How Medical School Applications Are Evaluated

Find out what happens to your application, from submission to decision.

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The medical school application process can often seem like a nebulous and surreal experience. You spend a lot of money and write a lot of essays, only to submit them to various committees who deliberate and ultimately decide your medical school fate. Each medical school decides not only the composition of its admissions committees, but also the path your application takes from submission to decision.

What exactly happens to your application after submission?

After you submit your primary American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) application, or one from other services, your materials fall into the hands of various admissions committees. Schools differ in their processes and whom they allow to serve on their selection committees. However, there are two consistencies among schools in terms of the application review process.

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1. Primary application screening: Many schools engage in a blanket preliminary screening of all primary applications received. Schools typically use this process in order to determine which applicants receive a secondary application to be reviewed further.

There are a number of schools that send secondary applications to virtually all applicants; however, many state schools, including the University of Michigan, use GPA and MCAT cutoff scores (most recently cited by Michigan as a 3.2 GPA and 24 MCAT for nonresidents) to determine who will receive further application materials.

2. Secondary application review: Once your primary application has been reviewed and passed through any screening a particular school may have, secondary applications are sent out, usually via E-mail. Some schools send these materials right away, while others send them out in large batches, sometimes months after applicants have submitted.

Reviewers of secondary applications look not only for additional insight into applicants' backgrounds and motivations, but also for interest in their particular institution.

In many schools, once the secondary application is reviewed by readers (usually at least two), applicants are invited for an interview, deferred, or rejected. If you see that you are listed as deferred on your status update page, it may be worth your while to be proactive with your schools of interest to try to snag an interview date.

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Beyond these two steps, schools tend to vary more in how they receive and assess applications. One thing that is consistent is that the interview process is crucial to almost every medical school in assessing candidates for admission. However, the composition of the committees that review candidates, particularly post-interview, vary widely among schools.

The vast majority of medical schools assemble admissions committees that include the dean of that school and various other department heads. Many schools also include some medical students on their selection committees to bring students' perspective to the table. There are some important differences in who sits on admissions committees that could affect your application.

1. Basic science faculty: Many schools want to be sure you have a sufficiently strong background in the basic sciences to make it through their nonclinical curricula and pass the board exams. If you are applying for an M.D./Ph.D. program, the input of these faculty members carry much more weight.

Basic science faculty come to admissions committees with their own perspectives, and depending on what your career goals are in medicine, they may have an impact on your application's chances for success.

2. Community members: Many public institutions include members of the general community on their selection committees. Reportedly, the rationale behind this trend is that the public should have a voice in selecting the students whom they will later need to feel confident about as physicians.

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Your application will be reviewed by these committees once in consideration for an interview invitation, and twice (or more) if an interview is completed. Applicants who are in the "gray" zone, or are close to invitation or admission and wait-listed applicants will garner more attention from committees later on in the process. Committees typically vote or use rating scales to determine acceptances.

The medical school admissions process is riddled with uncertainty and anticipation. Knowing what you can—and cannot—control is a crucial component in lodging a successful application.

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.