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Winging It: Medical School Application Overview

The first time I applied to medical school, I did it in the dark. I was not familiar with the components of the primary application (AMCAS), I did not understand the critical timing of primary and secondary submissions for rolling admissions, and I more or less wrote my entire application on the fly. I had to scramble to line up people to write my letters of recommendation, scramble to read about specific programs and complete secondaries, and scramble to book a last-minute flight to the one school that invited me for an interview late in the process. It should come as no surprise that I did not get into a single medical school that first round.

|| Read Emily’s Path Part I ||

My “winging it” approach to medical school applications the first cycle was one that had worked well for me throughout college. Exams, presentations, debates – I found that, under pressure, I could always study and prepare enough to do well. I am sure that many readers can relate to this. Perhaps you even got away with fairly minimal studying to get a strong MCAT score. Used to last-minute success, during my first year applying I was unprepared not only for the application but also for the rigor of consistent work and studying required for success in medical school. In a way it was a blessing not to get in, because it saved me the trauma of experiencing failure downstream of the application as a medical student. I had to reassess not only my approach to the application, but also my strategy of preparing for important meetings, presentations, and exams.

|| Read How I Study in Medical School ||

Preparation in medical school means consistent daily studying and taking the time to work through cases. You are no longer simply trying to answer problem-set questions – you are coming up with solutions to problems in human health that are typically not clear-cut. You must thoughtfully examine different diagnostic possibilities, management options, and potential outcomes, while optimizing your care for an individual patient. Your decisions as a doctor will affect people’s lives. In other words, you cannot “wing it.”

|| Read Emotional Intelligence in Medicine ||

I submitted the application that was ultimately successful in June of 2012, at the beginning of the application cycle. By then I knew the AMCAS in and out, had letter writers lined up six months ahead of time, and had completed the first draft of my personal statement by February. I had time to edit, rework, and polish that statement and descriptions of my “activities.” I had time to seek edits from peers and a writing tutor. While the actual content of my resume did not change much from one application to the next, my presentation of it improved thanks to additional information, organization, and planning.

|| Read Should I Use Medical School Admissions Consulting ||

One of the reasons that I joined ProspectiveDoctor was to provide information to applicants that I did not have or seek out when I first applied to medical school. What I tell premeds now is that it is critical to know what the process really looks like before embarking down the application path. It is easier to walk through a long tunnel with the lights on, after all.

If you are already familiar with medical school applications, you can stop here. For those of you still new to it, here briefly are a few things that I think you should know as a medical school application overview:

  • Medical school applications span from June the year before you plan to matriculate to the following spring.
  • If accepted, you make a final decision about where you will go on April 15.
  • If you are waitlisted, you may be accepted up until the day that classes begin (typically in August), so you may have to begin reapplying while you are still on a waitlist.
  • The medical school application process consists of a primary application, secondary applications, and interviews.
  • You submit a primary application first, which is similar to the Common Application for undergraduate studies, and includes personal demographic information, educational history including coursework and grades, MCAT scores, extracurricular activities descriptions, a personal statement, your list of letter writers, and your list of schools. You pay a fee for each of the schools to which you apply.
  • You need at least three letters of recommendation. Two letters should be from science faculty that have had you in their classes, and one should be from a non-science faculty member. You should request letters early and select people that you believe will write you strong letters. (Read Medical School Letters of Recommendation)
  • Once you have submitted your primary, you will be invited to complete secondaries, which are supplemental applications (that come with a supplemental fee), by the individual schools. Secondary applications will ask you to address questions specific to the programs at each school.
  • Once your file at an individual school is complete (you have submitted your primary and secondary, your MCAT scores have been reported, your academic transcripts have been verified, you have paid all of the fees, and your letters of recommendation have been submitted) you may be invited to the school for an interview.
  • Interviews are conducted on-site with students, faculty, and admissions officers. Interview formats vary from school to school, but there is generally a full day or half day of activities planned. (Read Types of Medical School Interviews)
  • Most schools have rolling admissions, which means they start to extend offers for acceptance as soon as they have interviewed applicants that they like. This means that timing matters. The primary application opens for submissions at the beginning of June. Your primary should be complete and ready to submit shortly after this opening date. You should try to submit your secondaries as quickly as possible after getting them so that your file is complete early in the process, which will give you more flexibility for scheduling interviews.
  • My approximate timeline: June 2012 submit primary; June-September 2012 submit secondaries; September 2012-February 2013 interview; after interviews wait for acceptance/waitlist/rejection notices; April 15, 2013 make a final decision; August 2013 begin medical school.

If this snippet is your first introduction to the medical school application process, let it be your jumping off point to start preparing. While all of this may seem overwhelming, it is better that you begin processing it ahead of time and go into applications armed with the knowledge of what’s ahead. The application is a major hurdle, but a successful approach to it will set you up to face even greater challenges as a medical student and future doctor.

|| Read Frequently Asked Questions by Premeds ||

Emily Singer

Emily is a writer for She graduated from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and is currently a general surgery resident at Ohio State University. She is a graduate of Stanford University, holding Bachelor’s degrees in Economics and Russian Languages and Literature. After graduating in 2009, Emily worked as a research analyst at a health policy consulting firm and a research scientist studying green products chemistry at a San Francisco-based startup. Emily’s interests include health policy, medical education, and global health.

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