Medical School Applications 101: From AMCAS to Acceptance

Padya Paramita

Medical School Applications 101: From AMCAS to Acceptance

So, you want to go to medical school. Whether you’ve just arrived on your undergraduate campus as a freshman or it’s mid-senior year when you decide you want to take the plunge—you need a plan. It is definitely never too early, nor too late, to decide where to go from here and get yourself organized. But how do you decide what you need? If you’ve just graduated, there’s no need to panic that you don’t have all of the requirements, there is still time. To guide you through exactly what you need to be truly ready for applying to medical school, we have outlined every step of the process in this medical school applications 101 guide.

In our medical school applications 101 crash course we have included information on:

  • The medical school application timeline
  • Academic Requirements
  • Taking the MCAT
  • Building your extracurricular profile
  • Making Your School List
  • Making an AMCAS account
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Writing your personal statement
  • The work and activities section
  • Secondary essays
  • Interviews

The Medical School Application Timeline

It’s best to start our medical school applications 101 guide by providing you with an idea of what to expect. Students start preparing for this time in their lives months—or even years in advance. Take a look at a quick timeline below:

As you can see from the graphic, the medical school application timeline can span for over a year! Aim for the months shown by the green bars for each application component because it’s much safer to stay weeks ahead than fall behind the pack. Once you’ve made your school list, make sure that you take a look at the deadlines and requirements for specific programs on the AMCAS in order to stay on top of everything. 

For students who are sure they want to go directly to an MD or DO program after their undergraduate education, they will need to start preparing for medical school as they get to campus. Students can and do go straight from undergrad, but if they decide late that they are going to medical school, that’s okay, too.

That being said, it is more and more common to take a gap year between your undergraduate years and time in medical school. A gap year buys you a little more time to get the courses and experiences you need under your belt to adequately prepare yourself to apply for medical school. As a matter of fact, the median age of a student matriculating to medical school is 24 years old. 

Academic Requirements

Up next on the medical school applications 101 guide, it’s time to think about your grades and MCAT score. There are currently 154 accredited allopathic (MD) medical schools and 34 accredited osteopathic (DO) medical schools in the US. Each school has its own set of prerequisites or “recommended” coursework, usually including classes in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, math, social/behavioral sciences, and writing. To find out each individual school’s requirements while preparing for medical school, you should reference this blog, or go to that individual medical school’s website.

In terms of choosing your major, most students pick a science major because they are passionate about the STEM fields or they are under the impression that it is necessary for medical school. Most MD or DO programs don’t put much weight on your choice of major so if you’re interested in humanities subjects, feel free to pursue those. You should choose a major that is challenging, where you can excel because you are passionate about it, and where you have the flexibility to complete your pre-med prerequisites.

If you decide you want to go into medical school a little later in the game, you can always take post-baccalaureate classes to fulfill the prerequisites. These programs are also useful for boosting your GPA if you didn’t have the best academic track record in college.

Taking the MCAT

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a requirement for entry to all medical programs and a key component of medical school applications 101. The few exceptions include special admission pathways such as early acceptance or BA/MD or BS/MD programs. The MCAT offers approximately 20-25 exam dates throughout the year. Some dates do fill up, so it is important to schedule early if you know when and where you want to take it. Keep in mind you should aim to schedule your MCAT exam approximately 18 months before you plan to enroll in medical school. 

For those students applying without a gap year, this will likely be in the spring of their junior year. Taking it early, when you are prepared, is important because it allows you the flexibility to retake it if necessary and not have to wait for the next application cycle. You should expect to set aside about 3 months of dedicated study time before taking the exam. Do not underestimate the MCAT!

Extracurricular Preparation

GPA and MCAT scores are not the only measure of future success when it comes to medical school applications 101. You will also need to demonstrate to a medical school admissions committee that you possess additional characteristics of a successful future physician such as empathy, communication skills, and leadership, through your extracurricular activities. 

It is important that you convey strong working knowledge of what it means to practice medicine. Many students tend to join pre-med student groups, work as a scribe, or take a service trip for a week to build their profile. But this isn’t the best way to prepare. While there are no “bad” activities per se, the ones we mentioned are just far too common and not reflective of passion. 

In order to impress admissions committee members as you continue preparing for medical school, you need to maintain sustained involvement in a medical setting or toward an initiative that conveys that you have characteristics that are highly desirable in future doctors. Whether done through research, clinical volunteering, or shadowing experiences, make sure that you take advantage of your time outside the classroom and pursue extracurriculars that showcase your collaboration and leadership abilities. Your goal should be to portray passion in a way that helps you stand out from other applicants.

Building Your School List

Now on medical school applications 101, it’s time to think about where to apply. The acceptance rates at the best medical schools are extremely low. The least selective school among the top 30 medical schools has an acceptance rate of only 11%. And even then, 89% of applicants are rejected! The average medical school acceptance rate is 7%. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) explains that the average number of applications is 16 schools per applicant. To stay on the safer side, I recommend that you apply to 25-30 schools. I cannot emphasize enough how competitive medical schools are. Maybe don’t go as high as 50 schools because that would be stretching yourself too thin. Any number over 40 could compromise the quality of your application.

Applying to too few schools can also put you in a difficult position. When asking yourself “what medical schools should I apply to?” keep in mind the reality that very few students get interviews for, let alone get accepted into, the schools in the Top 30. Even if you have a long list of schools that you’ve applied to, a huge number of applicants are cut between the secondary and the interview stages. You will only get a handful of interviews. Not only do you need to apply to many schools, but you need to apply to many tiers of schools to try to give yourself options.

Applying to below 20 schools reduces your chances of acceptance into any school because the process is so selective. There is literally no “safety” school in the medical school application process. While some are clearly more selective than others, the admissions process for any medical school is cutthroat. It is of course okay to want to go to a top school, but do not get too attached to the idea of attending Harvard until you’ve been accepted.

You should also keep in mind that you could apply to osteopathic/DO and Caribbean medical schools! DO covers more of the holistic care of the body, looking at the patient as an individual rather than their organs. DO programs have generally lower average MCAT and GPA than MD schools. Caribbean schools, which are medical programs in the Caribbean, are significantly less selective than schools in the United States. If your score is in the high 400s and you don’t want to retake the MCAT or reapply in the next cycle,

You can read more about building your school list here

Making An AMCAS Account

Now, on our medical school applications 101 guide, it’s time to actually create an AMCAS account and start filling out the application. As you probably already know, the AMCAS is a centralized system created by the AAMC which enables you to send your primary materials to each of the MD programs on your list. 

The first step is to of course register for an account on the AMCAS website. Once you’ve finished creating your profile, you will have to fill out the following sections:

  • Identifying Information
  • Schools Attended
  • Biographic Information
  • Coursework
  • Work and Activities
  • Letters of Evaluation
  • Medical Schools
  • Essay
  • Standardized Tests

In this e-resource, we guide you through each step and section presented by the AMCAS as you prepare to submit your files — from registration to the final steps before submission.

Letters of Recommendation

Next on medical school applications 101: the letters of recommendation. Your letters of recommendation accurately represent what it’s like to have you as a student or mentee and come from professors and supervisors who support your candidacy, know you the best, and can best provide context on how you can meaningfully contribute to your dream medical programs. The number of medical school letters of recommendation that are required by the top institutions might throw you off, considering many schools require as many as 5 or 6! In order to gauge whether you would make a strong medical student compared to the other applicants, admissions committees want to learn about your work in various capacities from different sources. 

Your professor or supervisor may have written medical school letters of recommendation before, but if any of your writers need a guideline, the AAMC suggests that your letters should emphasize a correct assessment of your profile as a potential medical school student. The writer should briefly explain their relationship with you by addressing points such as:

  • How long have they known you?
  • What settings have they interacted with you in? (e.g., professor, premedical advisor, supervisor)?
  • Are their observations of you direct or indirect?

The admissions committees will value the quality of information far more than the length of the letter. The letter should discuss your qualifications as a medical student and future physician in-depth instead of going into the nitty-gritty details of the lab course or institution you took with them. Since the admissions committee members will already have a copy of your grades and MCAT score, the letters shouldn’t repeat this information, unless the writer provides further context on any component in your profile.

Writing Your Personal Statement

This is one of the absolute keys to success when it comes to medical school applications 101. A medical school personal statement is the admission committee’s best chance to get to know you. Thus, the most important characteristic of a personal statement is that it is written about you. The content of your personal statement is not relevant unless those contents pertain directly to you. Your essay is an opportunity to reconcile this array of experiences into a coherent and unified portrait of yourself. Your writing must clarify how the disparate pieces of your application combine to create a single, viable, and coherent med school candidate. The essay must distinguish you from other, equally-qualified applicants. In short, Your medical school personal statement should demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in and passionate about medicine. 

The AMCAS Work and Activities Section

Up next on medical school applications 101, a guide on how to talk about everything you’ve worked on outside the classroom. In the AMCAS activities section, you have to include up to 15 extracurriculars that demonstrate your interests and how you spend your free time. For each activity, you’re allowed up to 700 characters, including spaces. You don’t have to fill out all 15 slots if you believe 12-14 capture your background and impact well enough. You can select up to three of these as your “most meaningful experiences.” For each of these three, you get an additional box with a limit of 1325 (on top of the 700), including spaces, to further elaborate on the activity.

Your activities don’t all have to be directly related to the field of medicine. While it certainly should include any volunteer activities, shadowing experiences, research jobs, and other initiatives that have provided you with a glimpse into the medical profession and a chance for patient interaction, your other interests also matter. 

Secondary Essays

Once you’ve uploaded your transcript, MCAT score, extracurricular information, personal statement, and finally clicked the submit button on the AMCAS, your medical school secondary essays will be right around the corner. Schools cut off a big portion of the application pool between the secondary and the interview stages, so don’t take the medical school secondary essays lightly!

Secondary essay prompts are demanding and ask you questions that allow you to reflect on your experiences, career goals in medicine, and challenges that you have overcome. Medical schools want to know why you’re interested in their program and how they might be a good fit for you and vice versa. The number of applicants who receive secondaries varies from school to school. Most schools automatically send out secondaries upon submission of the primary to all applicants, while others ensure students have passed an initial screening and met the GPA and MCAT cutoffs (typically set at a 3.0 GPA and 500 MCAT score) before sending out secondary essays.

First and foremost, you should not put off submitting your secondaries, because your application is not considered complete without them. At most schools, your AMCAS will not even be read until you’ve submitted this portion as well, so don’t delay. Medical schools don’t usually state a deadline for the secondary essays but if they do, absolutely adhere to it, or all your hard work will go to waste.

Second, medical schools view the time you take to turn in your secondaries as a direct reflection of your interest in their program. If there’s no deadline, you should be looking to complete them and send them back within two weeks of receiving them. The two-week turnaround time is long enough to be meticulous but short enough to show eagerness. If you sit around and take over a month to send back your secondaries, don’t expect an interview.

Typical prompts usually include “how will you contribute to our school,” “why have you applied to our school,” and “describe a challenge you’ve faced.” You can check out blogs on how to tackle common prompts, read about strategies, and understand the timeline

The Interviews

Finally, in our roundup of medical school applications 101, the final step: the interview. If you’ve made it to the coveted third stage, congratulations! Interview emails can start rolling in as early as August. Since you can’t be accepted without an interview, the stakes are higher than ever. The traditional interview is typically one-on-one and lasts for about 30 to 45 minutes. You may be interviewed by a faculty member, community member, a current student, or a practicing clinician. There are three different types of interviews:

Traditional - Depending on the school, you may be scheduled for one or two rounds of traditional interviews. In this type of interview, the interactions between you and the interviewer are usually conversational. 

Group - Group interviews help admissions committees assess your teamwork skills more than other types of medical school interviews. Alongside expected questions about your personality and goals, group interviews might present you with a teamwork exercise. Schools want to see how you communicate, analyze scenarios, and work with others as these are highly necessary skills for a medical career. 

Multiple Mini Interviews (MMI) - The most unique among the types of medical school interviews is the multiple mini interview or MMI. MMIs involve 6-10 interview stations, each focused on a different question or scenario. You will be given a description to review, prepare for 2 minutes, and then have a 5 to 8-minute time slot where you discuss a topic, interact with a patient/family member, or react to an issue. The interviewer will observe your responses and evaluate the way you interact with him or her. The MMI is a closed-file interview—you are typically being evaluated by a standardized patient who does not know anything about you. You are assessed with an established evaluation form after the encounter. 

You can read more about each type of interview and which schools use which in this blog

It’s a long process that is by no means easy. You’ve got a big journey ahead of you but if you follow our medical school admissions 101 guide and take it one day at a time, you should give yourself a fighting chance. Good luck!

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