I’ve been promising this post to every med school hopeful I meet. Applying to medical school in the 2020s is a brutal, unfair, expensive and soul crushing process. Even if you have a parent who went to med school (and that’s a distinct advantage), keep in mind the application process has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. I’m not pretending to be an expert, but I’ll steer you towards the experts and hopefully help you avoid some mistakes.
You WILL MAKE MISTAKES. You’re going to waste time and money, you’re going to miss a deadline, you’re going to want to roll your eyes at friends who complain about the fees for two grad school applications when you’ve just dumped 5K and hundreds of hours into a process which 2 out of 3 applicants will need to repeat.
You’ll find I say WE a lot in this post. Especially as Hans geared up for his second round of applications, I spent masses of time researching all the best advice. I turned into a bit of an expert, but I wish we’d known all this sooner…
- Start early. Start early. Start early. Nothing is more important for med school applications than starting early. You should start preparing for your applications at the beginning of your freshman year of college, or as soon as you decide you want to study medicine. When you start actually applying, get everything in on the earliest date possible. Apps will often have a deadline of November 1st, but what they mean is July 1st. Med school apps are not like college applications where everyone goes into the same pool of applicants as long as you apply by the deadline– med school is more like a game of musical chairs. Schools fill up those chairs with the first qualified applicants. By November 1, they are 90% full and you’ll be lucky if they even look at your application. Get your AMCAS done in May and when those secondary applications start rolling in, get them done within one week of receipt.
- Get clear about admissions requirements. These fall into several categories: coursework, clinical experience, research, doctor shadowing, degree, activities, community service, etc. You’ll want to subscribe to the MSAR when you’re making a list of schools. But in the earlier stages–during your freshman or sophomore year of college- just look at the requirements of a school you like. They are all remarkably similar. Service, shadowing, research, etc. these are hundreds and hundreds of hours. You’ll need to start early or take a gap year. Here are the requirements at the University of Utah SOM.
- GET HELP. I truly believe every med school applicant needs someone to help them through the process. This person could be a spouse, parent, sibling or a paid consultant. It might be a friend, but it needs to be someone who will stay with you for a year, who will support you through the ups and down of the process, who will edit your essays w/in 24 hours, and push you to meet deadlines when you are weary of filling out secondary applications. Eighteen months ago, I would have scoffed at someone who hired a med school consultant. Now, I think it’s a good idea if you don’t have someone to help you. One round of med school applications costs about $5000 (waivers are available for some students). If you pay a consultant and get in the first round, the cost of consulting will pay for itself. I have heard amazing things about https://premedadvocates.com/ , though their prices run upwards of 10K. I would also look into Shemmassian. We didn’t use a consultant, and no one is paying me to promote them. I recommend their services simply because Shemmassian provides a wealth of free information for anyone applying to med school. I would highly recommend getting on their mailing list immediately. They are much less pushy than other consulting companies and give masses of information without asking for a sale.
- Sign up for Student Doctor Network. This forum holds a wealth of information. It’s full of generous people who give excellent advice through the entire process.
- Start your applications about 18 months before you want to enter med school. Shemmassian provides a great timeline. Everything about med school is early, early early.
- Prepare for the MCAT. Keep in mind– the MCAT is not like college entrance exams where schools look at your highest score. Many med schools will average your scores. So you want to take it once, you want to be ready, and you want to do well. Reddit can be a dangerous place for med school applicants (you WILL feel angry), but r/MCAT is incredible for MCAT prep. Keep in mind, the MCAT is just one piece of the puzzle. You need a high score, but it guarantees you nothing. I personally know a med school hopeful with a perfect MCAT score who applied to 36 schools and was not admitted to a single one.
- Choose excellent people for your letters of recommendation. Some schools provide help with these letters. BYU does not. The good news: the same four letters can be used for all your applications. Be sure to ask people who know you personally and can write with knowledge and conviction. Hans chose a professor he did research with, a professor for whom he worked as a TA, and two doctors he shadowed. It takes a great deal of time and energy to write a good recommendation, so be sure to thank your letter writers. Once again, start early! You can’t expect an excellent letter with two days notice!
- Get to work on your AMCAS (primary application). The AMCAS application opens during the first week of May each year for the following year’s medical school class. Since AMCAS submission doesn’t open until the first week of June, you’ll have about a month to begin working on your application before you can submit it. Budget 200-300 hours to finish your application. On the AMCAS, you’ll create a list of schools to receive your application.
- Take a look at the TMDSAS. This is the application for Texas med schools. If you’re from Texas, you’re in luck. You have a much higher chance of admittance than anyone else in the nation. Still, Texas schools take out of state applicants, and they especially like BYU students. The TMDSAS is similar to the AMCAS and costs considerably less (AMCAS $1030 for 20 schools vs. TMDSAS $200 unlimited schools). If you’ve completed the AMCAS, the TMDSAS will require 40-80 hours additional work.
- Create a school list. If you start working on this early, you can have a lot of fun with it. If you wait until you’re choosing schools the day you submit your AMCAS you’ll probably make a lot of mistakes. Applying to schools who won’t even look at your application is what we call “making a donation.”
- Start with schools who like graduates from your university. Most schools will have lists going back for several years (such as this one from BYU) and these are a goldmine of information.
- Get on Student Doctor Network and ask for advice about where to apply. You’ll receive excellent recommendations from people who are familiar with every med school in America.
- Subscribe to the MSAR to get more information about each school. Since we’re in Utah with exactly one medical school, we looked for schools who take out of state applicants.
- Unless you have some sort of early admission guarantee, you’ll want to apply to at least fifteen schools. 20-25 is a good number. More than that and you’ll get overwhelmed by the cost and the secondary applications.
- That said, if you love a school and want to apply, DO IT! It made no sense at all for Hans to apply to UNC and he’s happily studying in Chapel Hill at this very moment.
- Apply to as many schools as you like, but keep in mind, every secondary application will cost you $70-$170 and 10-40 hours of TIME.
- Get organized. Early on, Hans created a a spreadsheet in Google Docs to keep track of the schools he wanted to apply to, important deadlines and other information. He also created folders for AMCSAS and TMDSAS schools and shared all these folders and spreadsheets with me. As I said earlier, you need help. Sharing your deadlines and your essays with another person will strengthen your application.
- Keep a copy of everything you write. In those folders, Hans kept a copy of every essay he wrote. Many essays have similar topics. Don’t waste your energy! Cut and paste everything. You will see the same topics over and over and over. Also, never send in an essay without having someone read over it. We all make typos.
- Look at application season as a part time job. From approximately May 1 to the end of July you should plan on working on applications 20-30 hours a week. This isn’t the time to plan a long trip to Europe or to take two jobs. Most of your free time will be spent on primary and secondary applications. Once a secondary application arrives, complete and submit ASAP. The sooner you submit a high quality application, the more likely you will receive an interview.
- Do your research on the Casper test. This controversial test is meant to measure your empathy and ability to connect with other people. In truth, much of the test is about word count. The test changes every year, so do your research. SDN and Reddit can help you prepare.
- Your race does matter. Sigh. I almost skipped this section. Here’s the truth: historically, medical schools discriminated against people of color. In an effort to make reparations, schools are working hard to admit a more diverse cohort of students. This is well and good and necessary. Still, during the years while schools are working to align an historical imbalance, it is much harder for white and Asian students to gain admittance. If you fall into this category, apply early, do your best work, and you’ll get in. There are still innumerable advantages all throughout education for white and Asian students.
- Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. I hesitate to recommend SDN and Reddit for the process, because it’s difficult to get on those sites and refrain from comparing yourself with others. Hans rarely looked at those sites. It’s too easy to reduce yourself and others to GPA and MCAT scores. You are so much more than those numbers, other applicants are so much more, and your applications will reflect your service, research, clinical experience and passion for helping others. Also, there’s no sense in feeling jealous of the guy who was accepted to 22 med schools. You only need one.
- Keep a sense of humor. Applying to med school tests your grit, your perseverance, your bank account, and will certainly discourage you at times. Try to avoid spinning into negativity, and be sure to laugh about this ridiculous process. We especially loved this way-too-true mockery of applications from someone brilliant on Reddit.
As I wrote in an earlier post, Hans did almost everything wrong in his applications. More than anything, he tested and applied much later than recommended (silly Hans, he didn’t know November 1st actually meant July 1st). Everything above is from what he learned over the course of the year and as he started his second round of applications.
God stepped in and sent him to UNC School of Medicine. We are so grateful. Hans and I still can’t talk about it without getting teary.
Even though I’m so grateful for our miracle. I wouldn’t advise anyone to count on divine intervention. Following the advice above will make the entire process much more manageable, calm, and possibly even fun.
Please let me know if you have any questions or additions to this list. I’ll continue to update it. And you know, if you need help with essays, drop me a line.
Best of luck! We need more good doctors in the world!