Understanding the Medical School Application Process

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Completing a medical school application is a daunting and seemingly insurmountable task. There are many steps and many pieces to keep track of, and it can be a confusing process—especially for those who aren’t adequately prepared.

Applying to medical school requires juggling many moving parts at once. You need to balance studying for and taking the MCAT, crafting an authentic personal statement, requesting letters of recommendation, and practicing interview etiquette, all while adhering to a very specific timeline and trying to get enough sleep

Use our medical school application guide to gain an understanding of the initial application process. We’ll outline an application timeline, what you need to include in your application, mistakes to avoid, and what happens next.


Medical School Application Timeline

The final deadline for applications and other secondary materials doesn’t represent the timeline you need to follow. The most successful candidates apply as soon as applications open. You should be ready and prepared well in advance, allowing yourself plenty of time to take your MCAT, craft an effective personal statement, and request letters of recommendation.

Applying early is one of the most important medical school admission strategies.

The AMCAS application usually opens during the first week of May for the following year’s medical school class. You have about a month to prepare the application, as AMCAS submissions don’t open until the end of May or early June. For example, if you want to begin medical school in the fall of 2022, you’ll need to start the application process in the spring of 2021.

Typically, within two to four weeks of submitting your primary application, you’ll receive a secondary application. Secondaries should be completed right away, ideally within 7-14 days. This means you need to prepare well in advance to ensure you are able to submit a quality response within a short turnaround window.

Interview invites arrive between August and September and continue into the spring of the following year. Your personal timeline for preparing for interviews should begin months before receiving an invitation.

Medical School Application Timeline


The Anatomy of a Medical School Application

1. Personal Statements

Why do you want to go to medical school and become a doctor?

It’s an intimidating question, no doubt about it. But writing your personal statement doesn’t need to be a painful experience. It’s a chance to reflect on the key moments in your life that sparked your inspiration and crystalized your ambition. Med school admission committees want to know you have the passion, will, and commitment needed to succeed.

Medical school is a long, challenging road, to put it very mildly, and it’s only the beginning of your journey to becoming a doctor. Med schools need to know they’re accepting students who are ready to face the rigorous day-and-night grind. They need to know you have what it takes.

Your personal statement is an opportunity to show who you are deep down, beyond your grades. The admissions committee has your CV and your transcripts, but this is your chance to demonstrate your personality and share your personal experience. What drives you? What makes you so passionate about medicine that you’re willing to devote your life to it? It’s not as difficult to describe as you might think. What’s more difficult is staying concise.

You’re only allotted a 5,300 character maximum, which is only about 1.5 pages of single-spaced 12-point Times New Roman font. You’ll be surprised by how little space this is once you get started.

Remember that this will take time. Don’t expect you’re going to sit down and hammer this thing out in one afternoon. Get started by brainstorming your best qualities. What are the character traits you take the most pride in, the things you hope people think about you? Now think about experiences in your life where these qualities shined.

Don’t tell the admissions committee you’re compassionate and driven; show them with real-life examples. 

If someone’s making a movie about your early days and the moments that shaped your desire to become a doctor, what key moments do you want included?

Your personal statement isn’t a list of your accomplishments. It’s a story. Your story

View these real medical school personal statement examples, so you can get a better idea of what admissions committees are looking for, and check out our 8 key tips on writing stellar personal statements.

2. Extracurriculars (Work and Activities Section)

The first things the admissions committee will look at are your personal statement and your extracurriculars. Your extracurriculars give them a sense of where your interests lie, what your motivations are, and whether or not they match with what they’re looking for in a prospective physician.

It’s a good idea to include a few core extracurricular activities: clinical exposure, research, and community involvement. Participation in these three areas shows that you have the relevant interests and well-rounded experience to know for sure that you want to pursue a career in medicine.

That said, don’t worry about spending equal time in each of these areas. Passion is most important to the admissions committee because if there’s an area you genuinely love, you’re more likely to take on a leadership role within it. Leadership is a crucial quality and something the admissions committee is always looking for in future physicians.

Some students consider the Work and Activities section of their application to be less important than other sections. This is a fatal mistake. Learn more about the AMCAS Work and Activities section, including why it’s so important, how to prepare for this section, and common mistakes to avoid.

3. Medical School Application Mini-Essays

Your application may or may not require mini-essays. Even if they are optional, mini-essays present more opportunities to demonstrate to admissions committees who you are, what you stand for, and where you come from. Take every chance you can to highlight your passion for medicine and the events in your life that inspired and shaped it.

What hardships have you overcome? Is there something you’re proud of that you were unable to highlight in your personal statement? Have you or your family faced socioeconomic disadvantages? Is there an event from your past that might diminish your reputation in the eyes of the committee that you can provide nuance or context around?

4. Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are an extremely important piece of the medical school application process—some even argue they’re more important than the personal statement. This is because a personal statement is inherently biased. You are selling yourself in the most captivating light. On the other hand, a letter of recommendation is the opinion of someone else, generally an esteemed professor, physician, or mentor. For them to speak highly of you provides admissions committees a less biased, inside look at who you are.

A negative letter of recommendation or even a so-so one could potentially do serious harm to your application. Choosing wisely and approaching the process in an organized way is critical to your success in this area.

For a medical school application, you’ll need a total of four to five letters. Three of these are academic letters written by undergraduate professors (two science and one non-science.) The two remaining letters are from your extracurriculars, typically research and clinical experience. The people writing these letters need to know you very well and think highly of you in order for the letters to be effective. Don’t make the mistake of trying to get a “big name” for your letters—especially if that person doesn’t know you well. It’s more meaningful to choose someone who truly knows you and can speak to your strengths on a deeper level.

Read our Medical School Letters of Recommendation Guide, which includes who to ask, when to ask, how to ask, what to provide, and common mistakes to avoid.

5. GPA and MCAT Score

And of course, what would a medical school application be without your GPA and MCAT score?

While a high GPA and perfect 528 on your MCATs is definitely an achievement, it’s not as crucial of an aspect to your medical school application as you may think. There are a few important things to consider when deciding what score to aim for on the MCAT, such as what schools you’re applying to as well as the average scores of recently matriculated students.

Most medical schools strongly suggest a minimum GPA of 3.0 and a minimum MCAT score of 500, but gaining admission with those stats would be highly unlikely. To be competitive, you should shoot for substantially higher—those who matriculate to medical school have an average GPA of 3.7 and an MCAT of 511.5. Check current AAMC official data to confirm current averages.

For more details, check out What MCAT Score You Should Aim For


Other Criteria Medical Schools Consider

The numbers you need to get into medical school vary depending on outside criteria, such as which medical schools you are applying to, your demographic information, and your undergraduate institution’s reputation.

Your Personal Story

Developing a cohesive narrative in your application is of vital importance. That doesn’t mean simply writing a strong personal statement; you need to build a strong narrative throughout your entire application and secondaries. It’s your unique story that makes you a compelling applicant to admissions committees.

The Rank of Target Medical Schools

High-ranking medical schools require higher-than-average GPA and MCAT scores. Look up the average GPA and MCAT scores of recently matriculated students at your target medical schools to ensure you have what it takes to be seriously considered.

Your Demographic Information

Your race/ethnicity affects the numbers you need to be considered. Many medical schools are committed to increasing diversity within their student body. This means your background and demographic information could play a role in the scores you need to obtain. View the most recent AAMC demographic data on applicants and matriculants.

Your Undergraduate Institution’s Reputation

The numbers you need may be affected by the prestige and reputation of your undergraduate institution. A high undergraduate GPA from a lesser-known institution is not as impressive as a similar GPA from a brand-name university known for rigorous coursework.

Learn more about these Medical School Application Metrics to ensure you have the numbers you need to succeed.


Common Mistakes Made on Medical School Applications

The medical school application process is tedious, complex, and often confusing. It’s easy to miss a step or forget about a small piece of the puzzle along the way, but the good news is there are plenty of people who have done it all before.

Serious medical school applicants understand they don’t need to go it alone. It’s important to seek help and to learn from the experiences of those who have applied before you. Read our list of common medical school application mistakes we hope you’ll avoid.

  • Not submitting your application within the first two weeks after the AMCAS opens in late May-early June.
  • Misunderstanding application deadlines. You decrease your chances of getting into medical school the later you submit due to rolling admissions.
  • Assembling an incomplete portfolio of letters of recommendation. Each school has different policies.
  • Writing a bland or unmemorable personal statement that simply rehashes your CV and extracurriculars. BORING!
  • Improper spelling or grammar in your application.
  • Crafting an unrealistic medical school list.
  • Choosing Caribbean medical schools when it isn’t necessary.
  • Naming the wrong medical school on a secondary.
  • Submitting your secondary applications late.
  • Not getting advice from people with experience. Look for a team with advisors who have served on medical school admissions committees and are physicians themselves!

Learn more about these common medical school application mistakes and how to avoid them.


What Happens After Medical School Primary Application?

Secondary Applications

There is limited time between your initial application and your secondary one, so ensure you understand the process and are prepared for what’s to come. After you submit your AMCAS or AACOMAS primary applications, you will receive secondary applications. These typically arrive within two weeks, usually at the end of June, and continue to arrive throughout the summer.

You should respond to your secondaires as soon as possible while still giving yourself enough time to thoroughly and thoughtfully complete your responses. The ideal response time is within 7-14 days.

Learn what to expect from your secondary application, including common questions and how to prepare. 


Many interview invites arrive between August and September, and they continue through the winter and spring of the following year. You should be prepared and ready for your interviews well in advance, as they could come through at any time.

Read our 11 Keys to Successful Medical School Interviews.

Don’t wait until you receive an invite to begin preparing. You should learn about possible interview questions, prepare your answers, and get plenty of practice before interviews are scheduled. When you are sent an invitation, you will be asked to schedule an interview, so ensure you have a flexible schedule during this time.

The most impressive applicant on paper can get rejected from medical schools without strong interview skills. We offer a course on How to Ace the Medical School Interview that provides comprehensive training to prepare you for your interviews.

Verify Important Components of the Primary Application

You should verify that AMCAS or AACOMAS has received your college transcripts, letters of recommendation, and MCAT score. If anything is missing, contact the necessary parties to get it resolved.

After all the time and effort you put in completing your application, don’t leave it up to someone else to ensure everything was received. Verify it yourself so that you are 100% certain all of your application components were received.

To learn more about the process, read our article: What Happens After Medical School Primary Application.


Make Your Medical School Application Stand Out

Med School Insiders will help you create a stand out medical school application, and we’ll help you make all of the right decisions to reach your full potential. Our team of doctors have years of experience serving on admissions committees, so you’ll receive key insights from people who have been intimately involved with the selection process.

Our Comprehensive Medical School Admissions Packages are designed to maximize your potential. We offer one-on-one advising, essay editing, application editing, mock interviews, and more based on key tactics that only the top performing physicians even know about. We’re dedicated to creating a generation of happier, healthier, and more effective future doctors, and we’ll help you become the doctor you’ve always dreamed of.

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