If you want to become a doctor, you have to go to medical school. And to get into medical school in the United States, you must follow a standardized application process, which has several nuances you should know about. Let’s clear up the confusion.
Medical School Application Overview
Getting into medical school in the United States is a competitive ordeal, with approximately 53,000 students applying each year for 22,000 seats. That means the acceptance rate is roughly 41%. Matriculants also have an average GPA of 3.73 and MCAT of 511.5, which is the 83rd percentile.
Unlike many other countries where you attend 6 years of medical school immediately after high school, in the U.S. you’ll first earn your bachelor’s degree in college over 4 years, which we call your premed years, and then you go to medical school, which is another 4 years.
This is the traditional path to becoming a doctor and the one we’ll be focusing on here, although there are a few exceptions, such as combined BS/MD programs which you would apply to at the end of high school, offering a 6 or 7 year accelerated experience to earn both your bachelor’s and medical degrees.
1 | Primary Application
When you apply to medical school in the United States, you use a common application service, meaning a centralized single application that sends out your information to several schools. There are three main centralized online application services:
AMCAS (for allopathic, or MD schools)
TMDSAS (for Texas medical schools)
AACOMAS (for osteopathic, or DO schools)
You can choose to apply through any or all of the common application services. They are each separate entities and send your information to different schools. The good news is that they have a great deal of overlap and you can reuse certain components from one common application to another.
These are called your primary application, meaning the first and central part of your application, as opposed to your secondary applications, which we’ll get to shortly. Your primary application, regardless of whether it’s AMCAS, TMDSAS, or AACOMAS, will provide medical schools with your transcript of all undergraduate and post-bacc grades, MCAT scores, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and work and activities details, where you’ll elaborate on your various clinical, academic, research, and extracurricular activities.
Higher MCAT scores, just like higher GPAs, are more competitive. Personal statements can often hurt an applicant when they read like a CV, listing one’s experiences. Students who leverage a narrative based approach to their personal statement and work and activities section have much higher rates of success, often making up for subpar MCAT and GPA. Letters of recommendation requirements vary by school, but they’ll usually require at least 3 and up to 5. You should have letters from two science professors and 1 non-science professor, and it’s recommended to have 1 or 2 from other extracurricular activities, like research or volunteering.
The medical school application cycle occurs yearly and is on a fixed schedule. The exact dates will vary, but it’s safe to assume the common applications will open around early May. This means you’re able to fill out your information. After all, you don’t want to take this lightly. You should be spending several hours across at least several weeks to dial in all the elements of your application. Writing space is limited and medical school admissions are highly competitive, so failing to put in the proper time and attention in your primary application will work against you and may prevent you from getting any interview invitations later in the cycle. Approximately a month later, around the end of May or early June, you’ll be able to submit your application. This means that the common application service, whether AMCAS, TMDSAS, or AACOMAS, will verify your information, which takes anywhere from a week or two to over a month, and then send your application to the medical schools you have selected.
Note that each medical school has its own application deadline, often some time in the fall or winter. Ignore these deadlines and focus on submitting your application as close as possible to the first day of submission, usually around June 1st. This is because medical school admissions operate on a rolling admissions basis, meaning they evaluate applications as they are received, rather than waiting to evaluate all applications after a specific deadline. Additionally, the common application verification process usually takes longer if you apply deeper into the cycle, further adding delays. For these reasons, applying later in the cycle can be the difference between having multiple acceptances versus having none.
2 | Secondary Application
After your application is verified and submitted to medical schools, they will make a decision on whether or not to send you a secondary application.
The secondary application, unlike the primary, is specific to each school. Each school will have its own version of a secondary application, and this includes additional essays on various topics from writing a personal biography, to expanding on issues in healthcare, to describing a leadership role you’ve taken, or one of the most common ones, describing a time you overcame an obstacle or setback.
Some schools will have an initial cut based on GPA and MCAT that determines which applicants will receive a secondary. Others will blindly send secondaries to all applicants. In recent years, we’ve found more and more medical schools send secondaries to a greater portion of applicants, even those they are less interested in, as they can charge a fee for submitting your secondary and that’s extra revenue for the school. Not a nice move, but that’s the reality of the situation.
To proceed with your application at that medical school, you must complete and return the secondary promptly after receiving it. We generally recommend turning it around in 2 weeks or less. You don’t want to rush these and compromise quality, which is why many students pre-write their secondaries based on the prior year’s prompts. Prompts may change from year to year, but more often than not they are nearly identical to the prior year’s. We offer a free Secondary Application Database on MedSchoolInsiders.com that shows the most current secondary prompts as they become available, in addition to prior years.
3 | Medical School Interviews
After reviewing your secondary application, the medical school admissions committee has one of three choices: invite you to an interview, hold your application to make a decision later after the first round of interviews, or reject you.
Most interviews are going to occur between September and February, although I had my first interviews in August, and sometimes interviews can go as late as March. Early interviews in August are generally provided by a few schools for applicants that meet high cutoffs, such as if you have above a 3.9 GPA and an MCAT above the 98th percentile.
The interview format will differ based on the school. There are three main types of interviews:
- Traditional interview – you’re speaking with a member of the admissions committee 1-on-1 and they are asking you standard questions. These last anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes.
- Multiple mini-interview (MMI) – MMI’s include short interview stations that are independent of one another. There are usually 6-10 stations that assess your communication, teamwork, self-awareness, maturity, empathy, and critical thinking. In short, they want to know more about how you think, and this is believed to be a more reliable indicator of who will be a good medical student and future doctor than traditional interviews. More schools each year are adopting this newer format.
- Group or panel interview – you’ll be interviewed by 2 or more admissions committee members, or you’ll be interviewing with multiple other candidates concurrently. This is the least common interview format.
The norm, when there isn’t a pandemic occurring, is for medical schools to invite you in person to visit the school, meet the medical students and faculty, and interview in person. Note that some students, at some schools, may be asked to do an extra interview. Since interviews are often stressful, you may hope that doesn’t happen to you. But fear not, this is often good news, and in most instances is the school wanting to sell the school to you because they’ve already decided you’re a highly desirable candidate from your primary and secondary applications. This happened to me at several programs, and each time it was a faculty member trying to sell the medical school and the city.
4 | Decision (Acceptance, Rejection, Waitlist)
After your interview, the medical schools will give you a decision. This will take at least a couple of weeks after your interview, but sometimes it can be delayed months.
The three outcomes are as follows: acceptance, rejection, and waitlist.
If you get an acceptance, congratulations, and I hope you celebrate as you’ve absolutely deserved it. Don’t forget to secure your position. Even if this isn’t your dream school, an acceptance is better than no acceptance, so make sure your spot is reserved. This often requires you to respond to the acceptance email and provide a deposit to reserve your position. This deposit is usually refundable up until a certain date.
If you get a rejection, don’t let it deter you, as that’s par for the course, and most schools will reject most applicants. Even the top applicants get several rejections.
And if you get a waitlist, sit tight and strategize. If this is a school you’re very eager to attend, it may be beneficial, in some situations, to submit a letter of interest or letter of intent including application updates. This is a call that can only be made on a case-by-case basis.
At this point, you may be wondering which part is the most important. There is no easy answer to this, as all elements hold significant weight. Without thoughtful, thorough, and cohesive primary and secondary applications that put you in the best light, you’re unlikely to be invited for an interview. And if you don’t crush your interview and impress the admissions committees on the big day, then your chance of acceptance, even if you were perfect on paper, is wiped away and all for naught.
Most people think that getting into medical school, particularly a top program, is reserved for the super-geniuses who perfected their MCAT and GPA. This is simply not true. Applicants with subpar numbers get into top programs every year, just as many applicants with stellar numbers receive no acceptances and must reapply in a subsequent cycle.
You should strive to apply to medical school only once and get accepted into your top choice program. Work on getting the strongest MCAT and GPA possible, but simultaneously craft a strong narrative that puts you in the best light and makes medical schools fight over you. By doing this, you can even get top medical schools offering full-ride scholarships to incentivize you to go to their school. This is a strategy I used that saved me hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans.
If you’d like to learn how to do this yourself, visit us on MedSchoolInsiders.com. Our Insiders are physicians from top programs, many who earned merit-based scholarships themselves, who can help mentor you in crafting a stellar application as well. It’s what we’re passionate about and we want to help empower a generation of happier, healthier, and more effective future doctors.