By: Ryan Kelly
My friend begins every trip to Vegas at the roulette table, throwing down a chunk of chips on black or red.
“Let’s just see what happens,” he says.
The “let’s just see what happens” attitude might work in Vegas, but I often hear pre-meds describe the same mindset when applying to medical school:
“I figure I might as well apply this year to see how it goes. Besides, I can always re-apply.”
This “winging it” attitude usually arises from a sense of pressure to become a doctor as fast as possible. It’s such a long journey - four years of medical school, followed by another four of residency - that you don’t have time to waste if you want to get a real paycheck before you turn 35. Maybe your parents or peers have belittled the idea of a gap year, causing you to rush the application despite what your gut says.
What’s the problem, then, with going all in with your medical school chips? There are a few:
1. IT CAN HURT YOUR CHANCES OF EVER GETTING INTO MEDICAL SCHOOL.
When you re-apply to medical school, a school compares your current application to your old application and asks, “why did we reject you last year?” That question - with the presumption that there’s something wrong with last year’s application, some reason they rejected you - carries with it a bias against you. You’re damaged goods. If you don’t show substantial improvement in your grades, MCAT, or both, your application may not get a fair, fresh look.
2. IT’S INCREDIBLY EXPENSIVE AND TIME-CONSUMING TO APPLY TO MEDICAL SCHOOL.
To apply to 25 schools costs $4,000 and involves hundreds of hours of writing, revising, and interviewing.
3. THOUGH MEDICAL SCHOOL ADMISSIONS MIGHT SEEM ARBITRARY, IT’S NOT.
Talk to a good pre-med advisor, and they can handicap your chances of admission before you waste a lot of time and money on a poorly composed application.
Only 40% of medical school candidates get in, and each year 25% of the pool is made up of reapplicants.
Please don’t apply “just to see what happens.” Don’t apply before you’re ready, just to maintain pace with the pre-med ratrace. Why would you half-ass the application when you haven’t half-assed all the work that went into it?
It comes down to this: you can either hope for the best or you can make a plan - there’s no intermediate. If you don’t formulate a plan, then you’ll essentially be like my friend at the casino, blindly hoping to somehow, someway hit the jackpot.
So how do you play the odds? How do you increase your chances? Or better yet - how do you avoid hurting your chances?
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
In the Hootie & the Blowfish song “Time,” Darius Rucker belts out the chilling opening line: “Time… why do you punish me?”
Indeed, time will punish you as a pre-med if you’re not careful. Whether it’s giving yourself enough time to prepare for the MCAT, enough time to compile quality letters of recommendation, or enough time to complete the primary and secondary essays, you’ll need to work ahead in order to be the most successful as a candidate.
Every year pre-meds botch applications due to a time crunch that could have been avoided. So what does an ideal medical school timeline look like? I’m glad you asked:
Sign up for our newsletter and download the exclusive Medical School Admissions Timeline from Passport Admissions.
CAST A WIDE NET, BUT DON’T GO FISHING
“How many schools should I apply to?”
“Where do I have the best chance of getting in?”
School selection is a huge factor in determining your chances. In general, you’ll increase your chances by applying broadly (as many as 20-30 schools).
However, when casting your wide net, you should not take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to each of the schools. As tempting as it is to give each the same standard treatment, that’s the medical school equivalent of sending a massive group message to all your Facebook friends - it will feel generic and unconvincing, and you might be left with a party of one.
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 through the process. At best, they might use average MCAT and GPA as a way to filter their choices.
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 medical 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.
BE A GO-GETTER WHEN IT COMES TO LETTERS
"Would you be willing to write me an excellent letter of recommendation for medical school?"
It seems simple, really. It's only 15 words, none at higher than a 3rd grade reading level. It takes approximately four seconds to say. And yet, these words make us squirm.
Why does it feel so awkward?
You're asking for a favor from someone you barely know. You've never done much for the professor, so why should she spend time writing you a letter of recommendation?
The professor is, well, a professor! Someone who's busy! Accomplished! Intimidating! It's hard to ask this person because you put them on a pedestal.
Often, you’re asking with other pre-meds around you, many of whom are angling for the same letter. It's kind of like using a public bathroom - you'd probably rather do it in private, but you don't have much choice.
This awkwardness can cause real harm to your application if you don't acknowledge it. You will put off asking for your letters of recommendation and fail to get letters in a timely fashion, which can delay your application.
So yes, it’s a little awkward. But it's not that bad. Consider:
It's only awkward for you. The professors probably get asked this question dozens of times per year. They’re used to it.
It's not that big of a favor. A letter takes 30 minutes to write (at most), especially when you're just using a template, as most professors do (this is not to malign templates; even good letters are written this way). 30 minutes is asking your roommate for a ride to IKEA or asking a friend to proofread your English paper. Yes, you're asking for a favor, but it's not a huge one.
But getting the letters is only half the battle. What makes a letter 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 much, because the admissions committee won’t believe you. But your letter writers can really 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. It’s why medical schools rate letters of recommendation as the second most important quality for admission.
Wondering how to get better letters of recommendation? Check out our extensive FAQ, which covers every question you have about letters of rec.
STAND OUT OR YOU’LL GET STOOD UP
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.
Standing out is one of our favorite topics at Savvy Pre-Med. It’s probably because we’ve read so many applications that we’ve grown to appreciate originality and captivating voices.
One great way to stand out is through diverse activities. Most pre-meds are either too busy or too myopic to extend themselves beyond schoolwork and the typical checklist of experiences. But 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 isolate and solve problems in your community. These come in all shapes and sizes, but you can read more about them here.
WRITE POORLY AT YOUR PERIL
Another good way to stand out is through exemplary writing. Pre-meds are not always naturals when it comes to dynamic, impactful writing. They’ve been misguided by academia’s demands for long, convoluted prose, and they haven’t gotten much practice in creative storytelling. It’s wise to read examples of successful personal statements, review style guides, and heed our past advice on writing.
Students sometimes view secondary essays as small, tacked-on assignments. DO NOT fall into the trap of viewing them as a formality, or something you can accomplish quickly. We’ve repeatedly warned students about the shocking number of pages it takes to finish the secondary essays. You cannot afford to be reactionary and wait until you receive them 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 writing 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. It’s wise to make a small list of possible connections you can draw to different institutions. You’ll encounter a lot of “Why Our School” essays, so this step will you save time by not having to research each school along the way.
Remember that schools are as diverse as the students who attend them. We’ve written several different guides about specific schools’ prompts, including USC, UCLA, Albany, UCSD, and many others. Although we encourage you to reuse content across schools, you’ll need to make adjustments in order to cater to what individual schools are looking for.
DON’T STEW ABOUT THE INTERVIEW
Most pre-meds start preparing for their interview a few weeks before their actual interview at a medical school. If you’re adept at talking to strangers and feel comfortable thinking on your feet, this approach will work just fine for you.
In our experience, though, most pre-meds aren’t. Many pre-meds lack the basic skills to succeed in the traditional interview (to say nothing of the MMI). Others COULD be good interviewers but get undermined by a lack of confidence or a surfeit of anxiety.
You don’t have to be brilliant at your interview, but you must pass the tests thrown at you. A Kaplan survey of medical school admissions officers revealed that the interview was actually the most important admissions factor. Other surveys show it further down the list. Either way, the interview will often make or break your chances of getting in.
How do you go about building these skills? Some of our former students have done one of the following:
Take an acting or improv class
Become a teaching assistant
Join the debate team
Do not wait until interview season to practice as a leader and communicator. These interpersonal skills must be accumulated and honed over time, so don’t dawdle when it comes to getting involved. Seek out the activities in college that force you out of your comfort zone and put you in contact with diverse people.
Moral of the story: Don’t gamble with your future as a medical school candidate.
You can’t change what has already happened on your path, but you can plan for what’s next. That could mean rubbing elbows with letter writers, building towards a capstone experience, entering the proverbial “MCAT cave” for months of studying, or all the above.
If it seems best for you to wait and gain more experience after graduating from college, then swallow your pride and work to improve your application weaknesses.
Remember: if you roll the dice, you’ll pay the price. I hope my tips help you to apply once, and apply well, leaving as little up to chance as possible.
Best of luck (just kidding - you won’t need it!).