Med school application process: from MCAT prep through med school interviews
It’s January, and for a lot of you that means getting serious about MCAT prep and thinking ahead about your med school applications. While some of you have been studying ferociously for months, I would imagine that the majority of you med school hopefuls are just starting to think about serious MCAT prep, AMCAS, TMDSAS and/or AACOMAS applications, and creating a killer personal statement.
While preparing for interview questions and developing secondary applications is likely barely visible on your horizon, and getting an acceptance letter/phone call is a distant dream, keeping a general timeline in the back of your mind (or a planner) will help ensure that you get things done in a timely manner. Trust me, you don’t want to be doing MCAT prep, taking the MCAT, completing primary apps and selecting med schools you’d like to attend during the same compressed period!
Setting a timeline
First step: set a reasonable timeline with interim goals that takes into consideration all the planning, preparation and steps to be taken. Not to be too cliché, but the seeds you sow today will be the harvest you reap during interview season!
This post is directed mainly at pre-med gunners who are planning on taking the MCAT and applying to med school this year. That said, pre-meds who are earlier in the process can also benefit from having a greater understanding of the med school application process.
Before we begin, let me recommend a great resource that breaks this year down week by week. It’s the highly recommended, “The Medical School Admissions Guide,” by Dr. Suzanne Miller M.D. Pick up a copy on Amazon, and I think you’ll agree it’s a great investment. Here is how I broke down my year last year (I just got two acceptances and I’m waiting on a third, so all the madness is behind me!)
Your class load during Winter semester probably includes biochemistry (or some equivalent), ochem II, and the like. You should also have finished or be finishing your physics and core biology courses, as these will be vital to your success on the MCAT. I highly recommend focusing on your coursework during these months (January through May) rather than trying to double up with university studies at the same time as MCAT prep. It makes no sense to neglect your core science classes to prepare for the MCAT or work on extracurriculars, as your science classes are your best preparation for the MCAT. And don’t forget that your GPA is a crucial factor in medical school admission decisions.
Definitely continue your volunteering, research and other activities, but don’t let them get in the way of your learning. Some of you gunners will want to start studying for the MCAT during this semester, but I would precaution you not to overdo it. If you stick to the timeline I’m laying out here, you should be alright. Attending a MCAT prep class a couple nights a week, for example, would be a good way to start your prep, but spending 30 hours a week studying probably won’t do you much good in the grand scheme of things. (A qualifier: obviously, if you’ll be taking the MCAT soon after you semester ends, then you have no choice but to begin your heavy MCAT studies before the semester ends.)
Along with tending to your pre-med classes, you should also make sure you have all the pre-med activities you’ve been working on (research, volunteering, shadowing) recorded somewhere. Your record should include the number of hours spent doing each, the dates you were involved and a brief description of the activity, as well as mentor contact information. A simple Excel spreadsheet works great. This will be vital information that you’ll need when filling out your med school applications.
MCAT prep strategy
As the semester nears its end, you should have a plan in hand for HOW you want to study for the MCAT. Included in that strategy is the date you’ll be taking the MCAT. I decided to take the MCAT in mid-June and spend the 2 months prior studying, 6 hours a day, 6 days a week. That worked well for me, but you should find a plan that fits your schedule and study habits. You can always adapt your study plan, but it’s important to create a schedule that allows you to study consistently and without interruption.
In my opinion, students who do best on the MCAT are those who study on a daily basis, for multiple hours, for at least a month before their test date. If you ask around, you’ll find that studying for a couple hours every few days throughout the year leading up to the test doesn’t typically produce good test scores.
A lot of other websites and “experts” will tell you that you need to take the MCAT before June. However, that could be a big mistake! If you force yourself to take the MCAT during (or immediately after) the school year just so you can have your score available when primary applications open, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice. I would recommend, at the latest, you should take the MCAT in mid-July. Taking the MCAT in June or July won’t ruin your chances of getting that coveted interview.
Here’s why: You can’t even submit your med school application until the first week of June, and it can be submitted without your MCAT score. It takes a few weeks for AAMC to review your application and send it to the schools you’ve chosen, which brings us to late June. If you take the MCAT in June, and get your scores a month later, you won’t be more than a couple of weeks behind applicants who had their scores available to AAMC in early June. You may not be in the very first wave of applicants, but you won’t be at a big disadvantage, as some other “experts” will assert.
As an example, here is what I did, beginning in 2016: I submitted my med school application on the first day available (June 7). It was processed quickly, and sent to schools on June 17. I took the MCAT June 18, which meant I didn’t have my MCAT scores until July 9. Even so, I was given an interview at a respected state university on their second interview day, and offered an acceptance on the first day they were allowed to award acceptances by AAMC. I also was afforded an interview at the most selective medical school in the country in October, and I’m currently waiting to hear back on their decision. My point is this: taking the MCAT in June (or early July) won’t preclude you from an early interview. Much more important in the long run is getting a good MCAT score. Take my word on this!
Selecting a test date
As you choose your test day from the available slots at AAMC.org/MCAT, I would recommend finding a day that leaves you at least a week beforehand when you can be studying and taking practice exams full time. (Don’t plan to take the test the day after getting home from a vacation or during the middle of a busy workweek.) Also, make sure you have flexibility when it comes to traveling to your test site. For example, if you’re flying to your testing site, leave yourself an extra day before the test in case of a cancelled flight or bad weather. This not only ensures you make it to the test, but gives you a day to relax before your test. AAMC opens test dates periodically, usually a few months before each test. Testing sites can fill up fast, so stay on top of when the sites will open up for registration, and get registered ASAP. It’s better to be registered and have to change sites/dates than to be forced to travel to remote site you didn’t plan to go to. The site I had planned to take the MCAT filled up in a matter of hours, so I had to fly to a nearby state to take it. Don’t let that happen to you! Get this all settled before you start studying for the MCAT—that way you have a goal to work towards.
Letters of recommendation (LORs)
One last thing to think about and take care of early in the year: letters of recommendation, a critical part of your med school application packet. Make contact with the advisors, professors, employers and mentors you would like to have write you a letter of recommendation, and let them know you’re going to be relying on them for a great LOR. This. Will. Make. A. Huge. Difference.
Now that your test day is set and school is out, it’s time to study, study, study—and then study some more. If possible, make studying your “day job.” Show up to the library or some other quiet, secluded place in the morning and study through the afternoon. If you don’t have the luxury of daytime studying for whatever reason, make sure to set aside multiple hours every day to study. If that means staying up late, then buy yourself ample supplies of your favorite caffeinated drink and get to studying. Minimize distractions. Your MCAT score is incredibly important when it comes to getting an interview, and now is the time to push towards the finish line. These are the months that count. This is also the time to access and prepare your primary application.
May is the month for MCAT prep and preparing your med school application packet. The online AMCAS application usually opens May 1. Since the application can’t be submitted until early June, you have about a month to complete it. Don’t try to knock it out in one sitting or you’ll be overwhelmed. Take it piece by piece. Give yourself at least a week to write (and edit) your personal statement. If you spend just an hour, four nights a week working on your application, you should have it done with time to spare. (The med school application dates for TMDSAS and AACOMAS are different, but getting them all done in May/June will work. Check the respective websites to get an idea of their timelines.)
Stay calm. Stay focused. You’ll kill it.
After testing, you’ll start the agonizing month-long wait for your MCAT score. There isn’t much to do during this time if you’ve already finished your med school applications. Take this time to relax. Take a vacation. Party a little. You made it. Your score will soon be in the hands of the admissions committees.
Once your scores are posted, they’ll automatically be submitted to the schools you listed (and paid for) on your primary application. At that point, you’ll start to hear from schools requesting secondary applications. These invitations/rejections can extend all the way through July and into August.
You’re not done yet. In fact, by now you should be getting your second wind! Schools will send you requests for a secondary application, which you should submit ASAP. This will ensure that you’re considered for an interview earlier in the season, before interview dates fill up. Don’t sacrifice quality for speed, though. Take your time and answer the questions thoroughly and honestly. Have someone edit your responses and give you feedback on the content.
If you return your secondary applications early, it’s possible you’ll receive interview invitations as early as July or August. A lot of the DO programs start interviews earlier than MD programs, and from what I’ve seen, Texas MD schools begin interviewing earlier as well.
So, this is the time you should be preparing for interviews. There are countless articles, websites, books and blogs that will give you tips on how to prepare successfully for your interviews. I would say the most important aspect of your preparation is knowing your own application well, as you’ll be asked about specific things that intrigue individual adcom members. Also, be prepared to “talk up” your experiences.
Finally, “Interview Season” arrives! Med school application deadlines are behind you at this point. You’ll either be getting interview invitations to the schools where you submitted secondary apps, or you’ll be turned down. Hopefully you’ll be traveling the country, interviewing at your dream schools and killing it. Some schools extend acceptances within a few days of interviews while other may take months to get back to you. I had one school send me an acceptance two days after interviewing, while I’m still waiting to hear back from another, four months after interviewing. You have every right to tell multiple schools you intend on matriculating at their school, but if you’ve received multiple acceptances, you’ll want to begin considering the pros and cons of each. There is an “expiration” date, as you only have until May to make your final decision. You may want to consider attending “second-looks” and “open-houses” at the schools where you’ve been accepted, but if that requires expensive travel, it may be hard.
Interview season continues, as acceptances are extended or rejections are sent out. This is a strange time in the life of a prospective medical student. Every time the phone rings the thought crosses your mind “is it Mayo?” When your phone dings with a new e-mail you think “could that be my acceptance to Baylor?” Stay positive and keep working hard in your classes. If you haven’t received acceptances by April, you may want to start considering what to do in case you do not get at least one. By May 15,, you’ll have to commit to one school. This doesn’t mean you’re stuck at that school, only that you commit to matriculating at that school unless you receive an acceptance at a school that hasn’t yet rejected you.
While schools may extend acceptances up until the day before school starts, it’s highly unlikely you’ll receive an acceptance any later than June. If you haven’t received an acceptance, it’s likely you’ll need to consider what to do to prepare for next year’s application cycle. That may include beefing up your extra-curriculars, retaking some classes or even retaking the MCAT, depending on your weak spot. Researching which schools accept applicants with your stats would be a great use of time. You can do that by checking the MSAR site where all those stats are kept. You can join the site for $25 annually.
You did it! If you have your acceptance in hand, you can take a break and celebrate your success.
I hope this (rather lengthy) timeline of the med school application process leading up to your acceptance into medical school give you a better idea of what to expect. It probably seems overwhelming, but remember to take the process one step at a time. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with just one day of hard work. Days turn into weeks, and weeks into months, and before you know it you’ll be at your white coat ceremony.
If this post leaves you with extra questions, take a look around our website, and I bet you’ll find a lot of the answers you need!
Here are a few posts you might find helpful during this stressful time: