Applying to medical school is a daunting task. The medical school admissions process stands alone among the graduate school options (business, law, PhD, etc.) as the most complicated, demanding, and expensive. Discounting the time required to fulfill the pre-med course requirements, the medical school admissions process generally takes 14-17 months including sitting the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), obtaining recommendations, completing the AMCAS application, writing secondary application essays, interviewing, and executing a post-interview strategy. With the many tasks required to gain entrance to medical school come numerous opportunities to misstep. There are certain errors that are more likely to sink an application and your chances of becoming a doctor – the “Seven Deadly Sins.”
I. MCAT: Uneven Score
Though you may believe standardized testing is a moneymaking monopoly that does not appropriately assess your ability to be a doctor, it is a necessary evil. And as much as they hate to admit it, admissions committees pay attention to the score. Interestingly, an applicant who scores PS 14 WS Q VR 6 BS 10 (30Q) is worse off than one who scores PS 10 WS Q VR 10 BS 10 (30Q). Admissions committees are looking for consistency and, for the most part, view each part of the score equally. Some admissions committees place more weight on the “numbered” scores (Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, Biological Sciences) than on the “lettered” score (Writing Sample). However, this is not a universal belief and you should focus as much time on the writing part of the test as on the other three parts. In addition, do not take a left side of the brain approach and disregard the MCAT’s Verbal Reasoning section. Data show an applicant’s Verbal Reasoning score correlates with their performance on the USMLE exams, a point admissions committees take very seriously.
II. Recommendations: “Famous” Recommenders
Think of recommendations as a way for the admissions committees to find out what you are really like and to show your well-roundedness. Recommendations are notorious for making or breaking an application. One luke-warm or (cringe) outright negative recommendation can sink your chances of becoming a doctor. Focus on obtaining recommendations from individuals who know you well as opposed to big-name professors you have never met. A glowing recommendation from your advanced biology teaching assistant whose office hours you visited weekly will be much stronger than a two-line recommendation from your dad’s famous researcher friend who you met once at the mall. The power of a recommendation stems more from the letter’s content than from the author’s credentials. Coaches, community service leaders, and principal investigators may make excellent recommenders. One trick in obtaining recommendations is to ask a teaching assistant or post-bac in the lab who knows you well to write the letter, and then have the professor or principal investigator co-sign the same letter. Here are a few more tips on how to obtain excellent recommendations:
- Be sure you know the recommendation rules of each medical school. Some schools require two science recommendations. Others (such as Harvard) now require a recommendation from every research supervisor listed on your AMCAS work/activities section. Some schools do not count math as a science. The Texas schools can be particularly picky about such things. Check with each school either by searching the website or calling the admissions office.
- Speak with your undergraduate institution’s pre-med advisor to determine if your school sends a pre-med committee letter of recommendation. If so, institution-specific rules and deadlines often exist. Be sure to know the details for your school and hit the deadlines. It looks very bad to medical school admissions committees if your school usually sends a pre-med committee letter but does not send one for you.
- When asking for recommendations, be sure to set up a face-to-face meeting with the potential recommender and explicitly ask for a strong recommendation.
- Bring each recommender an updated résumé, transcript copy, personal statement (if complete), and detailed instructions on how to submit the recommendation.
- Always waive your right to see the recommendation.
III. Personal Statement: Creativity Gone Bad
The personal statement causes great stress for many medical school applicants. Personal statement authors often use creativity in attempt to compose essays that stand out amongst the stacks of other personal statements. Using creativity appropriately, such as starting the essay with an interesting anecdote seamlessly tied to the overall statement theme, can certainly help the admissions officer remember your essay. But a fine line exists between originality that works and that doesn’t. Here are some examples of creativity that often does not work:
- Starting the personal statement with a quote. Quotes feel innovative and interesting. Yet, after reading hundreds of personal statements, I can attest that starting with a quote rarely works. Instead of creative, quotes usually appear trite and even a bit cheesy. Skip the quote and use an anecdote instead.
- Writing the statement as a poem or rap. I have simply never seen a poem-like essay work. They often come off as juvenile.
- Over-utilizing foreign language skills. Though you may be fluent in one or more languages, the medical personal statement is not he best place to show off these skills. Write the essay in English. It is acceptable to use a foreign word or phrase to make a point, but limit these references.
IV. AMCAS Activities: Space Fill
Medical school admissions committees place more weight on AMCAS work/activities that show leadership and dedication over a period of time. They look down on repeats and “fluff” activities. Don’t fill the space just to fill the space. It is better to include five long-term activities where you held a leadership role than fifteen activities you performed for a semester. Take a look at the following abbreviated activity descriptions:
- Captain and four-year member of university varsity swim team
- Volunteered for African relief agency during all four years of college being promoted from office assistant to Eastern African relief team leader
- Worked with Dr. Dogood in Incite Research Lab for last two years of college and work culminated in peer-reviewed journal publication
- Started with the Big Buddy program as a freshman and have continued throughout college, most recently being elected as secretary for the organization
- Volunteered in the emergency department of local hospital for eight hours a day, twice a week for the past four summer.
- Sang in university a capella group freshman year
- Member of college pre-med society for past two years
- Volunteered at blood drive for one weekend last semester
- Tutored disadvantaged students the fall semester of sophomore year
- Shadowed pulmonologist in her office twice this year
- Shadowed orthopedic surgeon in hospital once this year
- Attended AAMC pre-med seminar last year
- Worked in Dr. Cerebro’s neuroscience lab sophomore year
- From work in Dr. Cerebro’s lab, presented poster at university research day
- Dean’s list for 4 of 8 semesters
- Wrote article on pre-med society for university’s weekly newspaper
- Served Thanksgiving dinner at local soup kitchen for past three years
- Won intramural squash championship last year
- Ran university Haitian relief drive after earthquake
- Member of university’s Connecticut club for past four years
Even though example two contains triple the experiences, I think you will agree the author of example one will look much more impressive to medical school admissions committees.
V. Secondaries: Oops! Wrong School
Let’s face it, secondary essays are a hassle. Who knew you had to write so much to get into medical school? If you apply to 25 schools, you could easily have over 50 secondary essays to write. Most applicants wisely create ten to fifteen secondary essays that answer the most common questions and then cut and paste the appropriate answer into the specific application at hand. This results in using similar answers for different schools, which is completely acceptable. However, pasting the Harvard answer (with the Harvard name) into the Yale application will not win you any friends in New Haven. When utilizing similar essays for different schools’ secondary essay answers, make sure you check the details of each essay and ensure they pertain to the correct school. It is more than just embarrassing to detail how much you look forward to working in Dr. Cho’s behavioral science lab at the University of Nebraska when Dr. Cho actually works at UCSF. Proof every essay to avoid tanking your application with such a silly and easily avoidable mistake.
VI. Interviews: Check The Suit
Knowledge of this deadly sin arose from personal experience. While on the interview trail doing multiple interviews far from home, I put my suit in checked luggage. Inclement weather led to re-routing of the flight, and while I flew east, the bag headed south. I didn’t show up to the interview in jeans but came darn close. When on the interview trail, always carry your suit onto the plane. Luggage can get lost even on direct flights. Have everything you need in a carry-on bag including suit, shirt, tie, shoes, socks/stockings, jewelry, toiletries/cosmetics, and directions to the interview.
VII. Waitlist: Contact a No Contact
Medical schools are often bombarded by applicant questions from March until June, the busy season for admissions decisions and waitlists (excluding schools that perform rolling admissions). In order to decrease the burden on medical school admissions staff during this hectic time, some schools request you do not contact them during certain months. No contact policies generally include phone calls, e-mails, and letters. They also sometimes incorporate recommenders or pre-med advisors making a call on your behalf. If you would like to be moved from the acceptance or waitlist to the rejected list, feel free to give the school a call.
The medical school admissions process is difficult, but 17,000 applicants per year overcome this challenge to matriculate at US medical schools. You can to. Staying on top of the admissions process and avoiding the “Seven Deadly Sins” can dramatically improve your chances of admissions success. If you’d like to learn more about how to get into medical school, please check out The Medical School Admissions Guide: A Harvard MD’s Week-by-Week Admissions Handbook available online through www.MDadmit.com, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.
Dr. Miller is a practicing emergency physician and CEO of MDadmit, a medical school admissions consulting service. She began admissions consulting as a Pre-Medical Tutor and then Co-Chair of the Eliot House Pre-Medical Committee while attending Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Miller currently lives in Washington, DC where she serves as a clinical instructor at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. Dr. Miller enjoys teaching and traveling internationally, providing medical coverage for the Washington Wizards’ and Capitals’ games, and serving as a medical director for Racing the Planet adventure races.