Medical School Admissions FAQ

Medical School Applicants constantly call and email us with a huge array of questions and here we have decided to list some of the most common questions or frequently asked questions about medical school admissions and present answers from our Former Admissions Officer Consultants. 

Medical School Admissions FAQ

1. How do you recommend addressing a low GPA or MCAT score in an application?

The first approach, which is likely not practical for the majority of students, is to take additional classes or to repeat the MCAT to improve these numbers. If you have time to take courses at a community college, or another institution, this may be beneficial. In addition, if you are able to retake the MCAT and obtain a significantly higher score, this can drastically improve one's impression of your academic ability. However, this strategy is unfortunately not practical for the majority of our applicants. Thus, the other recommended approach is to work with the application you have, and to highlight certain points In particular, it is important to highlight an upward trend in GPA, specifically science GPA, if possible. It is also helpful to highlight other strengths of the application. For example if you have a low GPA, but a unique accomplishment, or life story, it is helpful to bring this to the forefront of the application, through your personal statement, LORs, activity description, etc. It is also helpful to have your letter writers (particularly your science LOR writers) vouch for your academic ability. This is where working with a consultant can be particularly helpful, to identify the areas of your application that can be highlighted best to offset the lower GPA or MCAT score.

2. Is it better to have a portfolio of many activities with less involvement in each, or fewer activities with more involved presence in each?

In general it is ideal to have a variety of activities to showcase your well-roundness, ability to work with different types of people, and appeal to different schools. However, it is more important to demonstrate significant impact and involvement in any activity you are part of. Thus, if you have to choose, I would recommend having a smaller portfolio of activities, but to have longitudinal involvement in each of them, and to have meaningful impact. This can be in the form of a leadership role, significant changes made to the organization, or some other value that you brought. Schools want to see that you have leadership ability, and are reliable and consistent. In addition, the more high quality involvement you have in the activity, the higher chance you have of obtaining a solid letter of recommendation, and coming across as genuine in your secondary assays. This enthusiasm will also carryover if you are able to speak about them in an interview setting. Remember, quality over quantity usually works best.

3. How many schools should I apply to? What balance of reach and safety schools should I choose?

This is a difficult question to answer, as it depends so much on the individual applicant, and many factors such as your grades, test scores, how strict you are with your geographic preference of schools, etc. Most students apply to at least 15-20 schools and it is not uncommon to apply to more than 40 schools depending on your application. Working with an application consultant, or someone with prior admissions experience, can be very helpful for this in order to identify schools that are particularly best "fit" for you as a person and your application. All schools are seeking to find the right "fit" for their classes, and thus the way you frame your secondary application can make a big difference in how you are viewed. It is always best to have a balance between safety schools and reach schools. The exact balance also depends on the caliber of your application, but in general I would recommend having 15-20% of your application be "reach schools," 10-15% be "safety schools," and 65-75% be everything else. Remember your first goal is to get into medical school, thus the wider net you cast, the higher your likelihood is of obtaining admission.

4. How many letters of recommendation should I get? What balance of science/non-science/activity letters should I seek

Like the previous question, balance is key when obtaining your letters of recommendation. You want to strike a balance between obtaining enough letters to demonstrate a variety of perspectives of you as a person and as a student, but not too many to overwhelm the admissions committee. The best letters are from writers that know you well, and longitudinally over time. They are the ones that can speak to your personal attributes as a person, but also your ability to be a reliable and dedicated student, and a compassionate and caring physician. For a general guideline, I would aim to have 2 letters from science professors, 1 letter from a non-science professor, and 1-2 letters from extracurricular activities (including research, service activities, clinical shadowing, etc.). Any activity in which you have been significantly involved with should be accompanied by a letter, otherwise it may raise red flags about your true involvement. I would aim for no more than 5 letters in total, unless you have a really unique background or pathway to medicine.

5. Should I send updates to schools after I submit my application? If so, how often should I send them and what should I include in them?

Yes! It is definitely worthwhile to send updates to schools, especially if you have significant additions since you initially applied. This serves two purposes: to provide schools with more information about your candidacy as an applicant, but also to demonstrate your genuine interest in the school. If you have not heard back from the school about an interview, it may be worth sending an update several months after your secondary application is submitted. These updates should be no more than 1 page, and should highlight key additions that you have not included in your application thus far (any new grades/tests you have taken, new activities you have become involved with, additional leadership roles you have started, etc). It is also helpful to reiterate your interest in the school, using specific points about why you would be a good fit for their class. You can consider sending additional updates after this, but it is important to do so in a tactful way and at the appropriate time based on the individual school's application timeline. Working with the admissions consultant is helpful here as he/she may know the school and what is considered to be appropriate for that institution.

6. How much shadowing should I do?

The purpose of shadowing is to demonstrate your interest in medicine and your exploration of the career. Shadowing is not considered to be a primary clinical experience activity. There needs to be more involved clinical experiences that allow you to observe the doctor-patient relationship and experience the role of a healthcare provider for yourself. Therefore, there is no set minimum number of hours for shadowing. Use shadowing as an opportunity to explore medicine as a career and learn more about different specialties. If you have an area of particular interest, consider shadowing a physician who practices that specialty extensively, for several hours a week over a longer period of time (months). Shadowing is a great thing to do over the summer while you're home with your family. Shadowing multiple providers in different specialties gives you a broader perspective, expose you to different aspects of a career in medicine, and help you better understand your own motivation for pursuing medicine. These experiences are good for generating points of conversation or topics for essays in your primary or secondary application. Consider shadowing for 4 to 8 hours one to two days per week for the course of a month or two. If you're lucky enough to develop a mentorship relationship with the physician, it may lead to participating in research projects or career advising. Overall, somewhere between 50-150 total hours of shadowing would be considered within the range of average. Again, this is not about the number of hours but the depth and breadth of the experience.

7. When should I ask for letters of recommendation?

Ask for letters of recommendation during or immediately following the interaction with the letter writer (a class, research experience, volunteer experience, for example). Waiting until a year or two had passed and you're finally applying to medical school will not generate strong or contemporaneous recommendations. If your school offers a letter service, set that up early so that your letter writers have a place to send your letters. If your school does not have a letter service, let your letter writer know that you'll need the letter for a future application to medical school and request that they keep the letter for the future. Ideally, letters should be received by AMCAS before the primary application is submitted in late May/early June. If your school has a committee letter, they will often require that letters of recommendation be submitted at an earlier date for inclusion in your letter packet. Inquire with your University regarding whether they use a committee letter so you can plan around this date. When requesting new letters or reminding previous letter writers, it's courteous to give them at least one to two months to write and submit the letter. In the spring before your application, contact all of your potential and confirmed the letter writers, requesting that the letters be sent in by mid-may to AMCAS.

8. Do I need 15 activities? Do I need to fill every line in the activities section?

The short answer is no. It is certainly more important to have quality, in-depth experiences rather than numerous short experiences. Most extracurriculars should be done over a longer length of time to get more experience and demonstrate leadership and investment in the organization. Long-term experiences generate better letters of recommendation and demonstrate a commitment to the cause/experience that is desired by admissions committees. If you can generate 15 quality, in-depth experiences that demonstrate leadership, advancement in position, and commitment to the cause, then do so. Otherwise, it is better to have fewer experiences with more number of hours and greater involvement then it is to have a smattering of superficial and short-term experiences. The purpose of all of your experiences is to explore your interest and demonstrate your commitment to research, clinical activities, and community service. This is best done through longer-term, comprehensive activities.

9. Should I take a year off to apply after graduating?

The answer is IT DEPENDS. You need to ask yourself, “What is the reason why I want to take a year off?” If you have an awesome opportunity to work for Teach for America, to do an international service project, to do a research fellowship, to go on a mission’s trip, then by all means take a year off. Those type of experiences generally look awesome to an admissions committee, because it shows that you’re a dynamic person that has interests/passions outside of the cookie-cutter pre-med. If you are awarded such an opportunity, it likely will help your application tremendously. However, too many applicants think that they’ll “beef” up their application by spending a year in a general research lab (not associated with a formal program/fellowship). In reality, because you start your application well over a year before applying, you will not have any productivity and it will likely just be viewed as a filler and will not help your application.

10. What is the minimum MCAT/GPA needed to be competitive?

The bottom line is that you want your GPA/MCAT scores to be as high as possible (duh!). Broadly speaking, a 3.9-4.0 will make you look like a superstar, a 3.8-3.9 is competitive for most schools, a 3.7-3.8 is where you start getting borderline, and below a 3.7 you will need other areas of your application to help compensate. If you are below a 3.5, you will likely need to consider alternative options. For MCAT, higher than 520 is superstar status, 515-520 is very competitive, 510-515 is competitive, and below a 510 is where you will start running into trouble. Some exceptions do exist. If you are >5 years out from undergrad, have had great life experience pursuing a different career, and have come back to the sciences and turned around your grades in a post bac program, you can get away with a lower GPA. An example of this would be a military medic who fought in Iraq who graduated undergrad with a 2.8 GPA. They served as a medic for 6 years and served on the front lines. They came back and completed a post bac program with a 3.9 GPA and achieved a MCAT of 516. They were extremely competitive at even the top tier schools. Additionally, individuals that have played D1 sports, have come from significantly disadvantaged backgrounds, or had another unique path such as overcoming a serious illness during undergrad will have some leeway.

11. Are CA/NYC schools really that much more competitive?

Yes, yes, yes, YESSS! The bottom line is that many people dream of living in CA or NYC. A lower tier school in NYC can be more competitive than a top tier school in the Midwest. If it’s your dream to live in one of these places, then by all means apply. However, the general recommendation is this: if you are planning to apply to 15 schools and you want to throw in a couple NYC schools, then apply to 15 schools in addition to NYC/CA schools. Don’t count the NYC/CA schools in your target count because they are hyper-competitive. The one caveat is if you are a NYC/CA resident. You should definitely apply to your in-state/in-city schools as you do have an advantage.

12. How much should I talk about my parents being physicians?

Here’s the deal. By and large when students talk about their parents being physicians it comes across horribly. Why? Because it makes you sound privileged. Sure, having parents as physicians definitely opened doors and influenced your life, however, your decision to enter medicine should be grounded in the shadowing and experiences YOU have done on your own merit. A powerful personal statement/interview will discuss how their decision to enter medicine has been molded and shaped by the physicians and mentors and experiences they have had in their life. Then, at the end of their essay, mentioning that they have seen the personal sacrifices and joys their parents experienced and are convinced that this is the path they want to pursue, is a powerful way to include your parents. However, please keep in mind that the majority of students with physician parents handle this poorly. Be very careful and thoughtful how you approach this aspect of your application so you do not come across as privileged.

13. I've volunteered in the hospital, can I use that as my shadowing experience?

NO! Not having an actual shadowing experience is a red flag. Volunteering is NOT a shadowing experience. Yes, you can get exposure to the hospital by volunteering. But volunteering is about you giving back to patients and the hospital. However, shadowing is where YOU are getting the benefit. You are following a physician around and not contributing. You are there to watch and absorb information. You are not there to help, you are not there to be supportive, you are not there to offer ideas and opinions. You are there to learn about this intense, dynamic profession. You are there to learn about the amazing positives and the awful sacrifices of being a physician. A personal statement and interview should be able to articulate that you have seen and experienced these highs and lows first hand through shadowing and that because of shadowing, you are convinced that a life of service in the medical field as a physician is the right path for you.

14. The 4 topics to include in the AMCAS 3 Most Meaningful Work & Activities essay section?

Although the personal statement appears after the Work & Activities Section of the AMCAS application, you should write your personal statement first. This approach will make your writing the Work & Activities essays easier by choosing experiences cited in your personal statement: one on research, another on clinical participation and the third on a volunteer experience. Before writing, make an outline for each essay which includes in this order: (1) a description of the goal of the work or activity, (2) your role (3) your contribution or impact and (4) what you learned from this experience. Use this formula for your 3 Most Meaningful Work& Activities essays which limit you to 1325 characters; you could also follow it for the shorter essays which will have a limit of 700 characters.

15. How to write a good secondary application?

“Why do you want to matriculate at our school?” One of the best ways to make yourself unique or make yourself stand out from the crowd of applicants is to develop a contact with a medical student months before you apply to that school. If you already know a med student, contact and alert him/her that you are planning to apply. Ask if you could talk for about 15 -20 minutes to learn about their experiences at the school. If you don’t know a med student, try contacting the Admissions Office to put you in touch with a med student. Sometimes, Admissions Offices have Open Houses, and if you have the time and money, try to go to an Open House or arrange to visit during a convenient time for both you and the school. In answering the question, “Why do you want to matriculate at our school?” be sure to mention the med student’s name, class rank and summarize your conversation. If you’ve attended an Open House or visited the school, write briefly about it favorably including what you learned. If, on the other hand, you were unable to make contacts or visit the school, you should familiarize yourself with the school web site in order to find something you share in common with the school. For example, if you’ve done volunteer work in a foreign country, and the school offers opportunities to do a clinical elective abroad, mention your past experience and your desire to do an international clinical rotation. Moreover, there might be student organizations which interest you. Name one or two and explain your interest. When possible show how your interest(s) could advance your career goal(s). For example, if you’re a female applicant, you might indicate your interest in the school’s Women in Medicine student organization by stating you’d like to become acquainted with potential role models and mentors. Finally, make sure to provide examples of your prior experience(s) which you would use to help make contributions to a school program or student organization.

16. How to prepare for your admissions interview?

Understandably, you are excited but anxious when you learn that you’ve been invited for an admissions interview. Give yourself a pep talk saying you’ll be ready, because you will have followed suggestions preparing you for that interview. Begin by familiarizing yourself with everything you wrote in your primary application as well as your secondary application for that school. Ask your Solomon Admissions consultant to email you potential interview questions, and then take time to prepare answers. When ready, have your consultant conduct a mock interview with you. You should use this time to discuss your answers and decide with the consultant which questions you should ask your interviewer. Invariably, the school’s interviewer will ask if you have questions. In addition to the mock interview, have a friend, posing as the interviewer, conduct another mock interview. Find a room for this rehearsal in advance so that you can rehearse walking into a solitary space where you will have the interview. Take the session seriously, and wear your interview clothes. Be prepared to answer the questions as if it were the real interview. Afterwards, the two of you should discuss your body language focusing on your posture, eye contact, and smile. Keep in mind when you have the real interview, you want to show that you are normal and have an abundance of interpersonal skills

17. What is the difference between a letter of interest and letter of intent?

A letter of interest and a letter of intent share a similarity in that both are sent to get the attention of the Admissions Committee. If possible, directly address your emailed letter to the dean (or director) as well as to the Admissions Committee. Thank the Admissions Committee for its continual review of your credentials. You could email letters of interest to several med schools requesting an admissions interview. These letters must provide updates of your activities and/or accomplishments which are not in your application. Additionally, you should give specific reasons why you would like to matriculate at that school and potential contributions you might make to the student body. A letter of intent, however, is different. You send it only to one school, your dream school, where you’ve been wait-listed. You are committing yourself to that school, if accepted. Provide updates of your activities and/ or accomplishments, and be bold by naming the school(s) to which you’ve already been accepted and wait-listed. Follow with an explanation of why you want to matriculate at your dream school. To that end, be very specific with examples of opportunities at the school which appeal to you and how you would take advantage of them. Mention briefly examples of prior experience(s) which you would use to help make contributions to the student body. End both letters of interest and your letter of intent by thanking the dean/director of the Admissions Committees and the Admissions Committee for their attention and time for their review of your credentials and stating your hope to join the entering class.

18. How do I get my application to stand out?

Getting an application to stand out starts with a compelling "strategic narrative." In short, what about you and your personal journey up until this point makes you an attractive candidate for medical school. For the vast majority of the applicants, this typically boils down to the same things: show a love of science (as shown by good grades and research) and love of humanity (as shown by clinical, patient facing activities and volunteering). Unfortunately, because that formula is in some ways obvious, many candidates make the mistake of thinking that checking off those boxes is sufficient to get them noticed. I would make the case that those boxes are necessary, but not sufficient. What makes a candidate attractive comes from a deeper insight into how they hope to contribute to the practice of medicine and the proof they present that they are indeed the right candidate to complete their mission in medicine. Candidates who are able to draw lines between their research, volunteer activities and clinical opportunities to show a cohesive vision for the problems they hope to solve as physicians fare very well in the application process.

19. What can I do to raise my GPA after not doing so well on pre-med classes?

Raising a GPA after tumbling during a pre-med class can seem like an impossible task. In reality, pre-med classes tend to be weeders for a reason and most doctors have stumbled at some point. The main way to move forward is by proving to the admissions committee that you've fixed the issue and are now ready to take on a much more challenging cirriculum. Higher level classes in that same department with new, improved results can often give confidence to committees that previous difficulties were one time affairs. Trying alternative BCPM classes may also help dilute the effect of one bad class. In extreme scenarios, special master's programs or post-baccs exist to offer students a second chance. Finally, essays that show exactly how you've turned your GPA around prove to committees that you won't be afraid to self-reflect and ask for help when you need it medical school.

20. How many hours do I need to shadow?

This is a tricky question, mainly because it's the wrong question to ask. The right number of hours of shadowing is fairly obvious - something that shows you've taken the time to learn the profession (likely greater than 50 hours let's say) without sounding unbelievable (5000 hours). In between those two lies the correct amount of hours for different people. The better question to ask is how do I attain high quality clinical experiences? The vast majority of shadowing from volunteering in the ED to paid "mission" trips do not impress committees. Organic, unique clinical experiences that highlight a candidate's strategic narrative, such as the practice of rural medicine to specialty care with certain underserved populations, can be powerful vehicles to display just how passionate a candidate is about medical practice. Committees tend to pay far more attention to the quality of experiences than the quantity.

21. What’s a safe MCAT score?

In my time as an admissions committee member and now a consultant, I can safely say there is no safe MCAT score. I've seen candidates with 520s with rejections and ones with 510s get their first choice. No MCAT score can overcome a bad application. That said, it is important to remember that admissions committee are high risk averse and a good MCAT score may be indicative of future testing success, which is a major part of every stage of a physician's life. I tend to find 515 to be threshold for a "good" score.

22. What are admission committees looking for in a letter of recommendation?

Letters of recommendation are arguably the most underrated part of an application by candidates and yet so highly important to admissions committees. This is because, in theory, they are the one part of the application the candidate cannot manipulate. They are less useful as tools to admit candidates based on (although a rare few are so fantastic that they can tip a candidate towards an acceptance) as much as tools to rule candidates out. Most letters that people tend to submit never explicitly state a candidate is unfit for medical school, but there are subtle tells and admission committees are sleuths at knowing the tells. This is why I advise candidates on how to ask for letters of recommendation so they can avoid the letters that can ruin an otherwise stellar application.

23. How to write a good personal statement?

  • Begin by making a list of your (3-5) personal qualities and skills which you think you share with a competent physician and then select specific activities which illustrate these qualities and skills.
  • Rely on examples from your ( 1) research ( 2) clinical and ( 3) volunteer experiences in order to select your specific activities.
  • Make an outline of your paragraph(s) describing your specific role in research, clinical and volunteer experiences which demonstrate your qualities and skills
  • Focus on 3 themes: ( 1) motivation for a medicine ( 2) experiences and ( 3) summary in the concluding paragraph which includes motivation and experiences
  • Tell a story. People like reading a flowing story, because stories are easier for the reader(s) to remember you. Share with the reader(s) a story about how you became you and who you are as a person
  • Stay away from philosophical or abstract writing.
  • Be careful not to write a screenplay using a lot of dialogue and scenic descriptions