Step by step: How to apply to medical school in the US

Step by step: How to apply to medical school in the US
Find out everything you need to know about applying to medical school in the US. Source: Shutterstock

So you dream of becoming a doctor and you’re prepared to do whatever it takes to get there. You’re ready to tackle the intensive contact hours, complicated course material and trying practical assessments while studying in the US  – but first, you need to ace your application.

Although it’s likely you’ll be spending your life performing complicated procedures, the competitive application process can seem pretty overwhelming when it’s all standing between you and your ambition.

To help you achieve your goal, we have put together a step by step guide to get you into medical school, covering everything from what to do before you apply through to your action plan if you don’t meet your offer grades.

Step 1: Before you apply

Choose the right subjects

This might sound obvious, but it’s an easy thing to overlook. If you want to study medicine at university, you need to choose the right subjects at A Level or equivalent.

Picking your subjects can be difficult – but make sure to choose wisely if you want to study medicine. Source: Shutterstock

Most medical schools will want a qualification in:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Maths

This is to ensure you have the right background knowledge to grapple with the course content throughout your degree. If you studied irrelevant subjects, you would have too much catching up to do and would likely fall behind your peers.

Most medical schools are highly competitive require top grades, so you need to make sure you study as hard as you can.

Get work experience

Lots of people apply to medical school, so you’ll have to put in a lot of effort before you apply to stand out from the crowd; you need to do something different to demonstrate your passion.

You should try and get experience in a hospital, doctor’s practice or a healthcare organisation to show you are committed to medical practice and know what you’re signing up for. Most applicants will have some relevant experience, and it shows you are aware what a doctor really does and you want to do this too.

Source: Giphy

Any volunteering work, particularly with disabled, elderly or young people will also help your application. This will show you are a naturally caring person and want to help. Being an A-grade student is only part of the puzzle of getting into medical school, so make sure you maximise your chances.

Decide where to apply

Each medical school is unique, so it’s essential you do your research and pick the right school for you.

To help decide which medical school you should apply for, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I want to go to a small niche medical school or a large school with many students?
  • Where in the US do I want to study?
  • What grades am I likely to achieve?
  • Do I want to go to a commercial medical school or one that favours a holistic approach?

These questions will help you identify your priorities when considering which medical school to apply for.

It’s also a good idea to apply for schools with differing grade requirements, so you have one school you are striving for, another few within your grade reach and one below your grades in case you should fall short.

Most students apply to an average of 16 schools, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. You can view a database of all the medical schools in the US and Canada here.

Take the MCAT

In order to apply for medical school in the US, you must first have an MCAT score. The MCAT is an online multiple-choice examination designed to test knowledge of natural, behavioral and social science concepts, principles prerequisite to the study of medicine, as well as problem-solving and critical thinking.

Prepare for your medical application by taking the MCAT in plenty of time. Source: Shutterstock

The examination is split into four segments:

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

There are online resources to help you prepare for the exam and you can take it more than once – but remember your prospective schools will be able to see your scores.

You should take the MCAT the year before you intend to go to medical school. So, if you plan to start in Autumn 2019, you should take the test early 2018 to allow time for potential resits.

Step 2: Primary application

In the US, the application process to medical school is split into two parts, both of which are done through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). No matter how many schools you apply to, you only need to submit the primary application once on AMCAS.

The primary application can be submitted from June of the application year – that’s the year immediately before you plan to start studying. So if you want to start medical school in September 2019, you should apply in June 2018.

Prepare for your future at medical school by organising yourself early. To submit your application, you will need to:

  • Request your official grade transcripts from your high school
  • Write your personal statement
  • Record all your extracurricular activities
  • Have your MCAT score

You can begin inputting your details into AMCAS from May, so it’s a good idea to start gathering this information in April. This way you can make sure your application is complete for June when submissions open.

Writing your personal statement

Your personal statement is essentially your time to shine in your application. It is your opportunity to tell medical schools exactly why they should accept you onto the programme and allow your personality and hard work sing.

Source: Giphy

When writing your personal statement, it’s important that you don’t produce a  generic account of ‘wanting to help people’. While this may be true, so does every other doctor, nurse, counsellor, teacher and firefighter.

To write an engaging personal statement ask yourself:

  • Why do I want to be a doctor rather than another healthcare professional?
  • What kind of doctor do I want to be and why?
  • What makes me the ideal person for this above anyone else?

Remember that medical schools read hundreds of applications every year, and are likely to want to see something a bit different than the classic ‘I worked in a hospital because I want to save lives.’ Do you have any interesting life experiences that contributed to your aspiration? Do you have any niche medical interests or ideas? All these can help you stand out.

Your personal statement must be less than 5,300-characters, so you do not have tons of space to get your points across. Make sure to be concise and accurate – don’t waste characters with flowery language or repeating your points – the easier it is to read, the more likely it is to make an impact.

Step 3: Secondary application

After medical schools have reviewed your primary application, they will either ask you for additional information or reject your application but don’t panic – not many schools reject students at this stage.

If you reach the secondary application, many schools will simply ask for the application fee. On average, this is US$100 per school but can range from US$30 to US$250 for the top schools, according to Kaptest.

Other schools will ask you multiple yes or no questions, while others will require you to write a few short essays.

Remember when answering questions this is basically an extended personal statement, so they are likely to ask you:

  • Why are you interested in this school, specifically?
  • What skills do you have that make you think you will make a good medical student and doctor?
  • What will you add to the school’s culture?
  • Explain how a non-medical situation has impacted you

These essays are your opportunity to explain why you would be the right fit for this particular school, so be sure to link your answers back to characteristics, groups or activities specific to the school – this will show you are invested in your application and know enough to understand the school’s culture.

If you have applied to lots of medical schools and have many secondary applications to complete, you may have to prioritise which schools you spend the most time on. If there’s one you particularly want to go to and one that’s your ‘safety choice,’ it’s a good idea to put the most effort into these and see how much time you have for the rest.

Organisation is key to acing your application. Source: Shutterstock

The deadline for secondary applications tends to be in December or January, but since each school sets its own deadline, make sure you check this. It’s always best to submit your applications as promptly as possible, but don’t rush it if it’s not the best it can be.

Once the school has received your application, it will decide which students to invite to an interview.

Step 4: Medical school interview

If you are invited for an interview, you’re one step closer to becoming a doctor. You now have the opportunity to show the school why you deserve a place in person.

It’s natural to feel anxious before your interview, but try and remember this is an opportunity for you to scope out the school as much as them to assess you.

You can ease the stress of the day by making sure you are physically and mentally prepared for the interview. At this stage, the school is likely to be assessing whether you have the right attitude to succeed on the course so it’s a good idea to practice your interview techniques ahead of time.

Good interview skills can help you land your offer. Source: Shutterstock

The interviewee is likely to ask you about:

  • Your motivation to study medicine
  • Why you want to study at their school
  • Extracurricular activities beyond medicine
  • Controversial medical topics such as abortion or euthanasia
  • Make sure you look smart for your interview. It’s also a good idea to practice your body language and facial expressions when you speak to ensure you are giving out the right signals. Shyness and anxiety can sometimes be interpreted as rudeness or arrogance, so try and project a positive attitude.

Step 5: The offer – and what to do if you miss it

After your interview, you will either receive an offer for the school or a rejection.

If you receive an offer, it’s likely to be conditional, depending on you achieving particular grades. You must gain these grades in order to be accepted into the university and follow your medical dreams!

If you miss your grades, you may miss out on your first choice but don’t panic – there may be other options open to you.

Never give up on your dream of medical school even if you don’t succeed first time. Source: Shutterstock

Firstly, how much did you miss the grade by? If it was only a few marks, it might be worth paying for a remark to see if you can gain any extra points. If this isn’t possible, there are still things you can do.

It’s worth considering a gap-year if you missed out on medical school the first time, using this year to refine your application. By taking a gap-year, you could have a whole year of experience in a medical practice, assisting with crisis projects abroad and generally improving yourself for next year’s application.

Most importantly, don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get in – medical school is highly competitive and demanding. Take it as an opportunity to improve yourself for your next application and never give up on your dream of becoming a doctor.

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