Medical

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try (Try, Try, Try) Again

You are an applicant in the current medical school admission cycle who has not yet received an interview invitation, who has been waitlisted, or who is awaiting a decision post-interview. In any case, you have not yet been accepted to a medical school and a dreadful question has begun to surface: “Should I prepare to re-apply?” Acknowledging this question is akin to waving a white flag in the heat of battle and you immediately stuff it back into the dark subconscious from which it came. After all, this is SUPPOSED to be the year that you get in. I mean, your friends have already made living arrangements at their dream school, and you have spent countless hours envisioning your not-so-distant future as a medical student. Surely, it’s only a matter of time before you receive your well-deserved medical school acceptance—or so you tell yourself.
Many of you in this position will in fact receive an acceptance—congratulations! But for the rest of you, the coming months will fail to bear any fruit, and the question that you have spent so much energy suppressing will eventually resurface: “Should I prepare to re-apply?” The reality now begins to set in. Can you imagine having to go through the tormenting application process again? Can you bear the thought of having to rewrite your personal statement, request new letters of recommendation, compose new secondary application essays, and spend large sums of money only to be potentially shot down again next year? Moreover, what the heck will you do to keep busy during the following application cycle? Perhaps more importantly, how will your self-perception change? When you look into the mirror, will you see a failure? Will you see someone who is unworthy of the profession that you have devoted most of your life pursuing? Will you begin to question your very existence?
The aforementioned scenario is all too familiar to me as I endured it during my first three application cycles before finally being accepted to a US allopathic medical school on my fourth attempt. Yes, I am absolutely ecstatic about the outcome of this cycle, but I remember what it was like to be “rejected”. It was one of the most spiritually crippling and demoralizing experiences of my life. But once I finished working through the negative emotions, I proceeded to ask myself what I was going to do about it. Would I change career paths or subject myself to the pains associated with the application process yet again? I chose the latter each time because I wanted it badly. Guts over fear. Consequently, I have compiled knowledge outlining where I went wrong and where I went right in the hopes of preventing other re-applicants (and first-time applicants) from making the same mistakes that I did. Moreover, I wanted to provide some perspective as a non-US resident given that it’s rare for non-US residents to matriculate at US allopathic schools and given that expectations for non-US residents are higher with respect to MCAT and GPA.
First, some more about me: I am a Canadian four-time re-applicant to US allopathic medical schools. This cycle, I received 8 interview invites, attended 7, was accepted to 6 schools (5 osteopathic and 1 allopathic), and am awaiting a decision from 1 allopathic school post-interview. I am the first generation in my family to have obtained Bachelor’s degree. I went on to earn a Master’s degree and I am the only one to in the family to have been admitted to medical school. I took the MCAT 4 times with a mostly upward trend. My undergraduate GPA was 3.8x and my graduate GPA was 4.0. Finally, I have a various employment, volunteer, clinical, and research experiences.
At this point, a couple of questions that you might be itching to ask include: Why was I a four-time re-applicant and what did I do differently the fourth time around? In order to answer these questions, I will break each application cycle down and list some reasons why I suspect I did not get in and then list what improvements I made. Finally, I will summarize a list of what I eventually did right for you to quickly reference.
Cycle #1
Negatives:
1. Multiple “poor” MCAT scores (26-28)
I say “poor” because I applied to allopathic schools with higher average MCAT scores and because I’m an international student, so expectations are generally higher at any given school. Moreover, I had taken the MCAT twice at this point so I’m sure that retaking the test with little improvement didn’t play in my favor.
2. Poor school selection
I only applied to very competitive programs and did not use the valuable information found in MSAR. Furthermore, I didn’t apply to osteopathic schools.
3. Poor personal statement
Upon brief reflection, it was terrible. For example, activities were listed, resume language was used to describe the skills that I developed, and I presented my life story in the format of a timeline. Truly cringe worthy.
4. Late application submission
Cycle #2
Improvements over the previous cycle:
This time around, I was one year into my Master’s degree and therefore had more research experience under my belt, along with teaching assistant experience and other volunteer experiences. I received two graduate scholarships, obtained new letters of recommendation, and published an article as the third author from my undergraduate thesis project. Furthermore, I retook the MCAT (achieving a higher score) and improved my personal statement.
Negatives:
1. Multiple MCAT retakes
Despite achieving a score of 34, I had still taken the MCAT three times at this point.
2. School selection
I made limited use of MSAR and did not to apply to osteopathic schools.
3. Late application submission (again)
Cycle #3
Improvements over the previous cycle:
I completed my Master’s degree and was listed as an author of a poster presentation that was based entirely on my work. I obtained more clinical and volunteer experience. Moreover, I improved my school selection, personal statement, and did not submit applications late. I also retook the MCAT since my previous score was about to expire. I managed to get two interview invites this time around!
Negatives:
1. Multiple MCAT rewrites (4)
2. Poor interview preparation
I headed into both of my interviews with an “I’m-just-so-happy-to-finally-be-here” attitude. I had no clear points that I wanted to convey and I lacked confidence and poise. Hawaii was nice though.
3. School selection
I did not to apply to osteopathic programs.
Cycle #4
Improvements over the previous cycle:
I continued to accrue clinical and non-clinical experiences. I also obtained clinical research experience and was listed as an author in several publications and poster presentations. I completed an observership at Boston Medical Centre, shadowed an osteopathic physician, and obtained new letters of recommendation. I applied to both osteopathic and allopathic schools this time, improved my personal statement, and improved my secondary application essays. I also prepared well for my interviews. I was accepted to five osteopathic schools and one allopathic school. I am awaiting a response from 1 allopathic school post-interview.
Negatives:
1. Multiple MCAT retakes (4)
2. Considered a re-applicant at many schools (I suspect this had a negative impact)
Summary of What I Eventually Got Right:
1. School Selection
Be open to the idea of applying to both osteopathic and allopathic schools. This site is helpful for Canadians interested in learning more about osteopathic medicine.
Use MSAR for allopathic school selection.
Use Osteopathic Medical College Information Book for osteopathic school selection.
Pay attention to how schools screen your GPA and MCAT when making your school list.
2. Personal Statement
Dedicate enough time to making a compelling personal statement. I referenced this thread.
3. Activities
Entering descriptions is controversial but I referenced this thread.
The number of activities that you can enter in AACOMAS is virtually unlimited compared to AMCAS which only allows you to enter 15, so when deciding, try to make sure that you enter activities that were/are truly meaningful to you and activities that might demonstrate qualities that are highly sought after by admissions committees.
4. Secondary Essays
Put yourself in admission committee members’ shoes. Would you really want to read essays full of fluffy cliches? Wouldn’t you eventually get fed up with the sheer volume of applications that you had to read? Only say what needs to be said in a succinct, organized, and eloquent way.
Do not feel the need to meet character or word limits.
Use simple language instead of fancy words when possible.
There might be a delay between the time that you submit your primary AMCAS or AACOMAS applications and when you receive secondary applications. Don’t just wait for secondaries to arrive—secondary prompts rarely change year to year so look up previous year’s prompts using SDN and begin drafting answers while paying attention to character/word limits. Once secondaries are released, you will be prepared for a quick turnaround.
Sometimes it isn’t possible to pre-write all essays. If this is the case, you should prioritize the schools that you want to attend or the ones in which you think that you have the best chance at. Play to your strengths.
5. Timeline
Prepare to submit your applications early.
Gathering letters of recommendation may very well be the rate limiting step of completing a submitted application for a few reasons. For one, you cannot send reference requests until AMCAS opens. If you wait until this time to send requests to professors etc, it is likely that others will have also requested the same and this might delay your progress. To avoid this, I used Interfolio where I was able to request, store, and send letters of reference electronically to both AMCAS and individual DO schools. This way, I was able to request letters during quiet times and send them electronically with few delays. An added bonus is that I could use these letters in future application cycles should I have needed to re-apply.
6. Interviews
Preparation is key—know your application well, be prepared to answer questions about personal strengths and weaknesses, and about why you want to get into medicine.
Know about the activities that you were involved with and how they have changed you as a person, or what you have learned from participating. Use specific examples.
During a traditional interview, you have control over the conversation and you can use this control to touch on a few key points that you want to convey about yourself.
Do a mock interview.
Some useful resources that I used included:
The Premed Playbook Guide to the Medical School Interview: Be Prepared, Perform Well, Get Accepted by Ryan Gray
Multiple Mini Interview (MMI): Winning Strategies From Admissions Faculty by Samir Desai
Using the SDN “Interview Feedback” section to figure out which questions to expect at different schools
Evidently, all of the stars have to align for a successful application and just because you don’t get there the first, second, or third time doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Something I would like to stress is that if you will be a re-applicant, contact admissions committees and request to speak with someone to get some general feedback about your previous application. Even though most schools say that they don’t have the resources to offer this kind of service, I managed to speak with multiple schools to help me identify weaknesses. With that said, it is crucial to address your weaknesses before re-applying and this usually means foregoing the next application cycle. For those of you who eventually do get accepted, be sure to do your homework when it comes to funding your education as international applicants are not eligible to apply for US federal loans.
Good Luck!

B
Bryen Turco resides near Toronto, Ontario and is looking forward to life as a medical student beginning in July of this year. He enjoys playing almost...