Five Mistakes I Made When I Applied to Medical School (The First Time)

By Renee Marinelli

Everyone reading SDN likely knows that gaining admission to medical school is difficult. It not only takes years of preparation, exceptional academic performance, and hours dedicated to extra-curricular activities—the process takes resiliency and tremendous determination. And due to the extreme competitiveness of admissions, many applicants apply, don’t succeed, and have to apply again. I found myself in this position and, as much as I dreaded having to complete the application process again, I did, and received multiple acceptances. I ultimately attended my top choice medical school. In retrospect, I made a lot of mistakes on my first application to medical school. To help others avoid making these same errors, here are some tips to help ensure your application is a success.

1. I underestimated the MCAT
I did very well in college; I studied hard and received good grades. When it came time to take the MCAT, I didn’t think I would have to study THAT much. I thought that since I did well academically, success on this test would come naturally to me. I was completely wrong. I did prepare for the MCAT, but not enough. As a result, my score was sup-par, decreasing my competitiveness amongst other applicants.

My advice to you: Take the MCAT seriously. This test is unlike any test most undergraduate students have taken before. Plan your test preparation, start early, and stick with a study schedule. In addition—I didn’t learn this until taking licensing exams in medical school—do lots of practice tests and questions! Knowing how the questions are asked and how to glean the answer from the prompt is often the key to doing well on these difficult standardized tests.

2. I didn’t apply to schools strategically.
At the time of my first application, I didn’t understand the significance of picking schools based on my competitiveness, my desire to go there, and demographics. Instead, I cast my net wide and applied to upwards of 30 schools. We all know the result: I didn’t get accepted.

My advice to you: There are about 160 allopathic medical schools and getting accepted to any one would be great. However, when you designate a school list, look through multiple factors—the most important being your competitiveness based on your GPA, MCAT, and extra-curricular activities. Be realistic too. You can apply to a few ‘reach’ schools, but the majority be schools whose average GPA and MCAT ranges line up with yours. Also, be careful about selecting schools that are way below your stats, as schools may think you view them as a ‘safety school’ and don’t really want to go there.

In addition to considering your personal preferences, also make sure you fit the demographic parameters that the school is looking for in its students. For instance, is it worth applying to a school that only accepts 10% out-of-state residents if this is not your home state Probably not.

The bottom line is that a strategic school list can open up the doors to an acceptance, so it is important to take your time in selecting schools and apply to those schools where you are most competitive.

3. I applied late.
Although I submitted my application in July, my timing likely significantly impacted my chances, as I was not an overly-competitive applicant to begin with. I didn’t completely appreciate the importance of submitting early, and let a lack of planning result in a delayed submission.

My advice to you: Apply as soon as possible. The application opens for completion in May, and you can submit it in early June. The best way to ensure an early submission is to plan ahead: get your letters of recommendation submitted, request transcripts, write your personal statement, and list your activities. Some tasks may seem easy but they can be time consuming and you are likely to encounter delays for one reason or another. Starting early gives you cushion time in case of a mishap with a transcript request or a bad case of writer’s block. As one of the first applicants to submit an application, you will take advantage of medical school’s ‘rolling admissions’, where schools offer acceptances to the first, most competitive applicants they review.

4. I didn’t prepare for my interview.
I worked multiple jobs to put myself through college. I thought that I had enough ‘real-world’ experience from interviewing for jobs to ace my medical school interview. Again, my naïve understanding of the process got the better of me. I didn’t realize that medical school interviews are tough, and I was often caught off guard by the questions.

My advice to you: Prepare, prepare, and then prepare some more. Sit down with someone who is familiar with medical school interviews—an advisor, physician, or peer—and have them ask you as many questions as possible of the sort you will hear on the actual interview day. If you have a Multiple Mini Interview (MMI), run through several prep sessions to practice different scenarios with someone who can give you constructive feedback. Many applicants dread the medical school interview, but with ample practice and preparation, it can be a great experience!

5. I was not mature enough.
Although I followed the schedule of most premedical students, I didn’t appreciate the depth and intensity of applying to medical school. I thought that I could just wing it and everything would fall into place. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Ultimately, I had to reassess my goals and my priorities to put together a stronger application on my second try.

My advice to you: Make sure you are ready for the commitment of applying. You won’t actually matriculate to medical school until over a year after you submit your application, so the entire process takes a lot of time and effort. You need to be sure that you are financially ready as well, as secondary applications and interview trips can be quite costly. It is crucial to ask yourself if you are completely ready for the next step of applying. If you have any doubt about applying, talk to someone about it, and think about what you can do to make yourself feel more confident.

The most valuable lesson from my failed application attempt is that no matter what, if becoming a physician is what you truly want to do, then you can do it. Resiliency and determination are critical strengths that every doctor should possess, and triumphing after failure will only help you build those characteristics. However, as I have learned through my own experience and through the experience of helping others apply, it is always better to thoroughly prepare an exceptional application once than to have to go through the process multiple times. My greatest advice for someone considering applying to medical school is to ensure that you are confident and prepared to take on this next step in becoming a physician.

About the Author

Renee Marinelli, MD, is a primary care physician and serves as the Director of Advising with MedSchoolCoach. Renee has extensive experience mentoring pre-medical students and shares her knowledge of the admission process through individual advising, webinars, pre-health conferences, and blogs. She currently lives in Colorado with her husband and son, and enjoys traveling, hiking and running.