Tips and Timelines for Applying to Medical School

By Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed and Beth Gottesman, M.D.

The world always needs great doctors and so it is very exciting that you are considering this challenging and rewarding profession.  Getting into med school is REALLY tough, so you need to have a clear plan and a lot of discipline.  If this is your dream, then go for it with everything you have and never give up!
Here are some important points to consider:

  1. Your college major doesn’t matter if you are sure to take lab chem, O chem, bio, physics, English, Calc and stats. All med schools have individual requirements, so it wouldn’t hurt also to take biochemistry, cell biology, and anatomy if they are offered at your college. If you haven’t taken them, you will be locked out of schools you may really want to go to.
  1. GPA is a top factor, with MCAT scores. GPA isn’t looked at in a bubble, though; it has to be taken into account with your school and course load. A 3.9 from Harvard and a 3.9 from middle-of-nowhere community college are not the same. Most med schools have gone to more of a holistic approach, taking the application as a big picture, so it’s hard to say what is MOST important, though GPA Is certainly a very significant factor that shows your work ethic across four years.
  1. The MCAT costs about $300 and you need to do some kind of prep program in advance. You can do the MCAT prep even just the 2 months before actually taking the test. If you want to take the test during the school year (i.e. toward the end of your junior year), you want to do the prep over the winter and early spring. You want the review to be fresh in your mind when you take the test. Prep can cost >2K (Princeton Review), and they even have a $10,000 level (which is crazy, because in the grand scheme of things, this test is nothing!).
  1. Volunteer work at a hospital will show that you know and love the medical environment and that you are compassionate, but volunteering doesn’t need to be medical. An applicant who rose to be the top of an organization feeding the homeless and organizing 50 other kids to do so weekly is stronger than someone who just volunteers 2 hours/week at the hospital passing out newspapers. Medical doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t NEED to be medical.
  1. Actively seek a research internship through your college. Stay active in general on campus because the med school application allows you to list 15 activities.
  1. Get to know the premed advisor or committee at your college because they recommend you. Focus on this.
  1. Get to know several faculty, supervisors, and doctors very well so you have choices for rec letters.  AMCAS accepts up to 10, but do not submit that many. Aim for 3-4; 2 from professors in your hardcore science classes, 1 from someone you do research/work with, and maybe 1 other compelling person. Your college may also put together a committee letter from the pre-med committee; there are lots of different ways to do it, so each undergrad pre-med office will have their own recommendations for how many based on how they combine them or don’t.
  1. Interview and shadow as many doctors in as many various capacities as possible. This will inform your essays.
  1. Begin to think about why you want to be a doctor because everyone will ask you to answer that.
  1. Begin to ponder if there is a specific type of medicine that interests you, or if you have a strong desire to serve a particular demographic, like immigrants or rural communities. You do not need to know what kind of doctor you would like to be until much later. You can know an academic area that interests you (maybe after taking an undergrad course in it), but that happens so rarely because you are not exposed as an undergrad to very many different types of physicians.
  1. You have options to become a doctor: MD, DO, MD/PhD. Traditional medicine is biased towards becoming MD’s. Generally DO schools have easier admission requirements, but you also have to do all of the osteopathic manipulations (which are not commonly practiced). Most traditional applicants aim for MD schools and if after 2+ times of failing to get in (or if your family legacy is DO), then look toward DO schools. Do not go to the Caribbean. Nobody takes them seriously, and they cost upwards of 60K/year. MD/PhD is for kids who have done a TON of research and want that to be a big part of their long-term career. There are very few of them (only 6-10/year at The Ohio State University out of 220 med students, for example) but they are some of the smartest people ever.
  1. AMCAS opens in May for entry the following fall. You should have your application ready to submit on the day that it opens junior year (usually around June 1st). That means asking letter writers as far back as January of your junior year to write your letters; they are busy professors who can take up to 6 weeks to do it, and then the pre-med committee needs time to compile your application on their end. The later you wait to submit over the summer/fall, you run the risk of them running out of interview spots, even if you are awesome. Prepare to apply to 15-20 med schools in a broad range of safety, match and reach. The basic app costs $160 and the secondaries are $36 each.
  1. Prepare to do primary applications, then secondaries where you are invited, then flying to interviews where you are invited. Interviews occur from September-March during senior year. Med schools have “second look” events if you are trying to decide between a couple or just want to get to know more after you are accepted; those happen before the commitment deadline.
  1. You have an advantage to be accepted to the medical school in your home state.
  1. Look at out of state public schools only if they accept 20-25% out of state students.
  1. Look at out of state private med schools, but be honest with yourself about your finances and how much debt you are willing to incur. Out of state private can mean an extra 250-500K in debt over the 4 years.
  1. Compare schools using the Medical School Admissions Requirement  (MSAR). This is online. Read the Acceptance and Matriculation data in particular.
  1. Compare mission statements at each school.
  1. Compare teaching styles at each school: lecture vs. hands-on, group work vs. solo, pass fail vs. grades, class sizes.
  1. Aim for a base MCAT of 30-32, and the top schools want 37+.

Most med school applicants apply twice so do not be discouraged.  If you do not get in, CALL the admissions committee, ask to speak to the chair, and find out what was sub-par about your application. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but you’ll never know what you did wrong if you don’t ask. If you are not accepted the first time, spend the next year making yourself a stronger applicant.

Timeline Overview:

The application opens right at the end of junior year, so you are getting it all organized during spring of junior year, letting the application percolate through med schools during the summer between junior and senior year, and then interviewing from September-March of senior year. And repeating starting that following June if you don’t get in (assuming you don’t need more time to get your stuff together). Junior year is most common, but say you want to travel for a year after senior year, then you could move all that back to senior year and then do the interviews in the midst of your other travels.

You really only need one essay, so you can write it around the time you are asking for letters from letter writers (January-March of junior year). Sometimes letter writers like to see an essay, not only because they may be able to give advice on it, but also because they may not know a lot about the rest of you (say, outside the classroom or the lab) and may want to learn more about you.

Detailed (Aggressive) Timeline:

September of freshman year:Start looking into volunteer/regular activities that interest you. (There’s no shame in joining a dance team if it is something you love and the time commitment shows you are doing a lot to balance it in your life; med schools want well-rounded students who DO have fun–that makes for less awkward doctors in the end).

Throughout freshman year:Keep your eyes open for research opportunities; ask your professors for leads on projects if you like something they talked about in class, or if you’ve heard about some cool work being done.

Winter of freshman year:Probably not too early to meet with the pre-med counseling office and just let them know that you are interested and what you have done so far to start to prepare (class schedule, volunteering, etc.)

Sophomore year:Study hard, keep doing activities, and rise through the ranks. (Don’t just attend pre-med club meetings or once a month go to an animal shelter; become a leader in student groups, not a follower).  Think about when during your junior year you could take the MCAT.  Do research and really participate (don’t just clean glassware for other people to do the experiments, do some yourself!)

Beginning of junior year:Check in with the pre-med office.  Continue participating in activities that you find truly meaningful (you’ll be asked about them on interviews, and interviewers know when something was done just for the resume and not out of love; don’t think you can fool them, because patients lie to these doctors every day and they don’t buy it).  Start looking into MCAT prep.  Identify professors/research mentors.

Winter of junior year:Likely MCAT prep for a spring test date (this will be an awful time, doing college AND MCAT prep, but remember, it’s not forever!).  Ask meaningful teachers and mentors for letters of recommendation.  Meet with the pre-med counselor.

Spring of junior year:Take MCAT and rejoice when it is done.  Work with the pre-med counseling office to get all of your application parts ready for submission (including writing your essay, with the help of the pre-med office).

End of junior year/summer before senior year:Submit your application AS SOON AS YOU CAN, preferably within a day or two of the application going live. Then wait for secondary applications to individual schools and write their essays (not fun, but necessary).

Fall-spring of senior year:Continue doing activities (it’s suspicious if senior year you do nothing), and go on interviews!

Spring of senior year:Attend “second look” weekends at med schools you have been accepted to if you are having trouble deciding on one.

May of senior year:Accept one offer to go to med school.


Remember, if med school is your goal then with hard work you can achieve that.  Just NEVER give up!