The most successful medical school applicants have a few strengths and strategies in common. Here’s how they make it count:

The statistics aren’t friendly. The majority of students who apply to medical school don’t actually get accepted. Thousands of students will apply for hundreds of spots in a class each year, and while some students will enjoy the luxury of receiving multiple acceptance offers, most students who start out as pre-med students for their undergraduate studies will never get the chance pursue their dreams of becoming physicians.

Fortunately, while the overall statistics may seem bleak, good news does remain. Even though overall acceptance percentages are inarguably low, percentages for students who fall into certain categories are much more encouraging. For instance, students who have both high GPAs and high MCAT scores have much better acceptance percentages than others. Other factors also play into an admissions committee’s decision, however, and students who choose to recognize these other factors as well have the best chance of eventually getting accepted. While not conclusive, the following items are important for pre-medical students to consider as they select schools and work on secondary applications.

Be Realistic

While perhaps not the most encouraging words to hear, this piece of advice is an important one to keep in mind when selecting schools to apply to. Applying to medical school is not a cheap process, particularly when considering the cost of secondary applications and interviews. Because of this, it is important for students to be financially wise and choose to apply to schools that they at least have a decent chance of getting accepted into. However, this does not simply mean applying to schools that have average entrance scores on the MCAT similar to your own. Do your research and discover if a school is a private or “state” school; if a school is an official state school and you are not a resident of that particular state, your chances of getting accepted there are incredibly slim, even if you have an MCAT score far above their average. Additionally, some schools might not be officially “state” schools but might still give preference to students from certain regions; for instance, Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine gives preferences to students who are either from the Pacific Northwest or who are dedicated to serving in rural communities someday. Religious affiliations should also be considered when applying to medical schools; Loma Linda University School of Medicine, a school located in southern California, is a private school that gives preference to students who are of the Seventh Day Adventist faith (even though they do have students from all religious backgrounds). For students who are from states that don’t have a medical school located in them, finding out where they can still receive preferential application treatment is important; for example, residents of Wyoming actually still receive “in-state” status when applying to the University of Washington’s medical school in Washington state. Save yourself a lot of time, money, and disappointment by applying to schools with entrance statistics that would indicate that your own application might be viewed favorably.

Be Open

At the same time, don’t let your applications be too narrow in focus. Even though you might have a less than ideal chance of getting admitted to a certain medical school doesn’t necessarily mean that you should not apply to there at all; it simply means that you should not only apply to “high risk, low chance” schools. If a school has a history of looking at applicants from your undergraduate school with favor, then you might have a better than average chance of getting accepted there. While time and finances will be limiting factors regarding how many schools you can realistically apply to, being wise and applying to a majority of “low risk” schools along with a splattering of “low chance” schools may pay off with at least one acceptance letter in the end.

Be Timely

Just because the deadline for applications for a school might not be until November does not mean that you should wait until then to apply. Getting in your application as soon as possible is important for making sure that a school sees you as one of the more likely candidates for offering an interview to. Start your primary AMCAS application as soon as it is available and work on getting together all of your letters of recommendation and any other supplementary material needed for your application at the same time. Submit your application once your file is complete, and do not procrastinate when sending in your secondary applications either. Carefully research what each particular school requires for their secondary applications; don’t let failure to submit a complete application be what causes your total application to be counted as late.

Additionally, if you are someone who wishes to apply to a particular school’s “early decision” program, be sure to research what exactly the requirements for applying to such a program entail. Typically speaking, most of these programs require that students only apply to that school during the entire duration of the early acceptance period (usually ending around October); at the end of this period , students are told whether they will be offered an early acceptance decision at that school or if their application is going to be transferred to the “general” application pool instead. At this point, students can then choose to apply to any other medical schools that they desire to apply to as well. Because of this required delay in applying to any other schools, if you aren’t entirely certain that you prefer a certain medical school over all others, it isn’t advised that you apply to such early decision programs, since it means that (in the event that you aren’t offered an early acceptance decision) your applications to anywhere else will be a bit later than ideal.

Be Unique

Even though your overall goal when submitting your medical school applications is to eventually get at least once acceptance letter in the mail, your initial goal when filling out these applications is actually a bit more short sighted. Simply put, your initial applications are actually applications for interviews; getting accepted is then the goal of your interview.

With this in mind, create your application to highlight what makes you both unique and capable of as a student. Medical school applicants often tend to be very similar–biology majors who were leaders of school clubs and participated in community service activities while still getting good grades. While all of these qualities are in no way the markers of “lesser” students, they definitely do not make your application stand out at all. Use your medical school applications to showcase what makes you unique as a student; if you had a strong interest in performance dance while in undergraduate school, find a way to include that. If you’ve worked as a freelance writer for science curriculum, include that. Even if you have “regular” activities to list, try to make those stand out if at all possible. Use specificity to showcase your experiences. For instance, “Worked as a volunteer at an alternative high school for troubled teens” sounds much more interesting than “volunteered as a tutor during my free time.” Your application is all of “you” that an admissions committee gets to see before making a decision of whether or not to offer you an interview. Intrigue them enough in the amazing student and person that you are by being sure to include items in your application that makes you look unique, even if such items might not seem inherently “impressive” to you.

Be Persistent

Finally, even if you have what might be seen as an “ideal” application, even if you have done everything “right” with your applications, there still is a chance that you might find yourself sitting with only a pile of rejection letters during the springtime. This is obviously not a position that anyone wants to be in, but it is a position that is a reality for many former pre-med students. You have worked incredibly hard to get to where you are, and while you will hopefully have to endure the application process just once, being willing to re-apply if the need arising is key to anyone who truly wants to become a physician.

If you are not accepted during your first round of applications, take the time to figure out the possible weaknesses of your application, and make plans to strengthen those areas. If you had a low MCAT score, retake the exam. If you submitted your applications close to deadlines, make sure to have them turned in as soon as possible this next time. If you were offered interviews at several different schools but were not offered acceptances at any of them, choosing to work on your interview skills might be the best plan of action to take.

Getting into medical school is no easy task, but even though statistics might seem overwhelmingly against you when viewed very broadly, making wise decisions during the application process can make those statistics actually swing in your favor. Keep your options open, showcase the best of you by presenting what makes you exceptionally unique, be well-researched in your application decisions, and be willing to re-apply if you are not offered any acceptance letters the first time around.

This article was published in the May/June 2015 issue of PreMedLife.