“Hindsight is always 20/20” – What I Learned From Applying to Medical School

This idiom has never been more true than when applying to medical school and realizing the shortcomings of your application only AFTER you have had some time to reflect upon it while waiting to hear back from schools. And trust me, I have had plenty of time to think about it. That is why I want to share these pointers below, so that maybe it could help someone else before they put in all that time and money to apply.

These are the things that I wish I would have done differently, that would have made my application more competitive. Note that these pertain to my application specifically, and yours :

1. Apply early: this is stated in almost every advice article about applying to medical school and re-emphasized by countless former and current pre-med applicants. But I am going to state it again, because it is THAT important. The reason why it is important to apply early is that schools admit on a rolling basis, and the later you submit your application (I am referring both to the primary AMCAS application, and the secondary application), the more you run the risk of your application being reviewed after the school has seen and extended many interview invites, and even acceptances, to other students. Thus, you are competing for fewer and fewer spots. Especially if you don’t think your application is very competitive, it advised to submit as early as possible. The AMCAS application opens up the first week of May, and you can start submitting it the first week of June. So get cracking! I submitted my application in mid-July, which I thought was on the early-to-right-on-time, but even that seemed to be a little late, since many people are catching on and submitting early.

2. Get great letters of recommendation: This really starts way before you apply to medical school – making the connections with professors, supervisors, mentors, etc. To get great letters of recommendation, it’s best to have the letter writers actually know you. Many professors can write ordinary letters for students (I have heard that some professors even have templates, or have the students write it for them!), but think of how much more your letter can stand out if your professor knew you and of your capabilities. Think of how difficult it would be for you to write a glowing recommendation for a student you barely know, and make that unique among many other students who have asked you as well- what could you say about the student other than saying “she did well in my class and is thus academically competent”, which is true for many well-qualified applicants anyways? Of the 4 letters that went along with my application, I can only be confident that 1 (maybe 2) of those letters were considered “strong”. The rest were probably re-hashes of a template, even though I did very well in their classes.

3. Look into D.O. schools: What are D.O. schools? These are medical schools that train people to become Doctors of Osteopathy. They are still doctors in every sense, but they receive additional training in the body’s muscle-skeletal system so that they can treat the patient holistically rather than looking at a single symptom or illness. If you want to learn more about D.O. schools, check out this website, which does a good job of summarizing what it is. I’m not sure why, but D.O. schools are easier to get into than M.D. schools – maybe because M.D. is the traditional route, and more widely recognized than D.O., but D.O.s are still respected, still licensed doctors, get hired by hospitals, etc. My vice is that I did not look into D.O. schools. I heard about it, and I knew that they were less competitive than MD schools, but at the time I was applying, I did not have the mental bandwidth to research and apply to these other sets of schools. Yes, D.O. schools have their own application (AACOMAS), separate from the AMCAS. I don’t think I was ready to begin to write another personal statement as to why I wanted to attend a D.O. school, when I didn’t know much about D.O. schools anyways. Now, I shouldn’t perpetuate the stereotype that D.O. schools are “back-up” schools for those applying to M.D. schools, but it is true for many people. Yet, there are people who truly believe in the D.O. philosophy and apply to these schools out of earnest. However, from the perspective of an applicant, if you are simply applying to D.O. schools as back-ups, I would gather that it would be a harder task because schools know they are often back-ups, and would try to tease out these students from the ones who truly want to be a D.O. and believe in its philosophy.

4. Solid clinical experience: This is specific to my application, but it can be true for many other applicants. At least some kind of clinical experience is crucial, and this makes fundamental sense. How can you protest that this is your passion and dedicate the rest of your life to this career if you don’t have a sense of what doctors do, the work environment, etc.? Now, because I haven’t actually received real feedback from schools yet about my application (more about that later), this is just speculation. But after writing all those secondaries and reading pre-med forums, I think I might have been lacking in this department. Sure, I volunteered in the hospital for 2 years, but I think I should have shadowed a doctor at least. If I followed a physician around and got a sense of what they really do, day-to-day, maybe my application would have been more credible. I say how passionate I am about becoming a doctor, yet I only have a vague sense of what being a doctor really entails. I remember for one school, the secondary application essay prompt was almost impossible to answer if I did not have clinical experience involving physicians. And I didn’t have much, so you could imagine how much fluff I had to put into the essay.

5. Don’t overestimate your application / Don’t underestimate how competitive medical school admission is: I don’t know if this is just me, but I waver between thinking my application is pretty good and I’m a darn-good candidate (my personal statement is spot-on, at least according to my editors), and “Oh crap, so-and-so did this, or has this score, and I don’t – I’m screwed.” Unless you are that stellar applicant and got a 4.0/36+ MCAT and build homes in Africa, this may not apply to you (I use “may” because there are still no guarantees). In any case, don’t underestimate how competitive applying to medical school is. This is faulty thinking, and I was a victim of it. Whatever holes you think you have in your application, fill them. If you think your GPA is not high enough, do whatever you need to bring it up- maybe take some extra classes, especially if they are science classes. And if you’re like me, and it is your MCAT score, re-take it, but only if you’re thoroughly prepared and sure that you can score better than before (trust me, it does NOT look good to do worse on your MCAT). If it is your lack of clinical experience, or “diversity” experiences, then go out and find some. Thus, this “my application is not good enough” thinking may actually motivate you to boost your application. If you think you’re a bit late, and realized this AFTER you submitted your primary application, go ahead and do those things anyways. Medical schools allow updates (such as transcripts and new activities), and some even ask for it in their secondary application. But if you haven’t started to apply yet, take an objective look at your application (or get an academic counselor to do so) and see what areas you can improve on.


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