Applying to medical school is a long process! It takes about 18 months, or three semesters; this means if you want to begin medical school in August, you should start the process in February or the beginning of the spring semester of the previous year.
Here’s a sample timeline:
1. Getting your materials together (February-June)
The most critical phase of the application process takes place before you actually apply. This is when you take the MCAT, line up letters of recommendation, and get your documents in order. Most schools have rolling admissions, so delay equals disadvantage.
- Obtaining academic documents/transcripts. If you have been out of school for some time or attended multiple schools, this may take some time and effort.
- Taking the MCAT. For your application to be processed with the first group of submissions, the MCAT must be taken by April of the year you apply. Many applicants take it even earlier, over winter break, so that MCAT preparation doesn’t interfere with spring courses.
- Letters of recommendation. You will need at least three, and up to six (eight for MD/PhD candidates). You should have at least two letters from professors who taught you at your undergraduate institution; at least one of them should be from a non-science course. If you have had a major research or clinical experience, you should have a letter from that advisor. In general, you should also have at least one letter that speaks to your character, rather than just your academic performance. Start thinking early on about who you want to write your letters, and don’t wait until the last minute to ask!
- Thinking about where to apply. It’s never too early to start researching schools. The MSAR (Medical School Admissions Requirements), published by the AAMC each year, is available at most college pre-med offices and is a good place to start.
2. AMCAS/TMDSAS (June-September)
Most U.S. medical schools use a common application, the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). The University of Texas system, as well as some private Texas schools, have their own application, the Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS); the deadlines are earlier for TMDSAS, but the overall process is the same. The AMCAS site opens in early May and begins accepting applications in early June. The application is long; fortunately, most sections can be prepared in advance.
- Biographic/demographic information: Fairly straightforward, but does include questions about where you grew up and your parents’ income.
- Academic record: This includes all college and post-college grades, and is used to calculate your GPA.
- Activities: This includes employment, research, volunteering, and extracurricular activities. You can list up to 15. You can choose up to three as “most meaningful’; for these, you get additional space to describe how and why.
- Essays: This is the most time-consuming part of the AMCAS application. Most applicants have to write only one, the personal statement, but if you’re applying to MD/PhD programs, there are two additional essays: one explaining why you are applying for the dual degree, and another describing your research (that one will mostly be read by the PhD admissions committee, and should contain a fair amount of technical detail).
The AMCAS personal statement is the centerpiece of the application. You have 5300 characters —just under a page and a half — to tell your story, describe why you want to be a doctor, and make your case for admission to medical school. There is no ideal way to write it, but regardless of format, it should answer the questions every admissions committee will have: Why do you want to be a doctor, and what do you plan on doing with your medical career?
3. Secondary Applications (June-September)
About three weeks after you submit your AMCAS application, you will begin receiving secondary (school-specific) applications. Secondary applications vary considerably among schools; some will just ask you to confirm demographic information and pay a fee, while others will ask you to write multiple additional essays. Writing these essays can be time-consuming, but it is good preparation for interviews, where you will be asked many of the same questions. A few common essay prompts (not a comprehensive list): How will you contribute to the diversity of the entering class? What is your most rewarding experience or achievement? What areas of medicine/research are of particular interest to you?
You can’t get an interview at a school until you submit their secondary, so try to turn them around within two weeks.
4. Interviews (October-February)
Finally, there are interviews. Once you submit your secondaries, you should start getting interview offers. Most interviews are from November through January, but October interviews are becoming more common. Med school interviews today take many forms:
- Traditional: These usually last half an hour, and can cover whatever topics the interviewer chooses, but focus on your application. An interview day will include at least two, often one with a faculty member and one with a current student.
- Multiple mini-interviews (MMI): Think speed dating: you rotate through multiple stations in which you will be asked either to answer a question or to role-play a scenario. Each station generally lasts ten minutes: two minutes to prepare, and then eight for the “interview.” The point is less to probe your application and more to see how you think on your feet. Schools will inform you ahead of time if they use this approach.
- Panel interviews: Some schools interview multiple applicants at the same time (often three candidates with three interviewers), or have multiple faculty members interview a single applicant.
The best way to prepare is to practice, ideally with someone who has been through the process themself, and can give you feedback and advice.
Most medical schools have rolling admissions, so you should receive a decision (accept, waitlist, or reject) within a few weeks of interviewing, but a few schools don’t release decisions until all applicants have been interviewed.
5. Navigating traffic rules (February-August)
The application process doesn’t end with your first acceptance! There are rules around holding acceptances, known as “traffic rules”:
- You should receive decisions from all schools at which you interviewed by March 15.
- You can hold as many acceptances as you like until April 15.
- After April 15, you can only hold three acceptances (not including spots on the waitlist).
- After April 30, you must choose one acceptance and decline all other offers. Again, this doesn’t include waitlist positions.
- If you get in off a waitlist after April 30, you have five days to accept or decline. If you accept, you must immediately withdraw the place you were previously holding.
It’s a long process, but investing time and effort in preparation can pay big dividends at the end. Good luck!
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