Medical School Application Tips

May 14, 2015

It's that time of year! Medical school applications open up in the next few weeks and the experience can be quite nerve-wracking. Period. 

If you're anything like me, you've spent years preparing for medical school. It was my dream, my goal, my driving force. I knew I wanted to be a doctor and I worked really freaking hard to make sure I was well prepared. I did well in my classes, I found extracurricular activities that I genuinely enjoyed, and I built relationships with mentors that would be able to write me a recommendation letter. I spent years prepping for medical school. 

I was ready. But the one thing left to do was an application. [Gasp!]

Why was it so darn intimidating? 

Perfectionists, planners, and OCD students alike... I would like to encourage you to take a deep breath. It's truly not as bad as it seems (looking back on it) and I've outlined my best tips and advice to working your way through the application. 


There are several things you can do for yourself before you even start an application that will make your life much easier in the long run. It may seem unnecessary at first, but believe me, I'm so glad I did these things in advance.
  • Contact potential references for recommendation letters.
    • Arrange to talk to potential references to ask them whether or not they would be willing to write you a recommendation letter. Meeting in person is always preferable, but a professional phone call or email would work as well. Pay attention to their enthusiasm about helping; you really don't want someone to have a say in your future if they don't seem excited about helping you out. (Side note: choose people that know you well!)
      • If you are going to take a gap year or do something else for a while before you apply to medical school, make sure you stay in touch with your references. While I was in the Peace Corps, I sent bi-annual updates about my life to everyone I had asked to write me a letter. This helped them understand how my new life experiences affected my life and also made them feel more familiar with me when writing a recommendation. I highly recommend doing this! 
  • Research which schools you would like to apply to
    • Depending on whether you are applying to MD schools, DO schools, or both - get yourself a copy of MSAR (Medical School Admissions Requirements) for MD schools (you can order a hard copy or pay to have online access) or the Osteopathic College Information Book (CIB) for DO schools (which is a free pdf download).
    • Thumb through the schools to get a feel for where you might like to apply. Consider geographic location, specialty programs/honors tracks, admissions requirements, etc. 
      • I made an initial list of schools I was interested in and then I did more of my own research on the school websites. Take plenty of time to decide whether the school would be right for you!
    • Create a rough estimate of the cost of your primary/secondary applications. Plan to finance the application costs or consider applying to have your fees waived if you're eligible for that. It adds up quickly!
  • Order transcripts in early May 
    • Transcripts can take a while to process, so I recommend ordering your transcripts as early as possible. It will save you a potential headache in the future. You definitely don't want your transcripts to be the reason a school needs to wait to look at your file!
  • Send out letter requests via Interfolio
    • Since you've already talked to your references, now would be a good time to send out an interfolio request if you haven't already. Ask them to upload their letter of recommendation to that site and you'll be able to send it out to schools as soon as they do. Be sure to explain the details of how to upload and when you will need the letter. Using interfolio was very easy for me and it won't cost them a dime to use it. You'll pay to send them out to the schools, but they don't have to mess with any of the letter submissions themselves.  

You are going to feel like you're just a number... and you kind of are. Use that to your advantage, rather than feeling like you've completely lost your identity. Filling out a primary application is tedious and quite annoying, but unfortunately, there is no way around that. I'll speak to my experience with the DO application (AACOMAS) since I opted not to apply to any MD schools. On the AACOMAS application, the only writing you'll need to do is your personal statement and explanations of your work, extracurricular, volunteer, and community service experiences.
  • Personal Statement
    • This is where you get to SHINE! So many characters to highlight why you'd be the perfect candidate at their institution. Yes, it's a blanket essay for all the schools you apply to, but don't let that shy you away from talking about what makes you unique. 
    • Your personal statement should answer a few key questions: WHY YOU? WHY MEDICINE?
    • Get creative! I'll have another blog post dedicated entirely to the personal statement, but try out a couple different ideas and find what works best. 
    • Consider your audience. AHEM... your audience reads dozens of essays
      • I can't imagine having to be on an admissions committee. How painfully boring and also difficult to turn students away! Read your essay through the eyes of an admissions committee member - have they read 1,000 essays just like yours? Or do they want to meet you at an interview?
  • Experiences
    • These descriptions are shorter and should have a more direct feel than your personal statement. My approach to this was to (1) state what I did (2) point out any roles and responsibilities I had during that experience and (3) what I took away from the experience/how it will help my career in medicine. 
  • Editing Advice
    • 1st round of editing: have your best friend/significant other/relative read your essays and experiences section to see if it sounds like YOU
      • Don’t lose sight of YOU. Sometimes, it's easier to say what you think a school wants to hear, but believe me, they do not want canned answers. I remember writing a first draft of a personal statement and after sending it to my best friend, she literally just told me it wasn't going to work. She said, "That's not the Tate I know. You left your soul out of that. Say things like you mean it and write from your heart."  Was I irritated? Most definitely. I had no desire to go back and re-do something I had already finished. But believe me - I am SO glad that I did. 
    • 2nd round of editing: have anyone else willing to edit look over your writing for spelling/gramar errors and general flow 
      • It can be tough to find people who will actually edit your work. People are busy, so be sure to give them more than enough time so neither one of you gets stressed out about it. If you can't find anyone to help edit, you can actually pay people to edit your work. Someone recommended that I look at - a website where you can pay $5 to have people do various things - but there are tons of English enthusiasts ready to edit your work for a few bucks. That's always a great option if you need a second set of eyes - but be aware that they have a turnaround time as well. 
    • Don't be afraid to let go of an idea
      • I wanted to be creative and write a personal statement that related back to yoga. I could explain it all -because I actually drafted it - but it was a lot of unnecessary creative work. It would have been great - but it just wasn't. It was too much to try to cram into my character limit and I ended up selling myself short by not giving enough characters to my explanations of why I'd be great in medicine. Take home message? Give it up if it isn't working and move on to something else. 
  • Time frame
    • Earlier is better
      • AACOMAS applications can be submitted as early as June 1. If at all possible, submit everything on that date. Sure an extra week or so won't kill you, but there are thousands of other applicants that will absolutely be submitting their applications as soon as they can. Do yourself a favor and apply early so you can maximize  your chances of getting a secondary application and an interview. 

Now if you thought the primary application sucked, you're in for a treat. Secondary applications are different for every school and there's no way around all the work that's in store for you. Generally, each school will send you a separate application that has a handful of different essay promts for them to get to know you better. Once secondary applications start to roll in, you'll be swamped with essays to write. 
  • Ask/google for prompts you can work on ahead of time
    • Most schools won't advertise what the essay questions are, although I found a few that did. Ask friends in medical school if they remember the things they had to write about or do a quick google search to find example questions that may come up. It's helpful just to have an idea of what you'll have to write about so you can start brainstorming. 
  • Run a word cloud on each application & use those words to help them find what they’re looking for.
    • This might be one of the best pieces of advice that I followed. It takes a bit of work, but I found that it was very helpful. Grab the school's application/mission statement/program description/etc and copy all the information. Stick that copied text into a word cloud generator, like this one, and out pops the word frequency. You'll notice that each school has a distinct voice, if you will, and you should use that to your advantage. If the word cloud says that service, compassion, and intellectual curiosity pop up more than other words or phrases, you can put your money on the fact that that school wants to attract students that embody those values. Gear your essays to reflect the values they are looking for, but don't ever make it up. If you have a way to spin your life experiences along those values, great. If you don't think that those really define you, skip it. At your interview, you'll be asked about whatever you write about in your essays, so be sure that everything you say is genuine.
  • Customize EACH essay. No matter how tempting it may be to copy and paste
    • You may find that some questions from different schools sound similar. And that sneaking temptation to copy and paste the last essay you wrote will be hard to ignore. But don't do it. Customize every essay to align with the schools mission statement, values,  etc. It may seem annoying, but it's definitely worth it in the long run. I wrote new, unique essays for every single question. And it sucked. But you know what? It sounded a lot fresher and more sincere than a blanket essay that might have worked for multiple essay prompts.
  • ANSWER the question. Seriously.
    • It seems ridiculous, but the struggle is real, folks. We tend to get excited and go off about something - without realizing that we filled up our character count without actually answering the question. I'm totally guilty - I did it too. Ask your editors to read the question stems as well as your essays to get their opinion about whether or not your answered the question. Nothing will annoy admissions committees more! They asked specific questions for a reason and if you can't pay attention enough to their question, why would they want  you to be a doctor? Harsh reality check. Answer the question fully. 
  • Deadlines are important! But earlier is better. Submit the first day you can.
    • Just like with the primary application, it is easy to put things off when life gets busy, but pay attention to deadlines. Some schools will give you deadlines for when your secondary application is due, others will leave it open ended. Set your own deadlines. The earlier, the better - obviously, but I know life gets busy. I frantically wrote essays during breaks in my 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in India, and believe me, there were other things I would have rather been doing. Aim to write, edit, and submit about 7 days after you first receive the secondary. This shows that you're interested in the school and able to produce quality work in a short amount of time... AND you'll be considered for an interview in a more timely manner as well. If a week isn't possible, try not to stretch it out to more than two weeks. 
  • Edit, edit, edit. 
    • Same as before. Have your friends/family/etc. edit for voice, spelling, and grammar. 
  • Keep track of everything by making a master chart. 
    • It's going to be easy to forget details. Do yourself another favor and create a giant excel spreadsheet to help save your sanity. Keep track of when you received a secondary application, deadlines, submission dates, ID#'s, people you talked to about status updates, etc. Stay on top of those details so deadlines don't fly by and you can remember what needs to get done! 
  • Follow up.
    • Follow up with schools to be sure they received everything they needed. AACOMAS will send you messages if they have any problems, so don't forget to check that inbox either. Don't assume that everything is fine just because you submitted things... ! Some schools send you messages to let you know your application is complete, but if you haven't heard from a school, call the admissions office and see what's going on. Admissions offices are SWAMPED. They won't notice if you're missing something until it could be too late for you to be considered for a secondary/interview. Be proactive and follow up!

This might just be the toughest part of the application cycle. Once your application is complete, give yourself a pat on the back. The application alone is a lot of work and takes up a lot of your time!
  • Be patient.
    • Try not to be a mess of stress. Schools will get back to you as quickly as they can, so you might as well go back to enjoying your life. You'll hear one way or another, I promise. 
  • Have a beer, glass of wine, spritzer, sparkling water -whatever you prefer. 
    • But really, you should celebrate. It's a huge deal to apply to school to become a doctor! Celebrate with loved ones and wait for the good news to follow. All the application nonsense will be worth it in the end. :)

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