By: Ryan Kelly
Join the club. If you’ve been rejected from medical school, that makes you normal. 60% of applicants DON’T get in. The people who get in are the unusual ones.
Okay, so maybe that’s not that comforting, but if you’ve been rejected from medical school, you have a choice: you can take this extra year to become a better person and a better applicant. You can learn from the mistakes of last cycle, really consider whether this is the right career for you, and re-apply with even more confidence that you’ve made the right choice.
Or you can NOT learn, apply again, and HOPE for a different outcome. This sounds ridiculous, but many re-applicants don’t learn from their mistakes and end up in the same position after their second application cycle.
As a reapplicant, you’ll face extra scrutiny from admissions committees, so you must communicate the ways you’ve grown and improved since the last application. However, you also have some advantages - you’re older, wiser (hopefully), and have seen firsthand just how demanding the application process can be. Use these insights as just that - an advantage!
Your rejection might be a fresh wound, and you might be wondering where you went wrong. Or maybe you’ve already taken time to reflect. Either way, we want this blog post to be a central hub for our reapplicant readers - a comprehensive way to take inventory of any deficiencies in your application and find concrete ways to ensure success in the future.
Top 6 Reasons Reapplicants Get Rejected From Medical School
If you’ve been rejected, it’s likely that you fall into one or more of the categories below. This list isn’t a condemnation of your past experiences or decisions - just a checklist to help you measure what might have been inadequate the first go-around.
Reason #1 - Reapplicants Who Failed to Complete the Pre-med “Checklist”
To cover the bases of the pre-med checklist, you’d be wise to pursue:
Several hundred hours (200+) of clinical volunteering and 100+ hours of shadowing
Several hundred hours (200+) of nonclinical volunteering
Some exposure (usually six months or so) to research
Some leadership positions (usually two or more)
If you’re lacking experience, it’s most likely because you need more time. It’s in your best interest to hold off on your applications until your resume shows at least the bullet points above.
Reason #2 - Reapplicants Whose MCAT or GPA was Too Low
Many pre-meds think, “people with low GPAs or MCAT scores get into medical school every year.” They’re right, but what they often forget is that these pre-meds are the exceptions that prove the rule. The ones with low grades or test scores who get in often have something extraordinary in their past that helps them. If you’re wondering whether that’s you, it’s likely not.
At heart, medical school admissions is a numbers game, and if you don’t have the numbers, you won’t get in. Roughly 32% of those rejected didn't have a high enough MCAT score (501 or below, making it really hard to get in). Roughly 18% didn't have a high enough GPA (below a 3.4, which also makes it tough).
If stats were your downfall, you’ll need to make MCAT prep a serious priority. You might also want to retake some classes to boost your GPA or consider doing a post-bacc or one-year master’s program to show your academic cred.
With stats out of the way, we’re still left with approximately 50% of the rejects with good enough grades and good enough MCAT. Is this you? What happened?
Reason #3 - Reapplicants Who Failed to Stand Out
There are too few spots in medical school to accommodate everyone. As a result, it's not enough to be qualified; you have to stand out.
One great way to stand out is through diverse activities. If you can boast about distinct, unusual activities, like performing in an improv comedy troupe or serving as a wilderness survival coach, you’ll automatically be more memorable to the admissions committees.
You can also leave a good impression through a “capstone experience,” which shows you as a leader who can solve problems in your community. As a reapplicant, it’s not too late to develop and execute one! Capstone projects come in all shapes and sizes, but you can read more about them here.
Another good way to stand out is through exemplary writing. It’s wise to read examples of successful personal statements, review style guides, and heed our past advice on writing.
Reason #4 - Reapplicants Who Had Average Letters of Recommendation
The most successful students obtain up to five letters of recommendation from people who know them well, both inside and outside of the classroom.
But getting the letters is only half the battle. What makes a letter of recommendation excellent? Primarily, it's the stories that a professor, mentor, or doctor can tell about you. The status of the letter writer doesn't matter as much as the quality and specificity of the letter itself.
As an applicant, you can’t brag that much, but your letter writers can go to bat for you. They can say that you’re one of the best students they’ve ever worked with and rave about your characteristics.
Wondering how to get better letters of recommendation? Check out our extensive FAQ, which covers every question you have about letters of recommendation.
Reason #5 - Reapplicants Who Applied to the Wrong Schools
Students often fail to put the needed focus and energy into compiling their school list. Perhaps they don’t have enough guidance, or maybe they’re rushing the process. At best, they might use average MCAT and GPA as a way to filter their choices.
Some students don’t apply to enough schools, while others apply to too many. Consult the AAMC's Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) webpage to gain a better understanding of your possible range of schools.
Beyond stats, there are many other important factors, like whether the school vastly prefers in-state candidates (hint: many public schools do) or whether the school is heavily research-focused (like Johns Hopkins). Students might not consider how their commitment to social justice aligns with Georgetown’s Jesuit philosophy, or how their work in rural communities would appeal to schools like UC Riverside. These connections can be the difference between gaining an interview and ending up in the slush pile.
Lastly, many students who should probably apply to osteopathic schools never even consider the option, which is particularly unwise if they’re trying to hedge their bets. Want to know whether you should apply to DO schools? Click here.
Reason #6 - Reapplicants Who Were Overwhelmed by Secondary Essays
As you likely learned last cycle, you cannot afford to be reactionary and wait until you receive the secondaries in the summer. The most successful students make a point to pre-write all their secondaries ahead of time. Here’s our database of last cycle’s secondary prompts. The questions don’t change too much from year to year, so there’s no reason to wait until the last minute.
There are useful strategies to expedite the secondary process, but it’s still a grind, no matter how you approach it. The key is to generate a lot of reusable content in the beginning, so that you can repurpose different drafts across the future prompts you encounter for different schools. We’ve written several different guides about specific schools’ prompts, including USC, UCLA, Albany, UCSD, George Washington, Boston University, Tufts, Loma Linda and many others.
Top 5 Changes Reapplicants Can Make
Change #1 - Reapplicants Should Focus Their Application on What’s New
This will be like trying to rekindle your relationship after “taking a break.” You’re damaged goods in their eyes, and things seem iffy at best. There was clearly something wrong with you. Otherwise you’d be together, right? The previous application will be the elephant in the room, and you’ll need to broach the topic with tact and confidence. You’ll need to convince the admissions committee that things have changed.
Most people know that Einstein’s definition of insanity is “doing the same thing twice and expecting different results.” Your essays didn’t work last time, so it’s time to make some significant changes. If you spend the interim time between applications wisely, you’ll have plenty of new stories and material to cover. That additional time and insights are what give you a potential advantage over other candidates, so you should definitely focus on the recent experiences that clarified your motivations and goals.
Start with the personal statement. First and last impressions are crucial, so give attention to your hook and conclusion. If you’re applying to some of the same schools as last year, use the previous rejection as a way to show your deeper commitment and understanding of the field. If you’re applying to mostly new schools, avoid mentioning the rejection. Instead, focus your revision on style and storytelling. Position yourself as an active agent in your stories, and infuse your writing with more flavor and personality.
Reexamine your most meaningful essays from the previous cycle. It’s likely that at least one of them will still be viable. If you used common tropes in your previous essays (the reward of helping people, the value of hard work, the importance of educating patients, etc), try to give them more complexity or nuance. Use the individual details of your stories to give a new angle or layer to the lesson you learned.
For secondaries, it’s hit or miss. If you like your previous drafts, feel free to re-submit them. Since the schools’ prompts don’t change much from year to year, your answers for certain questions, like “Why our school,” will probably only need a little touching up.
Without overcompensating, your essays should convey a deeper understanding of medicine, as well as a fuller sense of self.
Change #2 - Reapplicants Should Show An Upward Trend
Your actions will speak louder than words. Beyond the essays, your application should contain viable proof of your improvement as a candidate. This might mean better grades, a higher MCAT score, a master’s degree, or substantial new involvement in medically-related activities. This quantifiable, trackable progress will show your determination and legitimize your candidacy.
Change #3 - Reapplicants Should Not Dwell on the Past Rejection
Applying to new schools will be comparable to a first date with a new person. It’s a big turnoff when your date spends the whole time talking about his or her past relationship. So when you’re sending an application to a new school, you probably don’t want draw attention to your past rejection and create an unnecessary bias against you. Be wary though. Your MCAT date and general trajectory could suggest to medical schools that you’ve applied before.
Change #4 - Reapplicants Should Apply to Different or More/Fewer Schools
You may have hedged your bets the first time, but did you hedge them enough? Despite the mountain of secondary essays, you should definitely cast a wide net with your school selection. Most students we encounter apply to 25-30 schools, which is certainly feasible as long as you work ahead.
Review your school list from last year and cut about half. Try to be unbiased about which ones were “reach schools” the first go around. Unless your application goes through monumental changes, you’ll want to have more realistic expectations during your second application.
Fill the new empty spots on your list with schools you didn’t apply to before. There’s no such thing as a “safety school,” but you should do what you can to maximize your chances for acceptance. Besides less competitive MD schools, you should strongly consider applying to international and DO schools.
Change #5 - Reapplicants Should Put Their Best Foot Forward
If you feel alienated as a reapplicant, you shouldn’t. Over half of the candidates get rejected every year, and each new year, the candidate pool is approximately 25% reapplicants. No one likes to be rejected, but you shouldn’t view it as a hindrance. Yes, it might give you an additional obstacle, but it also provides you with insights that most candidates won’t have.
You should make sure to:
Apply early - Many students begin working on their primary applications in January, so that they can polish the essays through multiple revisions and have them top shape when they fill out their AMCAS in June.
Return secondaries quickly - Working ahead on the primary application means that you can also pre-write your secondary essays before you receive a flood of applications from schools over the summer. Here’s a link to all of the schools’ secondary essay prompts from last cycle so that you can pre-write your essays before receiving them.
Get better letters of recommendation - As you get involved in new activities, develop relationships with supervisors and mentors early on. Make a concerted effort to ask questions, distinguish yourself, and form a good rapport. Request the letters in advance to give your recommender ample time to complete them.
Improve your interviewing skills - Getting an interview is a huge accomplishment, but a bad one can sink your chances. Practice, practice, practice. Talk in front of a group as much as possible and research commonly asked questions so that you can be prepared.
We hope this page can be a one-stop shop for reapplicants in need of guidance and fresh inspiration. Like we said, everyone deserves a second chance, but we want it to be more than just a “chance.” We want you to be in the best position possible to avoid history repeating itself. It’s time to make concrete plans and take a surer path towards your dreams!