You’ve Made it Into Med School! Now What?
Congratulations, you have been accepted into medical school! After more than a year studying for the MCAT, writing countless essays, and practicing for interviews—not to mention fulfilling all the pre-med requirements during college—your hard work has paid off. An acceptance to medical school is certainly a feat worth celebrating, but your work is not done yet. There are several steps to complete to secure your spot in the entering class and prepare for your medical school journey. Some of these steps will vary depending on whether you have a single or multiple acceptances (or are on a waitlist spot as well), or if you are entering a four-year vs. an extended program. Regardless of which category you fall into, keep reading to find out ten steps you should complete before starting medical school.
1. Respond to the Offer of Acceptance
Once a medical school has contacted you with an official offer of acceptance, you typically have two weeks to respond. Refer to the AAMC’s Application and Acceptance Protocols for Applicants (“Traffic Rules”) for complete guidelines about notifying schools of your decision. You should pay attention to schools’ individual timelines and withdraw any acceptance or waitlist positions at schools you don’t plan on attending. Additionally, applicants with multiple offers of acceptance should follow these key steps:
- By April 15th, narrow your selection to three schools or fewer
- By April 30th, select the school you will attend
- Withdraw your acceptance from any school you won’t attend as soon as you make that decision
2. Decide Between Multiple Acceptances
If you are lucky enough to have multiple acceptances, you may have an easy decision with one of them being your dream school, or you might need to make a tougher decision. Here are six key factors to consider when deciding between medical schools:
- Your total cost and financial aid: These two factors go hand-in-hand. Pay attention not just to the total cost of the school, but to the amount that you will be responsible for (your cost of attendance). Does the school offer generous financial aid? Are you eligible for any additional need- or merit-based scholarships?
- Cost of living: Cities vary substantially in their cost of living across a wide array of factors including food, housing, transportation, and entertainment. Consider your lifestyle habits to integrate the city’s cost of living into the calculation of your finances during medical school. This is especially true for those planning on completing an extended program, such as a five-year physician-scientist training program or a dual-degree program (e.g., MD/Ph.D., MD/MBA), during which some students decide to buy a house or a condo rather than rent.
- Location: Speaking of cities, where will you be happy for four (or more) years? What are your hobbies and how do you like to relieve stress? Which location offers the right opportunities for you to be happy and healthy during medical school?
- Curriculum: Medical schools across the country have developed their own unique ways of teaching medicine. During the pre-clinical years, some programs rely on lectures to convey basic science material whereas others emphasize small-group or case-based learning. Additionally, a school’s affiliated hospitals and medical centers will play a large role in the patient populations you will be able to interact with and the overall quality of your clinical education.
- Student body: Consider features of the typical entering class, such as size and diversity (and many others). Beyond those basic facts, try to get a sense of what students are really like and how they work with each other. Positivity and a collaborative spirit are essential!
- Residency placements: This is an important metric of how well students fare after graduation. Look at the quality of the hospitals and the specific programs students match to get a sense of how competitive students are. You should also consider how the residency matches align with your interests. Are you more interested in surgical vs. medical specialties? If so, do students at a particular school consistently match to top surgical residencies in locations you consider desirable?
3. Maximize Your Second Looks
This step is directly related to our last point. If you are deciding between multiple acceptances, take advantage of second looks. Even if you have one acceptance or already know which school you will commit to, attend the second look if offered. This is an opportunity to revisit a school and learn more about its program and student life. Be sure to interact with both faculty members and students to gain a better understanding of both perspectives of the school, and to evaluate how well they align with each other. Consider asking questions about the following topics:
- Curriculum (e.g., format and schedule of exams, emphasis on lecturing vs. self-directed learning)
- Elective courses
- Research opportunities
- Leadership and volunteer opportunities
- Academic culture (e.g., how competitive or cooperative are students?)
- Student satisfaction (e.g., are students stressed, are they supported by the faculty?)
- On-campus medical, dental, and mental health support
- Housing (e.g., where do students live, how affordable is it?)
- Food (e.g., on-campus dining options, local restaurants)
- Transportation (do you need a car?)
4. Complete the Necessary Paperwork
You will need to submit some paperwork before or soon after matriculation. This might include a background check, attestations to certain health and technical standards, financial aid information, and immunization records. Schools will notify you of deadlines and documentation needed to complete each step, so be sure to regularly check your email for communications from your school. Check your spam folder too!
5. Start Looking into Housing Early
Securing a place to live is an essential part of your preparation for medical school. Finding a safe and comfortable home early on will help you focus on classes and ease the stress of your transition. The first thing you should do is find out when orientation is. For many schools, it is in mid-August, but for others, it might be in early July or September. Once you know when you need a place to live by, ask current students (ideally M1s) how long it took them to find a suitable place and how they searched. Some schools organize spreadsheets with a list of housing options along with student ratings or comments. Unless you already know the city well, take advantage of those resources. It is often difficult to know what neighborhoods are safe and which landlords or management companies are reputable without hearing from students who have firsthand experience.
6. Identify Clubs or Extracurricular Activities
Your extracurricular activities during medical school will not feature as prominently on residency applications as your college experiences did on your medical school applications. This means that the activities you choose to become involved with should reflect your interests and internal motivations rather than external pressures. This invites a greater sense of freedom when it comes time to choose clubs and other student groups to join. It is certainly helpful to start looking into options before matriculating so that you can be ready to join groups that interest you as soon as possible. But be careful not to overextend yourself right off the bat. It might be tempting to join lots of groups early on and then scale back as you become busier, but this is often difficult to execute smoothly and can cause extra stress. Instead, consider picking a small number of groups to join at first and then becoming more involved as your availability takes shape and you determine what you can manage.
If you have chosen to enter medical school, you possess a commitment to lifelong learning and have demonstrated this to admissions committees. It is not a checkbox item or a passive trait, however. It demands continuous reflection, and because of how much you have accomplished to earn a medical school acceptance there is plenty to reflect on. Doing this thoughtfully will help you prepare for the demanding journey ahead. Consider reflecting on these questions about your strengths, weakness, and passions:
- What kind of physician do I want to be? How do I want to treat my colleagues and patients?
- What kinds of patients do I enjoy working with? What populations have I had less exposure to? How can I learn more about different groups to enhance my cultural humility?
- How will I change throughout medical school? Am I worried about becoming burned out, jaded, or overconfident? If so, what can I do to prevent this from happening?
- How do I learn best? What strategies have worked for me so far, and which should I reevaluate?
- How do I communicate in professional settings? Do I prefer to remain quieter and listen to others, or do I take the lead to initiate conversations? How might I benefit from stepping outside my comfort zone and trying different tactics?
8. Take Time Off
Regardless of whether you are going straight through from college or completing gap years, it is important to take some time off before starting medical school. Use this time to visit friends and family, travel, spend time outdoors, or engage in your favorite hobbies. You can also read something non-academic. Medical school involves so much reading that it can be difficult to read more during your free time, so if you like to read for fun make sure to do as much as you can now!
9. Develop Good Self-Care Habits
There is no doubt that medical school is demanding, but that doesn’t mean you need to be sleep-deprived or sacrifice healthy eating or exercise to keep up with schoolwork. In fact, if you set good habits and prioritize them early on, you will do your mind and body a favor which will ultimately enhance your learning and academic performance. Balance will be key, but keep in mind that because of the demands of medical school you may not always be able to keep to your ideal schedule. Develop good habits, then set realistic expectations about sticking to them so that you don’t feel guilty when you need to put school first. As Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
10. Start Learning
This step is completely optional. Medical schools do not typically require extensive pre-reading or advance preparation. You will attend orientation followed by a transition to classes where you are introduced to the fundamentals of medicine and healthcare. However, you may benefit from strengthening any areas you feel weaker on, whether that is because you performed worse on that MCAT section, or you didn’t take a particular class in college. For example, physiology and microbiology are essential topics that you will cover in-depth throughout medical school. If you didn’t have a chance to take a dedicated course on one of these topics but are interested in getting a head start, look around online for relevant courses or materials. There are countless free resources out there! Additionally, statistics is one of those topics that is challenging yet only briefly addressed in dedicated medical coursework. This is unfortunate because a solid foundation in statistics is helpful for understanding data presented in the primary literature. Regardless of your level of interest in research, as a medical student, you will routinely read journal articles to learn about recent biomedical discoveries that have revolutionized our ability to identify and treat diseases.
That’s it; you just read about ten essential steps to prepare for medical school. Congratulations again, and good luck future doctor!