Hindsight Advice for Building a Strong Med School Application
Ready for the understatement of the year? Medical school is tough to get into. The Med School application process is no joke.
Look, the unfortunate truth is that getting good grades and smoking the MCAT won’t automatically get you one of those coveted medical school acceptances. It’ll help, but it seems like everybody knows “that one applicant” who had incredible stats but still didn’t get in. Why is this?
Medical schools and adcoms are trying to build out a cohort of individuals. Not stack their ranks with rigid test-taking automatons—not yet at least. Admissions committees are looking for the ideal applicant. Not the ideal med school application. The difference is subtle but important. Once you cross the minimum threshold each school arbitrarily has in mind to screen out applicants, they’re no longer comparing MCAT prowess. They’re looking at the rest of your application to see what kind of colleague you will be, what kind of doctor you will be, and how you will treat your patients. And this is found in the rest of your application.
It should give hope to those of us who aren’t likely to find ourselves in Summa cum laude territory. We make it into medical school by showing adcoms that we can handle the rigors of medical school, but bring more to the table than just our gigantic brains.
What you want your clinical experiences to say about you is that you have had enough exposure to medicine know what it’s like to be a healthcare provider. You ought to be able to speak intelligently about healthcare and understand the physician’s role on the team. You can accomplish this through shadowing, working within healthcare, volunteering in clinics or hospitals, or getting involved with clinical research.
This can be challenging. All of these things are easier to set up if you have contacts within medicine. Before medical school, the only doctor I knew personally was Dr. Pepper.
After experiencing a sobering dose of rejection trying to volunteer and shadow within my college town—along with every other doctor wannabe—I ventured out into the surrounding areas. I volunteered at a small community hospital that was closer to my wife’s hometown. I was able to volunteer in the physical therapy department assisting with both clinical and non-clinical activities. This allowed me to build relationships with the physical therapists and they introduced me to orthopedic surgeons who were happy to have me shadow them. I also met many primary care physicians who invited me to come see patients with them in their clinics and in the hospital. Over the course of a 7-week summer break, I spent considerable time in the hospital and gained valuable patient care experiences. Experiences I could definitely use in my personal statement.
Med School Application Personal Statement
I tell pre-meds and medical students to keep a journal of impactful experiences. Doesn’t have to be an everyday thing. You will find the task of writing much easier when you have plenty of material to draw upon. So, if at any point during shadowing or other clinical experiences, you see something that causes you to feel strong emotions, write that crap down.
I am actually quite passionate about personal statements. I consider them the icing on your application cake. And similar to the icing-cake relationship, it can be the best part or ruin the entire thing.
A strong personal statement communicates who you are, what you value, and why you want to become a doctor, and makes a case that you are uniquely qualified for the role. It should be personal and enjoyable to read. Tell your story in a logical sequence using succinct active language. Show them how great you are with specific experiences. Help the reader arrive at the conclusion that you are hardworking, and collegial, (insert any other adjective that describes you) and that medicine is the obvious choice of career for you.
Refer to my other advice on writing a solid personal statement.
You probably want to get some research experience. This takes a back seat to your clinical experience, but it can help you increase your competitiveness. Especially if you manage to see a project through to publication (not necessary). The type of research doesn’t matter as much. I did research on chemistry education and that seemed to do the trick. They cared more about what I learned in the process.
In medicine, we pride ourselves on being evidence-based and research is a big part of clinical practice. Even if you never do research as a future doctor you will read new research and be expected to be able to make sense of the findings and interpret the conclusions. You show that you understand the importance of discovery and are committed to moving the medical field forward by getting involved in research.
Make sure that you understand your own project. You want consistency in the message you send to the adcoms. If you have a bunch of research hours and talk about it in your personal statement but can’t explain the goals, process, or findings of your research, that’s not a great look.
When adcoms say they prefer “well-rounded” individuals they are talking about extracurriculars.
This is the section of your application that allows you to set yourself apart from the pack. What you choose to do in your free time sends a clear message of who you are and what you value. Join clubs and interest groups. Head up committees for leadership experience. Participate in community clean-up projects, food drives, and outreach programs. Find what resonates with you and explore it.
There were a couple of months during undergrad when I went to every interest group meeting that showed up in my email just to see what was out there. That’s a great way to expand your circle and find out about unique volunteer opportunities that the average pre-med might not collect.
You definitely want some experiences that show a willingness to care for the underrepresented and disadvantaged populations in your community. If you can’t find those opportunities, check with your local library, schools, churches, or community centers. They might have ongoing projects or one-time events that need volunteers. If not, you can always start your own community service project. The mantra of my good friend, who is now an orthopedic surgery resident at The Mayo Clinic, was “Never view yourself at a disadvantage, make your own opportunities.”
Med School Application Letters of Recommendation
I included this section last by design. You control the narrative of your application in every other aspect except the letters of recommendation. It is highly recommended that you waive the right to screen your letters of recommendation which means you need letters from people you trust and who know you well. You want them to speak about your best qualities.
Your letter writers should corroborate the message you curated with your application experiences and personal statement. And you can do this by providing them with some helpful information. Give each letter writer a little packet that includes your CV, list of accomplishments, and personal statement. Also, include a summary of the things that you did and learned while working with them. Decide which letter writers are best suited to speak about your academic abilities, work ethic, teamwork, and glowing personality. Give them a list of helpful suggestions of things that they could include in their letter. You don’t want to tell them what to write, but you can offer ideas so that not every letter says “Jake was a hard worker and team player.”
Slow and Steady
The last piece of advice I want to give you is that building a solid application takes time. That’s why there are such things as a “gap year”—which I ended up taking. Don’t try and rush your application if you aren’t ready. That just leads to wasted money and unnecessary stress. Start building your application early and keep chipping away at it. Longitudinal evidence of dedication to service and the medical profession provides a much more compelling case to the admissions committees.
For advice on getting your med school application finalized, essay editing, MCAT tutoring, and more, consider enlisting the help of an Elite Medical Prep 1-on-1 tutor. Schedule your complimentary consultation today to learn more. Good luck!