Training for the Marathon: SDN Resources to Submit Your Best Application

Last Updated on April 11, 2024 by Laura Turner

One of the most important rules in medical or dental school admissions is to “apply early with your best possible, complete application.” The strongest applicants take this advice to heart, preparing their applications starting in January by drafting their personal statements and secondary essays, securing a strong set of evaluation or institutional/committee letters, and lining up their MCAT/DAT, Casper, and PREview scores. Let’s review the steps and SDN resources to get organized for the start of the medical and dental application process.

We’ll highlight the SDN resources in bold at the beginning of each section.

About the Ads

Please note, the inclusion of a non-SDN resource does not imply endorsement by HPSA or SDN.

From blank space to application essays

Read SDN articles on personal essay strategies and our online Essay Writing 101 guide. Find inspiration and an approach from these suggestions and others you may discover online.

Current students can leverage their institutions’ resources to get feedback about their application essays. Seek the campus writing center, career services office, or prehealth advising office for feedback.

For many years, applicants without access to campus resources have taken advantage of the SDN forums, which have volunteer members who will give feedback on drafts of personal essays for medical, dental, and veterinary school applications. In return, we ask successful applicants and professionals to serve as volunteer readers. One can also find volunteer readers among mentoring organizations.

If life experiences give more depth to your journey to the profession, consider how you would describe these challenges that shaped you. The AMCAS Other Impactful Experiences essay and other program essay prompts offer an opportunity to leverage these past experiences toward a more effective, compassionate professional career.

Although we discourage using generative AI to write your application essays for you, they can help you with potential themes (like this Grammarly tool) while checking for grammar, conciseness, and intended tone. Take the time to write your own draft without assistance first, and then prompt a couple of chatbots for initial feedback. A prompt such as “Please review this essay and provide a bulleted list of elements I should consider updating and why” will give you a list of suggested improvements you can implement yourself in your voice.

Chatbot and plagiarism detection are also rapidly evolving (Scribblr tool). It is still being determined how programs will deal with evidence of significant reliance on bot-written essays, but one should avoid a sanction from an application service or a school. Run your essays through these detectors to be sure you don’t get falsely accused of plagiarism.

Applicants with institutional actions or other background histories should consult their student conduct office or appropriate legal advisors to craft a succinct essay describing violations, sanctions, and remediation. These statements should be aligned with any verification from the student conduct office or a background check. Most importantly, avoid adding more violations to this section while you are an applicant.

Reapplicants should also consider fully re-writing their personal essays and school-specific essays. Admissions offices keep track of reapplicants and can often access past applications to evaluate significant improvements in activities or descriptions.

Adding to my earlier article, AI can help applicants craft communications with admissions officers; many admissions offices use AI to generate confirmation emails or texts to encourage you to apply or follow up after you submit your application. Pass any drafts to your advisors or experts to ensure you capture the right professional tone. For more information about how AI has changed the admissions industry, read the survey results summarizing how 399 undergraduate admissions professionals see AI’s use in file review beginning with the 2024 entering class.

In the end, the personal statement is as much a reflection of your resourcefulness as it is about your story. Many free resources are available to help your application essays express your purpose as a healthcare professional.

Secure your letters of recommendation or evaluation.

Read the SDN article from AAMC Staff about Preparing Letters of Evaluation. Other SDN articles focus on letters of recommendation. I have also previously written about institutional/committee letters.

Each school on your list may have slightly different expectations for applicant evaluations. Although many programs consider an institutional letter to satisfy their specific recommendations, most applicants apply with individual solicited letters. They should pay attention to requirements for “science professor” letters or “research supervisor/faculty letters” for those pursuing research tracks like DVM/PhD. Identify references who can address your preprofessional qualities, characteristics, and maturation that they can attest to as mentors or champions. Since many programs often rate the strength of evaluations during the admissions process, one strong evaluation can benefit an applicant with more than four “agreeable” letters.

Undergraduates who have built strong profiles have considered their references for months before submitting their applications. Many may have received references from these professors for summer research programs; others may benefit from summer shadowing opportunities as underclassmen. Not every undergraduate summer needs to address your application profile (“How to Spend a Premed Summer” or “Plan to Make the Most of Your Summer – Now!”). Professors already know the applicant from these opportunities, and they do not have to expend as much time to write a strong recommendation.

For others who seek reference letters, use AI to draft a concise email asking professors to meet you and consider writing a very strong letter of evaluation/recommendation. Only ask if the professor will write you a letter if they agree to meet you. Prepare your application or a brief resume with your personal statement draft or other autobiographical information. Highlight how you and your professor have met during class or other academic settings that show a strong mentoring relationship.

Consider your professor’s time and conditions that will dictate when a strong letter of recommendation will be sent. Do not wait until the last month of the term; grades must be sent to the registrar after exam week, and some professors may have summer classes, lab responsibilities, or conferences. Agree to a schedule of follow-ups to ensure that your letter of recommendation will be sent promptly.

Science professors usually have a heavy teaching load and mentor many students. Lecturers of large gateway classes get dozens of letter requests from prospective applicants who have met them during office hours or taken them out to short coffee or lunch conversations. Research professors and investigators may want to see how well you perform in their labs for a semester before deciding to write a recommendation letter. Know that your reference will write a “strong recommendation” that describes specific instances that reveal your teamwork/collaboration skills, communication skills, reliability, and technical/hand skills that would interest their faculty peers about your preparation for a professional career.

Ideally, letters of evaluation should be received before interviews begin at the program. Each school may only consider your file complete once all the required letters have been received. Others might wait on a decision (to interview or for an offer) until your letters arrive. Check with the schools before the application cycle begins.

Don’t be afraid to ask your references if they will use chatbot AI to write your letter of recommendation or evaluation. Multiple tools and guides found online can help references create effective letters of recommendation. If a reference asks you to write a draft letter of reference, ask about any limitations in using AI with your drafts. While admissions committees will not reject an applicant for an AI-authored reference letter, it is worth asking admissions professionals about their committee’s position on AI usage in the application and evaluation letters.

Finally, contact your references to be sure your letters were sent smoothly. Send a thank you note, potentially purchasing gift cards or another small present to express gratitude, and tell them if you got an interview or an offer. Maintain contact in case you have to reapply and need a revised recommendation.

Proofread your application, then submit (early but not on Opening Day)

Take advantage of the Premed Planner App to organize your activities for the AMCAS application. Fill out an AMCAS from the prior year (while it is available).

Each year, application instructions may have been changed, and all applicants are responsible for carefully reviewing these instructions as they enter their personal information. Applicants often gloss over the instructions and make unforced errors, such as cutting and pasting drafts from word processing programs containing hidden formatting characters that mess up the aesthetics of the essay. Many prehealth advising offices will have special meetings or courses to review each application in the spring.

On the forums, SDN experts agree that all applicants should resist the pressure to submit their primary applications on Day One. Every year, posters describe their exasperation when they submit their essays or activities inventory replete with errors and mistakes that cannot be changed. Plan to have multiple trusted advisors or peers proofread your application. However, schedule a final application review session with a prehealth advisor early in the spring semester as their appointment calendar will fill up quickly beginning in April. Very few are “on call” once the applications open in May, but HPSA provides on-call personalized advising and feedback through Becoming a Student Doctor.

How “late” is too late for an early, advantageous application? The 2023 HPSA/SDN Situational Judgment Survey gives some insight. While we did not confirm when respondents completed school-specific applications, we found that most respondents had a strong GPA profile and had a better shot at interviews when they submitted their applications earlier (see table).

Early applicants are more likely to be interviewed for early offers of acceptance at US MD/DO programs that request SJT results

Month (2023)Casper ProgramsPREview ProgramsAcceptances*
May69.7% (23/33)43.8% (7/16)5
June71.7% (43/60)52.4% (22/42)6
July55.0% (11/20)58.3% (7/12)1
August57.1%(4/7)33.3% (1/3)0
September25.0% (1/4)0.0% (0/2)0
* Offers are issued from October through the spring; the survey closed in November. Source: 2023 HPSA/SDN Situational Judgment Test Survey.

From the 2023-2024 cycle data, the HPSA AMCAS tracker suggests that application processing bottlenecks occur by early July when transcript verification can take around 30 days. In the meantime, applicants receive secondary applications and quickly turn them around for interview consideration. However, a school can still begin the triaging process by reviewing your letters of evaluation and assessing your academic preparation from reported test scores and unofficial course/grade entries. Most schools usually receive just over half of their applications for the cycle by the end of July, most of them with highly competitive GPAs and accomplishments.

Schedule your exams early.

Use the Review2 website to prepare logistically for your test day for critical admissions exams like the MCAT or DAT.

The strongest applicants schedule their entrance exams before July, when they are best prepared so that they can focus on secondary applications or interview preparation. Application reviews generally begin in July (“While You Are Waiting”), and admissions staff will put your application on hold if any preliminary items, like your test scores, are missing when they first scan it.

Applicants waiting for their summer MCAT/DAT scores often use the “throwaway” strategy. After accurately entering one’s application information, essays, and courses, the applicant sends the primary application to one “low priority” school to trigger the course verification process (which can take up to 30 days by July). Once the (MCAT/DAT) scores are received, the applicant can decide to add more schools that can review the application with a strong MCAT result. If the exam result is unsatisfactory, the applicant may opt to submit to a different group of programs that may consider the application or opt out of the cycle, saving valuable time and money to attempt again the next cycle.

Health professions programs will generally accept exam results that are reported within three years of the date of matriculation but check for exceptions before applying by accessing the most recent program database (MSAR, DO Explorer, Dental School Explorer, VMSAR, or similar directories on PharmCAS, OptomCAS, PTCAS, CASPA, or AACPMAS). 

One should schedule taking situational judgment tests before July of an application year. Acuity Insights Casper exam dates are available as early as May, so you should try to schedule your Casper assessment by June so that programs have candidates’ scores when they begin to consider applications for interviews. Many schools like to see the Casper percentile to predict how well-prepared a candidate will be for their interviews, especially MMI-format interviews.

On the other hand, AAMC PREview scores may be valid for multiple cycles. AAMC defers to individual programs to establish how old scores could be, but if we use the MCAT as an example, assume a PREview score as acceptable for up to three years unless programs state otherwise. In 2024, candidates dissatisfied with their PREview scores can retake the exam later in the summer. Like the MCAT, you can indicate a pending score on your application, but you must notify the admissions office once the scores are reported.

Official final test scores (including SJTs), verified primary applications, and completed secondary applications must be received to be considered for an interview. Admissions staff can place your application on a pre-interview hold or waitlist if any item is missing, and you must have them confirm receipt of a late item to move your file forward.

Calculate your GPAs and enter your coursework carefully.

Students should use an unofficial transcript to precisely transcribe their coursework into their central application (AMCAS, AACOMAS, AADSAS, etc.). Applicants taking gap/growth opportunities can advantageously begin this process in January since many primary applications “roll over” their coursework entries. Individuals whose academic history spans multiple institutions like community colleges or other universities can also enter their grades early and coordinate with their registrars to send their transcripts in as early as April with their application number or other matching forms. Applicants with foreign degrees should factor in costs and time to deliver an evaluated transcript. Current students should request final term grades be sent after they are posted to the application services.

Course abbreviations, numbers, names, and grades should be precisely entered as seen on the transcript (manually or scanned with AI assistance). Mistakes in coursework verification may delay the application’s delivery to the desired schools, and admissions committees can see how the errors are documented. Having too many mistakes will result in having your application returned to you undelivered. 

Each central application service has help documentation and contact information to address unusual situations, so never be afraid to ask questions that can prevent costly errors.

Support HPSA/SDN to Keep Our Resources Free

We thank the community of SDN members and HPSA donors for supporting the development of free/low-cost resources for all aspiring US healthcare professionals. If you are not a member/donor, please consider helping ensure our resources are available to future colleagues and healers.

As you embark on the journey towards medical or dental school, remember that the key to a successful application lies in preparation. Becoming a healthcare professional is a marathon, not a sprint. By starting early and preparing thoroughly, you’re laying the foundation for success. We at SDN and HPSA are here to support you every step of the way.

Leave a Comment