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Ten Avoidable Pitfalls of the Medical School Application Process

With so many things to fill out, submit, and keep track of during the medical school application process, you can easily overlook or mishandle a detail. However, every element of your application, from your personal statement to your performance on the interview, can make the difference being between gaining an acceptance and landing in the “rejected” pile.

By being aware of potential pitfalls before you begin applying, you’re primed to optimize every step of your application. This list points out ten common mistakes applicants make as they navigate the sometimes-rough waters of medical school admissions, and it explains how to steer clear of them.

Being unaware of course work, residency, or letter requirements

When it comes to prerequisite course work, letters of recommendation, and requirements for state residency, each school has its own policies, and the best time to check into them is long before you apply:

  • Although one school may be satisfied as long as applicants have taken a year each of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics, another may insist on English, biochemistry, and myriad other classes.

  • A school’s policies regarding letters of recommendation may leave applicants a lot of latitude in choosing evaluators or be very specific and stringent.

  • When applying to public schools outside your home state, beware that some of these institutions accept only in-state applicants or accept so few out-of-staters that applying there is futile for all but the most competitive nonresident applicants.

The only way to make sure that you meet the requirements for schools you plan to apply to is to check with each school individually. Usually, you can find the information you need on the admissions page of a school’s website, but if you’re unsure about a policy, contact the admissions office directly for clarification.

Applying to med school late in the cycle

Sending in your application late in the cycle is a formula that leads to frustration as you find yourself competing for only a few remaining interview slots or end up waitlisted simply because all the seats in the class have been filled already, not because of a deficiency in your application.

By getting every step of your application done as soon as possible, you have a shot at being in one of the first groups of students to be interviewed and, hopefully, accepted. Some elements of the admissions process aren’t fully in your control; however, when you submit your application is, so use that freedom to benefit your candidacy for med school.

Taking the MCAT before you’re ready

Taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) by May of your application year (typically your junior year, unless you’re taking a gap year) so that you can have your scores available by June is wonderful as long as you can pull off a solid score. However, not everyone can, and recognizing when you need more time to prepare is essential.

A higher MCAT score a little later in the cycle is often better than a lower one earlier on. No matter how early you send in your application, a noncompetitive MCAT score makes getting in very tough. Even if you have to delay the MCAT to make sure your score is a good one, you can still submit your application and get things moving.

Although applying early is important with rolling admissions (where a school reviews application files as soon as they’re complete), rushing to take the MCAT before you’re ready just to stick to an idealized schedule is a setup for disaster. Delaying the MCAT until you’re ready may require pushing back your plans to apply by a year. However, if incorporating a gap year will help you succeed on the MCAT, consider rethinking your timeline to give yourself the needed preparation time.

Aiming for unrealistic schools

Having a few reach schools on your list is perfectly reasonable and even desirable; however, a list dominated by longshots may be a setup for disappointment. GPA and MCAT scores get significant weight in admissions, so make sure your list is anchored by schools that accept plenty of applicants whose GPAs and MCAT scores are in line with yours.

Every year, candidates with solid application packages end the cycle without a single offer of admission; these students very likely would’ve been admitted somewhere had they not loaded up their lists with schools that were out of reach.

When you’re confronted with the many schools to choose from, the bigger names may stand out to you; however, make sure you give programs that are less well known a chance as well. Research any program at which your numbers are competitive, and talk to any faculty or med students you know who are affiliated with the school to find out more about it. The goal is to craft a well-rounded list that gives you the best possible chance at admission, not to compile a set of selections that represents only the most elite institutions.

Not allotting enough time for filling out the primary med school application

Crafting an effective personal statement is an undertaking that takes weeks or more to achieve on its own. Add to that time spent entering every course you’ve taken (with grades), filling out your biographical information, and listing and describing each of your activities, and you should be thinking in terms of months, not days, when it comes to completing your primary application.

At a minimum, allocate a month to working on your application. However, starting even earlier is optimal, especially for writing the personal statement. A good way to handle this time crunch is to take on the application in small segments starting during the spring break or even winter break of the academic year in which you’re applying. When you get to the final stretch in late spring, you have a huge head start on the process and don’t have to compromise on the quality to ensure an early application.

Failing to proofread your medical school application

When you find yourself under time pressure, you may be tempted to let the proofreading slide and instead spend a late-night session pounding out answers to a batch of secondaries, sending them off after a quick, bleary-eyed read-through.

However, misspelled words and run-on sentences are more than just annoyances for the reader; they’re also a reflection of how you approach a job and of how important getting into medical school is to you.

Someone who puts the time and effort into making sure that everything on the application is watertight is demonstrating that he has a strong desire to be admitted and that he makes a habit of taking the extra steps required to do a job well. After all, who wants to be operated on by a surgeon with sloppy work habits or diagnosed by an internist who may overlook abnormal results on a lab test?

Find a teacher, an advisor, someone from your school’s writing center, or even a friend with a knack for grammar to act as a fresh set of eyes to ferret out small errors. Only after you’ve received an outside seal of approval is your application ready to submit.

Managing secondary applications ineffectively

Despite the name, secondaries shouldn’t be treated as a second-class part of the application process. Many applicants who are on top of their primary application lose their advantage by lagging during the secondary stage.

Applicants who don’t take a systematic approach to secondaries may try to tackle too many applications at once, jumping from one partially finished document to another, picking and choosing the easiest parts to fill out, and then abandoning the harder parts of that application for “later.” Both the timing and quality of submitted material can suffer from such a haphazard approach.

Having incomplete application materials

Use a written record such as a spreadsheet or other log to track which items you’ve sent to a school, which ones the school still needs, and whether the school has deemed your file complete.

Many schools have an online system that allows applicants to check their statuses and to see when their files are complete or whether items are missing. Use your status page to monitor your application; if your status is still incomplete two or three weeks after you’ve submitted all your materials, follow up with the admissions office.

Underestimating the interview

Your job as an interviewee isn’t simply to show the interviewer that you’re a pleasant person with basic social skills who’ll do fine at the bedside of a patient; it’s also to demonstrate that you have the motivation, depth of interest, and other intangibles that will make you a great medical student and doctor. You may need to call on critical thinking and problem solving skills in the course of your interview and explain or even defend particular aspects of your application.

Entering a medical school interview unprepared is a risky approach, and you certainly don’t want your first interview to function as practice for the rest. Do your preparation and practice before you set foot at a med school on interview day to ensure that you give your best performance every time.

Obsessing about your application

Some anxiety and angst are understandable when you’ve invested so much energy into your application and feel that your future rides on the outcome. Try to combat your stress by setting aside the parts of the application that are complete and focusing on whatever stage is ahead (and therefore still in your control).

Use the additional time you have now that you’re not spending every spare moment working on your application to resume or increase your outside activities. Keeping busy by volunteering, exercising, or just hanging out with friends does a lot more for your outlook than perusing posts from or comparing notes with premeds who are equally anxious as you. After you’ve done all you can and the decision is in the hands of the schools, keep your focus off of your application as much as possible and put it instead on the things you enjoy.

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