What to Expect in the Medical School Application Process

Written and edited by the MCAT Self Prep Tutoring Team

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I spent four years of college working my butt off to get good grades, get involved with extra-curriculars, and I even took a 7-hour exam all to “get my application ready”. But the truth is, I had no idea what the application actually entailed. With a lot more hurdles than expected, I didn’t get my application in nearly as early as I would have liked. My application wasn’t verified until mid-July (I didn’t even know an application had to be verified), despite my goal to get my application submitted by June 1st.

If I had known just a bit more about the process before starting, I could have saved myself A LOT of stress. I would also recommend taking advantage of MCAT Self Prep’s one-on-one Admissions Consulting as well as our in-depth course on crushing your medical school applications. But first, let’s dive in. Here are four hurdles that can be expected during the application process:

1. The Three Parts of the Primary Application:

I think the only thing I knew about the primary application was that it included a personal statement. After probably 35 drafts and enlisting about 5 different friends to proof-read, I finally felt okay about my personal statement.

 **If you need help with the personal statement, MCAT Self Prep has affordable admissions consultants available for one-on-one help. Our Medical School Application Course also offers an excellent resource that helps with the drafting and application process. My best advice is to accept that you will have to write and rewrite your personal statement repeatedly until you’re satisfied.** 

As it turns out, however, there are actually two other pieces to your primary application in addition to the personal statement

The next challenge for me was writing up my “work/activities” essays. I knew at one point I would be asked about what extracurriculars I had been a part of, but this format was new to me. Although the character count is limited to 700 characters, you will end up writing a mini-essay about each extra-curricular that you have been a part of. I ended up writing 11 of these little essays (the maximum is 15)  which encompassed everything I had done for the last 4 years from playing a sport, to volunteering, to awards I had received. It was trickier than I thought to try to tell a story in this limited space of how each activity impacted me. One resource that helped me understand what they were looking for was Bemo Academic Consulting. They do a great job of emphasizing that even in this limited space you can show admissions committees everything you learned rather than just telling them what you did. 

The AAMC has listed the categories of potential activities on their website. Try to list up to 15 activities that you’ve participated in after graduating high school and which categories they would fall into:

    1. Artistic Endeavors
    2. Community Service/Volunteer – Medical/Clinical
    3. Community Service/Volunteer – Not Medical/Clinical
    4. Conferences Attended
    5. Extracurricular Activities
    6. Hobbies
    7. Honors/Awards/Recognitions
    8. Intercollegiate Athletics
    9. Leadership – Not Listed Elsewhere
    10. Military Service
    11. Other
    12. Paid Employment – Medical/Clinical
    13. Paid Employment – Not Medical/Clinical
    14. Physician Shadowing/Clinical Observation
    15. Presentations/Posters
    16. Publications
    17. Research/Lab
    18. Teaching/Tutoring/Teaching Assistant

Additionally, I was not prepared to have to choose 3 experiences to write about in more depth, but this ended up helping my application overall. A lot of these experiences I felt strongly about, so it was a nice chance to explain a bit more about a few things. So look at this as a positive thing! Show off what you’ve accomplished! Take your time with these essays and draft them/edit them nearly as much as your personal statement. It will be time-consuming, but these essays can carry a lot of weight! We recommend starting to draft your personal statement and activities by at least January of your application year.

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Here are some of the activities I put. Tutoring actually ended up being one of my “most meaningful experiences”.

Another good resource is Accept Med. This helped me decide how many experiences to include.

2. Timing the Application Cycle is Tough: 

This was the theme of my application process. I couldn’t seem to get the timing quite right. There’s a lot of steps to coordinate so here are some tips that I wish I knew and hopefully, this can help you set yourself up for success.

Tell your letter writers a due date prior to the actual deadline and follow up with them! Your mentors are very busy physicians and professors. Emails can slip through the cracks. In my experience, I had to email some of my writers many times to make sure they were aware of deadlines. I don’t think it was personal or it was that they didn’t want to help me out, and they seemed thankful for reminders as the date came closer. That being said, don’t inundate or attack your letter writers before you want them to write nice, flattering things about you. 

Request your transcript on time! This seems so simple, and it should be, but I thought that meeting with the pre-med department at my undergrad was enough to make sure they were sending everything needed. However, the individual student must submit a transcript request to AAMC at most universities. To make things worse, a lot of undergrad schools mail the transcripts out rather than send an email so you will need to allow extra time. 

Actually prewrite secondary essays! This means start drafting a 500-word essay for the most common secondary topics: a challenge/adversity that you faced, what you did with any time off in college, your future plans, and what diversity you could bring to the class.  For me, this made a world of a difference. As I said my application was late (mid-July) but because I was delayed I was determined to get my secondaries turned around ASAP. Below you can see how I kept track of each secondary application and the drafting process. I used the prompts from the previous year to draft and then edited once I knew the updated prompts. In the last column I would mark if there was a good essay I could use as a template for other secondary questions. With all of my prep, I was able to get my secondaries in earlier than some people who had received secondary requests long before me. 

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3. Don’t get Sucked into Student Doctor Network! 

I was really good at stressing out over what people posted in SDN. I would constantly look at people’s stats, the number of schools they applied to, and how many interviews each person seemed to already have and panic. I am very thankful for my two coworkers who were also applying in the same cycle who forced me to get off SDN and reassured me that everything would work out each time I decided there was no chance it would. 

Aside from finding the list of every secondary question by school, there was nothing on SDN that was helpful to my application process at all. I learned nothing from people’s posts other than how great they thought they were and how inadequate I must be. Everyone gets interviews at different times and stats are not the only thing that defines the strength of your application. If you can, try to use this site only to find secondaries and get off. Be confident in yourself and your application, I’m sure it is better than you think! 

4. Applying to Medical School is Expensive: 

I’m talking really expensive. I ended up submitting 23 applications for a total of $3552 (including primary application costs, secondary applications, and CASPER). That’s a lot of money!! That’s before traveling to interviews and the costs associated with that. With my research assistant salary, this was difficult to plan for. Just be aware that this is the type of budget you’re looking at if you want to apply to this many schools. That being said, I definitely did not need to apply to 23 schools (I let the SDN-induced panic control that decision). Most students apply to 15-20 schools. Think about how much money you’re willing to spend here and plan the number of schools accordingly. Most students applying to 15+ schools spend between $5,000-7,000 for the application cycle, however, many students do not spend that much. Be aware of the fee assistance programs and see if this is something that can help you with these costs. Additionally, we are here to help you save on costs associated with taking the MCAT so that way you won’t be as financially burdened when you apply. Check out our 100% FREE MCAT Prep Course!

Hopefully some of these tips can save you a bit of stress or at least help you know what to expect. This is definitely a stressful process, but you are so close to all of your hard work paying off!! All it takes is one acceptance and it doesn’t matter if it’s in October or July. Good luck everyone! You will get through this and we are here to help with one-on-one mentoring for application and interview prep! Schedule a FREE consultation with Andrew today!

Warm regards, 


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Marie scored in the 99th percentile in both the Chemistry/Physics and the Biology/Biochemistry Sections. She has been tutoring since high school and always instills confidence in her students. Learn more.