren’t passionate, or another career is just as appealing, then you may want to pursue another goal."
You should also ask yourself whether becoming a doctor is the only way you can achieve job satisfaction. “If you aren’t passionate, or another career is just as appealing, then you may want to pursue another goal,” Dr. Brown says.
Consider how many other careers there are in the health care landscape. Registered nurses and physician’s assistants are also heavily involved in patient care. You might want to think about pharmacy roles if you enjoy chemistry. And if you’re interested in making a global impact, then consider pursuing a graduate degree in public health or business administration.
“For anyone interested in health disparities or population-based health, a career in public health is a wonderful alternative to clinical medicine,” Dr. Brown says. “The business side of medicine is also intriguing, and impacts patients’ lives in a very real way.”
"The business side of medicine is also intriguing, and impacts patients’ lives in a very real way."
Drs. von Kriegenbergh and Brown experienced struggles of their own when applying to programs. In the end, they both knew medical school was the path they were destined to take. “I wanted to be the one diagnosing and making the decisions,” Dr. von Kriegenbergh shares.
3. Critically review your application
If you’re still set on becoming a doctor, then the next step is to thoroughly evaluate your application. Start by reviewing your academic metrics. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports students who were accepted for the 2019–2020 school year had a 3.7 average GPA and an average MCAT score of 511.5. There’s certainly wiggle room, but you might want to think about additional coursework or retaking the MCAT if you’re far below these benchmarks.
While solid academic performance is a big part of putting together a strong application, there’s more to it than great grades and test scores. How you present yourself really matters, and Dr. von Kriegenbergh warns about trying to be a people-pleaser. She recommends asking yourself, “Is your application truthful to who you are and why you're going into medicine, or are you trying to be someone to the admissions committee?”
"Call the schools that you were rejected from and ask them how to improve your application for next cycle."
It can be overwhelming to figure out how to proceed, so don’t be afraid to seek help. “Call the schools that you were rejected from and ask them how to improve your application for next cycle,” Dr. Brown advises. These types of conversations could reveal you’re lacking meaningful clinical experience or not crafting your personal statement thoughtfully enough.
You would also be wise to lean on friends and family who can offer encouragement and even lend their skills. “Gather a team of people who support you and believe in your dream, and ask them to help you along the way,” Dr. Brown recommends. “It truly takes a village to become a doctor.”
4. Try not to obsess over imperfections on your application
Even great applicants have some blemishes on their application. It’s easy to let them eat at you, but Dr. von Kriegenbergh says it won’t do you any good to obsess over every little mistake. “You can apologize for them if you want, but the better thing to do is just commit yourself and do better,” she suggests.
Dr. von Kriegenbergh speaks from experience. One of her biggest concerns when applying was that she obtained a mediocre MCAT score, which many people associate with mediocre outcomes. It didn’t stop her from graduating at the top of her class, scoring phenomenally on the USMLE exams, and eventually becoming a chief resident.
"Your MCAT score doesn't dictate what type of doctor you're going to be."
“Your MCAT score doesn't dictate what type of doctor you're going to be,” she explains.
Some pre-med students even become so fixated on their test scores, grades, and other application materials that they don’t spend enough time preparing for interviews. In fact, Dr. von Kriegenbergh thinks most applicants fail to practice enough.
“The applicants who are lucky enough to secure that interview have no idea what to say and they end up regurgitating their whole CV,” she says. This is a huge misstep, because you’ll just be repeating information the interviewer already knows.
5. Make smart decisions when reapplying
You want to give yourself the best chance of success when reapplying to medical school, so think carefully about your strategy. Spending all of your energy on schools that have the most name recognition likely isn’t the way to go. Instead, pay particular attention to programs where you’ve already interviewed. And also be open to other options.
"I would ask rejected applicants if they applied to any offshore schools."
“I would ask rejected applicants if they applied to any offshore schools,” Dr. von Kriegenbergh says. Many pre-meds don’t realize there are some great programs outside of their home country. In fact, Dr. von Kriegenbergh wasn’t familiar with SGU until a close friend suggested it.
If you’re considering completing additional coursework to boost your GPA, be selective about where you complete that education. Dr. Brown recommends asking any schools you’re interested in whether they offer a postbaccalaureate program.
6. Take action
Taking a gap year or years is common for applicants who don’t initially get accepted. Dr. Brown is glad she had the time off to gain experience as a bill collector and working for a weight-loss company. “I learned how to talk to people about sensitive topics,” she says. That said, a gap year may not be the best route.
If you’re considering different medical schools when reapplying, make sure you know their application timeline. Some programs offer different start dates, which means you might not have to wait very long before reapplying. Taking an entire year to perfect your application could be a mistake.
“You feel like you have an advantage, because you're working on your application and you have more time to study for the MCAT and whatnot,” Dr. von Kriegenbergh says. “But when it comes down to it, that's just another year that you're not in school.”
If you know medicine is for you and that you have what it takes, then why wait?
If you know medicine is for you and that you have what it takes, then why wait?
Find your path forward
You might be feeling disheartened if you’ve been rejected from medical school in the past, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. Gaining an acceptance letter is hard for just about every applicant. If you know you’re destined to be a doctor, trying a different approach when reapplying can really help you out.
Focusing on your performance during interviews is a huge part of putting together a well-rounded application. In some cases, a successful interview can be what makes the difference. Learn more about how to put your best foot forward during these important conversations by checking out our article, “How to Prepare for Medical School Interviews: Steps for Success.”
* This article has been updated from a previous version to include current facts and figures.
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