First of all, I’d like to state for the record that the phrase “top medical school” can – and should – mean different things to different people. I would encourage everyone to avoid basing impressions of a particular medical school on its place in the US News & World Report medical school rankings. There are dozens of outstanding medical schools throughout the country, each with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Residencies recognize this when it comes time to match.
Therefore, while the following advice is something to consider when looking to gain acceptance into a “top medical school,” the term “top” in this case really refers to whatever school you might consider a stretch for acceptance. I won’t spend any real time discussing the keys to good grades or an outstanding MCAT score, as these topics have been discussed elsewhere.
We all know that to a certain extent numbers matter. It is easy for me to tell you that getting into a top medical school is more realistic with stellar numbers. This is quite obvious and thus will not be my focus. The following is advice aimed at the other aspects of applying, the less tangible components that if optimized can truly help you get into your top medical school.
1 | Apply to Medical School Early
This is a common piece of advice but it really can’t be stressed enough. For the most part, medical schools utilize “rolling admissions.” Applicants are admitted in groups throughout the fall, typically after each round of interviews, so that as the application cycle moves along, fewer and fewer spots remain available at a particular institution. This leaves applicants who are screened towards the end of the application cycle at a disadvantage, largely because schools have only a few remaining spots to fill and therefore can afford to be more selective in granting admission.
While it is difficult to quantify just how much more disadvantaged applicants are towards the end of the cycle, one way to mitigate any risk in this respect is to apply as early in the cycle as you can. Practically speaking, this means that you should work up to the application cycle treating “submission day 1” as your deadline. Try to have all of your letters, scores, and applications ready to go by the first day of the medical school application cycle as best you can.
2 | Don’t Be Afraid to Tell Your Story
You will surely apply alongside some very impressive people, and it is easy to feel intimidated or out of place. The truth is, while some applicants will have something to draw on within their own experience that is truly unique and sets them apart, most will not. The key is to acknowledge this and know that it is OK.
In such circumstances, I would advise you not to oversell your extracurricular activities or exaggerate the importance of your experiences. Admissions committees value honesty and a sense of perspective. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge both your strengths and your shortcomings in your application. Be honest, tell your story, and do not try to be something you are not.
3 | Build a Theme in Your Application
It may not be immediately obvious even to you, but applying to medical school is invariably the result of a large body of work, one that often takes years to accomplish. Think back to when this body of work began – it may be as far back as high school – and construct a timeline.
Was the decision to apply to medical school made before you reached college, part-way through, or after college? Try to drill down exactly what helped you make that choice; it is not one to be made casually and it comes with a tremendous amount of extra work.
Let schools know – through your essays, short answers, and interviews – what about your decision made all of that hard work worthwhile. Were you interested in helping the underserved? Are you fascinated with the genetics of cancer? Do you love working with your hands?
Whatever the case may be, pick one or more factor(s) that led to your decision to apply to medical school. Then demonstrate how this informs what you envision in your medical career. It doesn’t need to be super specific; there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that you don’t know what kind of doctor you want to be quite yet. For most schools, however, there is something wrong with applying without any sense of direction. Make sure you show your direction with a theme throughout your application.
4 | Practice the Multiple Mini Interview Format
Most medical schools have dropped the standard 1-on-1 interview style for what’s now known as the MMI or Multiple Mini Interview. In this interview format, you will have a series of interviews lasting about 10 minutes each. You will either be asked to discuss a specific topic, recount a past experience (and generally how that experience might help you moving forward in medical school and residency), or offer a solution to a hypothetical problem.
This process is different; certainly it was unlike anything I had experienced before. It can be easy to get tight, clam up, and not present your best self. Don’t be afraid to start out answers with “this is a tough question/topic/prompt,” to provide yourself the time to relax and adequately sort through your answer.
MMI offers admissions committees a chance to see how you interact and communicate. Stellar numbers and a great application can be sunk by a bad interview day; I have seen it happen. You will need to get comfortable with the process and the environment, as it is certainly unique.
The solution to this – as with virtually everything else – is practice. Sample prompts are available online. Take a look at as many as you need, time yourself, and practice in front of people. This component is crucial. You cannot simulate the experience of answering such questions without others around to observe you.
If you do not have anyone to adequately practice with, or if you would like to benefit from the expertise of those who have been there, consider the Med School Insiders interview services. Our outstanding team of physicians and medical students have countless hours of experience with this process and will perform mock interviews with you to help you perfect your MMI game.
5 | Express Interest in Your Top Choice Medical School
This can be a strange concept if you have not done it before, but it can be worthwhile to let that one medical school know that they are your #1 choice (especially if you are waitlisted).
It is important to recognize that medical schools have to make a difficult calculation each year when figuring out how many people to invite for an interview, to accept for admission, and to place on the waitlist. Not every applicant is going to matriculate to a given medical school if accepted, so each school needs to figure out what percentage of applicants is likely to actually accept an offer to attend.
Therefore, admissions committees value those applicants who are committed to attending their school; it makes their calculations that much easier (and also makes their numbers look better). If, at the end of an interview day, you have figured out that a particular school is simply too great to pass up, by all means shoot the Dean of Admissions an email to that effect.
Make no equivocations. Many applicants will send thank you emails to various faculty and admissions staff after an interview (I would advise you to do this as well), but for that one school you love more than any other, say so directly.
Those are my key points of advice on getting into a top medical school, amassed over several years of traversing applications and admissions. I am confident that these points will be helpful for you.
Beyond this, expert guidance from those who have done it before is invaluable in this process. Through our application review services, we are ready and excited to help you excel in your medical school applications. Our panel of advisors have gained acceptance to schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins (to name a few). With the breadth and expertise of our team, I am confident that we can provide the advice you need to reach the medical school of your dreams. Good luck!