You might think that as long as you submit your medical school application materials as soon as AMCAS opens for submission in late May, you’re ahead of the game. But the truth is that from planning your college curriculum to completing the applications themselves, the earlier you begin the process, the better! Preparing for and applying to med school is complicated and can be overwhelming, so beyond starting early, we recommend working with an experienced and knowledgeable advisor to set yourself up for success. In this post, we’ll walk you through some of the ways that a long lead time—and expert guidance—can boost your medical school application outcomes.
The courses you’ll need to take in order to apply to med school will vary depending on where you go to college and the med schools you decide to apply to, but no matter what, there will be a lot of them! That’s on top of your major and minor requirements, as well as any electives you want to take. The best way to stay on top of it all is:
Develop, at the outset of college, a preliminary four-year curriculum plan including both required courses and electives, and then re-evaluate your plan at the end of every semester. We help our applicants integrate their academic requirements with additional courses of interest in a way that is manageable and effective.
To determine your college’s pre-med recommendations and requirements, carefully check your school’s pre-health advising policies. Med schools themselves have similar core pre-med requirements, which usually consist of:
- 1 year of biology, with labs
- 1 year of physics, with labs
- 1 year of general or inorganic chemistry, with labs
- 1 year of organic chemistry, with labs
- 1 year of English
However, there might be specific, additional requirements at a school you’re considering. As of 2021, about 60 medical schools required one or two semesters of mathematics, for example, while over 60 medical schools required one semester of biochemistry. Check the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) database within the website of the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) to determine the requirements of the schools you’re applying to.
If possible, try to complete your pre-med requirements by spring semester of junior year in order to maximize your options of when you can apply to med school. The earlier you plan and dive into your curriculum, the more of these courses you’ll be able to check off your list!
Beyond the official requirements described above, taking additional advanced biology courses—including cell bio, physiology, genetics, and neurobiology—as well as courses in the social sciences is extremely helpful in preparing for the MCAT.
The more of these relevant courses you take—in advanced biology and intro psychology—the better you’re likely to fare on the test, and the stronger foundation you will have for medical school. Once you’ve taken the appropriate courses for the content covered in the MCAT, you can register for the exam and begin your prep. A comprehensive study regimen takes about 3-4 months, and can be accomplished via a course (such as those offered by the Princeton Review, Kaplan, and Blueprint), a one-on-one tutor, or self-study. If you choose to self-study, establish a schedule and curriculum, and be disciplined in sticking to it! You might buy a few review books to see all the topics that are covered and a variety of ways to organize the material, and then develop a plan that works for you. We keep in close touch with our applicants to help advise on test prep approach, timing of the MCAT test, and coordination with academics and other activities.
If you want to attend medical school immediately after college, then by the end of junior year, you should complete your pre-med requirements, take the MCAT, and submit your AMCAS application. It is technically possible to submit your application without an MCAT score, and provide your score as late as August, but since your MCAT score will help you develop an appropriate medical school list, we would then advise holding off on applying to “reach” schools until you have your score in hand. Beyond this, many med schools won’t schedule interviews until they receive your score. If you are not able to complete the MCAT-related coursework until senior year, and must take the MCAT in spring of senior year – or if you want to take at least one gap year for other reasons – you would then apply to med school when you graduate college or later.
Taking the MCAT at the earliest effective date possible will also enable you to retake the exam if you wish. In the US, the test is offered 25 times a year, from January through September, and can be taken up to three times in a single testing year, four times during a two consecutive-year period, and seven times in a lifetime. (Keep in mind that med schools receive all of your MCAT test scores, and evaluate multiple scores in different ways.)
Medical and Extracurricular Activities
Participating in medically-related activities—especially clinical experience, shadowing, and research—can play a big role in improving your medical school candidacy. It would be difficult to catch up on these experiences last-minute, so planning and early involvement will go a long way.
We recommend that med school applicants participate extensively in both clinical experience, in which you have direct contact with patients; and shadowing, in which you observe physicians at work. We help you plan out an effective schedule early on in your college career. Clinical experience in particular is the most important pre-med activity, both for your resume and for your personal and professional development, and might include volunteering at a hospital, hospice, clinic, or nursing home, working as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) or scribe, and/or serving as a Physician’s Assistant. As for shadowing, observing physicians across specialty areas provides a snapshot of different fields’ responsibilities and lifestyle demands. A good rule of thumb for shadowing hours is somewhere between 60 and 100—again, hard to accrue last-minute. For more information on clinical experience and shadowing, see our previous post here.
Conducting original research before you apply to med school is also a very effective way to improve your candidacy. (Your increased science knowledge will help boost your MCAT score, too.) Research experience isn’t officially required, and many med schools will consider applicants without it, but if you hope to attend a top-tier school connected with a leading research university, amassing significant research experience in college is vital. We help our applicants identify potential research opportunities in your areas of interest, with appropriate mentors who could serve as recommenders. For more information on how to gain research experience both at and outside of your university, see our previous post here.
Beyond participating in medically-related activities, engaging in non-science extracurriculars—like non-clinical volunteer work, learning a foreign language, leadership and team-building activities—will help demonstrate to admissions committees your values and character.
Mapping out your extracurricular involvement early in your college career, ideally with the assistance of an advisor, will help you balance these various activity categories in a way that is engaging but not stressful. In that way, by the time you apply, you’ll have constructed a profile as a well-prepared doctor-to-be with multi-dimensional interests.
The Primary AMCAS Application
Once you’ve built up your med school candidacy, it’s time to do the all-important step of completing your applications! Developing application materials that do justice to the work you’ve accomplished throughout college both inside and outside of the classroom takes time; the best applications weave a compelling, holistic narrative of who you are as a person and why you want to become a physician.
Begin your essay work as early as possible to achieve the best chance of success. We work with our applicants from January through March of the application year on the primary AMCAS essays, which include the Personal Statement and up to 15 activity essays, including three Most Meaningful essays.
Begin thinking of potential recommenders early in your college career! We also advise our applicants on potential recommenders in the categories of science faculty, non-science faculty, research mentors, and physicians you’ve shadowed, as well as supervisors of employment, internship or volunteer work.
Secondary Med School Applications
There is also the matter of secondary applications—the supplemental long-form essays you’ll be asked to fill out for individual medical schools. The sooner you submit your primary AMCAS applications, the sooner your transcript will be verified, and the sooner you will receive secondaries. Try to submit your primary AMCAS application as close as possible to the day AMCAS application submission opens. This date is typically late May or early June; this year, it is May 28, 2022.
Secondary applications are time sensitive: the faster you return them to the institution, the more strongly you convey your enthusiasm for that school. Regardless of schools’ official deadlines, a quality secondary application submitted within one to two weeks will increase your likelihood of getting an interview. For this reason, we recommend beginning to work on your secondary application materials even before you receive the specific prompts; for common essay prompts, see our post on secondary applications here.
Allow six months to develop the best possible medical school essays. After finalizing the primary AMCAS essays of the Personal Statement and activity essays, we then begin to develop secondaries for the most common prompts in April through June. In this way, our applicants can hit the ground running when they receive secondaries in late June and early July.
If the above path towards a successful med school candidacy sounds overwhelming, we hear you! In order to navigate all the pre-med requirements and recommendations—from coursework to extracurriculars to the MCAT to the application itself—it’s best to start as early as you realize you want to be a doctor. For more information and guidance, contact Collegiate Gateway—we’re always happy to help!