One of the most effective blueprints of success is to emulate those who have been successful before you. Though we must all forge our own path, following the example of those who came before is a simple but solid approach to any goal. Medicine is no exception. When I look back on my time as a pre-med 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 realize that one thing that was crucial, and something I wish I had discovered sooner, was 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 vision, a clear sight 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. With that in mind, I will share with you my general advice on the timeline of medical school acceptance.
Before I get into the specific advice though, let me preface this post by stating 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 the order I present here.
Another important point to note is that my outline 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 the AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) primary application during the summer after your 3rd year or the fall of your 4th year of undergrad. I will provide more detail on this process later, but it is good to know upfront when the applications occur.
With this in mind, 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 4th year of undergrad and begin medical school in the fall after you graduate. Now I’d like to stress one point here. The direct path is not mandatory. It is very reasonable, and perhaps even the norm, to take time off after undergrad prior to entering medical school. So everything I describe below could be shifted to fit that schedule. For example, you would have about one additional year to complete the tasks I describe if your goal is to apply after your fourth year of undergrad and have one “gap year.” Keep this in mind when reading—this schedule pertains to someone who will not take a gap year, but can be adjusted to fit the goals of any applicant.
Alright, enough discussion. Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of the timeline.
FRESHMAN YEAR — THE TRANSITION AND THE GRADES
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. Rather, one should focus on getting into the swing of college life, both socially and academically. The transition to college can be challenging, and thus making sure that you are comfortable with your surroundings is the first big step.
The next goal of freshman year holds true for each year, but is particularly important early on: get good grades. This seems obvious, but can be easily overlooked amidst all the distractions of the early college experience. While enjoying yourself, I would recommend staying as disciplined as possible with your classwork. Develop your study style/strategy and stick to it. Strive for consistency and discipline in your approach, rather than last-minute cramming. Dr. Jubbal has a number of outstanding posts describing advice and strategies to assist with this. Check them out and you will not be disappointed (Discipline, Study Strategies Playlist). No matter how you accomplish it though, the bottom line is this: the better your grades are, the better your chances are of getting into medical school. It’s as simple as that. Without a solid GPA, acceptance is possible but becomes increasingly difficult. So what is good enough? I would say shoot for above a 3.5 GPA at least. In reality, you should shoot as high as possible because excellence should always be the goal, particularly in this field. But in the GPA range of 3.5 and above gives you a great chance to be competitive when the time comes to apply. The last bit of advice to really drive this point home is don’t fall into an early hole of a low GPA. Come in focused and ready and give your best effort early on. It is tough to pull up your GPA from a couple of rough quarters. This is why I think starting off on the right foot is invaluable.
SOPHOMORE YEAR – THE RESEARCH AND CLINICAL EXPERIENCE
Either towards the end of freshman year or at the beginning of sophomore year, the focus should shift to the next two goals: clinical and research experience. Both of these extracurricular activities are essential for med school applications. Do them and do them early! I would recommend attempting 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 is that you do both for a substantial amount of time, so that you can write about them in your applications and discuss them on 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 generally approach the hospital Volunteers Department about available positions.
In terms of research, securing this position should be a bit more thoughtful in my opinion, as research projects can be challenging and time consuming (but also very rewarding). But 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 med school acceptance) as well as provide you a strong letter of recommendation. Be mindful of the leadership and mentorship you might receive when seeking a research position.
JUNIOR YEAR – THE MCAT AND THE APPLICATION
During junior year, you must tackle perhaps the most daunting beast of the premed experience: the MCAT. It is certainly a difficult test which requires substantial effort and discipline. With that said, it is a very surmountable hurdle. Check out Dr. Jubbal’s posts and video playlist on great tips for how to tackle this exam. If you plan to submit the AMCAS application by the summer of your junior year (see below), you will need to complete the MCAT sometime prior to the spring of junior year. I decided to take the MCAT during the summer after sophomore year (or 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 help a bit 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. Thus, 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. This is what made summer the ideal time for me. Another option which many students pursue is to take the MCAT during junior year, which is challenging but certainly feasible. In either case, your score report will be available by the end of junior year, allowing you to apply on time. This is the key. And remember, as I mentioned before: if you are planning on a gap year or two, the MCAT can be delayed accordingly!
The second challenge to tackle during junior year is the AMCAS application. There will be an upcoming post discussing this topic in more detail, so stay tuned for that. For now I will stick to the basics. In 2017, the AMCAS application became available to be filled out on May 2nd. It cannot actually be submitted to schools until June 1st. The deadlines for submission vary by school but lie between October and December (which is in the fall of your senior year). Here is one absolutely critical piece of advice: apply as early as possible in the application cycle; in other words, try your absolute best to submit your application on or soon after June 1st! The reason for this is that most medical schools employ “rolling admissions.” What this means is that 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 (see below) 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. Therefore applying as early as possible is paramount! Med School Insiders offers some excellent services to help you submit a truly stellar AMCAS application.
The last consideration during this year is securing the necessary items to submit the application itself, most notably a personal statement and letters of recommendation. Again, see our pre-existing posts for more detailed recommendations on both of these topics (personal statement post 1, post 2, letters of recommendation post). 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! I would recommend getting the ball rolling on these by midway through junior year.
SENIOR YEAR – “ THE “SECONDARIES,” INTERVIEWS AND ACCEPTANCE!
The fourth and final year–when it all comes to fruition! Before the finale, there are a few more key hurdles to clear. Once you have submitted your primary AMCAS application (the primary is a common application that is used by most US medical schools), 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 longer essays at times. 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. My approach was to crank them out as soon as possible after they came in, and I would recommend others do the same. Quality in your responses is important but a timely reply is also key, and will make you eligible for an interview that much sooner. You may be noticing that time is of the essence in this process.
Once the secondaries are taken care of, it’s interview time. Sometime early in fourth year of medical school you will need to start preparing for interviews. In general though, early in fourth year 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, 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 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 also a great opportunity to demonstrate your caliber as an applicant.
The last and sweetest step of the process is acceptance! After October 15th, medical schools begin sending acceptance letters. You may be contacted any time thereafter, and can hold multiple acceptances until May 15th, when you must commit to one school (dates may be subject to some variation by year). At this point you have earned a tremendous honor to join 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.
This has been the lengthiest post I have written yet, but for good reason. I think the timeline of tasks to accomplish in order to gain acceptance to medical school is perhaps the most valuable and applicable knowledge I can pass along to premed students. I truly hope this knowledge helps prepare you for what lies ahead. But above all else, remember this: getting into medical school is an arduous process, no doubt. Take it step by step. Accomplish your goals one at a time. I ensure you that with planning, preparation, and perseverance, your dream will become a reality. And most importantly, enjoy the process because in medicine it really is about the journey, not simply the destination.