Ten Ways to Improve your Medical School Application

Recently, I rounded out a full decade as a professional admissions consultant, assisting candidates with residency and medical school applications. One thing I’ve noted over the last ten years is that, regrettably, many applicants repeat the same subset of errors – miscalculations that I’d like to help future candidates avoid. Although these are mistakes to sidestep at all cost, I’ve written this piece with a positive bent, so proceed with optimism – and attention – please. Here are ten actionable items you can implement to significantly improve your medical school candidacy:
1. Ensure you have enough clinical experience.
I had a lovely client years ago who sought my assistance after being rejected from medical school the year before. I reviewed his candidacy and noted his MCAT was in the 99th percentile, and his total GPA was 3.9. I was impressed. But when I searched for his clinical experience, I found absolutely none. He had never been in the same room with a patient in a pre-professional capacity.
As you might imagine, I advised him, among other things, to get some clinical experience. My thought was that he not only needed it for his medical school application, but also – and perhaps more importantly – to ensure he wanted to be a doctor. After completing some clinical work, he felt confident about his career choice and was accepted to medical school.
Robust clinical experience is a critical component of any medical school application. Clinical accomplishments may take the form of emergency medical services work, clinical care extenderships, or volunteer experiences in a low-income clinic. But, sadly, if that clinical experience is not there, neither is that acceptance.
2. Make sure you have the grades.
Just like those signs state as you approach a roller coaster, for medical school, you must be this tall to go on this ride.  Before you get started on the arduous training process, ensure you have the numbers you need. Start by taking a look at the Medical School Admissions Requirements(R) database. I’ve reviewed it countless times over the years, and I’m still surprised by how strong applicants’ academic records need to be.
And don’t fool yourself into thinking that your extra-curricular activities will make up for a suboptimal school performance. It is an exceedingly rare candidate who is accepted to medical school on the basis of activities alone.
3. Take your letters of recommendation seriously.
Having read many letters of recommendation (LORs) as a Harvard Assistant Residency Director, I can tell you that these letters matter much more than I realized when I was submitting my own residency and medical school applications. One little considered fact: Mediocre letters (not to mention frankly bad ones) are a lost opportunity at best and a fast way to bomb your medical school application at worst. One major factor in getting strong letters includes asking the right people. Choosing the right professors can be a challenge, and pre-med clients often ask me what to look for in a letter writer. Here is my suggested wish list for potential letter-writers:
1. They are senior faculty with weighty titles and are well known in their fields.
2. They have spent significant time with you.
3. They are experienced letter-writers.
4. They have explicitly stated they will write you a strong LOR.
Of course all of these qualifications are not possible for all letter-writers. But the more of these boxes you check, the better. With regard to #1, admissions officers are human just like the rest of us: Receiving an LOR from an accomplished, known colleague will be weighed much more heavily than one from someone deemed less successful and unfamiliar. If you are better connected to someone without a title (for example, a teaching assistant), consider asking the professor (a more senior person who has a weightier title) if s/he would consider writing the LOR with significant input from your closer contact. That way you get the best of #1, #2 and #3.
With regard to #4, don’t be afraid to ask a potential letter-writer if s/he will write you “a very strong” LOR. It may seem awkward at the time you ask but, believe me, getting a wimpy letter will be much thornier. If s/he can’t write you that strong letter, thank the professor for his/her candor and then thank your lucky stars that you did not send a tepid endorsement that might otherwise have undermined your candidacy.
4. Respect the MCAT.
I’ve helped many applicants who are hard-working, intelligent folks who took the MCAT too early and/or without enough preparation. The good news is that you can re-take the MCAT. The bad is that your previous scores are visible to medical schools. Don’t be cavalier about this examination. We can argue as to whether it’s fair that one test can have so much impact on a candidacy, but that won’t change the fact that it can and it does.
5. Submit your application early.
In recent years the American Medical College Application Service(R) (AMCAS) has opened in early May, and pre-meds have been able to submit their medical school applications, including the activity descriptors, most meaningful paragraphs, and personal statements, starting the first week of June. Because of rolling admissions, submitting a complete medical school application early in the cycle has distinct advantages at many schools.
Rolling admissions means that an institution takes medical school applications in the order in which they are received and makes decisions about interviews and acceptances accordingly. So, as time goes by, there are fewer interview and admissions offers left to be made. Think of rolling admissions this way: Imagine there is an auditorium full of seats. The doors open and people start to enter. As they do, some of the seats are taken. As time passes, more seats are occupied, and there is less space for new people to sit. Rolling admissions is the same structure.  The longer you wait to apply, the fewer slots are left for you, and the stiffer the competition for those slots.
6. Apply broadly and don’t be overconfident when you do.
Several years ago I was hired by a brilliant candidate who hadn’t gotten into medical school the year prior. (It’s a pattern.) I reviewed his application and noted that he was a top student. His written materials could have used some help, but they were not severely deficient. I was confused until I got to the very bottom of his AMCAS where I saw he had applied to only five top tier schools – no more.
This case is extreme, but overconfidence is one of the most common errors I see in my re-applicant clients. They simply have not applied broadly. In deciding where to apply, use the MSAR, so you have hard data about schools’ median grades and MCAT scores. Ensure you include multiple institutions that are “safety schools” (if there is such a thing), and don’t assume the numbers don’t apply to you.
7. Make sure your medical school personal statement is tip-top.
Writing a great essay takes work and a lot of lead time. Before you hit the keyboard, consider alternate approaches – three or four topics for your introduction, for example. Make a list of all of the accomplishments you want to highlight. Moreover, don’t overlook the basics: Start with an outline to ensure sound organization, develop graceful transitions between paragraphs, and provide convincing examples that support your assertions.
Are you a wacky creative spirit?  Save it for the stage, and keep it off the page. Rubbing one reader the wrong way can kill an application. Medicine is a conservative institution by convention. The essay is a chance to get your foot in the door, so don’t shoot yourself in that same foot.
Also, don’t let the red ink frighten you. Expect to write ten or more revisions of the personal statement before you are ready to submit. Get help from someone who has extensive medical admissions experience by accessing the resources available to you: If you are fortunate to have an adviser, relative, or family friend who has sufficient expertise, ask that person to review multiple drafts. If not, consider a professional.
Bottom line: Writing your medical school personal statement is not the time to pull an all-nighter.
8. Prepare thoroughly for your interviews.
It always surprises me how applicants will work hard for four years of college, study like crazy for the MCAT, and then walk into medical school interviews without a moment of pre-consideration. Oftentimes, the interview is the most critical part of your medical school application. Practice, practice, and then practice some more. Start mocking up answers to interview questions so you can distinguish yourself from other candidates, and prepare with someone who has robust experience interviewing applicants. Remember that – to the admissions committee – who you are is what you’ve done, so make a compelling argument in your interview responses about your worthiness. Substantiate claims that you’ll be a good doctor with examples of your achievements. For example, an illustrative anecdote from the free clinic where you served as a medical interpreter goes much farther than the desire to “help people.”
9. Explore other options before going down this very hard road.
Years ago I spoke to a client by phone and realized, as we talked, that she simply did not want to go into medicine. Although this fact was clear to me, the student hadn’t really acknowledged it aloud, and when I gently confronted her, she seemed relieved to finally voice her lack of desire to enter the career. By the end of the conversation, she told me she felt that she was being pushed into medicine by her father, and she understood she needed to have a sit-down conversation with him. In the end, she wisely did not pursue medicine as a career.
I tell clients that medicine is the career you should pursue if you will not be happy in another field. The path is long and grueling, and there are many other ways to have an impactful life. Ensure you are moving in the right direction before you go too far.
If you can be talked out of a career in medicine, you probably should not be pursuing it.
10. Allow yourself to be happy.
If you’re sure you want to go into medicine, that’s wonderful, but don’t allow your career to overshadow your life. If you get more than one medical school acceptance, do some soul searching to determine what you’re seeking geographically, philosophically, and educationally. Think about where you will be happiest and where you might enjoy more social support. Sadly, depression among medical students and physicians is significant. Ensure you make your life as good as it can be.
Let’s face it, preparing a medical school application is a drag… and having to do it more than once is miserable. Take some time to make sure your candidacy is mature, your written materials are superb, your interview skills showcase your best self, and you are in the happiest place you can be as you approach the challenging road ahead.
Dr. Finkel, formerly an Assistant Residency Director and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, founded Insider Medical Admissions, an advising services for residency, medical school, fellowship, post-baccalaureate, and dental schools applicants. Check out Dr. Finkel’s under-one-minute, stop motion Guru on the Go© videos on her Youtube site and like her on Facebook.

Dr. Michelle Finkel, formerly an Assistant Residency Director and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, founded Insider Medical Admissions, where ...