The Pre-Med Student’s Guide to Applying to Medical School

There’s a lot to sort through when preparing to apply for medical school. How do you even get started? This helpful guide can help. It covers information on every major milestone. Regardless of where you are in the med school application process, we’re here to help you start preparing and set yourself on the path to becoming an MD. 

Decide if medicine is right for you

You’ve often asked yourself, “Should I become a doctor?” It’s worth spending some time thinking about whether a career in medicine is the right fit for you, because completing med school requirements, obtaining your degree, and going through postgraduate training is a long and sometimes challenging road. Take a moment to reflect on your motivations. You’ll need to consider some important questions.

Becoming a doctor isn’t exactly like what you see on TV. It can be overwhelming. Many students who’ve always been star pupils find themselves struggling in school for the first time in their lives. There are other things to consider as well. You’ll encounter numerous surprises in medical school and after, even some pleasant ones.

Long hours are also an inherent part of the profession, even after completing medical school. Most doctors will say they need to be ready to shift gears as needed. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) also points out that it’s common to work 60 or more hours per week and take calls as needed.

Medical school itself includes many important milestones. You’ll devote two years to classroom learning, and then spend your final two years completing clinical rotations to start getting your feet wet. You’ll also be responsible for beginning the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) series.

During the latter portion of medical school, you’ll need to start applying for residency programs. This postgraduate training can last up to seven years for certain specialties. Physicians who wish to further specialize will need to complete additional fellowship training on top of that.

Medical school is a serious financial investment—it should be treated as such. That said, physicians typically find paying for medical school to be manageable. If you’re like most students, you’ll end up utilizing student loans. Medical students should fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and start working with financial aid officers to plan accordingly.

It’s also worth noting there are numerous medical school scholarships available. You’ll want to do some research as you’re working through med school requirements to determine which ones you might be able to put toward your education. Here are some examples of the different types: military service scholarships, merit-based scholarships, organization and personal provider scholarships, medical service-based scholarships, and need-based scholarships.

Start planning your med school application timeline

Whether you’re a college freshman or someone who decided to pursue your MD a little later in life, you’ll need to do some preliminary work to ensure you stay on top of your medical school prerequisites. There are several items you’ll need to check off your list before you can actually begin working on your applications.

Taking a number of specified classes is one of the first med school requirements you’ll need to tackle. Prerequisites can vary from one program to the next, so make sure to do your research. Some of the basic course prerequisites pre-med students will need to complete include:

  • Biology
  • Physics
  • Biochemistry
  • English
  • General and organic chemistry

Exposure to patients is essential for pre-med students, and you should start thinking about incorporating this experience into your med school application timeline sooner rather than later. There are many ways to get involved in clinical activities, including working as a scribe, volunteering as an emergency medical technician (EMT), and shadowing physicians.

Adding physician shadowing experience to your resume is especially important for future medical students. It’s a rare opportunity to see a doctor at work, and can also provide an opportunity to secure a strong letter of recommendation for your medical school applications. Need some advice on how to connect with a physician? Try meeting with your pre-med advisor or even speak to your childhood pediatrician.

Though many students wonder how many volunteer hours they need for medical school, there isn’t a specific number requirement. Service isn’t usually listed as a medical school application requirement. But that doesn’t mean you should skip these experiences. Every MD program looks favorably on candidates who’ve been involved in volunteer activities, because it shows the kind of dedication to service that’s essential for working with patients.

There are many ways to get involved in your community. Not every experience has to be medically related, either. Here are just a few activities you might consider:

  • Volunteering at a hospital or clinic
  • Participating in a medical service trip
  • Working as a volunteer EMT
  • Volunteering with organizations that serve those in need
  • Contributing your talents at a nursing home

As an international medical student, your score on English language tests, such as IELTS, can impact admissions to an MD program. Your application should include exam results to demonstrate the ability to use English competently as it is critical for the study and practice of medicine in an international setting.

Complete all medical school application requirements

Most students submit applications using the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). For the most part, med school requirements are about the same regardless of whether a particular program participates in AMCAS. Just make sure to verify this yourself to ensure you don’t overlook any med school requirements. Here’s a breakdown of how to apply to medical school using this service:

You’ll start applications by filling out basic personal information like the schools you’ve attended, your name, birthdate, and so on. This is relatively straightforward, but double-check everything to ensure accuracy. Some of this information also helps medical schools get a better sense of who you are.

You’ll need to fill out detailed information about the classes you’ve completed and your GPA. You’ll also be required to submit official transcripts. AMCAS provides guidelines on how to do this, but it’s a good idea to check with individual schools for the exact instructions.

Any work activities, whether paid or volunteer, belong in this section. Though medically related experiences are clearly important, so are other endeavors like playing team sports and getting involved with a college organization.

Regardless of the specific activity, medical schools like to see students who’ve demonstrated these 15 core competencies:

  • Service orientation
  • Social skills
  • Cultural competence
  • Teamwork
  • Oral communication
  • Ethical responsibility to self and others
  • Reliability and dependability
  • Resilience and adaptability
  • Capacity for improvement
  • Critical thinking
  • Quantitative reasoning
  • Scientific inquiry
  • Written communication
  • Living systems
  • Human behavior

Letters of recommendation are an incredibly important part of your application. They should be written by individuals who know you well and can speak to your specific strengths. People you might consider asking to write an evaluation include college professors, supervisors from volunteer work, and physicians you’ve shadowed. You’ll want to tackle this requirement pretty early on in your med school application timeline, because you want to ensure your writers have enough time to compose a thoughtful and informative message.

Of course, the content of each letter is just as important. Mediocre, generic evaluations won’t help you stand out among other medical school applicants. Learn more about how to secure solid letters of recommendation.

Admissions committees want to learn about your motivations for becoming a doctor, and standard answers like “a desire to help people” won’t cut it. Think about how your experiences are unique and how they have influenced your decision to pursue medicine.

You’ll also need to take plenty of time to write, edit, and format your personal statement—it’s just as important as any of the other med school requirements. Learn more about how to make your essay stand out by heeding some expert advice on writing your personal statement.

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a rigorous exam designed to assess your preparedness for medical school. It’s an extensive exam that features four sections.

Programs scrutinize MCAT scores considerably when evaluating candidates. Because of this, you should plan to set aside a fair amount of time to study. As far as MCAT preparation goes, you might find it helpful to build an MCAT review schedule into your med school application timeline, focus on study methods that work for you, take practice exams, and set goals.

Finalize and submit your applications

Once your applications are complete, you can submit them. But there are a few things you should keep in mind before sending them off.

You need to apply to enough programs. Purely from a statistical standpoint, you stand a better chance of getting accepted by applying broadly. Keep in mind the average applicant for the 2019-2020 school year submitted 17 through AMCAS.

But be thoughtful about the total number of programs you target when applying to medical school, because it is possible to go overboard. For one thing, it can become expensive. It could also hinder the quality of the applications, particularly if you need to complete additional med school requirements—like supplemental essays—after submitting the initial application.

It’s likely you’ve wondered, “Which medical schools should I apply to?” Give this some serious thought and think about attending any information sessions offered by programs you’re attending. It’s certainly okay to include some reach schools, but most of your applications should go to programs that align with your personal academic profile. Some experts believe assuming you’re among the most competitive students is one of the most common mistakes students make when applying to medical school.

Clearly, it’s important to understand how you stack up against a given program’s current students. Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) is a great resource to research this information, but you do need to purchase access to it.

It’s in your best interest to apply early. Since interviews are offered on a rolling basis, you stand a better chance of securing those valuable invitations by ensuring your application is as close to the top of the pile as possible.

AMCAS allows submissions at the very end of May. You should aim to submit around this time, which means you really need to have completed your med school requirements by spring. It takes some time to process applications anyway, so plan to be early.

Prepare for and attend medical school interviews

Understanding how to apply to medical school is just the beginning. After you complete all med school requirements and make your initial submission, you may need to complete secondary applications. But more importantly, you need to start thinking about how to prepare for medical school interviews. There are numerous things you can do to get ready for these conversations.

Every interview will be different, but there are some well-known questions nearly every student will face. Make sure you know which medical school interview questions you’re likely to be asked. Here are just a few examples you might want to use while practicing:

  • Why do you want to be a doctor?
  • How do you manage stressful situations?
  • Why are you interested in our medical school?

Take advantage of any medical school mock interview services offered at your undergraduate institution if you’re still in college. If you’re working with an independent consultant or advisor, see whether they can assist. At the very least, you can practice with a family member or trusted mentor.

Another option you may wish to try is using an online system to record a practice interview. This allows you to review your performance afterward to see how you can improve. Some undergraduate institutions even have subscriptions to these services, which they make available to students.

You should always come prepared with some things you want to ask, but don’t focus on surface-level questions you could easily answer by reading the school’s website. That said, it’s a good idea to do some research on any institution where you’ll be interviewing to help generate some ideas. Asking thoughtful questions shows that you went beyond simply applying to medical school and truly care about which program you attend.

Here are a few examples of questions you might ask, depending on who’s on the interview committee:

  • Can you tell me about the research you’re currently involved in and what you find most interesting about it?
  • I noticed a recent change to the program curriculum. Can you tell me about what informed that decision?
  • What types of opportunities are there for students who want to volunteer in the community?

Begin to think about choosing a medical school

If you’re lucky enough to receive multiple acceptance letters, congratulations! Your hard work has paid off. Now it’s time to move to the next phase: determining how to choose a medical school that’s right for you. There are a few important questions you’ll want to find answers to as you compare programs.

The USMLE Step 1 is important for a number of reasons. For starters, you need a passing score to eventually obtain a medical license. A strong showing on this test can also help you secure a postgraduate position. Residency program directors look favorably on candidates with excellent scores.

Identifying the USMLE Step 1 pass rate at each school on your list can help you determine which programs truly prepare their students. You should only enroll at a medical school where the vast majority of students successfully pass the exam.

Medical school graduates still have a lot of learning to do in residency before they’re fully prepared to practice medicine. Given the importance of securing a postgraduate position, it’s a good idea to evaluate how different schools’ students fare. If you can, find out what percentage of students successfully obtain a residency.

You may also find it useful to investigate the variety of specialties students pursue. The placement list from St. George’s University (SGU), for example, shows students matched into 18 different specialties across 43 states and the District of Columbia in 2020.

Specialty aside, you may have other interests you’d like to develop while in medical school. Luckily, many programs have opportunities to pursue these passions through student organizations. You might even look to see whether one of your interests is tied into an entire institution’s mission.

These are just a few examples of areas a medical school may emphasize:

  • Research
  • Primary care
  • Public health
  • Global health
  • Business

Support services vary among schools. It’s worth taking your time to compare the offerings from one program to the next. You might notice services like mentoring, learning strategy development, career and residency guidance, tutoring, and more.

As you research what support services different schools provide, consider what types of resources you might find useful. And keep in mind that many students find themselves struggling with at least one class. You’ll never know whether you’d benefit from structured peer review sessions if they’re not an option.

Talking to current students is something you can do when you visit campuses for interviews, but many schools are also happy to connect you with someone via email or over the phone. You can ask students what they think of the curriculum and whether they feel adequately prepared for the challenges ahead.

You might also want to ask admissions officers if they can put you in touch with a graduate. Speaking to a practicing physician who attended the institution can offer another layer of insight.

Final steps and enrolling

As you work toward your final medical school selection, make sure you’re taking the appropriate next steps and that you’ve fulfilled all of the medical school requirements. Reacting to acceptance offers promptly keeps things moving for everyone, including students who may be waitlisted.

Most medical schools expect students to respond to an acceptance within two weeks. You’ll also be expected to pay an initial fee at this time. Remember, you can reserve a seat at multiple schools by making your deposit. It can be a little expensive, but this is a better option than risking waiting too long.

It’s also possible, depending on when you receive an acceptance letter, that you’ll still have some interviews on the horizon. It’s usually a good idea to proceed with these interviews. You may find that one of those programs ends up being the best fit for you, so keep an open mind.

While you can reserve your spot at multiple schools for a time, you’ll eventually need to make a selection. The AAMC guidelines recommend you narrow your choices to no more than three schools by April 15 and make your final decision by April 30. That said, check the specific timelines with each program to make sure you’re on track. You should also withdraw your application from schools you’ve chosen to not attend to ensure a fair process for other applicants who may be on a waitlist.

Given many students still need to finish their senior year of college after they’ve already been accepted to medical school, there’s a little bit of wiggle room for completing necessary courses. Make sure you know whether you have any of these classes left. It’s important to stay on top of your studies and perform well in the final days of your undergraduate education to ensure you don’t forget about any medical school application requirements you have yet to complete.

As the first day of class draws nearer, you might be tempted to start studying organ systems or brushing up on different diseases. But you’re better off taking a break and relaxing with your loved ones.

The only thing related to medicine you might want to start thinking about is what type of career you want. You can take a look at our ultimate list of specialties and subspecialties to get the wheels turning.

Considering SGU’s School of Medicine?

If you’re thinking about the possibility of attending SGU, you might be interested in learning more about what the school is like. You can start by visiting the 4-Year MD Program page to see information about the curriculum and student life. It might also be helpful to read up on some surprising facts about SGU.

Of course, students and graduates are the most valuable sources of information.

“If you’re willing to put in the work, SGU will get you where you want to go.”
– Kristopher Milland, MD SGU ’18, Emergency Medicine Resident Physician

During his studies at SGU, Dr. Kristopher Milland found himself drawn toward many different fields. He ultimately chose emergency medicine, and he thinks SGU’s supportive environment really helped him achieve his goal.

“Attending SGU has been the adventure of a lifetime. It was incredibly challenging, but so worth it in the end.”

– Shayda Pedram, MD SGU ’20, OB/GYN Resident Physician

As a passionate advocate for women’s health, Dr. Shayda Pedram was motivated to begin her medical school journey as soon as possible. Her drive meant waiting to go through the lengthy US medical school application process just wasn’t the right fit. She instead chose to attend SGU, where she gained valuable knowledge and skills for her chosen specialty.

“For me, SGU was the best choice,”
– Sara Story, MD SGU ’10, Hospitalist

Anyone who’s ever felt as though they’re surrounded by insurmountable obstacles could learn a thing or two from Dr. Sara Story. She went through treatment for breast cancer while in medical school and prevailed. For her, SGU was instrumental in both her personal and professional success.

“SGU does a phenomenal job of organizing classes and tests to mirror Step 1. And I remember when I took Step 1, it felt like nothing more than an SGU examination, and I ultimately did very well.”

– Ryan Kruse, MD SGU ’13, Sports Medicine Physician

Choosing to go into sports medicine was an easy decision for Dr. Ryan Kruse, a former collegiate soccer player. His athletic background has given Dr. Kruse an understanding of how injuries can affect an individual’s day-to-day life. He credits SGU with preparing him to succeed in this highly competitive field.

“I’m actually a Crohn’s disease and celiac disease patient. I pretty much told my mom when I was six years old that I wanted to be a pediatric GI.”
– Jacqueline Larson, MD SGU ’12, Pediatric Gastroenterologist

Critics with little knowledge of medical schools outside the US often dissuade students interested in pursuing a highly competitive specialty from attending an international school. But Dr. Jacqueline Larson never strayed from her goal. After hearing numerous physicians share positive feedback about SGU, Dr. Larson was certain it could set her on the right path.

There are many more success stories, too. If you’d like to hear from someone who has firsthand experience attending SGU, we’d be happy to connect you.

Start writing your medical school story

You now have a resource that you can return to throughout your path to pursuing your MD. The process of applying to medical school and starting classes is lengthy, and this guide can help you every step of the way. With hard work, dedication, and a disciplined approach, you could very well secure acceptance at a medical school that meets your needs.

As you continue toward a career as a physician, you’ll want to stay up to date on relevant topics. Make sure you’re informed about everything from med school requirements to different career paths to health care trends by regularly checking in with our blog, The SGU Pulse.

Ready to talk to an Admissions Officer now? Schedule a call.