applying to medical school

Applying to Medical School

The covid-19 pandemic changed the landscape of applying to medical school. Schools have had to alter their traditional methods and face new circumstances like moving coursework/interviews online, suspending/highly modifying classes, shortening the MCAT, and helping students navigate a stressed healthcare system.

Yet, in spite of all this, applications for medical schools spiked. On average, the increase was 17 percent, but some schools saw increases as high as 27 and 35 percent.

There are a number of reasons that could attribute to this counterintuitive increase:

  • Covid-19 brought home the vulnerability of so many occupations, with millions of people losing their jobs while medical practitioners were declared ‘’essential’’. Students realized that the medical profession offers secure work opportunities.
  • With students not needing to travel to class, they had more time at their disposal to devote to their studies and their applications.
  • The shortened MCAT exam was more accessible and easier to manage for potential students. For example, there were more flexible time slots for taking the MCAT.
  • Some students who planned a gap year may have canceled their plans and applied for medical school instead.
  • The increase may simply be due to an intensified interest in health care careers.
  • Some students may have been inspired by the heroic efforts of front-liners during the height of the pandemic.

Applying to medical school

Applying for medical school is quite an involved process. To make it easier for applications, we have broken it down into three phases. Don’t be focused on a school’s final submission deadline and only prepare for that. If you wait till that point, you may find that all the positions were filled along the line.

Let’s look more closely at the three phases.

1. The primary application

This is the first portion of your application that you send in the first week of June of your application year, which is the year before you start your studies. So, if you are planning to start your studies in 2023, you must send in your primary application in June of 2022.

Most U.S. medical schools use the American Medical College Application Service® (AMCAS®). It is a centralized medical school application processing service, which means you only need to submit one online application to AMCAS even if you apply to multiple med schools. For schools that don’t use AMCAS, you have to submit a primary application specifically for each school.

You will need the following documentation to accompany your primary application:

  • Your MCAT score
  • Your official transcripts 
  • A personal statement
  • A list of your extracurricular activities
  • Recommendation letters

Submit your application in the first week of June. If a school accepts your primary application, you can go ahead with the secondary application.

2. The secondary application

Some schools’ secondary applications will merely involve an application fee, while others may ask you to answer additional questions or to submit an additional essay. Respond to these requirements as fast as you can. Schools should receive your secondary applications by August.

The additional essay will mostly involve writing about why you want to attend that specific school, why you think you’ll make a great doctor, or a general topic like diversity. You could preempt these requirements by starting to write your essays ahead of time. These essays are important and can be time-consuming, so anything you can do to get ahead of the curve will help.

Schools divide their applicants into three groups: those invited for an interview, those that are rejected, and a third pile of ‘’maybe’’.

3. The medical school interview

You can receive a response from a medical school within days or the wait can be months.

Schools that reject your application will notify you immediately. You’ll also get a notification from a school that accepts you. Applicants that fall in the third group may still hear from the school at a later stage, depending on what happens with other candidates during their interviews and how many accept positions. For instance, an applicant may be accepted by a school, but decide not to take the position, which then becomes available to someone in the third group.

This whole process takes time and you have to be vigilant about scheduling interviews you have been invited to. Organizing skills will come in handy here.

Treat every application and every interview seriously, regarding each one as your only real chance.

Three paths to medical school

1. Completing a four-year college degree first

Completing a four-year college degree first and then applying is the most common route to medical school. This route is also referred to as “going straight through.”

However, more often than not, students don’t apply straight after completing their college degree; they take a gap year. Some take two gap years. Students use a gap year to augment their application to medical school by completing all prerequisite courses, improving their GPA, or strengthening their extracurricular activity resumes.

2. Direct applications to medical programs

Also known as BA/MD or BS/MD programs, this route is open to top-performing high schoolers who are in no doubt that they want to become physicians. With these programs, you can complete your undergraduate and medical degrees in 6 to 8 years. However, your medical school position is not secured – you have to maintain top GPA and MCAT scores.

3. Special acceptance for exceptional achievements by college students

Outstanding college students who showed exceptional promise during their first year or two at college may be offered a position at a medical school. Please note, only a few medical schools offer this opportunity. These students won’t have to take the MCAT. They are allowed to devote all their time to their studies, their research, and other activities pertaining to their end goal.

Two types of medical schools

US medical schools are mainly divided into allopathic and osteopathic programs. Doctors who went to a traditional allopathic medical school have the letters “MD” after their name; if they obtained a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree, they’ll have “DO” after their name.

The differences between the two have become less over the years. MDs generally treat specific conditions with medication, while DOs follow a more holistic approach, which might or might not include traditional medicines, but does include hands-on treatment techniques. Both MDs and DOs are qualified doctors who passed strict requirements to get their medical license.

MD and DO programs are increasingly converging, with allopathic physicians now also aiming for disease prevention and taking a more holistic approach. On the other hand, osteopathic physicians are practicing evidence-based care, and also perform cutting-edge research.

At this point in time, most students enroll for MD programs as the MD degree is still seen as the superior of the two.

What medical schools want from applicants

Medical school application requirements mainly pertain to academics – GPA and MCAT scores and evidence of extracurricular activities.


This is not as straightforward as you might expect. Your GPA and MCAT scores together indicate through your level of academic achievement whether you are medical school material. Your GPA is arguably the most determining factor, but it doesn’t mean that if you don’t have the highest possible score, you won’t be accepted into a program. Some less prestigious medical schools may accept scores that Ivy League institutions will reject. The more prestigious the school you want to study at, the higher your GPA should be.

The MCAT is a difficult standardized exam notorious for crushing many a student’s dreams. The MCAT has four sections:

  •   Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (CPBS)
  •   Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)
  •   Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (BBLS)
  •   Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (PSBB)

It is graded on a 472-528 scale, with 500 corresponding to the 50th percentile score. A good GPA score will support your MCAT score, as will impressive extracurricular achievements like your own research program or something similar.

Keep in mind that application administrators take your MCAT score and GPA into account to determine your academic ability. This means that if your GPA score is on the low side (in the 50th percentile), you definitely need a MCAT score in the 75th percentile. At the same time, a GPA in the 75th percentile means you won’t need a top MCAT score.

Extracurricular activities

Your extracurricular involvements tell medical school application administrators what kind of a person they are dealing with. How committed are you? What drives you? Do you have leadership potential? Following are the extracurricular interests that will boost your application.

1. Shadowing

This involves observing the daily interactions of a physician with patients. Most pre-med students aim to shadow two to four physicians for 50-100 hours covering different specialties in different environments, such as hospital patients and community clinic patients.

2. Clinical experience

Some of the most direct, hands-on clinical experiences for pre-med students include obtaining certifications such as emergency medical technician (EMT-B), emergency room technician, medical assistant, pharmacy technician, licensed practical nurse, certified nursing assistant, and paramedic. All these interactions count as patient exposure.

Working as a clinical scribe is also popular. Students attend a patient exam by a physician and record patient information in the patient’s Electronic Medical Record (EMR). This does not provide direct patient experience, but students learn a lot, including how to conduct an examination and deal with all kinds of patients with different conditions. Some of these positions are paid, which makes them an attractive choice for some students.

3. Volunteering

Volunteering is a fundamental extracurricular activity in that it illustrates your service orientation. There is a legion of possibilities, including volunteering at a hospice, fulfilling a position at an NGO or community charity, and many more. Your service need not be medically oriented. The emphasis is on service and making a real contribution. Starting a food garden or leading a beach clean-up are also relevant activities.

4. Conducting research

If you are applying to research-focused medical schools, be prepared to conduct scientific research as an extracurricular activity. If a med school isn’t a research institute, you may apply without having done any research, but if you have, your application will stand out. You can gain research experience in a basic science lab or as a lab assistant or technician in a clinical setting or at a research facility. Or you can go out in the field to do research.

If you are interested in joint MD-PhD programs, research experience is a definite prerequisite. These programs are specifically designed for students who want to practice medicine and also do research. They will qualify as physician-scientists, eventually working at the cutting-edge of scientific research to solve the root causes of disease.

The one factor that will get you an invite

While the skills you can illustrate through your extracurricular experiences will go a long way toward getting you accepted in one or more medical schools, the real differentiating factor will be outstanding performance in one or two of your extracurricular activities.  

At the end of the day, one extracurricular activity is not better than the other; what counts is your performance. If you can demonstrate outstanding ability in any one or two of them, like having research published in a peer-reviewed journal, you have doubled your chances.

This is why it’s important not to look around for inspiration from what others before you have done or are doing. Choose something that you feel strongly about, where you want to make a difference, and then come up with a novel solution that will get you noticed.

Remember, top medical schools are looking for the next scientific or treatment breakthrough. If you can show that potential, you hopefully will have a high chance of getting several invites.

Final thoughts

It is difficult to get into medical school, but it’s not impossible. If you are planning to become a doctor, the chances are you have the ability and drive. Otherwise the idea wouldn’t even have entered your mind. If you are in any doubt, you can always consult one of the institutions specializing in getting students to pass the MCAT and get accepted to medical school. Some of them have a 90 percent success rate!

For those also wanting to combine entrepreneurship and medical school please see the following resources: