By David Steinhardt
Now that my medical school application process has come to an end, I feel a personal responsibility to share some of the knowledge I’ve gained during the process. Throughout this difficult and humbling year, perhaps the most inspiring aspect of applying to medical school was that I began to feel a connection with everyone else who’s completed or is currently completing the same process. I sent countless emails and had numerous conversations about how to gain an acceptance into a school, and am indebted to the doctors and medical students who took the time to help me. Medicine is not the easiest field to be accepted into, it’s also not the highest paying or the best lifestyle – these characteristics bring doctors together, as is the natural human tendency to come together, mentally and emotionally, when marching through trenches.
My experience and advice spans farther than my own personal experience through the process. If you must know my own stats to feel that my opinions are valid, I applied to 25 schools, got 6 interviews, was accepted at 4 schools and wait-listed at 2. More importantly, because I was in a post-bac program, I applied alongside lots of other people with differing backgrounds and successes. Furthermore, it is impossible to go through this process with friends and not talk about it pretty much constantly, and from those conversations I heard countless stories about other applicants/students/doctors, both triumphant and tragic. Here are the main things I have learned, in order of importance.
1. There is no substitute for high grades. If you’re reading this during your senior year of college right before opening your AMCAS application and you haven’t done well in school, well, I’m sorry. Consider entering a post-bac program, because as much as people talk about the trend that medical schools care more and more about your background, personality, extracurriculars, etc., their number one concern is – will this person be able to make it through med school? The main way to answer that is by looking at a student’s science classes. This is why, in my opinion, if you’re not ready to commit to being a doctor at age 18, it might be in your best interest to get a liberal arts education, grow up, and do a post-bac after getting a year or two of work experience post-college. I know tons of people who had mediocre to poor grades in college, but then rocked the post-bac classes due to newfound motivation and maturation. This definitely works. Of course, it’s best if you’ve gotten good grades all along. The other option is, starting at age 18, work hard and do really well in college. If you’re a genius, this isn’t that hard. If you’re not, get ready to sacrifice some fun. I’m biased because I had tons of fun in college and delayed the whole medicine thing – but that’s because I was in no position to decide what I wanted to do with my life when I was 18 or 19 years old. I’m rambling now, but suffice it to say, get good grades, the higher the better.
2. Get a good MCAT score. At this point you may be thinking that this is an obvious list. Well, in a way it is, but I’m being honest here. The people who have the most trouble getting into school (besides people with bad grades, who pretty much don’t get into schools), is people who bomb the MCAT. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the MCAT, I don’t support the MCAT, in fact I hate the MCAT, but you need to post a decent score. In my non-expert opinion, the 31-33 range is a passing grade on the MCAT. Anything lower will hurt you, anything higher will help you. Don’t stress too much about it, just study a lot, take TONS of practice tests IN exact testing conditions (no breaks, same time as real test, sitting at a desk quietly, etc.), and then do as well as you can. I’d also recommend taking the test as early as you can be ready for it. If you take it in April and do badly, you can retake in June, but if you take it in June and do badly, you have to retake in August and it delays your entire application. Even better, if you take it in February and do badly, you can retake it in April and still apply in June. The best thing to do though, is to just do well the first time. I personally did not take an MCAT class, and instead used Sn2’s famed study schedule, which is on the student doctor website. The class works for some, but this schedule works for all. Check it out.
3. Apply early. AMCAS opens in May of each year and the first day you can turn it in is June 1. You don’t HAVE to turn it in on June 1, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. I recommend anytime in June, preferably in the first half of the month. There are a few reasons for this, some of which everyone will tell you and some of which they won’t. First the obvious one – it’s a rolling admissions process, so the earlier you apply, the fewer spots have been taken, and the more spots schools have to fill. This is not foolproof, obviously, as the admissions’ offices note, they’ve been through this process before, so know how to spread out their acceptances throughout the year, but at the same time, who really believes that they give march interviewees the same chance as the people who interview in october? No one. This brings me to my next and in my opinion, more important point. Apply early for your own peace of mind. This is the big one for me. In short, prioritize your application year and make it a happy one. The happiest person I know for the past year was accepted at UC Davis in October. He has been set since then, so could relax and work the jobs he wanted, take the vacations he wanted, etc. The most unhappy people are still, in early March, unsure where they will get in. If you’re in the latter boat, all is not lost, you still might get in, but your year has doubtlessly been more stressful. Save the stress for residency.
4. Gather your recommendations early and get writers who can be personal, if possible. Most schools like a committee letter, so if your premedical department or post-bac does them, get it. I also recommend a research recommendation and a letter from someone who’s seen you do clinical work. If you’ve had a legitimate job, get one from there too. Professors are great, but the committee letter takes care of that aspect for you, at least it’s supposed to. Since you want to apply in June, you should really contact your recommenders by January of your application year. That way, they have plenty of time to write it, you can send them reminders each month, and everyone is happy in the end. Most people will agree to write you a letter if they know you at all, but try to get people who really and truly know you and who you can level with. The best recommender is someone you can sit down with and say, “this is what I think should be in my letter, blah blah blah.” I’m not saying you should be able to write your own letters, but you want your recommenders to have a personal stake in getting you into school, and the only way that will happen is if you have a personal relationship with them. If you don’t have a personal relationship with any of your recommenders, don’t freak out, just get someone to write your letters, it’s just preferable if you do.
5. Do something unique! This is the one people forget, or don’t know about, that is really important. The best applicants are those that jump off the page. Start something, get some unique experience, and make it legitimate. Don’t just do it because you want to get into med school. Do it because it’s something you want to do and this is your life to live. Getting into med school is not everything, but it turns out that if you do something unique and awesome (doesn’t have to be medically related), it catches people’s attention. And when you’re trying to get into a class of 100 out of 7,000 applicants, you absolutely have to stand out in some way. The application has 3 spots for “most meaningful experiences.” I think ideally, two of these are medical/research oriented, and the third is something outside of medicine that you’ve done that application readers want to tell their friends about.
6. Get medical experience to prove you know what it’s like to be a doctor. The second half of this is the important part. If you’ve had particularly cool hands-on clinical experience or responsibilities, that’s a plus, but the important thing is that you’ve spent lots of time with physicians while they’re on the job, and you know what you’re getting in to. Schools want to make sure you don’t just like the idea of being of doctor, but that you like the reality of the job. This is important for your own clarity too. This is not Grey’s Anatomy or House, this is actual life. Be sure you know what you’re getting into, and prove that on your application.
7. Do research of some kind. It’s nice to have research on your application. Obviously, if you’re applying for an MD/PhD program, this should be moved up to number 1, but if not, you don’t necessarily need tons of research. Of course, if research is what you’re into, that should be reflected in your experience. Also, it’s not necessary to do bench research if that’s not your cup of tea. There’s tons of clinical research going on in every major hospital – so if you want to do stuff more directly patient-related, get involved in that.
8. Have experienced people read your application essays. After all of the hard work you’ve put in at school, in your extracurriculars, getting your recommendations, etc. the essays on your application are actually very important too. Afterall, how else will the admissions’ office people know what you’ve done if you don’t know how to write about it properly? I recommend having a few doctors read your essays and give comments, and then someone who really knows the current application process, like a premed advisor at your college, read it as well. This will give you a variety of opinions and then you can take it from there. One important thing to note, though, is that everyone has their own opinions about what schools are looking for. This is, of course, because each school and admissions officer is different. So, in the end, you have to make the call of how you want your essays to read. Make sure that it’s your essay, and that you don’t take every person’s opinion on every little thing. More importantly though, just make sure you get multiple readers for those essays and make sure everything is grammatically perfect (unlike this blog post).
9. Get prepared and do some practice interviews. My practice interviews helped me a lot. Some people are very natural interviewers and don’t really need the practice. Decide which one you are and go with that. Again, current doctors and premed advisors are the best people to do practice interviews with. It’s easy to explain to your friends who know nothing about the field why you want to be a doctor – it’s much harder to explain it to an actual doctor. Before your interviews, make sure you can talk about ALL activities on your application, and why medicine suits you. Beyond that, and this is a cliche of course, but be yourself. Bottom line, if the person interviewing you likes you as a person by the end, you have a good chance of getting in. These days some schools do the mmi’s (multiple mini interviews), which are their own story altogether. To prepare for these, you need to understand the ethical dilemmas doctors face and know how to take a stance on them. I recommend googling mmi’s and you’ll find tons of practice scenarios. Discuss them with your girlfriend/boyfriend/parents and you’ll be fine. The most important part of the interviews is to be relaxed and appear to be a normal, sociable person. Your numbers speak for themselves, now you have to show you are fit for a career where you will work with patients everyday.
10. Apply to lots of schools, expect lots of rejections, and make your own final decisions on where you apply and where you go. Although this is my last piece of advice, I think it’s really important. Getting into medical schools is an absolute rat race. Most schools have a 1-2% acceptance rate. Apply to lots of schools. If there’s a particular school you’re on the fence on, apply there. I will likely be going to the school I added last to my list, not because I didn’t like it, but because I didn’t think I could get in because I was out of state. Apply to as many schools that interest you, but don’t apply to schools you don’t want to go to. If you wouldn’t go there, don’t apply. I applied to 25 schools. That’s a little on the high end, but I’d do it again. You have you assume, even if you are an absolute genius, that you’ll be getting rejected from 75% of the schools you apply to, most of them pre-interviews. That’s just the way the process is. If you’re going to get upset after each one, you’re in for a long year. Keep your head up and move on. You can only go to one school anyway. The last piece of advice I have is to make your own final decisions. This applies to every aspect of the process, from the classes you take, the strategy you use to study for the MCAT, your recommenders, your essays, etc. There’s a lot written about getting into med school and a lot of people who have expert and non-expert opinions. The simple fact is, there is no one way to get in, and there’s no one strategy. In the end, you have to be you, take the classes you want, write the essays you are proud of, and hope for the best. That’s all you can do. If you get in, great. If you don’t, just remember, some people have far bigger problems than that.
This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on April 25, 2012.