Navigating the US Medical School Application Process
For future medical doctors, including physicians and researchers, attending an American medical school can be an amazing opportunity, and although the application process can appear to be quite daunting, applicants who are properly prepared are on the road to success.
Students considering enrollment in medical school in the U.S. will need to do some homework to determine the various credentials that their desired school(s) will require.
While gaining a top-notch education is usually the main reason people choose to study in the U.S., going to med school south of the border can also be a great way to develop and grow as a person.
Dr. Ingrid Okonkwo is a veterinarian at Winrose Animal Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba. While she graduated with her DVM from Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, she obtained her degree in Biology from Yale University in Connecticut. Not only did she take advantage of her chance to expand her education, she also enjoyed soaking up the college atmosphere while competing on the Bulldogs track and field team.
“For me, living away from home helped me to mature and gain independence. It’s also great to be able to experience other cultures. While American and Canadian cultures are similar, there are a lot of subtle differences that can be interesting to explore,” Okonkwo shares.
Another plus? She adds, “I’ve found that American schools tend to offer more full scholarships as opposed to partial funding and they also seem to provide more need-based financial support. It’s been my experience that once you’re in, if you need financial help, they will provide it.”
Fortunately, most of the top U.S. medical schools are open to accepting Canadian students, but the admissions policies can differ, greatly or slightly, between learning institutions so it is important that potential students make the best possible impression by submitting exactly what is needed. Preference is usually given to American applicants so Canadian candidates will need to stand out.
For someone who may be considering a career as a medical doctor, advance planning will maximize their preparation time and make the most of their education and experience, so all of their activities are geared towards presenting the best possible appearance on future med school applications.
On average, less than half of all med school applicants are accepted during their first attempt. In many cases, the main reason for rejection is a subpar GPA or MCAT score. While there is not much that can be done with a low GPA (other than going for a new degree), the MCAT can be re-written up a certain number of times per year, with a lifetime maximum. Various schools have different requirements when it comes to the number of times an applicant has written the MCATs. A potential med school student with marks that aren’t the greatest can boost their chances of admission by applying to as many schools as possible, choosing those which may pose the least amount of competition.
A lack of extra-curricular activities can also be a detriment to medical school acceptance. While volunteer or paid clinical experience, including hospital and paramedic-related positions and research projects, is one essential area, non-medical activities are also valuable assets to highlight when applying. Volunteering as a youth sports coach, working at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, or delivering meals to shut-in seniors showcase the candidates’ level of commitment and philanthropy.
Nothing is too trivial to mention. Knowledge of a second language, the ability to play a musical instrument, or involvement in organized sports or solo exercise activities are all indications of a well-rounded personality.
The admissions board will want to see evidence of the applicants’ leadership capabilities as well, so making note of any student government positions, event-organizing experience or mentoring/tutoring is also very important.
Research projects are great ways to demonstrate the applicants’ scientific knowledge as well as their ability to apply a ‘hands-on’ learning approach, and should also be a focus of any med school application.
To begin the application process, the majority of U.S. medical schools utilize the AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service), a centralized application service that allows potential first year students to submit just one application, regardless of the number of medical schools to which they may apply. There is a fee for this service but it may be waived in certain financial instances.
The AMCAS process also includes a criminal background check and allows the required Letters of Recommendation to be submitted confidentially by the reviewer.
AMCAS also provides applicants with many online resources including webinars, video tutorials, the AMCAS Instruction Manual and a pre-health advisor system.
The primary application will include enough information for an initial screening process such as transcripts, MCAT scores, a personal statement and Letters of Recommendation.
Every school sets its own deadlines for applications but it is important to submit information as early in the process as possible to get it reviewed first. These deadlines are set in stone and late applications will not usually be considered, regardless of the circumstances.
Most U.S. medical schools will consider credentials from accredited Canadian post-secondary institutions, but others will require advance coursework to be completed at an American accredited university or college.
MCAT prep assistance and exams are available in many cities across Canada. The registration fee to write the MCAT is $315 if made at least three weeks before the exam. There are additional fees to reschedule or cancel the exam. For students in need, an assistance program for financing their MCAT fees is available – application needs to be made before MCAT registration.
The personal statement should be about 800-1000 words at most and needs to be compelling and very well written. A unique focus on personal inspiration, overcoming challenges and the motivation to practice medicine are excellent topics for a personal statement. It should be honest and authentic. Everyone who is aiming for a career in medicine has their own personal reason for wanting to pursue that dream and this is how each written piece will stand apart. It is wise to write (and re-write) the personal statement and review it with others for positive critiques.
Letters of Recommendation should come from academic and professional references such as advisors and instructors. Applicants using the AMCAS system will be supplied with information to provide their letter-writers that will allow them to access the online registration system and submit their letters confidentially. Writing a good letter of recommendation will take a substantial amount of time so students are advised to approach their chosen references well in advance of all deadlines. Choosing references wisely is important. Picking an advisor or mentor who has a individual connection to the applicant and can impart both their professional and personal attributes is important.
Lack of well-written, quality letters can be a make-or-break situation in the application process.
After the initial application, a potential student will be contacted by any interested medical schools to begin the secondary application process. Some schools automatically send all applicants directly to the secondary application, while others will utilize AMCAS to narrow down their list of applicants, so being asked to secondaries doesn’t necessarily mean that one is on the short list.
During the secondary application, students are usually asked to respond to a variety of essay questions. This is their opportunity to really showcase themselves and their accomplishments. Typical essay questions can include: “Why did you choose to apply at our school?”, “Why do you want to practice medicine?”, “What is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?”, “What are your long-term goals?” and “How will you bring diversity to our school?”. Again, it is important to follow all directions precisely – character count, format and deadline are all extremely important. The admissions committee really gets a chance to know the candidate so this is where it is important to highlight all clinical and research experience, awards received, published material, tutoring experience, any overseas humanitarian travel or education abroad and a wide range of activities. Most institutions will allow around four weeks turnaround time, but if possible it is always good to send them back as early as possible. It is certainly acceptable to use parts of the same essays for different school applications but they should always be personalized in some way to suit each individual institution.
Dr. Okonkwo says, “Make your application stand out. Pick an area in which you are outstanding in some way. Don’t be shy about taking the initiative to contact alumni in your area for their advice.”
While most pre-med students tend to showcase their medical qualifications, by also telling the admissions board about rock-climbing adventures or charitable work in underprivileged countries, it will distinguish the applicant from others while promoting their diverse background.
After years of scientific writing for their undergrad degree, med school applicants likely don’t have a lot of experience when it comes to telling vibrant and enthralling stories. Making sure their essays and personal statement convey the emotions of the events will make for an interesting read. Telling a creative story rather than rattling off a list of achievements will also help make the application memorable.
Discussing any memberships in pre-professional health clubs or groups are other ways to get noticed.
If the college or university is impressed by the essays, they will invite the candidate to come for an interview. Most U.S. med school interviews run from September through February. A potential student may be interviewed by one person or by a panel. This is generally considered the most important step in the application process and can ruin a student’s chances of being accepted if they are unprepared, too nervous or over-confident.
Verbal communication skills and the ability to think quickly on ones’ feet are two essential traits of any successful medical doctor, so the interview will give the admissions personnel some insight into the candidates’ suitability.
The interview can be nerve-wracking but it is possible to prepare answers to some common questions ahead of time. In most cases, questions will be about the candidates’ education, motivation to pursue a medical education, personality traits including outstanding qualities and weaknesses, knowledge of healthcare issues, ethics and diversity. Role-playing this process can be particularly helpful.
The interviewer will have copies of the initial and secondary applications, so part of the students’ preparation process should be reviewing those papers.
During the interview, the candidate will be given the opportunity to ask questions as well, and should come prepared with a list of well-developed queries. Questions about any exciting research or projects coming up or the interviewers’ own personal experiences at medical school are a great place to start. The goal is to ask questions that show the interviewee has done their homework about the school, but that also elicit important information in their responses.
Proper attire for the interview is the same as it would be for a professional job interview. A tour of the campus may be included at the same time as the interview so it is advisable to bring or wear comfortable footwear.
It is important for the interviewee to appear well-organized so it is wise to bring a professional bag with a notepad and pen. The student will be doing a lot of speaking, so they should be prepared with a bottle of water in case that is not provided.
It is important to be polite and courteous to everyone at the interview and on the tour, from admin staff and faculty members, to current students.
Should all go according to plan, the candidate will begin to receive acceptance notifications. If the student is accepted to more than one school, once they have made their final decision it is proper to advise the others that they will not be attending. If a student is not accepted outright, they may be placed on an alternate list which may still afford them a place if accepted applicants decline to attend, or if students leave the program in the early stages.
Going to medical school is a dream for many people, but it can be a dream-come-true with some hard work and a positive attitude.
And most importantly, “Whatever you do,” advises Okonkwo, “don’t listen to anybody who tells you that you can’t do it.”
By Jackie Fritz