How to Balance Your Medical School Application with Studying for the MCAT

Written and edited by the MCAT Self Prep Tutoring Team

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I often joke that medical schools are only looking for the skill that matters most for future doctors: the ability to jump through arbitrary hoops. Like it or not, medicine has a lot of hoops. For those of us who want to be a doctor, the MCAT will not be the last standardized exam that we take (the STEP exams are even longer). Nor will our application to medical school be the last time you will put your heart and soul on a page to be evaluated by strangers.

Yet despite the hurdles down the road, this is not to downplay the difficulty of getting into medical school. It’s emotionally exhausting. And requires lots of work! But I hope I can also highlight the importance of multitasking when it comes to doing difficult things. For those taking the MCAT the same year that they apply to medical school, you will need to balance studying, writing your application, and getting letters of recommendation. In this article, I’ll explain the best way to balance all of this – and if you’re interested in one-on-one application support, our admissions consultants would be glad to help!

1. Understanding the application timeline

One common mistake that I see in students is not understanding how the application process works and how to take advantage of the opportunities that it allows. The AMCAS application for MD schools typically opens in the beginning of May (the AACOMAS application for DO schools has a slightly different timeline but the principles still hold true). This means you can start inputting grades, scores, and essays if you wish. However, you cannot submit your application for processing until around June 1st (dates vary year to year). You will want to submit your application as soon as possible, as the medical school application process is rolling. Rolling admissions means that spots for interviews and acceptances are limited and you will be competing against more applicants for fewer spots later in the cycle. 

2. Signing up for the right exam date

For most students, I recommend taking the MCAT between April and the end of May (last time to still be in the first wave of applications) for the cycle that apply for medical school OR between July and August the year before you apply. Taking the test over the summer with minimal or no classes allows you to compress your study timeline, however you may be taking the test without some prerequisites for the MCAT. I personally would recommend taking the MCAT after you have completed the core classes necessary for the MCAT (biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics etc). Make sure you will also have enough time to complete our FREE MCAT prep course. Once you’ve picked a date, understand that it will take about a month for you to get your score back. So why could you take the MCAT at the end of May and still be in the first wave of applications? The rule is simple: you do not need to have your MCAT score before you submit your application. You only need to have your score before your exam is sent to medical school admissions committees.

Here’s where it can get a little complicated. If you take the MCAT May 25th for example, you will get your score back around June 25th. So you could take the MCAT on May 25th and then apply without knowing your score on June 1st. Well that seems silly, how will I know which schools I am competitive for when I don’t know my score? To get around this dilemma, you can only apply to 1 school that you know you will apply to no matter what your score is (your respective state school). Then the AMCAS system will take about 2 weeks to process your application (this processing time gets longer the later you submit your application). So your application gets hypothetically processed on June 15th. But here’s the rub: AMCAS will hold your application until approximately July 1st (depending on the year) before sending your application to medical schools. So I could take the MCAT May 25th, apply June 1st, get my score back June 25th and then have 5 days to decide which additional schools I want to add. The important thing is that there will be no way of schools knowing whether you added them on June 1st or June 26th. All they will see if that your application was sent to them in the first batch of processed applications. 

Ok so now that you’ve decided on an ideal date, you still need to sign up. Due to COVID, most people signing up for spots in 2021 will do so on February 15th. Spots tend to fill up quickly once they are released, so we recommend following the AAMC MCAT twitter to ensure you sign up as soon as they are released. The calendar for all possible exam dates and their score release dates can be found on the AAMC’s website. Seats fill up early, and some students end up traveling hundreds of miles because they registered a little too late. However, it’s better to take the exam on the day that works best for you rather than take the exam on a wrong day in your ideal location. 

3. Writing your application while studying for the MCAT

For your primary application, you will need to write a 5400 character essay about why you want to go to medical school as well as 10-15 shorter essays on the various activities that you’ve participated in. For most students, I recommend starting your application near the beginning of the year that you apply. So why start early? While this may seem like overkill, this strategy is best suited for writing about the deeply personal passions and experiences that have motivated you to pursue medicine. I recommend starting your personal statement early so that you can come back to this essay with fresh eyes again and again. 

Start by writing a few paragraphs about 3-5 experiences that made you want to pursue medicine. Then put it away for two weeks. When you look at your essay again after those weeks, it may occur that some of the experiences were more important than others. Maybe the flow of the story isn’t quite right. Make major or minor changes and let it sit again for two more weeks. By repeating this process, you will be able to focus on the forrest and not the trees. You can always worry about grammar and your writing style as you get closer to your deadline. For now, just focus on the bigger picture narrative that you hope to convey. All in all this process should only take two to three hours every other week. Start to devote 2-5 hours a week in your last month to write your activity essays and polish your personal statement (additionally, this process could be spread out over a longer period of time as well). Remember that most admissions committees view your grades and score as a benchmark to see if you would succeed academically at their school. Beyond that point they care more about who you are as a person and how you will improve their student body. 

4. Organizing the rest of your application

Between asking for and following up with letters of recommendation, writing essays, finding medical schools, and managing secondaries and interviews, the year that you apply for medical school requires intense organization. I would recommend either creating your own spreadsheets or using the MCAT Self Prep medical school application course. Either way you need some form of organization or else it will be easy for important pieces of your application to fall through the cracks. If this feels overwhelming, you can always ask for help from an admissions consultant. However, we are also here to help you succeed purely through self prep. This early in the year, you should mainly focus on building relationships with 4-8 individuals who you could potentially ask for a recommendation. You want these people to get to know you on both a professional and personal level. They should be able to vouch for your work ethic, character, and ability to succeed in medical school. They should also be able to write about how they know you on more than just a superficial level. 

As the year progresses, I will keep you updated through blogposts about the steps you need to take to maximize your chances of acceptance. But for now, stay organized, keep studying, and start thinking about the 3-5 most meaningful experiences that made you want to be a doctor. If you are feeling overwhelmed, please reach out for a FREE consultation with me or another tutor. We can help with the MCAT or admissions consulting. Due to the help of MCAT Self Prep and my ability to craft a compelling narrative for my application, I ultimately was accepted into 6 of the top 10 medical schools—including Harvard! Let us know if there is anything we can do to help you!

Warm regards,

Theo Bennett


Theo Bennett scored a perfect score (528) on the MCAT and has been accepted at Harvard, UPenn, Columbia, UCLA, and other top 10 medical schools across the country. You can learn more and sign up to work with him one-on-one here.

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