The medical school application process is a long one. It starts the year before you intend to start medical school, i.e., your junior year spring if you are going straight through or senior year spring if you are taking a gap year. That is all to say that the process starts relatively quickly if you are planning on going straight through. It is the first three years of your undergrad that will truly affect your application. In addition, the process is rolling and there is a significant demonstrated advantage to applying as early as possible, once you have your final spring junior year (or senior year) grades and MCAT scores.
We recommend following the timeline below and applying no more than 1-2 weeks after the initial application opens. This means looking at the application in advance and preparing all your answers and essays a few months before to be ready to submit once it opens. Furthermore, although you do have to wait for validation, most schools will send you secondaries immediately upon validation and will expect a turnaround of no more than 1-2 weeks for you to return them. This is difficult to do for multiple schools at once. However, most of the classic secondary questions are available online. We would recommend finding the questions for the schools you applied to and carefully preparing the secondaries during that validation period so that, once again, as soon as you are invited to complete that secondary, you can complete and submit it. This readiness will give you a decided advantage in the process.
A Strong Application
Ok, so you know how to time it all. And you know you have to be quick. But now you’re thinking “How do I make it a good application that gets me in?” The simple answer is that there are several checkboxes that get you in the door with the committee. Check off a reasonable number of these boxes and you’ll have a strong application that will get you considered. But it’s a little more complicated than just that so let’s dive into it!
I find the best way to think about your application is to think about it as an optimization problem. You have three to four years and need to maximize the underlying area between all of these checkboxes or points. Remember, NO ONE has a perfect application and no one can maximize all of these things. So don’t be discouraged if you feel one aspect is lacking. Your grades and scores will get you in the door so they are important. You need to not sacrifice that, although again, it’s ok if it’s not perfect. The other thing schools give weight to is that you show you know what it’s like to be in the hospital. This means doing some shadowing and some meaningful involvement with patients (but again, doesn’t need to be perfect). And for everything else, choose what you think you can maximize and focus on maximizing it rather than trying to do everything and doing a poor job.
Let’s look at some examples.
Student A: This student has fantastic grades and MCAT scores. They have done great research and have been involved in clinical and basic science research for a long time, showing commitment and a clear interest. They have publications from their work, including 1-2 first author publications that they can talk about independently. They have evidence of leadership in research and extracurriculars. However, although they have shadowed a little bit and volunteered some of their time, they don’t have a strong history of being involved in the hospital. This student is still a strong candidate. They should think carefully about hospital-related experiences because they will be asked in interviews. However, even though they didn’t maximize everything, they have shown a strong deep commitment and they will likely see the return on it in the application process.
Student B: This student has good grades and MCAT scores. They are heavily involved in public health outreach and in working with patients. They have worked for a long time at a diabetes clinic and have started their own initiatives there, showing strong leadership and a good understanding of what you can achieve as a physician and how it feels to work with a wide variety of patients. They have been involved peripherally in a few papers on their public health work but have not deeply invested in the research aspect of things. However, again, this is a strong candidate because they have a clear interest and have invested in it, and maximized their curve differently.
Student C: This student has good grades and MCAT scores. They have been involved in some clubs and have some minor leadership roles. They have done a little research but have bounced around a few labs to try different things and have some peripheral publications. They have volunteered at the local hospital but haven’t had a chance to take on a key role given the way volunteers get involved at that hospital. This person, in theory, checks all the boxes but they are mediocre in all of them. They may well still get in the door but they haven’t made as strong a case for themselves as they could have if they had focused their interests a little bit more.
*Emotional intelligence is a key aspect of this grid and is usually assessed in your interviews and essays. Even someone who is perfect on paper may not get in because they are perceived to be not a team player or not likeable. Keep that in mind as you go through interviews!
A Note on Grades
In our experience, pre-meds focus on grades to the exclusion of everything else. This is not necessarily wrong. As we discussed above, it is one of those key checkboxes. However, it’s important to remember that most competitive schools want more than just grades. Decent to good grades will get you in the door. But remember, good grades aren't everything. Many people get into medicine without perfect grades and many people with perfect grades don't make it.
You should show involvement in more than just school, and those activities should show depth and commitment. If it is research, show long involvement in projects over years, with clear impact and publications. If you do bench research, supplement with some faster-moving clinical research to ensure you have publications out before you apply. If you volunteer, choose an experience where you get to truly interact with patients and have a role on their team rather than just shadowing or helping with small tasks. If you are in a club or activity, take on leadership roles and be able to talk about how you contributed.
Aside from grades, this is one of the key components of your application out of everything described above. You are applying to medical school and they want to know that you understand what it means to become a doctor - what the highs and lows are, what the limitations can be of your practice, what it is like to work with patients, and what it is to go through the grueling training. They want to know that you have seen some patients, had some experiences in the hospital, and that you can express how you might deal with challenging situations that we commonly encounter as physicians.
Given all of this, it is incredibly important to not just shadow or just volunteer at a hospital where you have no real interaction with patients. It’s easy to make this mistake and volunteer at the biggest hospital in your area but this often means you are very limited in your role and your interactions with patients. Instead, we would recommend occasional shadowing at that large hospital so that you can understand what doctors do daily and see difficult pathologies and patient situations. (I say occasional because shadowing has limited return beyond a point if you are not able to participate actively). However, we would also recommend that you find a smaller clinic where you can have a more significant role in calling, coordinating, or counseling patients. Examples include performing intake surveys, transporting patients, volunteering as happiness ambassadors, or visiting patients who have no family. Those are roles that will allow you to develop those meaningful interactions. They will allow you to find your reasons to do medicine and describe what drives you.
The Secret Sauce
All of the above is going to get you considered and get you in the door. BUT the secret sauce that makes a great application is building a clear picture of what your passions are and how you’ve fully committed to them. Think of it as an application spike - all of your activities and interests come together naturally to describe your single passion and this passion logically leads to what you want to do in the future. This means doing multiple things that relate to your core interests (which should happen naturally) and then highlighting all those activities, classes, research projects, and experiences on your application as all building towards one clear interest and goal. This makes you unique, memorable, and interesting to schools because you bring a passion that you can then contribute to the class and continue to build on.
For example, if you are very interested in preventative health initiatives, you may have majored in biology and taken classes on public health and cost-effectiveness of preventative healthcare, etc., and then done research that studies the cost-effectiveness of these interventions, volunteered at free clinics that could especially benefit from that approach, and perhaps started some initiative of your own or written something that also contributes to that idea. Putting these activities together in your application with a clear goal of pursuing public health in your future career will make a compelling case to the school that you are passionate about medicine, have truly explored it, and that you will bring a unique angle to the class and add diversity. Of course, you may have other meaningful experiences that you should also talk about, but it helps if many of your activities align towards one clear common goal. It creates a memorable and compelling picture of who you are.
We hope this helps! Comment below with any questions or feedback. We are always here to help, and if research is one of your interests, this site will help you build that aspect of your application!