With fewer than 50% of applicants matriculating to medical school in 2019, the medical school admissions process can seem daunting enough as an individual. For couples, the idea of both being accepted, either in the same school or same geographic area, can seem even more challenging.
Here, we share our stories to offer advice and encouragement to other couples facing the daunting but doable task of making it into medical school together. Kate and Mason are second- and first-year medical students, respectively, at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. Sarah and Riley are first-year medical students at the Long School of Medicine at University of Texas Health San Antonio.
Kate and Mason’s Story: Applying to Medical School in Different Years
We married in the summer of 2017, right in the middle of Kate’s med school application season. She actually got her MCAT score back during the week of our honeymoon. Thankfully it was a joyous rather than heart-wrenching experience! Prior to our wedding, we discussed how we might navigate the admissions process together. We decided that the most important thing for us would be to stay together in any situation.
Since Kate was a year ahead of me in school, one possibility we discussed was that she take a gap year and we both apply together when we were ready. This approach would have presented its own unique challenges, as Sarah and Riley will discuss, but seemed plausible.
One physician couple that Kate knew suggested that, rather than wait and apply together, Kate should apply first and I follow. They pointed out that having one spouse in school might help the other have extra consideration the following year. This thought, combined with Kate’s reluctance to wait longer than necessary to start medical school, helped us decide to apply in separate years.
Deciding Where to Apply
Kate applied to medical school broadly and purposefully. She grew up in California and her family is there, so she applied to schools there. My family lives in Texas, so she also applied there via TMDSAS. She also applied to a few schools in Chicago. Our thought was that having multiple programs in a given city might give me more chances for admission the next year. All told, she applied to 21 schools, received 10 interview invitations, interviewed at 9 schools, and received 6 acceptances. Ultimately, we decided to go to the University of California San Diego.
In June of 2018, shortly after I took the MCAT, we packed up our apartment in Utah and drove to San Diego, where Kate would start school in August. During the following months, I completed one secondary application, had one interview, was placed on one waiting list in October, and was accepted to my one school – UCSD – in May.
Pros of Applying One at a Time
I have decided that, overall, I am an optimist. I tend to think that things will work out, that there can be good in any situation. In that vein, let me share some benefits of applying in different years, in no particular order.
- We had fewer application fees, potentially saving us thousands of dollars. This certainly is not a definitive reason to apply in separate years, but it was a nice side-effect of our situation.
- Kate had time to build connections to UCSD. Now I feel even more connected to the school because of it. I’ve heard the names of her teachers and advisors, visited the campus, and even met some of the faculty I will be interacting with this year.
- Because Kate took the MCAT a year before me, she could help guide me through successfully taking the exam myself.
- I knew what to expect about applying to UCSD. I knew what the secondary application would be like and how the interviews were structured. Kate could help me practice for interviews, and her application was like a built-in “good” example for me to reference.
- I had time to build nice connections to a program that otherwise I might not have. For example, I got to volunteer in UCSD’s hospital system in the Blood and Marrow Transplant Unit, help organize food from Feeding San Diego for distribution to food-insecure patients at UCSD’s Student-Run Free Clinic, and help start a weekly English as a Second Language (ESL) class for patients at that same Free Clinic site.
- Kate could go to her top choice of school. She was in medical school regardless of what happened to me.
Naturally, the process came with its challenges. Applying to a single school goes against all conventional wisdom about admissions. Not applying broadly enough is one of the most frequently cited reasons someone fails to be accepted. Sometimes, during those months on the waiting list when I was unsure of my outcome, it was hard to think I could have been accepted somewhere else. These challenges of course are supplemental to the normal challenges facing everyone in the admissions process.
Some Words of Advice
Much of this will apply to everyone navigating the medical school admissions process, but is also specific for situations like ours.
Do things as early as possible. Have your MCAT score back by the time AMCAS (or TMDSAS) first pushes applications to schools. Complete your applications quickly and effectively. For AMCAS, this means taking the MCAT by the end of May. TMDSAS has an earlier timeline, so you may consider testing by the end of April for that.
On your application (both primary and secondary), illustrate your connections to the school. Make your vested interest clear in personal statements and interviews to the extent you can. In schools with a traditional interview format, there is plenty of opportunity to do this. With Multiple Mini Interviews (MMIs), this can be more challenging, but if a natural opportunity arises it may be appropriate.
Many schools offer “early decision” programs for precisely these reasons. Take advantage of them if they are there.
Meet faculty and staff at the school, including the Dean of Admissions. Let them know your unique situation and that you are very interested in their program. We were advised to do this by Drs. Kimberly and Thomas Stone, who were in a similar situation to us (one was a year ahead of the other) several years ago and were successful in getting accepted. For us, I feel like it made a great deal of difference.
Learn to wait well, and get involved in things. By waiting well, I mean learning to enjoy the time you have. Use it to explore interests and do good things. For example, waiting well for me meant volunteering, taking part in church activities, joining a local choir and orchestra for a Christmas concert, and learning how to surf.
What If One of You Was Not Accepted?
This is the inevitable question. We went into the entire process with our eyes open and very intentionally. My original plan was to apply again, although I did think that if I was turned down a second time from the same school I would wait and try again during my wife’s residency (i.e. apply to schools in that new area).
Sarah and Riley’s Story: Applying the Same Year
We also married the summer of 2017, the year before either of us took the MCAT or submitted applications. Sarah had maintained medicine as her goal since high school. Riley had not made the final decision to apply to medical school by the summer of 2017; rather, he officially decided to pursue medicine two months later. Once he officially arrived at his decision, we got to work preparing for both of us apply the following summer. Our grades, volunteering, shadowing, and extracurriculars were similar, and we felt very balanced as we worked towards submitting our applications. At this point, our main focus was on both preparing to be the strongest applicants we could be.
We met our first wrench in our plan when our MCAT scores came out the following summer and one of us scored ten points higher than the other. Considering how equally competitive we were up until this point, this divide was unexpected. We decided to apply to schools with an average MCAT score closer to the lower score to ensure our best chances of attending school together.
At this point, we had many long conversations about our goals and plans. We confirmed that no matter what happened, our number one priority was to stay together. We refused to pursue any options that would separate our potential institutions with travel time more than an hour apart. Each of us was willing to give up pursuing medicine to be with our spouse; significantly, I think this selflessness and perspective allowed us the strength to make it through the application cycle.
Deciding Where to Apply
We were encouraged to cast a wide net and apply to as many programs as possible. This would give us the highest chance of having a school accept the two of us. Consequently, we each submitted 42 primary applications (which we later narrowed down to 32 secondary applications). Like Kate and Mason, we applied to schools in cities with multiple institutions, applied through TMDSAS, applied to the two medical schools in Washington (our home state) and other AMCAS schools that accepted high rates of out-of state students. As mentioned above, we chose many schools with stats toward the lower end of the two of us, assuming it was better for one of us to be above average than the other to be below.
In our applications, we specifically wrote that we were both applying and hoped to attend school together. We included the other’s application IDs as well. If the application itself did not have a question where the information would fit, we emailed the school with the same information and asked to have it included with our application files. We hoped that by being as transparent as possible about our situation, application committees could be intentional about keeping our situation in mind.
We interviewed at many of these programs. In total, we had seven overlapping interviews by the end of the interview season. We interviewed at programs before the other had been offered an interview, and took every opportunity possible to speak highly of the other. We were successful on multiple occasions. Sarah interviewed at a Texas school that invited Riley following her interview. Riley interviewed at a school in Philadelphia that invited Sarah based on his comments. Even when we both had interview invites, we still emphasized the strengths of the other in our interviews. Only one institution where we interviewed rejected both of us. The rest of the programs either waitlisted both of us or accepted one of us while waitlisting the other. As of late April, we still had no option in which both of us could attend school the following year.
Our great fear at this time was that we would have to reject acceptances while the other was still on the waitlist for those same institutions that could potentially still accept both of us. As April 30th was approaching, we decided that UTHSCSA Long School of Medicine was our top choice. Both of us were on the waitlist at the program. We both wrote letters of intent, stating that the school was our top choice and if both of us were accepted, we would come. We also narrowed down our acceptances to one school as per AMCAS guidelines, based on the most likely waitlist outcomes.
Following the April 30th deadline, Riley was accepted to a program an hour away from the program for which Sarah had held her acceptance. We began to make plans to move to Ohio. We were thrilled, however, when just a few days later we were accepted to UTHSCSA Long School of Medicine at the exact same time. Our plans obviously changed, and we moved down to San Antonio two months later and are currently attending together.
Benefits of Applying the Same Year
- We got to explore medical schools together. After both of us had interviewed at a program, we were able to weigh the pros and cons with our individual interests and goals in mind. This facet allowed us to choose UTHSCSA as our top choice together.
- We were very aware of what the other was going through, and were able to support each other through it.
- Now, we get to attend school together and study together. We also get to share many friends as we have the same classmates, and have the exact same schedule (which makes making time to be together much easier).
- When we apply to residency, we will be able to Couples Match.
Challenges of Applying the Same Year
- We struggled with feelings of holding the other person back or feeling guilty when one of us received an interview or acceptance while the other person did not. Being intimately aware of another’s application cycle experience allows many opportunities for comparison, and can creep in as overwhelming negative self-talk and decrease confidence.
- The logistical challenges of the April 30th deadline were confusing and stressful to work through as we tried to guess what was the most likely option to pursue.
- Not every medical school was receptive to us discussing the other in our applications/interviews.
- Both of us applying to so many programs was incredibly expensive.
Our Words of Advice
We echo Mason and Kate’s first piece of advice regarding early applications.
Perhaps this next tip invalidates the rest of what we have to say. Regardless—every applicant’s path is different. Whether the applicant is applying by themselves, as a couple, as a non-traditional applicant, or whatever other circumstances they may have, no matter how similar you may seem to another applicant, do not compare yourself. It will only hurt you. Comparison was one of our biggest struggles. We heard someone say once that being the best doctor [or applicant, or spouse, etc.] comes from dedicating your time and energy to being your best self, rather than using that time in competition or comparison.
Trust your spouse/partner. It was hard to be in a position in which the other’s potential successes and/or failures determined our joint future. Sometimes it was hard to step back and let us both undergo the application cycle ourselves, and trust each other in that process. However it plays out, it will work out.
This fourth tip follows somewhat with the last one. There is no true “end of the world”. Even if it doesn’t work out exactly as you hoped, or even remotely as you hoped, you’ll figure out a way to move forward. That’s what it means to be a human being. We are survivors. Yes, this perspective is hard to keep, but it really does help with stress. This mindset is especially important applying as a couple because there are even more possibilities of the future not working out exactly as you potentially hope.
As mentioned earlier, keep in mind that each interview is an opportunity to both sell yourself and your partner. We found ways to mention each other in our interviews, and advocate for each other’s strengths as potential future students.
What If One of You Was Not Accepted?
We were both willing to not attend medical school the following year to allow our spouse to attend. This mutual selflessness was important for us, even though it ended up working out. Practically, it would have depended on which school one of us would have ended up going to, and who would have had the best chance reapplying the following year. Honestly, we discussed so many different possible scenarios, and then never had to actually apply any of them, so we can’t say for sure. What matters the most is willing to be flexible, and not feeling resentment for making the decision to apply together.
Though it may seem daunting, you can successfully navigate medical school admissions as a couple. While everyone’s situation is unique, we hope that our stories and perspective will encourage others who face similar challenges.