Having a clear timeline in mind throughout college will help you adequately prepare for medical school applications. Understanding what steps you should take when will ensure you don’t burnout and that you are ready to submit your application as early as possible. Follow our college premed timeline for medical school applications, which outlines an ideal schedule for freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year.
When I look back on my time as a premed student at UCLA, perhaps the most instrumental asset that helped me succeed was the advice and guidance of those ahead of me. Upon further reflection, I realized there was one crucial thing I wish I had discovered sooner: a general timeline of tasks to accomplish prior to applying to med school.
When I entered undergrad, I did not have a good sense of this timeline. But when I grasped it about a year later, it made my goals much more attainable. Having a clear vision of what needs to be accomplished allows us to create a stepwise approach to climbing the mountain that is medical school acceptance, rather than trying to reach the summit in a single leap.
Keep in mind that this timeline is flexible. It is only a general idea of what should be done when. None of these suggestions are hard and fast rules. It is all a process, and things can certainly be done out of order.
Another important point to note is this schedule describes the timeline you might follow if you wanted to go to medical school directly after undergrad. In order to do that, you need to submit your primary application during the spring/summer after your third (junior) year.
Careful planning is necessary to prepare for application submission. If you choose the direct route (without taking time off after undergrad), you will aim to gain acceptance during your fourth year of undergrad to begin medical school in the fall after you graduate. The direct path is not mandatory. It is very reasonable, and common, to take time off after undergrad prior to entering medical school. You would then have one additional year to complete the tasks described below.
Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of the timeline.
Freshman Year — The Transition
The biggest thing to focus on early in freshman year is adjusting to college life and making this a smooth transition. At this point, there are no large demands in terms of tasks to accomplish for med school applications. Focus on getting into the swing of college life, both socially and academically. The transition to college can be challenging, so the first big step is making sure you are comfortable with your surroundings.
The next goal of freshman year holds true for each year, but it is particularly important early on: get good grades. This may seem obvious, but it can be easily overlooked amidst the distractions that come with the early college experience. Stay as disciplined as possible with your classwork while you enjoy yourself. Develop your study style/strategy, and stick to it.
Strive for consistency and discipline in your approach over last-minute cramming. No matter how you accomplish it though, the bottom line is this: the better your grades, the better your chances of getting into medical school. It’s as simple as that.
Without a solid GPA, acceptance is still possible, but it becomes increasingly difficult. So, what is good enough? It all depends on the schools you want to apply to. Shoot as high as possible because the higher your GPA, the more competitive you will be as an applicant.
Most medical schools strongly suggest having a minimum GPA of 3.0, but you should aim for much higher. Take a look at the statistics of recent matriculated medical school students for averages, but keep in mind that to be a competitive applicant, you need higher than average grades.
The last bit of advice to really drive this point home is don’t fall into an early hole with a low GPA. Come in focused and ready; give your best effort early on. It is tough to pull up your GPA after a couple of rough quarters. Starting off on the right foot is invaluable.
Sophomore Year — Research And Clinical Experience
Either towards the end of freshman year or at the beginning of sophomore year, your focus should shift to the next two goals: clinical and research experience. Both of these extracurricular activities are essential for med school applications. Get started early!
Try to secure a position in both areas at least before the halfway point of second year. The earlier, the better. Now, what specifically you choose to do in either of these arenas does not necessarily matter. What matters most is that you do both for a substantial amount of time so that you can write about them in your applications and discuss them at your interviews.
For clinical work, seek a position that will give you some solid clinical exposure, perhaps in a field of interest, so that you can gain an understanding of how the medical system works. Most schools have student groups and programs tailored to this. Or if your school has an affiliated hospital, you can usually approach the hospital volunteer department about available positions.
In terms of research, securing this position should be a bit more thoughtful, as research projects can be challenging and time-consuming (but also very rewarding). It ultimately comes down to finding a position so that you have the experience on your application. Again, seek out a field of interest if you have one. There are many kinds of research (i.e., basic science vs. clinical) and it does not matter what you choose to do.
What matters is that you work with a mentor who will guide you well during your time in the lab. And perhaps more importantly, this mentor can help you achieve a finished product (perhaps a publication, though this is certainly not necessary for medical school acceptance) as well as provide you with a strong letter of recommendation. Be mindful of the leadership and mentorship you might receive when seeking a research position.
Consider the relationships you build throughout your early years of college. This will be invaluable once it comes time to ask for letters of recommendation.
Read our full Letters of Recommendation Guide, which includes who to ask, when to ask, how to ask, what to provide, and common mistakes to avoid.
Junior Year — The MCAT and Application Submission
The summer before junior year, you must tackle perhaps the most daunting beast of the premed experience: the MCAT. It is certainly a difficult test that requires substantial effort and discipline. With that said, it is also a very surmountable hurdle.
If you plan to submit the AMCAS application by the summer of your junior year, you will need to complete the MCAT sometime prior to the spring of junior year. We recommend taking the MCAT during the summer between sophomore and junior year. This may seem early, but it is completely feasible. Most students have taken the majority of the premed prerequisites by this point, which helps with preparation for the MCAT. But in reality, the majority of your success on the exam will depend on independent studying outside of your coursework.
The timing relative to undergrad coursework is less crucial than one might expect. What is important is that you take the exam during a period when you have significant time to study for it. Another option that many students pursue is to take the MCAT during junior year, which is challenging, but certainly feasible. In either case, your score will be available by the end of junior year, allowing you to apply on time. If you are planning on a gap year or two, the MCAT can be delayed accordingly.
Our MCAT Study Guide covers MCAT basics, how the MCAT is scored, 7 MCAT study strategies, MCAT resources, FAQs, and more.
The second challenge to tackle during junior year is your medical school application. Applications open around the beginning of May each year, but you cannot submit your application until the end of May or early June.
The deadlines for submission vary by school but lie between October and December (which is in the fall of your senior year), but this is not the timeline you should follow. Apply as early as possible in the application cycle; in other words, try your absolute best to submit your application soon after submissions open.
The reason for this is most medical schools employ rolling admissions, which means applications are taken and reviewed as they arrive, rather than considering all applications at once after a submission deadline. Thus, the earlier in the season you apply, the earlier you receive secondary applications and the earlier you may be offered an interview.
Later in the season, there are fewer interview spots available, which may make it more difficult to obtain one. There is no reason to delay your application and risk this added hindrance to acceptance. Applying as early as possible is paramount. View our timeline, which includes both ideal and possible deadlines.
The last consideration during this year is securing the necessary items to submit the application itself: a personal statement, letters of recommendation, and descriptions of your work and activities.
The bottom line is that you will need to start the process during your junior year to allow them to be obtained and completed by the time June rolls around. Get the ball rolling on these by midway through junior year.
Senior Year — Secondaries, Interviews, and Acceptance
The fourth and final year is when it all comes to fruition! Before the finale, there are a few more key hurdles to clear. Once you have submitted your primary application to AMCAS, AACOMAS, or TMDSAS, you will then receive secondary applications from each school that wants to further evaluate you.
These secondaries essentially ask for further information in the form of short answers, brief essays, or, at times, longer essays. It will require a fair amount of effort to plug through all of these secondaries, so plan accordingly. If you sent the primary application in June, secondaries will roll in during the summer. Complete them as soon as possible after they come in, ideally within 2 weeks of receiving them.
Quality in your responses is important, but a timely reply is also key, as this will make you eligible for an interview that much sooner. Time is of the essence in this process.
Once the secondaries are taken care of, it’s interview time. Sometime early in your fourth year of college, you will need to start preparing for interviews. Early on, you will practice, prepare, and likely perform some mock interviews as well.
The interview season can start as early as September and continue until as late as April of the following year, depending on the school. Any time during this period, you may be contacted by schools for an interview, so stay ready. Medical school interviews are generally conducted in person, meaning you must travel to the school’s campus. This is an awesome chance to experience the city and the program, and it’s also a great opportunity to demonstrate your caliber as an applicant.
Read our Medical School Interview Guide, which covers common interview questions, preparation advice, what to wear, and mistakes to avoid.
The last and sweetest step of the process is acceptance! In October, medical schools begin sending acceptance letters. You may be contacted any time thereafter. You can hold multiple acceptances until mid-May when you must commit to one school.
At this point, you get to bask in the tremendous honor of joining the ranks of the medical profession as a future doctor! Enjoy it because you have certainly put in the blood, sweat, and tears to earn this moment.
If you do not receive an acceptance, you might be put on a waiting list. See How to Get Off Medical School Waitlists — 7 Strategies for more information.
College Premed Timeline: Putting It All Together
- Adjust to college life
- Develop habits and study strategies
- Focus on getting good grades
- Acquire clinical and research experience
- Build strong relationships for letters of recommendation
- Create an MCAT schedule (if taking the MCAT in the summer)
- Take the MCAT (summer before or during junior year)
- Primary application
- Personal statement
- Letters of recommendation
- Work and activities
- Decide which schools you’ll apply to
- Secondary applications (summer before or early fall)
- Follow up with letters of interest or a letter of intent
- Admissions decisions
We break down the process even further in our Medical School Application Timeline, which includes deadlines and a complete month-by-month preparation schedule.
Understanding the timeline of tasks to accomplish in order to gain acceptance to medical school is key to your success. Getting into medical school is an arduous process. Take it step-by-step. Accomplish your goals one at a time. As much as you can, enjoy the process because in medicine, it really is about the journey, not simply the destination.
If you have any questions, please reach out to the Med School Insiders team at any time. We can help with the entire application process, from MCAT tutoring to essay editing to mock interviews to secondary editing.