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Medical School Admissions: Lessons Learned

Created May 3, 2009 by Jessica Freedman, MD
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AMCAS 2010 opens in early May and the next wave of applicants is preparing to submit applications, so it seems apropos to summarize some key observations I have made while privately advising medical school applicants. Here is my list of some essentials for medical school applicants to improve their chances of acceptance.

  1. Submit an early application
    Everything you read tells you that the #1 rule of medical school admissions is to apply early. But, I find that many applicants still ignore this advice. You should not only submit your application as early as possible but also make sure that your transcripts and letters of reference are sent in promptly.
  2. Take your MCAT exam early
    Again, the key word here is “early.” Your application will not be reviewed until your pending MCAT scores are in so, if you have worked hard to submit your AMCAS application in June, don’t negate this effort by taking an August MCAT.
  3. Don’t apply once for “a practice run”
    Yes, people do this. I suggest applying only when you are truly ready. While the stigma of being a reapplicant is declining, being a third-time applicant does trigger a negative bias, so it is best to try and make your application as perfect as possible the first time around. Take an honest inventory of your stats, experiences and accomplishments and decide if you are ready to apply or if you must do something to enhance your candidacy.
  4. Apply broadly
    It may be your dream to attend a top 10 medical school, but be realistic. Too often, applicants apply to only a few schools initially and limit their chances. It is important to apply to a broad range of schools both in terms of geography and ranking. Around this time of year, I receive calls from applicants who say “Well, I didn’t get in last year but I applied only to five schools because I wanted to stay in California.” If you really want to increase your chances of being accepted, do not limit yourself.
  5. Think about your story
    I encourage applicants to think about their unique story and path to medical school. What motivates you? What are the overarching themes in your background and experiences? Why do you want to be a physician? Really thinking about who you are, how you got there and what you hope to do in the future will set the stage for your entire application process. Think about this throughout your education. And, remember, nothing is set in stone. As you develop new interests, expertise and hobbies, your story will evolve and change. Just make sure that your story doesn’t have any major unaccounted gaps in time because admissions committee members often regard these gaps as “red flags.”

  6. Make your application entries descriptive
    While some applicants write a bulleted and brief description for each AMCAS entry, my advice is always to give as much information as possible in your written activities descriptions. You have a 1325 character limit per entry so, unless you have nothing to say about your experiences (which would be a red flag in my book), use this space to your advantage. The person who wants to read less can opt to skim your entries but the person who wants more information won’t take the time to pick up the phone and inquire about your experiences. These descriptions present an opportunity to write about your insights, experiences, accomplishments and observations.
  7. Do not regurgitate your application entries in your personal statement
    It is important to say something new, different and fresh in your personal statement that does not repeat your application entries. Interestingly, I find that many applicants shy away from the very topics and aspects of their backgrounds that make them unique. Applicants also lament that they don’t really have a story or anything special about them. Boloney. Every applicant has a compelling story, but sometimes you need an outsider to bring it into focus. Often applicants are self conscious about the very experiences that will make them more compassionate providers (and more attractive applicants), such as being an immigrant, growing up with few opportunities or having their own encounters with illness. Applicants often say, “I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me and I don’t want to tell a sob story.” As long as you present your story in a matter- of- fact way and write about the positive direction of your path, you won’t be perceived as a whiner. It is often the most challenging times in our lives that are the most catalytic, and any experienced medical educator understands this.
  8. Fill out your secondary essays in timely fashion
    Here is that theme again. Early, early, early.   For schools that have secondaries, your application won’t be screened until the secondaries are in.

  9. Practice Interviewing
    Many applicants think interviewing is easy and, for some, it is, but everyone needs practice. Even if you are a great public speaker, sitting down and talking about yourself one on one with a person in a position of authority does not usually come naturally. Also remember that you can guide your interview and highlight what you think is most important about you. Most medical school interviews are fairly low stress and conversational, so enter your interview knowing which experiences and thoughts you want to discuss and emphasize. When I do mock interviews with clients, I am often surprised at how many people, including those with a long list of impressive achievements, are not able to present their stories cohesively and comprehensively.

  10. Make every interview count
    Every interview is an opportunity for an acceptance. Be sure to smile, be positive and be personable on your interview day. Regardless of “scoring systems” or “rankings,” there is a huge subjective component when evaluating an interviewee. This “halo effect” works both ways; if someone perceives you positively, this will likely carry over to everything about you and your candidacy, whereas if someone perceives you negatively, the opposite is true. I have several clients who received only one interview invitation which resulted in an acceptance. So, approach every interview, literally, as if it is the only one.

  11. Get good advice
    This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Seek out individuals who are knowledgeable about medical school admissions and provide sound guidance. When I used to evaluate applicants as an admissions officer, it was often obvious when an applicant received bad guidance because they did not have the best mix of experiences, had poorly written documents or weak interview skills.

  12. Stay objective and be honest with yourself about your chances
    If it is late in the season and you have not received any interviews or only have wait list offers, consider what went wrong and correct your mistakes. If you plan on reapplying, you must, once again, do so early. If you reapply in August after you realize you won’t get off a wait list, you may again be unsuccessful. Inevitably it is the waitlisted applicant who reapplies in June who gets off a waitlist in August just before classes start.

Learn from my collective experience working with medical school applicants and try to make the most of your candidacy. What I have learned from my clients, most of all, is that the new generation of physicians is a motivated, well-intentioned and inspiring group with a positive outlook.  Apply well because our patients need you. Good luck!

Jessica Freedman, MD, a former medical admissions officer, is president of MedEdits (www.MedEdits.com), a medical school, residency and fellowship admissions consulting firm. She is also the author of the MedEdits blog, a useful resource for applicants: (www.MedEdits.blogspot.com).

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