Applying to Medical School

Like being a good doctor, getting into medical school requires multiple talents.  Premedical students often focus on the purely academic aspects of the process, getting good grades and performing well on the MCAT exam.  But being admitted to medical school requires more than academic achievements.  Each year there are students with outstanding academic achievements who fail to get into medical schools because they never took the time to be informed about the process involved in applying to medical school.  Below are some things to keep in mind.

Where to Apply

In the United States people who are licensed to practice medicine have either obtained an M.D. degree from an allopathic medical school or have a D.O. degree from an osteopathic medical school.  Around 95% of the licensed physicians are M.D.’s and most medical schools are allopathic medical schools.  By and large allopathic medical schools are more difficult to get into and M.D. degrees are considered more prestigious and M.D.’s are more likely to be higher in medical field ‘pecking order.’  Osteopathic medicine is often described as being more ‘holistic’ and D.O.’s are most commonly found as primary care physicians.  Students with high GPA’s (over 3.5) and MCAT scores (over 508; 76th percentile) may be justified in considering only allopathic medical schools (but some may prefer the osteopathic approach to medicine); other students should spend some time finding out about osteopathic medicine and consider applying to osteopathic schools.

How many schools to apply to?

MANY! Probably 15-20! Why should you apply to more than one school? Because it dramatically increases your chances of admittance!!!! Consider a situation where you have a 50% chance of admittance. Like winning a game based on a single coin flip, you have a one in two chance of ‘winning’ (getting into medical school) if you only apply to one school. But if winning the game requires that you only get a ‘head’ once, then flipping the coin multiple times is a great advantage; if you flip the coin twice, you have a three out of four chance of winning and if you flip the coin four times, then you only have a one in sixteen chance of not winning. Obviously, getting into medical school is not a mere matter of chance. However, some aspects of the process are.

In any group of applicants, there are a few applicants that would always get in anywhere they applied and a few more that would never get in anywhere they applied. But there is a substantial group in the middle that will get into some schools, but not all. Why? Not because the admittance committees flip coins, but because the schools and committees weight and evaluate pieces of an applicant’s record differently; even within schools, different committees will be different; even the same evaluator will rank students differently depending on ‘chance’ factors (how much sleep they got the previous night, what the previous application was like, etc.). Your best weapon to guard against the vagaries of the admittance process is to apply to multiple schools.

When to Apply

Medical schools operate on a yearly cycle with rolling admissions.  They start accepting applications in June of the year prior to when one would start school (i.e. 14 months before you would start classes).  Because admissions are rolling, applicants are at a disadvantage if they apply late; for borderline candidates (and this is a substantial portion of candidates!), a late application keeps them out of medical school at least for a year.  Applying the fall of your senior year is TOO LATE; students should plan to apply in June; and applying in June requires some preparation before June (see timeline).

How to Apply

Nearly all allopathic and osteopathic medical schools use online application services, known by acronyms:  AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) and the AACOMAS (American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine).  These services make the application process easier than it would be otherwise (although it is still time consuming).  They allow applicants to fill out one set of forms, online, and an application is then sent to all the schools that the applicant wishes to apply to.  The service has a set fee ($160 for AMCAS 2005) with additional fees depending upon how many schools you apply to ($30 for each school after the first for AMCAS in 2005).  Applicants need to arrange to have their transcripts from all institutions where they took college courses sent to AAMCAS and/or AACOMAS.

The application is straightforward although it does take some time to complete.  You do not need to complete the application all at once; you are able to save it online and log on repeatedly to review, add information, and modify what you have already saved.  You are asked for a variety of information relating to coursework and grades, biographical information, awards and honors, extracurricular activities, employment, volunteer work and medically related experiences.  Do not feel that you have to completely fill up the spaces; activities/awards from high school generally are not relevant unless they are sustained through college.  A long list may simply reveal that you have done lots of little things which usually is not as valuable as having done a few things that are more substantial.  Having had some medically related experience is nearly essential, so make sure that you get some!  Activities that demonstrate compassion for others and an ability to work with and for others are also very significant. The form also asks if you have been subject to any disciplinary action.  Be honest here, as the same question will be addressed in the letter from the Premedical Advisory Committee (we are expected to check your standing with the Dean’s Office).  Being subject to disciplinary action does NOT result in an automatic rejection, but being dishonest does!  If you have questions, talk with your PreMed advisor.

The part of the application that takes the most time is your ‘personal statement,’ an essay about you and why you want to be and would be a good physician.  For most applicants, including applicants who write well, this is a difficult task because you need to strike the right balance between being too boastful and being too unassuming.  Most of all, the essay should be personal and revealing.  This is the part of the application that requires the most preparation, and in order to apply in the summer, you need to start working on the personal statement in the spring.  It is a document that needs to be both inspired and well edited; while inspiration may come for some ‘in a flash,’ it is much slower for others and good editing always takes time.  PLAN AHEAD!!

The AMCAS/AACOMAS application is the ‘primary application.’  Medical schools consider your credentials, as revealed by your transcripts, your MCAT scores, and your primary application, and if you pass muster, will then ask for ‘secondary applications.’  These applications are school-specific and require an additional fee averaging around $100.  Requests for ‘secondaries’ may come one to two months after submitting the primary application, although it often is slower than this if your MCAT scores are not yet available.