Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner
As students begin to prepare for the next cycle of medical school application, I want to review some of the practical pieces of advice that every applicant should know. The actual process of applying to medical school is resource intensive: it costs thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours, and will strip you of many relaxing weekends that you would have otherwise enjoyed. Since you’ve made the decision to apply, here are some things that will help you make the best of it.
Remember that your MCAT score is a number. Your GPA is a number. These two things make up a major component of your application and you can’t change either of them now. You can’t change your letters of recommendation, either. The personal statement is a modifiable aspect of your application at this point, so you want to make sure to do a good job on it. But what else is there?
The answer to this lies in the details. This is what separates a good application from an excellent application. It is also what could separate a marginal application from one that gets an interview invitation. Every year, there are a few key mistakes that really put some students at a disadvantage. When schools are looking to offer acceptances, they are not only looking for good students. In addition to being smart, they are looking for people who will one day care for patients and be their colleagues. It is no surprise that those selected to become student doctors are usually meticulous, mature, intelligent, team players, and caring. Your application needs to reflect this.
Submit your application as soon as humanly possible. Is there a major difference in submitting on day #1 and day #3? Probably not, but if you send your application in a month or two later than opening day, you could be at a disadvantage. This is especially true for schools with rolling admissions. Schools literally receive thousands of applications and could likely fill their classes with qualified applicants in the first couple of weeks. There is no proof of this early application strategy, but why take the risk and apply late? My own October submission to medical school put me on a waitlist, and timing was probably my biggest regret in the process.
Get your receipt
Keep track of your applications. Just because you dropped something in the mail doesn’t mean it arrived at its destination. Fast forward five years – if you order a troponin level in a patient with chest pain, you need to check that it actually got drawn. Things that are important demand your follow-up. Use delivery confirmation for the schools still relying on snail mail and monitor your bank account to make sure that the application fees you pay are processed. Since you are likely applying to many schools, I recommend using a spreadsheet to keep track of things.
There is no room for typos, spelling errors, or grammatical errors. I cannot say it enough. The AMCAS is not an email to a friend or a Twitter post. The use of improper punctuation or spelling your research mentor’s name wrong could raise an eyebrow. So even if you think you have everything perfect, have 10 of your closest friends edit the application if you can get them to. Reach out to faculty at your current school to get help. Use a professional editor. Remember what the doctor reading your application is thinking: “If they can’t spell their own address correctly, how meticulous will they be with a patient’s medication list when writing admission orders?”
Put yourself in a good light without looking like you are trying to inflate yourself and your accomplishments beyond belief. Some examples of things to leave out of your AMCAS work and activities section: your high school, your college grades (getting an “A” in biochemistry is not an award and shouldn’t be on your CV), the 100 volunteer activities you were engaged in for a single hour each, the required talk you gave as part of your college thesis, etc. Some things to include: major awards – if they include scholarships, include the monetary amount (big difference between full merit scholarship and $1000 annual tuition support). Include publications obviously, and describe their status accurately (options are ‘published’, ‘in press’, ‘accepted’, ‘submitted’, or ‘in preparation.’) Include the PubMed ID for published works. Include hobbies for sure, especially the more interesting and unique ones.
Avoid these missteps
Whether it is in your application or at your interview, never give the impression of being casual or not entirely committed to medicine. Late applications and poor editing may exacerbate this feeling for the person reviewing your file. While most applicants would be happy to get into any medical school, don’t take on this mindset when filling out secondary applications. Spend the time and effort to intensely research the schools you are applying to so that you can better explain how your goals, attributes, and philosophies match up. Are there unique aspects of the school worth mentioning in your application? Time spent learning about each individual school is time well spent.
Space available isn’t space for application fluffing. There is plenty of character count between the personal statement, the most meaningful work and activities “mini-essays”, and the secondary application prompts to get your message across. However, one prompt in particular generates consternation every year. It is usually found at the end of the application and is along the lines of: “Is there anything else you want the admissions committee to know?” Many people are unsure what to do with a question like this and sometimes find themselves using the space to describe their childhood dreams of being a doctor or the time they spent shadowing in the emergency department (despite talking about it in detail in the primary application, the work and activities section, and one of the other essay prompts on the secondary application). I advise people to use this section only if they need to explain something that could otherwise be misinterpreted in your application. For example, if there is a two year gap in your activity, but you had to take the time off because of a life threatening personal illness, then this is the place to explain it. Usually “nothing to report” is a good response for most applicants.
As always, this advice is an opinion and not official or affiliated with any medical school. I hope you find some satisfaction in reflecting upon your accomplishments as you assemble the many pieces of your medical school application. Good luck!
Dr. Brian Walcott, MD is a chief resident in neurosurgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, where he specializes in the care of patients suffering from diseases of the brain, cerebral blood vessels, skull base, and spine. He is training to become a subspecialist in neurovascular disease, with an active research interest in vascular biology. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and biology from Seton Hall University where he was also a Division I NCAA track athlete. Afterwards, he went on to medical school at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine and was admitted into Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.
During residency, he has published over 100 peer-reviewed manuscripts and is an ad hoc reviewer for JAMA Surgery, Neurology, and the Journal of Neurointerventional Surgery, among others. His research is supported by grants from the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, the American Medical Association, and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. He was awarded the resident teacher of the year award from the Harvard Medical School class of 2012. He is also the co-founder of AdmissionsMentor.com, a consulting service for graduate school and medical residency applicants.
Have questions or comments about what you’ve read? Email Brian directly at [email protected].