Medical School Applications: Timeliness and Competitiveness

Application Strategy

Medical School Applications: Timeliness and Competitiveness

It was April 9th, 2014, near the end of the medical school application cycle. Interviews had come and gone. Many in my application cohort already knew where they were heading to school in the fall and were giddily planning campus visits, move-in dates, and maybe a week to a month of free-spirited summer travel before buckling down once more to the regimented life of a full-time student. Meanwhile, I was sitting in the office of my pre-medical advisor at the University of Chicago, a middle-aged woman who wore tortoiseshell glasses and an air of motherly care. There was still snow on the ground outside. I mean, this was Chicago, whose infamous winter stretches from late October through late April. But it wasn’t the cold that was making me shiver and sniffle.

Although many of my cohort had at least one solid admissions offer by now, I was drowning in the quicksand of two different waitlists (albeit from Harvard Medical School and Feinberg, the medical school affiliated with Northwestern University). I was also still waiting to hear back from two other schools I had interviewed with in January and February (Pritzker, affiliated with the University of Chicago, and the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine). The future wasn’t entirely bleak, considering the caliber of schools from which I’d received interview offers, but the future wasn’t picture-perfect either. And the current situation was, in a word, torturous. 

I was elated by the hopes raised by my waitlist offers (chumps don’t get waitlisted at Harvard, right?), but given the fact that I still had no solid “Yes” replies, I was staring down the cold hard reality of yet another application cycle, and the need to find a job to support me through my gap year. I was also questioning whether or not I really wanted to go to medical school, adding another layer of uncertainty to the mix…but that’s a story for another blog post.

The point is, my inner philosophy when dealing with uncertainty is: “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” And the incredible distance between the best-case scenario (admitted at Harvard) and worst-case scenario (another application cycle) was giving me severe emotional whiplash.

I needed advice. I needed to understand how I had gotten to this point. I needed to understand how to prepare for the future. And thus I was sitting in the office of my pre-medical advisor, delicately asking, “So, now what?” 

My experienced advisor was of equal “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” mindset, so the first thing she said was: “Well, let’s review how you did this application cycle.”

From the papers on her desk, she picked out the file the pre-medical office kept on me and flipped through pages on my GPA, extracurricular activities, and my list of schools. She squinted at handwritten notes and tsked softly.

“Well, Cindy, you’re obviously a very competitive candidate, considering your interview offers this cycle. But,” and here she paused tactfully, in a way that I'm sure was trying to be kind, “I see two things that you can definitely improve on in future application cycles. First – you didn’t apply to enough safety schools. Second – you didn’t submit your applications early enough.

She turned to her computer and pulled up some statistics from a well-used online bookmark. While clicking ‘Print,’ she told me, “The number of medical school applicants has been increasing year-after-year, and as this occurs, it becomes more and more important that you submit your primary application right when AMCAS [the ‘Common App’ platform for medical school applications] opens for submissions, especially as so many schools give rolling interview and admissions offers.”

She presented me with a paper handout full of numbers collected by the Association of American Medical Colleges (which you can actually take a look for yourself, and probably should, right over here). 

So, to summarize some key information for you: In 2014, 49,480 individuals applied for at least one medical school, a 3.1% increase from 2013 (and an almost 40% increase from 2004). Meanwhile, only 20,343 individuals were accepted to medical school in 2014, a 1.4% increase from 2013 and a 22.2% increase from 2004. Roughly speaking, this means that the number of applicants has been growing at twice the speed of the number of available spots.

On that day, my stomach churned as we planned out an optimal medical school application timeline versus the one I had followed in 2013-2014. For the optimal application timeline, we worked back from the goal of submitting my primary application right when AMCAS opened for submission, which would have been the June 3. Writing a thoughtful, authentic personal statement, soliciting recommendation letters, and entering the various other information on classes and extracurriculars for the primary application would take about 2 months given other schoolwork (or employment related activities, if applying after graduating from college), so April-May would have been (and remains) prime time for gathering together those pieces. 

Now, researching schools (in a serious, not just aspirational way) would take up to 1-2 months before starting to work on the primary application, so February-March (if not earlier) would be the right time to do that research. Or, if you wanted to do this school research at the same time as working on the primary application, the take-home message was that you needed at least 4 months to do all of this research and writing aas well. And, of course, it would be optimal to take the MCAT before submitting your primary application, and since studying for the MCAT generally takes 6 months or longer, it would be idea to start preparing for the exam a whole year before you wanted to submit your primary application. This timeline would set you up to receive secondary applications in July (after AMCAS had verified your transcript - for more information on this process, click here), interviews in September through December, and offers starting in January of the new year.

What was so surprising to me was the fact that my current predicament was not caused by extreme procrastination, only mild procrastination. I’d taken the MCAT in the beginning of January, and I’d researched schools and prepared my primary application in the spring. I’d submitted my primary application only 3 weeks after the application platform opened, on June 26th! I submitted my primary application more than 3 months before the application deadline at any school I was applying to! Yet because of that delay, it took AMCAS longer to process my transcript, and I only received and filled out my secondary applications in September. I had to schedule most of my interviews for January and February, leading to my limbo in early April.

I’d thought I was still in the early to middle portion of the application cohort, time-wise – but evidently, in medical school applications, being “on-time” means being “late.” Timeliness mattered much more than I thought, much more than you are probably thinking as you gear up for or proceed through your own application cycle.

I eventually received an admissions offer from Harvard Medical School about a month after this April afternoon conversation with my pre-medical advisor, so obviously I was a very competitive applicant for medical school. (I also eventually turned down the offer, but again, that’s another story.) But fittingly, Harvard was the only school I’d applied to with non-rolling admissions. After that acceptance, I got off all my other waitlists, so I don’t know if I would’ve eventually been accepted to a school with rolling admissions, given my tardy application cycle. But in any case, you not only want to get in to medical school, you want to avoid the months of emotional turmoil that I was forced to undergo while in application limbo. And the only way to avoid that limbo is to submit your materials as early as possible. 

I can’t say it enough times - timeliness of submission matters almost more than anything else if you want to be a competitive applicant to medical school!