There’s not enough room to go into every detail of the process but find links to more detailed guides within the paragraphs. If you’re looking for how to plan your path to medical school check out a tried and true timeline here.
I was one of the most worried pre-meds that ever existed. I wasn’t sure if this or that aspect of my application was going to measure up to the high expectations of admissions committees. I received lots of advice through the years, but I ultimately had to go to the sources (medical schools and AMCAS statistics) to create my own personal guide to get myself into medical school.
The first thing I did that led me in the right direction was to declare a major in the sciences. This is not necessary to get into medical school. Majoring in something different might help set you apart from other applicants and add some unique perspectives to your future medical school class. Admissions committees might look favorably on that. However, I personally wouldn’t trade the longitudinal exposure to science courses for anything else. They prepared me for the MCAT and for medical school in ways I couldn’t have otherwise.
Students should major in what they’re passionate about. It matters more that you are able to explain to an admissions committee why you chose your field and that it reflects your real, unique interests. I declared a minor in Africana Studies during my sophomore year because I loved the content and I had the time.
The necessary next step is pretty obvious: I simply couldn’t have as much “fun” as my friends did. I spent a lot of the weeknights studying after I got home from work and passing up opportunities for typical college activities so I could master the material. I took time to have fun on the weekends and never did an ounce of studying on Sunday throughout my college experience. I need just one day a week to not think about studying.
Even after passing up opportunities to have fun, I rarely felt like I studied the material as much as I wanted to. I was working to support myself while many of my pre-med colleagues had family or other income that may have allowed them to spend less time working and more time studying or having fun.
I had to learn how to maximize my time and my test-taking strategies in order to make the best use of my slightly more limited time. I can’t be sure that my time was actually more limited than some of my colleagues, I just knew I had many demands on my time and I could only study a few hours every night. I maintained a 7-8 hour/night sleep schedule.
I nipped any procrastination tendencies in the bud as early as I could. I forced myself to sit down and study (sometimes with earplugs in) until I finished any given task. As I fine-tuned my test-taking strategies and maximized my study time, I went from an average freshman GPA to a near perfect record for the rest of undergrad. I still had some dual-enrollment credits from high school (that no one informed me would stain my transcripts forever) and my freshman year GPA to lower my overall GPA when I applied to medicals school, so don’t count yourself out if you haven’t been “nearly perfect” in your classes so far. *
One of the keys here is that I spent more time with TA’s than your average student. This helped me master content quickly. I only did this for more challenging classes like some of the chemistry, cell biology, and physics courses. I never studied in groups because I always wanted to go at my own pace and be in charge of my own learning. Groups distracted me and slowed down the learning process simply by requiring physical presence, spending time getting situated, or the constant repetition of “ok let’s get started” or “let’s get back on track.”
The next thing I did fairly early is identified some of my passions and volunteered in those areas. Medical schools don’t care how you choose to volunteer, they just want to see that you’re passionate about helping people and are willing to spend many hours over a long period of time providing service to your community.
If you don’t like sitting at the front desk of a hospital directing patients where to go, don’t do it. If you don’t love picking up trash in the park, don’t do it. I volunteered for an intensive physical therapy company for kids with neurological difficulties and had a great time providing service every time I went in. If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’ll dread it every time you go. You’ll also have a hard time writing and talking about something worthwhile on your application and during your future interviews if you don’t love your work.
Around the same time, I started shadowing. I really enjoyed shadowing. If you don’t love shadowing, change who you shadow until you find what you love. I asked fairly early on if it would be all right to request a letter of recommendation as application time approached. The physician knew my intentions of learning as much as I could and getting a letter early on so there were no surprises.
Originally, I was interested in pursuing a medical field that took care of patients who had physical and mental challenges and so I applied to work as a mentor for drug-dependent teenagers. What I didn’t realize at the time is that this would count towards clinical hours because I was directly involved with caring for the mental and physical health of these individuals. I was eventually promoted to a job as a family coach. I received training and certification to teach families in English and in Spanish about the best ways to improve family life for a teenager who would soon be returning from inpatient drug rehab.
If you are required to work to provide for yourself throughout college, get a clinically-related job. You should be getting your clinical hours and getting paid at the same time. These are often very demanding and emotionally taxing jobs for some people so choose wisely and realistically.
Because I was in science classes, I had friends at various stages of the pre-med journey. I eventually found out that I was supposed to do research. I spoke to some of my favorite professors about their research (I read some of their papers ahead of time) and informed them I was sincerely interested in working with them. I had two different lab experiences in my undergrad. Neither of which led me to any type of publication.
I found out about an opportunity to conduct my own research project at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon and decided it would be the perfect intersection of neuroscience and my love for the Portuguese language. I applied and paid the expensive fees to go live there for two months over the summer and completed a research project. The message here is if it sounds like something you would love to do and it fits in a category of pre-med preparation, take opportunities as they come! If it costs tons of money as this experience did, think hard about it before you jump in.
As MCAT time approached, I realized that it would be very demanding to add MCAT prep to my part-time job, acing my classes, volunteering, shadowing, and researching. I decided to pay for an MCAT prep course to guide me through it. I still had very limited time to prepare for the MCAT but at least I was spending the time I did have on the most high-yield topics. I did well enough to work for that MCAT prep company later on during interview season and the summer before medical school started.
I still felt a little bit lost about what things were the best use of my time and how medical schools actually picked students. I was still concerned that my high school and freshman credits would bring my GPA lower than medical schools wanted. I was worried that half of the other pre-meds in my class were volunteer EMTs, medical scribes, phlebotomists, orderlies, or CNAs. I didn’t jump through the same hoops or fit the same boxes as everyone else. I wasn’t sure if I was doing something wrong. With these concerns in mind, I applied to be a pre-med advisor at my school, hoping to get some training that would benefit my course to medical school and, more importantly, help other students in my shoes.
I was assigned to analyze the data from the previous 2-4 years of hundreds of medical school applicants from our school. I was to identify the ideal number of schools to apply to, GPA and MCAT trends along with majors that helped or hurt students trying to get accepted. I called medical school admissions offices often and spent hours researching the numbers and tips from medical schools and the AAMC themselves.
I realized that medical schools reviewed applications on a “rolling” basis. This means “first come, first serve” when it came to giving out interviews and acceptances. I decided to start drafting my personal statement and 15 activities section starting in January and February. I had lawyers, family members, university English writing offices, and pre-med advisement read my writing to help me perfect it during the months leading up to submission day.
Rather than tell admissions what I did in my undergrad, I decided to tell stories and show who I became as an undergrad. I rarely–if ever–said I was something. I just told a story and for the most part, let the admissions committees fill in the blanks on what this or that experience made me. I didn’t waste time writing about what a physical therapy assistant did, I just told a story, stated that the experience helped me develop me some important understanding or quality that makes me a good future physician.
After it was all written, my transcripts were sent in, the letters of recommendation were requested and in progress, I submitted my application within the first couple days of June. My application was early enough that it was processed by the AMCAS within 2 weeks. July 1st came around and schools started sending me secondary applications.
I also had these secondary essays reviewed (not as much as the personal statement) and I sent them in as fast as I could. I started getting interviews on July 19th and they wouldn’t stop coming! I ultimately received 15 interviews but I was only able to afford to attend 10. I don’t recommend this, it’s best to attend all your interviews because seeing a school first hand may change your priorities.
I prepared for interviews by scheduling a couple of mock interviews with my pre-med office. I also Googled “practice interview questions” and “MMI questions.” I didn’t look at the questions beforehand. I pulled up my webcam and started recording. I would then read the questions I had searched in Google and started responding. It was terribly uncomfortable but I reviewed my recordings and identified quirks or mistakes I made and practiced cutting those out.
I emailed all of my professors for the upcoming semester to inform them that I would be leaving for interviews periodically and I asked them if I should switch out of their course or if they could accommodate me. They were all very kind and understanding. I probably missed around 20 days of the semester (way more than I had expected) and they were gracious enough to let me do so. I was still able to earn an “A” in each of their classes.
My first interview felt like a practice interview. I was very nervous and wasn’t sure if I had done anything right. There was another applicant from my school there that day and he was interviewing with the same exact people I was. I joked that they brought both of us because they were only going to take one person from our school and it was a competition. I found out later that we were both accepted.
What I found throughout my interview trail was that there were many other applicants who had cooler life experiences, better grades, more publications (pretty easy to beat zero), more prestigious degrees than me but that an interview placed me on relatively equal ground with them. Anybody can memorize a script and say “all the right things” during an interview. What became more important was my ability to connect with people and be sincere and passionate about our conversation. Telling stories and being human and connecting with your interviewer will go further than saying all of the perfect phrases you memorized.
Scheduling the interviews for the first available day was an advantage in my mind. There were fewer and fewer spots available as time went on as more people interviewed and got accepted. I wanted to be in the earliest group possible each time. I always had at least 2 weeks notice before the interview. I flew Frontier which was the cheapest and the least comfortable.
People talk about getting a credit card to get flight miles. That might be a great idea. It might have saved me money. But the risks and side effects of using credit cards at this young, poor stage were too big for me (@DaveRamsey). Somehow I was able to pay cash for all 10 of my round trip flights and I have no credit cards nor the accompanying debt.
October 15th is the first day that MD schools can inform students of their acceptance. The 15th was a Sunday so the official day rolled over to Monday. I was at an interview in Florida when I got my first two acceptances. I didn’t have to worry or wonder anymore! Because I submitted my application and interviewed early, I got acceptances on the earliest day possible. I finished all my interviews before the end of November and got 9 of 10 acceptances before January.
I went on 2 second-look days and made a very difficult decision to turn down 9 other schools to attend one. I loved every school I interviewed at. I had to make the decision based on location, cost, reputation, and my wife’s happiness. We all know which of those is most important long-term.
I hope my experiences illustrate that starting early in everything is key. I felt behind on a couple of things but jumped in as fast as I could. I want to point out that I didn’t fit the same box as my classmates. I chose the path that was the most exciting and motivating for me and I completed everything medical schools wanted me to do while having unique experiences that were easy to write and talk about during applications and interviews. I chose to connect with my interviewers and tell stories rather than robotically repeat what I thought medical schools wanted to hear. I made plenty of mistakes along the way. View every undergrad experience as practice and every success or mistake just brings you closer to mastery.
You don’t have to fit a box
Major in something you’re passionate about
Volunteer in something you’re passionate about
Shadow a practice you’d be passionate about
If you need to work, make it clinical work!
For harder classes, spend lots of time with TA’s
Grab opportunities as they arise
As you write your application, show them who you are, don’t tell
Turn in your application early, accept interviews early
Communicate openly with professors and mentors about your path and intentions