When you decide to apply to medical school, it seems that everybody has tips on how to succeed in the application process. It can be very difficult to know if you're putting your best foot forward in a process riddled with multiple forms, deadlines, requirements, and—the most nebulous of them all—myths.
So, what is truth, and what is fiction?
Most pre-meds have done enough legwork to know the basic realities of the application process. Everyone has to fill out the AMCAS application, get at least three letters of recommendation, and complete as many or as few of the essay-heavy secondary applications that each school likes to create.
[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Medical Schools.]
These are among the most common myths about the process floating around college campuses:
1. I need more extracurricular activities / clinical experience in order to apply. Not necessarily! While medical schools want to make sure that you are aware of what you're signing up for (which you demonstrate through a clinical experience), they don't expect you to publish or perform brain surgery beforehand. Schools would prefer to see an applicant who is committed to a handful of activities over a couple of years than one who dabbles in 15 with little staying power.
2. The application may include essays, but it's ultimately only about the grades. This widely held myth has sabotaged many an application. Though strong grades and MCAT scores are important, most top applicants will have similar scores, grades, and extracurricular experiences. The AMCAS personal statement is your way of securing an interview. Given most, if not all, medical schools only admit those they interview, it would be wise to spend quality time reflecting on your experiences and aspirations to highlight what differentiates you from the pack.
3. Secondary applications must be submitted within two weeks of receipt. Many think that medical schools believe those who submit most quickly are the most interested. In terms of rolling admissions, the advantage of submitting early ends up being marginal; it is much better to spend an extra week polishing your application than rushing to submit one that is less stellar.
4. Not knowing the answer to a question during an interview can make or break an application. You've probably heard stories of applicants being asked "stumper" questions during an interview, such as "Tell me about protein folding," or "Name the five areas of the world that have a Mediterranean climate." These questions are used to see how you handle yourself under pressure, rather than to check if you actually know the answer. It's okay to say, "I'm sorry; I don't know the answer to that." Don't forget to add, "I'd be happy to research that and get back to you." And you actually do need to get back to them!
[See 10 medical schools with the lowest acceptance rates.]
Of course, there are plenty more myths about the smaller aspects of this often complex admissions process. Some easy tips to keep in mind:
• Be yourself: Sounds simple—yet, it's probably the least followed piece of advice. Forget about what you think medical schools want to hear. Write about the essence of you, why you want to go to medical school, and why medical schools would want you. This can take a lot of introspection, so it's best to start now.
• Be polite: When you're making phone calls, asking for letters, or going through your interview day, a simple, thoughtful thank you note to your recommenders, interviewers, and even the secretaries at each of the schools you visit can go a long way. You'd be surprised who talks to whom and what might make an applicant stand out—in a good way, or in a terrible way.
You should approach the admissions process as an opportunity to highlight your unique and differentiating qualities. Focusing on how your experiences influenced your desire to pursue medicine, and honing how you present yourself, is the best way to succeed.
Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How To Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.