The Most Important Lessons I Learned While Applying to Medical School

Applying to medical school is a humbling experience, even if you have a successful application cycle. No matter how great your pre-medical advisor is or how many articles you have read about the process, you are still bound to have a few missteps that will leave you doubting yourself as a potential MD or DO candidate. It has been nearly a year since I submitted my primary AMCAS application, and as I reflect on the application cycle, several moments stand out to me as essential lessons to learn before you begin your own application process:
1. Submitting your primary application several days “late” may not matter—but submitting it a month or more late certainly will
Each admissions cycle, there is intense discussion about submitting your primary application on the first day that AACOMAS or AMCAS opens. Logic holds that promptly submitting your application avoids later delay, as it will be available for immediate verification, and will then be forwarded to your prospective schools on the first day that they receive primary applications. The sooner your schools receive your primary application, the sooner they will be able to send you a secondary application, and the sooner you submit a secondary application, the quicker you will receive a decision about an interview.
This is sound advice. But what I learned is that submitting your application a week into the admissions period likely will not set the course of your application cycle. It is more important to devote several extra days to ensuring your primary application is perfect than it is to hastily submit a potentially  imperfect application. Avoid submitting your application egregiously late (as interview spots fill quickly), but do not worry over a week or two.
2. Your personal statement need not be formal, but it should represent who you are in a mature way (as should headshots)
If your personal statement feels like a checklist of the items that should traditionally be in a personal statement—“Interest in helping people,” check; “Hospital volunteer experience,” check—then a rewrite is likely in order. Schools wish to know who you are and what life experiences brought you to medicine. Allow your personality to shine in your prose, and do not be afraid to forego a formal tone (within reason).
In addition, certain schools require a headshot of their candidates as part of the secondary application. Many candidates assume that this must be a professional headshot, but as long as your headshot is appropriate, it can be slightly more informal. For instance, my headshot was a picture of me standing in front of the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, wearing little makeup and a rain jacket—and I was a successful candidate.
3. You should only apply to schools that you would truly attend (and that would reasonably be interested in you)
Many pre-medical students (including myself) apply to programs that they believe they should apply to based on GPA, location, MCAT score, etc. This thinking can easily lead you to apply to schools that you would not actually consider attending, thus wasting your time and money, and the time of the admissions committees at these programs. Before you apply to any school, ask yourself if you could honestly see yourself living there and studying in that particular program for four years. Be honest with yourself about your chances of admission—if you do not have the numbers to be considered at Harvard University, then your application fee is likely just a donation to their admissions office.
4. You can say “I don’t know” in an interview
Some interviewers employ curve ball questions to see how well you think on your feet. In one of my interviews, for example, I was asked to detail an aspect of Medicare. While I was familiar with the basics of Medicare, I did not know the specific policy to which my interviewer was referring, and I had to tell him as much. Though I was embarrassed at the time, I came to realize that my honesty about my lack of knowledge, and my willingness to learn, likely spoke louder than anything I could have shared about Medicare policy. It is okay not to know everything about healthcare and medicine when you interview—that is why you are going to medical school, after all. Do not be afraid to admit what you do not know.
5. Avoid hysteria above all else
This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I could give to anyone applying to medical school, and it is also one of the hardest to abide. Applying to medical school is stressful. Refreshing your email every ten minutes is stressful. Speaking with your pre-medical friends is stressful. Do your best to avoid the “what if” questions that you might have throughout your application cycle. Wondering what if you applied differently or what if you took the MCAT again will not change your application or your chances of admission after the fact. Reassure yourself that you have submitted the strongest application that you could, and find comfort in that fact.

Cassie Kosarek is a professional tutor with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerat...