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Getting Into Medical School: The Application

In this lesson, I’m going to discuss your activities and your references for your medical school application.

It is now time for us to discuss that all-important application. The application is merely an instrument for delivering information to a committee for evaluation, but like a musician’s instrument, it must be handled with care.

In the last lesson, I discussed the personal statement, but want to mention something about it here that wasn’t discussed in that lesson. And it is this—make absolutely sure your grammar and spelling are perfect, not only in the personal statement but in everything in the application. Don’t rely solely on your spell checker to help you out. One tendency when writing something like this is that students want their stories to be big and grand and their way of doing this is to use the language they don’t often use and consequently are not very familiar with. That’s a mistake that can lead to VERY embarrassing errors of usage or spelling. Remember that your application should be an example of your best work, and if your best effort has errors in it, that will not make a good impression.

Besides the personal statement, there are two other sections of the application I want to discuss. The first is the section listing activities you have engaged in. This is the only place in the application or interview process where a list is OK. The AMCAS application consists of 15 items. Three of the items are to be identified as the most significant and for them, the student is given more space to write about the activity. The other 12 items have only enough room for very brief summaries of each activity.

So, what to list? First of all, I hope you have 15 significant things to mention. Having 15 items gives the evaluators an impression of the breadth of your experiences in life. If you don’t have 15 significant things, then stretching or exaggerating items to “fill the bill” will be obvious and not looked upon favorably. One note—a very good reason a person might not have 15 such experiences is due to having to work extensively to pay for school. If that is the case for you, be SURE to mention the extent of your work in your personal statement and include it as an activity in your experiences here. Working can substitute for almost any experience except medical ones.

You, of course, are the only person who knows the significance of your experiences to you, but you should be aware that they may not coincide with what the committee evaluators see as significant. Here are some guidelines. First, I cannot imagine any candidate for medical school not including some medically relevant experience as part of their three most significant experiences.

You have to be honest, of course, so if you don’t have significant medical experience, you don’t want to claim you do, but otherwise, be sure to include at least one. Second, you may be tempted to pack the list with as many medical experiences as you can. Again, honesty matters. If you have a LOT of medical experience, it is OK to include that, but having only medical experiences as your three most significant activities would suggest to me that you need to be a bit broader in your interests.

While I’m on the subject of the breadth of experience, the 15 activities are a great place to illustrate it. If you’re a dancer or a musician and you have a performance you can list, by all means, do so. Leadership and teamwork are also great things to have on your list. I had a student who started a significant organization to reduce teen suicide and that was a wonderful accomplishment. So is anything you’ve started that persists after you have left it. You may be tempted to list something from high school. In general, I don’t think high school activities or accomplishments are good to list UNLESS they received national recognition. Sports and performance arts are also excellent activities to list, but again, not from high school. It goes without saying, of course, that volunteering experiences you have had that have been significant should be included as well.

The last part of the application I’ll discuss here regards the letters of references. You don’t, of course, get to see these, but you do get to pick who writes them (assuming they’re willing). You need to give serious thought to these people. This is something you should plan for at least a year or so before you plan to apply. Here are some criteria to keep in mind to identify reference letter writers.

First, diversity is good—I like to see at least six letters, with two letters from professors in your major or very closely related field, two letters from professors or others in very different fields, and at least two from medical professionals, at least one of whom is a doctor. D.O. students should remember that they need a letter from at least one D.O. For those who have worked a long time for a company, a letter from an employer is a possibility.

For the letters from people in your field, you should have, ideally, one letter from a professor or advisor who knows you very well. If you are a scientist, then very different fields would include the liberal arts and if you’re in the liberal arts, find some scientists to write for you. It goes without saying that you should only ask professors to write for you if you made a B or better in their classes.

Among the medical letter writers, nurses, PAs, and other health professionals are fine, but will not replace a doctor on the list.

Again, like the advice for experience, it is not a good idea to use references from your high school years.

When seeking people to write letters for you, make sure that each person knows you well. It’s a good idea to make a packet to give to them with a letter thanking them for writing for you. The letter should remind them how they know you, when you took a class from them, if they are a professor, and it’s a good idea to include a picture in that packet. You should provide letter writers with at least a draft of your personal statement and information about when you plan to apply. A reminder to them about a month before the letters are due is a good idea. Bugging them daily about a letter is a bad idea, but some people may need a couple of reminders to get their letters in.

So, in this lesson, I’ve covered the application with a closer view of the personal statement, the activities list, and letters of reference.

In the next lesson, I’ll discuss general interview strategies.

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Written by

Kevin Ahern

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