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The 2021 Ultimate Guide to the AMCAS

30 min


A student using a laptop to male an AMCAS application


Applying to medical school can seem like navigating a maze, and can undoubtedly intimidate a lot of students. From a primary application, to a secondary, to an interview, it is difficult to feel fully informed about the process. This guide will take you through the process of the primary application, breaking it down by components, and helping you avoid pitfalls along the way.



What is AMCAS and the Primary Application 


The primary application to medical school is managed by the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). This application includes all your identifying information, college courses, MCAT scores, essays, and more. Although the entire application cycle proceeds over the course of the year, the primary application has very specific, and sometimes finicky timing. Generally, the AMCAS application opens the first week of May (the application cycle for 2021-2022, opened May 3, 2021 at 9:30 EST). Although the application is open from this time until the deadline – which varies between schools – you will only be able to submit your application beginning May 27th 2021 at 9:30 EST. The general consensus for adhering to submission deadlines is: the earlier, the better. The reasoning is verification. AMCAS has to process and verify your application before it will send it out to participating and selected medical schools. According to the AAMC, verifying your AMCAS application can take 6-8 weeks, in addition to transcript processing. Since medical schools generally operate on a first-come, first-served basis, the later you submit, the lower your chances are of receiving interview invitations and acceptances. 



Starting with AMCAS


To start an AMCAS application, head over to https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school-amcas/applying-medical-school-amcas and hit the AMCAS Sign In button. If you have account, you can log in with your credentials. If not, go ahead and create one. Once you have signed in, you will see which AMCAS applications are open. Select the application cycle you wish to apply to, i.e. if you want to attend medical school in 2022, start the 2022 application. After starting the application, there will be an overview of the sections. Each of these sections has to be filled out before continuing to the next. Also displayed will be your AAMC ID number. This number is a very crucial component of your application and will be used in logging into secondary application portals for individual schools, and sending things like letters of intent or updates to medical schools. The first section of the application will ask a variety of identifying information from you, things like your birthday, residence, legal and preferred names.





In the coursework section you will input your educational background. As part of this, you will be tasked with entering every course that is in your transcript. This part is a bit tricky, and it is important to adhere to the AMCAS rules- most importantly to enter your course information exactly as it is written in your transcript. If not, when your application is being verified, it may take longer or even be returned to you for corrections. This section tends to be the biggest issue for students that are applying. Take extra care to follow all AMCAS rules regarding course input. 


A few things to note: make sure to enter the course number with all letters and numbers (BIO 101), and add the phrase “and Lab” if the course included lab credit. Another important AMCAS rule to be aware of while inputting courses is the year or semester the course took place. The academic year for the AMCAS begins in the summer and ends in the spring. This means that a course that was taken in the summer of 2019, would be part of your 2019-2020 academic year, regardless of your schools designation of it in their transcript. 


AMCAS also will calculate both your cumulative GPA and Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics (BCPM) GPA. To do so, you will need to designate a “course classification” to each course. If you aren’t sure whether your course falls under a certain BCPM classification, check the AMCAS Course Classification Guide here: https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school-amcas/amcas-course-classification-guide


Although you have just written out every course you have ever taken at any institution you attended, AMCAS will also require a transcript from each of these institutions. This is where your AAMC ID, mentioned earlier, will be necessary – you need it to match your transcript to your application. Whether your transcript is electronic or paper, make sure do submit it as early as you can. Submitting your transcript should preferably be done before AMCAS is open for submission, as it may take some time to verify your transcript and courses. To minimize delay, doing so during the approximately one month space between the opening and submission of the AMCAS will lessen the time needed to verify your application. This means it is in your best interest to send in transcripts as early as you can, even though your college may not release grades until late May (possibly with a higher GPA). You should consider this when choosing when to send in a transcript. If you wish to send in an updated transcript with spring grades on it, possibly raising your GPA, you will not be able to do so. This is because once your transcript is received and verified, AMCAS will not consider another one for the primary application. One way around this is to send this updated transcript with your secondary applications or send update letters individually to each medical school. This is a very time and energy consuming process however and may not be worth your time. 



Work and Activities


Here is where you can list up to 15 activities in which you participated or experiences you had that are relevant. Up to three of these can be designated as “most meaningful”. Each activity will have a title, category, supervisor with contact info, and a description. This description will have a 700 character limit, so you will only have space for 3-4 sentences to squeeze in a description of your experience. However, each of the three most meaningful experiences will have an extra 1350 characters for you to describe its significance. Generally, most students use this space to describe a particular scenario of importance, to discuss a patient encounter, or to talk about their passion for the experience. 


Applicants often wonder about how many experiences they should have, or what counts as an experience. Listing a small amount of work/activities will not reflect to a medical school that you do not have enough experience. If anything, having more, less significant experiences (i.e. volunteering in multiple different places for short amounts of time) rather than a few of note, may even signify to an admissions committee that you are not dedicated, or willing to stay and progress with a company or group. As for what counts as work or an activity, the generally considered ones are shadowing, clinical and non-clinical volunteering, research, and employment. In addition to this there are awards or honors, like publications, presentations and posters, scholarships or Dean’s List designations. Some people even opt to put in their hobbies or achievements in non-academic/non-medical fields. For example, I read a forum post from a student who was passionate about exercising and participated in local competitions. This made him a unique applicant and he even said this experience was discussed during an interview.  


When considering which of these experiences to choose as your “most meaningful”, try to chose an experience that contributed to your desire to pursue a career in medicine, or an experience that you believe shaped you as a person or your values. The most important part of designating experiences as “most meaningful”, is making sure that you accurately reflect why you did so in the 1350 character space provided within AMCAS. It has been said that certain admissions committees assess only the three most meaningful experience essays, and not the rest of the work and activities section. For this reason, this section and your careful selection and description of these activities is considered one of the more important parts of the the application. After the personal statement, these three short essays may help give your application that extra kick or advantage over someone else’s.  



Letters of Recommendation


Now that you have documented your work and activities, you need to have letters that attest to this. This section, like most others, has its own tricks to know, and pitfalls to avoid. AMCAS allows you to add up to 10 “Letter of Recommendation” entries, with each entry having one of the following three designations: Committee Letter, Letter Packet, or Individual Letter. If you are planning on using a committee letter or letter packet, you need only create one entry, even if the committee letter or letter packet themselves contain multiple letters. If you are instead going to be using individual letters as opposed to a committee letter or letter packet, you will need a separate entry for each letter. In each entry, you will need to enter the contact information for the author of the letter. 


Once you do this, you will be presented with a Letter Request form. This form can be sent to your letter writers, and it will contain instructions for their submission of the letter. This will be done using the AMCAS letter service. However, if you wish to have these letters in a confidential portfolio for your personal storage and use (for current or future applications), I recommend Interfolio. Interfolio is a website where you can confidentially store recommendation letters and release them to AMCAS or other applications (you can even use it with AACOMAS!). All you need to be able to send these letters to AMCAS is that AAMC ID that was mentioned earlier. An important AMCAS quirk to remember is that, once you finally submit your AMCAS application, you will be able to add or assign letters to individual schools, but you will not be able to delete or edit the letters already on your AMCAS. This means you should carefully select your recommenders and letter writers prior to submitting. 


A common pitfall I have seen among forums and from friends, is sending letters of recommendation that do not fulfill a medical schools particular requirements. For example, some schools have a hard requirement of having two science letter writers, in addition to a non-science letter writer. Another example is a school having a minimum and maximum amount of acceptable letters, e.g. a minimum of two is required, but if more than six letters are sent to the school, they will choose at their discretion which to read. Issues with recommendations can easily be avoided by researching each particular school’s Letter of Recommendation requirements, which are generally displayed with their admissions information. In addition, if you are applying to MD PhD programs or other relevant programs, make sure to read the MD PhD admissions sections, as they may require more letters (i.e. from research supervisors) or have other requirement changes. 



Adding Medical Schools


Here is where you will be choosing to which medical schools you wish to apply. You can sort medical schools in a variety of ways, or just simply choose a school from the entire list. Upon selecting a school, you will be presented with program options (i.e. MD PhD, Early Decision etc.) and which letters of recommendation you wish to send to these schools. As was mentioned in the “Letters of Recommendation” section, make sure you send the correct letters, and acceptable number of letters to each school, as each school may have different requirements. Not fulfilling these requirements may result in application delays or rejections. You will also be asked if you applied to this school in previous years, and will be told whether the school participates in a background check. An important thing to note is that you can always apply to more medical schools after submitting your application by adding more schools to your list and resubmitting the section. This resubmission is instant, unlike the first submission; your application will not need to be reverified. 





This section is where you will submit your personal statement, and other essay(s) if applicable. You should consider what you write in your personal statement carefully. The personal statement is one of the most important things about your application, following your academic performance and MCAT scores. Think and write carefully; make sure to use the space to explain why medicine or why you wish to go to medical school. A lot of applicants are not sure what to write here, but there are various lines of thinking. Some recommend recounting your journey through college and describing your experiences. Others recommend using a vignette that ties in to your decision to pursue a career as a physician. The important part is that it resonates with and stands out to medical admissions committees, and most importantly talks about you and your growth. I recommend sitting down and writing everything you feel and know about your desire to becoming a physician, and editing it down from there. This is a daunting task, but is important as a good personal statement is what can make or break your application. 


In addition, if you applied at least to one MD PhD program, you will have to submit the MD PhD essay, which will ask you your reasons for wishing to pursue an MD PhD. I recommend doing your best to tie in how pursuing research, as well as a clinical career is part of your goals. An MD PhD is the intersection of the applied clinical sciences and the theoretical research ones. It is your job to explain why you wish to combine them in your career through a 3000 character essay. After this, you will be asked your significant research hours, and what your significant research experiences are. This essay has a 10,000 character limit. Here you should expound on what your research was, what you learned in the experience(s), publications and contributions to fields that you were in, and most importantly, its significance in both the scientific field and to you as a future clinical researcher. 



MCAT exams


In the standardized test section you will see your MCAT scores if you have taken and MCAT exam, and the score has been released. Most medical schools have a 3 year limit on the oldest MCAT they will accept, but be sure to research the specific schools in which you are interested if this is a concern. You will also be asked if you expect a future MCAT score to be released, i.e. if you plan on taking the MCAT again or for the first time following your application. In addition you can enter other tests that you wish to include, like the LSAT or GRE, if you believe they would support your application. Your MCAT score is considered to be one of the most critical parts of your application and good performance on this exam can open the doors to a broader selection of medical schools.





There are a few things to note before you submit your application. Following submission, you will be able to do the following: add letters of recommendation, change personal information in your account settings, add schools, or update MCAT scores. However, you will not be able to change anything else. After submission, your application will go through a verification process, which can take from 6-8 weeks or longer depending on how much time has passed since the submission opened (May 27th). AMCAS has a few rules for what you need in your application for it to be verified. As some sections are not needed for verification, leaving some incomplete can be advantageous.


Having an MCAT score or even taking the MCAT is not necessary for verification and you can submit your application to schools without one. Some applicants do so on purpose, because, in the 6-8 weeks that go by before the application is verified, they will receive their MCAT scores. This means that during or after verification, their application will be updated with an MCAT score, and will be complete. 


Having all of your letters of recommendation in is also something that is not required for verification. As you can always submit letters of recommendation afterwards, some applicants submit their AMCAS application to be verified, and submit their letters of recommendation whenever they receive them. This may give your letter writers more time without jeopardizing the timing of your verification.


The most important thing that is not required for verification is having a school list. AMCAS only requires one school to be selected in your school list for you to be able to submit your application for verification. Therefore, it possible to select a random school and have your application be submitted and verified while you are waiting on something like MCAT scores or other things that will define which schools to which you will apply. After received something like an MCAT score, you select which schools to which you wish to apply on the AMCAS application, and they will be added without any issue. 


Apart from those listed above, every other section is required to be complete. 



The AMCAS application is a daunting task to start and there are a lot of things to keep track of and remember. But once you hit that submit button, you can rest assured you have officially started on your path to becoming a medical student and clinician. Once submitted and verified, AMCAS will transmit your application and information to your designated medical schools around July 2-3 of your application year, and you will soon move on to the next step in the process: secondary applications. 

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