Things I Wish I Knew about Applying to Med School

Money, AMCAS, Secondaries, Interviews and Beyond

 

Navigating the med school app process is difficult, and I wouldn't have been able to do it without the help from advisors, friends, Google, and other resources that told me what direction to go in and how to make the most out of the process. So! Both out of gratitude and for the sake of convenience for future generations, here is a guide with the information I found helpful during my application cycle.

QUICK LINKS

 

 

 

COST (GENERAL) 

Putting this section first because it's probably one of the most important but under-discussed aspects of the application process. We all know that medical school tuition can be super expensive, but one thing that may or may not come up unexpectedly is just how expensive the application process itself can be. At least for me, the topic of paying for the application process never really came up with advisers, and I only happened to stumble upon the issue of money once through a chance conversation with a friend.

  • Save save save! Depending on what schools you apply to and whether or not you have to pay for primaries/secondaries, it's probably a good idea to save up at least $2000-5000 dollars if you're able, particularly if you are applying to several schools out-of-state (this might be an overestimate for some people, but better to be safe than sorry). Whether this means saving up a little bit over 4 years of part-time jobs in college or allocating a chunk of your gap year salary, be prepared financially so that your ability to submit an app/attend an interview isn't completely dependent on whether or not you have money in the bank.

  • Fee Assistance Program:  Probably the best advice I was ever given about med school apps was to apply to the AAMC Fee Assistance Program, especially considering how underprepared I was financially to apply to med school at the time. If your household has an income 300% or less of the national poverty level, then you may qualify for AAMC's fee assistance program, which similar to the common app for undergraduate colleges, will waive up to 20 primary applications as well as most of your secondary application fees (Out of my 22 med schools, only Baylor required me to pay the secondary application fee). Information about FAP can be found here. Try to apply as early as possible, since funding is limited and later applications won't guarantee waivers, even if you meet the eligibility requirements. I submitted my application in early February.

  • Interviews: If you're lucky, you'll get a couple months of notice in advance before your interview. If you're less lucky (of course still lucky since you got an interview in the first place), you may only get 2 weeks--maybe even less--of notice before your scheduled interview date. This is why, if you're applying to out-of-state schools, the interview costs can eat up a significant chunk of your savings. Sometimes you might have to foot the costs of a $300+ plane ride, but there are some things you can do to minimize expenses as much as possible. These are listed in the "traveling for interviews" section.

  • STAY WITH STUDENT HOSTS! Almost every school I applied to had medical students willing to host me during my interview stay. Some schools will openly advertise it and allow you to opt in (eg. Northwestern and SKMC), whereas others have student hosts but don't advertise it (eg. Weill Cornell). When in doubt, don't be afraid to reach out to the admissions office to see if the option is available. Hotels cost a lot of money and not everyone has a friend to stay with in every city, so save where you can.

    • Student hosts are also a great way to get a feel of the campus before your interview day, especially since many schools won't give you opportunities to interact with students until after your faculty interviews are already over. If you're up to it (and your student host has the time​ to spare), the night before your interview is the perfect time to gather information, hear a medical student's perspective, ask questions about student life and curriculum, and reflect on your answer for "Why Our School?"

 
 

PRIMARY/SECONDARY APPS

  • The Primary in a Nutshell: Aside from your basic biographic information, coursework, school list and letters of evaluation, the primary AMCAS requires you to write a personal statement (up to 5300 characters) and up to 15 entries of work/activities, including a short ~500 character description and hours worked. Of your activities, you will also be asked to select 3 as the "most meaningful" and write an additional short answer on why. The work/activities and personal statement will likely be the most time-consuming part of your application.

    • When brainstorming what to write in the description for work/activities, consider the following questions:

      • What measurable impacts have I made with my organization?

      • What have I learned from this experience? How have I grown? What skills have I gained?

      • If relevant, what has this experience taught me about the field of medicine? What has the experience made me appreciate?

    • For "Most Meaningful Experience" blurbs, it may be helpful to jot down specific memories from your experience.

    • 15 spaces isn't enough? Group things into categories! For instance, I clumped all awards/honors/distinctions into one entry. I also worked several part-time jobs during college to earn money, so I clumped those into one as well and just briefly listed all of the jobs in the experience description.

    • 15 spaces is too much? Don't feel pressured to fill up the empty space. Just use as much as you need to get everything across.

  • Personal Statement: Not going to say too much since there are a lot of great guides online, but in simple terms, your personal statement should be (1) concise, (2) humble, (3) reflect who you are (perhaps how you've grown) and (4) demonstrate your path and commitment to medicine.

  • Submit early: After submitting your AMCAS, it takes a few weeks for your application to be processed and actually sent to your medical schools. Since many medical schools offer interviews and acceptances on a rolling basis, the earlier you get your application in the better. Try to submit your primary AMCAS as close to the first day as possible, ideally within the first two weeks if you can. (This doesn't mean to rush to submit your app on day one; proofread every section, ensure quality and submit as soon as you feel ready)

  • Send transcripts ASAP! You can send transcripts as soon as the application cycle opens, so don't wait to send them. Even if your primary AMCAS is submitted, it won't be considered complete and processed until your transcripts are in as well. To avoid unexpected delays, send your transcripts to AAMC as soon as they're ready.

  • Secondaries: The earlier you submit your primary, the earlier it's verified and sent to schools, and the earlier you will receive your secondaries. Like the primary, strive to get your secondary applications in early (ideally within 2 weeks of receipt, although there is a little leeway). If you anticipate traveling/having limited internet connection/being busy between July and August, consider pre-writing some essays beforehand. It's not necessary to prewrite your secondaries, but keep in mind that secondaries will flood your inbox in batches as soon as your application is verified. Having some prewritten essays on hand can really help take off some of the burden so you don't burn out chugging 20++ essays in July and August. Medical school secondaries don't change much from year to year, so you can search "X School of Medicine secondary prompts" online or visit this page to get a headstart with the prompts. Some common prompts are:

    • Why X School? OR How do your experiences/interests match our school's mission?

    • Describe a challenge and how you overcame it.

    • If you have taken gap year(s), describe what you have done since graduation.

      • Again, for this prompt, rather than simply listing everything, it's okay to elaborate a little on why you're doing what you're doing and what you have or hope to have learned.

    • Describe yourself/Diversity Statement (ie what makes you you)

      • If you're only going to prewrite one essay, this is probably the one to prewrite and refine. Many schools have an open-ended essay/describe yourself/autobiographical sketch/diversity statement prompt with word limits between 500-5000 characters, so if you write one essay that you can tweak the word count of, you'll be set for a lot of schools.

  • DON'T COPY PASTE FROM PRIMARY TO SECONDARY. Secondary applications may seem redundant at times, but don't use that as an excuse to copy-paste from your primary. Treat the secondary as an extra opportunity to show the medical school more of who you are. Write about different experiences than the ones you wrote about in your personal statement, elaborate in more detail on experiences only mentioned briefly, etc. Be consistent, but not repetitive. In other words, if you said you're extremely passionate about teaching in your primary, it's okay to talk about your passion for teaching in your secondary (in fact it might be weird if you abandoned your love of teaching and wrote about something entirely different instead). Just don't tell the same story twice.

  • Proof-read. Proof-read your primary, proof-read your secondary. Take a couple days off and then proof-read again with fresh eyes, or have someone else look over your writing for you. Make sure you don't accidentally write about Cornell in an essay for Feinberg.

  • Check for/finish any other additional requirements. For instance, many schools including Rutgers RWJ, University of Michigan, Drexel and Temple require all applicants to take an additional standardized test called "CASPer", an online 60-90 minute examination designed to assess non-academic skills like collaboration, ethics, professionalism and problem solving. It is designed such that you don't need to prepare for it beforehand, so just sign up for the earliest convenient testing date and get it over with so that your med school app will be considered complete and sent to the admissions committee for evaluation.

Once everything is submitted, the wait begins! If you have everything finished between July and early August, interview offers can start trickling in any time starting early August (or in very rare cases, late July). That said, don't feel anxious if it's August/September and you haven't heard anything. More than half of my interview invites didn't come in until October/November, and there are people who continue to receive interviews all the way until February/March! I've heard the general rule is not to start worrying unless you haven't gotten a single interview by Thanksgiving, so until then, sit tight, enjoy life, and appreciate the free time while (if) you have it.

 
 

PREPARING FOR INTERVIEWS

Whether or not you've received your first interview offer, it's never a bad idea to start preparing. If you've gotten your first interview, congrats! Wherever you are in the process, here are some tips for preparing for interviews.

  • Know your application. Be prepared to answer any questions about your primary or secondary application. Unless you have a multiple mini-interview (MMI), a majority of your interviews will likely address-if not concentrate on-your application. If it helps, print and annotate your application with extra experiences, what you've learned from the experience, and how it has helped you grow. Questions about your application may come up in the following ways:

    • Elaborate on this activity

    • Why did you join this club?

    • Tell me about your research (for this one, don't get too technical from the getgo. Summarize your research in layman's terms and only elaborate further if the interviewer asks. For one interview, my interviewer actually asked me, word by word, "Explain your research to me as if I were an 8 year old.")

    • Tell me about your clinical experience

    • How did you choose your major/minor?

    • What was your favorite/least favorite course at Your University?

  • Know yourself. This may sound silly, I know. But reflecting on who you are/the background you come from is a really great exercise for preparing for medical school interviews because chances are you'll be asked about yourself. Think about how/where you grew up, the path you've taken to get to where you are, who you are outside of medicine, etc. Questions intended to get to know you include, but aren't limited to:

    • So tell me about yourself

    • Tell me about your family/where you grew up

    • What do you like to do in your free time?

  • Know why medicine. I would be surprised if any school didn't ask some form of "why medicine?". Be able to explain why you are going into medicine and not any other field. Reflect on any experiences that influenced you, summarize your decision-making process and the ultimate reasons behind your decision.  Some points to consider that may or may not be relevant are:

    • Why pursue the M.D. degree, not nursing/PA/MA/any other field of medicine?

    • If you have research experience, why M.D instead of a Ph.D (or MD/PhD)?

    • If you have significant teaching/mentoring experience, why medicine and not a career in education?

    • Realize that "helping people" alone isn't a strong enough argument for medical schools. There are a number of other jobs (social work, non-profits, education, etc.) that achieve the same purpose.

    • Medicine is great, but also be aware of some of the limitations and drawbacks. Show that you're realistic--though not cynical--about the profession and that you're interested in medicine despite the limitations it may face.

      • On the issue of limitations of healthcare: Not everyone has the same experience, but at least I was asked during three separate interviews variations of "What do you think are the greatest limitations/drawbacks of American healthcare?" This might be a good topic to do a bit of research on or brainstorm beforehand, whether through drawing from examples from your clinical experience or reading news articles online.

  • Know the school. Hopefully, you did some research before crafting your school list so you have at least a vague idea of what made you decide to apply. If you didn't, now is the time to do that. In addition to knowing the general mission and values of the school, research opportunities that the school has that match your specific interests. For example, are you interested in social justice? Do you value a school's emphasis on student wellness? What kind of opportunities do students have to get involved with x, y or z type of research? Whether through reading specific school website/handouts, skimming MSAR, talking to current students, looking at blogs or all of the above, be prepared to answer "Why X School?" and demonstrate why you would be a good fit. Personally, I typed up ~2 pages of notes for each school I received an interview from and found them useful to skim before interview day.

  • Glance over some other common questions. These aren't necessary to prepare for, but if you have some extra free time looking over them can't hurt.

    • Name 5 strengths/weaknesses

    • Tell me about a time you failed (ie. tell me about a time you failed and how you learned from it).

    • Describe a challenge you faced and how you overcame it.

    • What problems do you anticipate facing as a future medical student/physician?

    • Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

    • What do you think are the qualities that make a good physician?

    • Why should we choose you?

    • What do you look for in a medical school?

    • What would you do if you didn't get into medical school this year?

    • Just search "sample medical school interview questions" to find a bunch more

  • Prepare to ask questions. When the interviewer asks "do you have any questions for me?", it's generally a good idea to ask a question. It's also a great opportunity for you to learn more about the school, the profession, or anything else you want to know about. If you can't think of any questions that come up during your conversation with your interviewer, here are some ideas of what you could ask:

    • What was your path to medicine? What brought you to X Medical School?

    • What do you like most about X Medical School? What do you wish could be changed?

    • (If the interviewer has been with the medical school for a long time) How has X Medical School changed over the years?

    • What kind of patient populations do you see?

    • How is your work/life balance?

    • What is it like to work as a physician in City/Town?

    • Can you elaborate on your involvement in X?

    • If you're interviewing with a student, ask about student life, clinical rotations, receptiveness to student feedback, why they chose the school, what they do in their free time, etc. Other informative questions can be found here, although some of the questions are more to ask during/after the interview day rather than during the interview.

  • MMIs: I was fortunate(?) enough not to have any MMI interviews during my application cycle, so I won't talk too much about it aside from saying it's good to prepare in advance. MMIs, or multiple-mini interviews, are short, timed stations that interviewees rotate through. In each station, the interviewee interacts with a different interviewer and is assessed on things such as cultural sensitivity, teamwork, empathy, etc. Interviewees may be asked about ethical scenarios, and one station might be a more traditional "tell me about yourself".

    • A friend found the scenarios here to be particularly helpful. This presentation also has good advice.

TRAVELING FOR INTERVIEWS

  • Public transit v. taxi/uber/lyft: Depending on where you are, the best mode of transportation will vary. If you know any students or people from the area, it would be a good idea to ask what they use for transportation. To give a couple examples, Uber/Lyft might better options in Rochester, MN where the airport-Mayo shuttle only runs every 3 or so hours until 6PM and is only a few dollars cheaper. Meanwhile, in NYC, there is usually a lot of traffic which means that uber/lyft/via time estimates are often not very accurate. During peak hours in downtown Manhattan, a ~10 minute car ride could take an hour, so depending on how far you are from the interview site, walking or taking the subway is likely your best bet.

  • Saving on travel: Last-minute flights are expensive, and sometimes there is no way around them. But by minimizing costs for other interviews, you can limit the amount of money you spend overall.

    • Compare costs--and check Southwest. Compare prices online between different airlines (and different dates if you're able to select an interview date from a list of options). Make sure to take into account policies on baggage if necessary (eg. the cheapest United flight does not include a free carry-on bag). Another thing that isn't widely known is that Southwest airlines doesn't appear on most price comparison sites, so don't forget to include Southwest in your airline comparisons. Two great benefits about Southwest is that they give you two free checked bags, and they charge no fee for cancelling or rescheduling your flight (you just have to pay the difference in ticket price). The option to reschedule a flight for free can sometimes make a huge difference (eg. if a school fulfills an ITA request--read more below).

    • Early bird specials and free rides: Look in your area to see if there are any transportation companies that offer mega-discounts or have a reward system for rides. For instance, if you book tickets 3+ weeks in advance, Megabus prices for certain times and destinations can be heavily discounted (eg. for one interview, I only spent $12 for a roundtrip bus ticket from DC to Philadelphia). Vamoose Bus, which travels between the DC/MD/VA and NYC, has a rewards system in which every ticket purchase adds up in credit that you can eventually redeem for a free ride.

Note: This post is not sponsored by Vamoose, Southwest, or Megabus. Just speaking from my own experiences trying to find travel options.

  • Send "ITAs": ITAs, or in-the-area requests, are great to send to schools as long as you send them at least a month or more in advance. Applying to med school is an expensive process both time and money-wise, and many medical schools (eg. Weill Cornell and Pritzker at UChicago) understand this and will try as much as they can to accommodate for you. If you are going to be in the area for another interview/family trip/etc, consider sending an email to other schools as well. As long as you're polite with your request, an ITA can't hurt you.

    • A quick blurb on wording ITA emails: From my own experience, I know that some medical schools are kind enough to take ITA requests into account whenever they can. However, it's also true that they have no obligation to fulfill your request. Even simply getting an interview invite in the first place is a privilege, and it's important to acknowledge this in your ITA email. For mine, I wrote something along the lines of "I understand that X school only interviews a limited number of the most competitive applicants. However, if I am fortunate enough to receive an interview, I was wondering if it would it be possible to schedule within Y time frame to reduce the costs of traveling and minimize time taken away from work". As long as you're humble in your request though, whatever wording you use should be fine.

  • Public transit can be convenient! Check if your area has buses/shuttles/etc that take you to and from the airport/medical school. For instance, the 55 bus in Chicago will take you straight (literally) from University of Chicago to the Midway airport. Pritzker SOM is only a ~7 minute walk to the bus stop. If you're unfamiliar with the area and your transportation options, Google Maps is a life saver. And if you want to be safe, it's okay to ask the people around you to make sure you're at the right place.

  • What I packed for my trips:

    • Travel toiletry set: shampoo, conditioner (if needed), body wash, toothbrush, toothpaste

    • Towel

    • Interview suit and shoes, including black socks

    • Comfortable clothes to wear outside of interview day (eg. pajamas, tshirt/jeans, undergarments, comfortable shoes)

    • Binder with your AMCAS primary, secondaries and notes specific to the medical school -- almost every school I interviewed at had some variation of "Why our school?", so having some handouts or quick bullet points on hand can be helpful to review.

    • Phone charger

    • A book or something to do on the way

    • Emergency cash (in case something comes up, or you want to grab food at a market/food truck/street food cart that only takes cash)

    • Never packed a pillow/sleeping bag, because I was fortunate enough to only have hosts that provided pillow/blankets/couch to sleep on.​​

    • Pen and small notepad; handy for taking notes in case your school doesn't provide you with a writing utensil on interview day.

      • Keep the pen and paper with you during interview day to jot down notes about the school (and the conversations you have with your interviewers in case you have to write thank you letters later that night).

    • Some applicants brought copies of their CV/research articles/etc, but I personally never did and don't think it's necessary.

    • Optional/other ideas: basic makeup kit, hair ties, breath mints, contacts/glasses, earplugs, wristwatch, snacks

 

THE WAIT

  • Take notes! If you ever have time after an interview day, take time to journal and reflect on your impressions of the day. It might seem silly now, but it will be unbelievably useful when you realize in a few months that you barely remember details of the experience. Even making a bulleted list of things you liked/disliked about the school will be helpful when decision-making season comes around. Reading your interview day notes will also help in drafting letters of interest/intent later down the line.

  • Write thank yous (unless they say otherwise). Within 24 hours of your interview, send a thank you to your interviewer(s) either directly to the admissions office/to the interviewers themselves, or by uploading to the application portal. If instructions on where to send thank yous weren't given during an info session, your best bet is probably to send an email to the admissions office and ask them to forward your notes. I didn't take my laptop with me when I traveled, so I just drafted and sent emails from my iPhone to thank the interviewers for their time and reaffirm my interest in the school. For some schools, the thank you won't really be more than just a nice gesture, but for other schools (eg. Georgetown and Mayo), all communication including thank you letters are taken into account during the admissions process.

  • Send updates: Once you've finished your interviews, consider sending a post-interview update to your schools. While the update won't be necessary for some schools like Stanford or Harvard, other schools like Columbia, Feinberg, Mayo, Jeff (SKMC), and Pritzker explicitly state during their interview day that they like to hear about what you've been doing since you applied. In your update letter, it's usually appropriate to also include a blurb reaffirming your interest in the school and why you think it'd be a good fit.

    • Even if you haven't heard from the school at all since submitting your application, it's ~generally~ okay to send an update anyway. In fact, for some schools I'd encourage it because it demonstrates continued interest. If possible, ask the admissions office on your interview day whether they have a specific policy on sending updates.

  • Sit back and relax! If you're done with interviews, now all that's left is the waiting game. If you have some free time, read that book or binge that TV show you've been procrastinating on, take on a DIY project, start a new hobby, plan that travel you've been dreaming of for decades... whatever you want to do to enjoy life and distract yourself until the big day comes.

Good luck everyone!!

This isn't a comprehensive guide on how to apply to medical school, just a consolidated list of some of the things I found most helpful during my own process. If you want to learn more, SDN has a helpful thread with links to information on a variety of different topics. Pre-health advisers (if accessible), friends, current medical students and Google are also a great resource as well. The Uplift Guide is also a very helpful resource for the entire process from MCAT to applying to matriculation.

Contributor: Nana Park