Applying to Medical School: The Process

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TODAY'S GOAL: Get into medical school.
TODAY’S GOAL: Get into medical school.

SO, what is the admissions process?

You’ve probably scoured the internet trying to find the answer to just this question.  The good news is that there are not many steps, the bad news is that each step is challenge in itself.  In a nutshell all you need to do is take the premed prerequisites of the programs you want to enter, take the medical school admissions test ( referred to as the MCAT), and turn in a primary application through a system called the AMCAS and turn in secondary applications to individual schools.  And if all goes well you interview, and well get in.  Biggest advice I can give is get that application in early, that is the first week or two when the application window opens.  If you want a concrete and concise road map for applying to medical school I’d highly suggest picking up a book off of Amazon called The Medical School Admissions Guide by Suzanne M. Miller, MD, you can follow her on twitter @MDadmit.

Step 1: Finish or finish off most of the prerequisites for medical school.

This can be trickier than it may appear, because there is some variation in what each medical school you apply to requires as prerequisites.  Ideally, you want to apply broadly, so don’t get lulled into the trap of taking a narrow set of prerequisites just to fit your dream program.  Admittedly, no matter your stats applying to medical school is somewhat of a numbers game, so it’s important to apply broadly.  Moreover, the prerequisites aren’t simply hurdles meant to weed people out, instead they are meant to prepare you for the rigors of medical school; and ultimately these courses will serve as your science foundation as a physician later.  Interestingly, when medicine schools first hit the US the most important prerequisite was anatomy.  At some point they realized that memorizing gross anatomy didn’t necessarily have a positive correlation with training good physicians. So, over time the current stereotypical required course lists evolved into what we see now:

  • a year of General Chemistry (lab + lecture)
  • a year Organic Chemistry (lab+lecture)
  • a year of Physics (lab + lecture)
  • a year of Freshman English (this should include a critical thinking course)
  • a few upper level math courses (Calculus and/or Statistics)

However, as science and our understanding of what it takes to make a good physician evolves so does the need to add more courses to your breadth.  Don’t shy away from the “recommended” courses as they’ll give you a leg up during the admissions process (well, if you do well on them) and on the MCAT:

  • Biochemistry
  • Psychology
  • Genetics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Microbiology

Step 2: Take MCAT — hopefully only once.

The MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) is often billed as the hardest entrance exam in the US.  As the MCAT itself also evolves its important to go straight to the source:  The MCAT has three sections, Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences, each section is scaled so that each section has a value of 15.  The maximum score is 45 (3 sections, 15 points each), but typically the highest score achieved each year hovers around 42 — not a score to laugh at.  The average score among all test takers ends up being about 24 with a standard deviation of about 3 points, scoring at or over two standard deviations means you had a pretty good score i.e. the magic 30 or higher score we all lust over.  So, your goal is to get your 30 or higher on the real test, and to never take the test again unless you believe you can do significantly better than the first time (within a standard deviation or two).  After you take the real MCAT, it’ll take about a month to receive your score, so you must include this month in your time table of medical applications.  It may comfort you to know that the MCAT wasn’t designed to keep people out of medical school, it was implemented because the drop out rate in medical school was atrocious, so they’ve done more to mentally prepare people before taking the medical school plunge. Ideally, you should finished your prerequisites prior to taking the MCAT, though merely anecdotal I have known one person that did just fine on the exam without finishing all of the Organic Chemistry sequence — but, that person was an exception to the rule and Organic Chemistry is only glossed over on the MCAT compared to the rigorous year sequence.   Though, if you got destroyed in Organic Chemistry lectures you may differ in my opinion of how lightly Organic Chemistry is covered on the exam. To prepare for the MCAT you have several avenues:

  • take a preparation course
  • self study
  • take a preparation course then self study to fix you weak points

There are pros and cons to all of the options above.  The pro of taking a prep course is that you’ll have a guided and structured method to prepare for the MCAT.  Some prep programs also have the benefit of teaching test taking strategies, though it’d take a lot of practice to actually be able to depend on them come test day.  The con is the cost, and perhaps lack of flexibility to deviate from the schedule.  If you can afford to take a prep course I would suggest you do.  I self studied, so I can’t make any specific suggestions about which prep program is the best.  Typically people end up taking Kaplan, but this is probably because it’s a lot easier to stumble upon a Kaplan prep center than any other prep course in my opinion.  What ever you pick be ready to shell out several hundred to a few thousand dollars. Again,  having self studied for the MCAT and I did just fine, so it’s by no means impossible to pull it off by yourself.  The largest pro to self studying is costs (if you’re internet savvy you may find quite a bit for free).  Another pro is that, you get to learn at your own pace, but that could also be a double edged sword.  The cons are blatant, you’re on your own when it comes to everything from understanding to scheduling.  Be honest with yourself, if self discipline isn’t your thing then a prep course may be the way to go.   If you decide to self study, then you’ll have to find a self study prep package that works for you.  I used ExamKrackers study package plus their Audio Osmosis.  Later, after to get more exposure to material I added in a Princeton Review science workbook.  If you have the time and the money, I think the best route would be to take a prep course then take several months to self study, this worked exceptionally well for a friend. [I may add an additional entry on the MCAT should it come up]

The most important part of prepping for the MCAT is taking practice the official AAMC practice tests.  Until you have a few of those under your belt don’t even consider taking the real test, because nothing in your prep material is going to be as close to the MCAT as the MCAT.  Just go to the official AAMC they’ll have plenty of information about how to purchase access to legit MCAT tests, a little birdie told me that some of the old versions can also be found on bittorent.

Step 3: Fill out an AMCAS primary application and all it entails.

Ready for more acronyms?  Well, after you finish your MCAT you’ll likely become very ‘intimate’ with the AMCAS (American Medical College Admissions  System), affectionately uttered as one word by all those who toil under its rule.  The AMCAS is a general application that you feel out, called the primary application. And at the end your click some buttons to select schools and drop loads of cash (unless you qualify for Financial Assistance Program, I didn’t fyi).  The primary application will consist of:

  • the BEST Personal Statement (PS) you’ve ever written
  • course work plus grades (all college level work regardless of institution)
  • MCAT score
  • Letters of Recommendations (LORs)
  • Resume / Curriculum Vitae
  • Submitted Transcripts to verify your entries

It goes without saying that your PS and resume sections should be well written and concise.  Don’t feel pressured to push the character limit, don’t fall into the college trap of feeling compelled to reach a good ‘number’.  Instead, focus on being succinct, what can be said in ten words is always better than blathering about it for 100.  Also remember like most things: quality trumps quantity.  So, for your LORs it’s better to have 5 stellar LORs than 10 generics.  With that line of thought, don’t feel compelled to jam space filling entries into the resume section.  I will tell you that I went well under the character limit for the PS and didn’t use all of my resume entries because I didn’t feel it was necessary. Though, in the  end the primary application is mainly a test of how good you are at data entry.  It may take up to 6 weeks for the AMCAS to verify your course / grade entries you self entered.  Each time you enter a course you must also classify it, this is usually the trickiest part.  Though, I’ll save you the stress and tell you that you can easily find most of proper classifications if you follow the link and DL the pdf here. If you did everything write, and everything is received, AMCAS will ‘verify’ your application, as well as give you a two new GPAs one for the sciences / biology and another for everything else.  If you AMCAS finds issues with a lot of your entries they may return it to you for corrections.  After verification you’re ready for the next phase of applications, choosing schools to apply to.  If after verification you find issue with AMCAS evaluation of your transcripts and GPAs you have about 10 days to petition.  I petitioned successfully, this helped me raise my science GPA up, so it’s worth the effort if you think you have a case.

Step 4: Choose schools after being verified. *Though you should already know which schools you intend to apply to.

Getting verified is quite a relief, you earned a beer if you got this far.  After AMCAS recalculates your GPA don’t be surprised if it drops (though typically it’ll be nearly the same).  Now its time to pick schools, this can be hard to figure out.  In general I suggest purchasing the Medical School Admissions Registry (MSAR), look at each school, and make your own ranking depending on what’s important to you.  US News rankings are useless in my opinion, find a program that fits you as far as mission statement, stats, costs, location etc.  Also, the first school you apply to will cost about ~250 (I forget the exact amount) and each additionally school after that will cost about 35 dollars.  Make this cycle your last cycle and try to apply to as many schools as you can both afford and finish secondary applications to.  For most people 15 schools is a good number, 20 if you are nervous.  Anything after 20 is a waste of time because you probably can’t complete more than 20 secondaries without them starting to drop in quality.

Step 5: Fill Out Secondaries as they arrive.

Pretty much enough said.  Some schools will automatically generate a secondary for all applicants with a verified primary application, while others may screen applicants prior to asking them to fill out a secondary.  Sadly, a few schools even ask for you to pay for them to screen you application in the first place.  Secondaries range from school to school, so you will no longer be doing a general application, instead you’ll be inundated with various log-ins and passwords to use to enter your entries per school.  The content of the secondary varies greatly from writing many small entries, to writing very lengthy essays, all the way to just slipping a check in the mail.  Each secondary will run from 75 to 150 dollars — make sure to save that tooth fairy money.

Step 6: The waiting game: Interview Invites & Rejections

Schools will call or email you to invite you to interviews, or the worst case scenario to email you to let you know they are not interested in you.  If you did things right you’ll have a few interviews lined up, and you’re ready to think about “interview day”.  If you receive nothing, you probably already have a good idea of what may be the problem i.e. grades, MCAT, PS quality, experiences, so do what you need to do to address your shortcomings. After your interview there are three fates: accepted, wait list, and rejected.  The best news would be an acceptance, after a school makes an offer you pay a deposit to hold your seat.  You can accept as many offers as you’d like to, but you can only have on offer after May 15.  If you get wait listed, there may or may not be a priority wait list, also schools may or may not rank you by number.  If/when the matriculate dust settles they offer spots to fill up the remaining seats prior to school starting.  Being on the wait list is probably stressful, I was fortunate enough to not be left in limbo, and was accepted straight out to the program I wanted into.  I’ve heard of people being wait listed all the way until the day before the school year starts, so there’s hope for those who wait list even to the last second.  Now, you could also be rejected (received two myself), you’ll have to learn how to get over it, and move on.  Just remember all you need is one acceptance, and a rejection doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not fit to be a doctor instead they may just feel you don’t fit their program. Best of luck, for more info drop a comment or message me on twitter


2 thoughts on “Applying to Medical School: The Process

    […] Applying to Medical School: The Process ( […]

    doctororbust responded:
    June 2, 2014 at 10:29 pm

    Reblogged this on doctororbust and commented:

    Reblogged for 2015 Applicants.

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