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When applying to medical school, what are the first few things that catch the admissions committee's eyes and help me stand out?

Sunny Gibson

Medical schools vary in the characteristics and experiences they are looking for in students. Many of these aspects are driven by the mission of the institution, which you can usually find on their Web site or brochure. What stands out is slightly different at each school.

Keep in mind that applicants generally have some flavor of the following in their applications: community service, research experience and/or publications, leadership experiences, medical exposure (shadowing or work-related), and extracurricular activities. Most applicants have a strong academic profile as well, which also varies by school as well in terms of what they require, with significant coursework in the sciences (regardless of major).

So if you want to stand out, think about what is in your application that isn't likely to be in anyone else's application. If your entire application is focused on the aforementioned experiences and doesn't include anything that is unique to you, it is less likely to stand out.

For example, I worked with a non-traditional woman student who played professional women's basketball in Denmark for four years. Less global, but also interesting and unique was a student who had volunteered for two years on a political action committee to elect a senator. Of course, these experiences came with insight and reflection that gave them depth and helped them stand out further.

Brenda Lee

Over and above academic credentials that bode well for success at a given institution, admissions committees look with enthusiasm at candidates who bring a unique perspective to the school. The unique perspective can be related to achievement against significant odds, distinguished achievement or service, outstanding talents (athletic, artistic, research, etc), and a well-articulated vision and history of making a difference in the lives of marginalized and/or underserved populations.

I applied for medical school a few years ago and, while I went on several interviews, I was not accepted.

Sunny Gibson

The first rule of re-applying is to make sure that you have done something different than the time before. It would be silly to do the same thing and expect a different result, right? Here are a few tips for re-applying that might help.
Ask the schools for feedback. Many admissions deans or counselors will give you feedback about your application if you ask. This can be done in person, by e-mail, or by phone. Look at your rejection letters and use the contact information on them as a place to start. Even if only a few respond, it is worth the time to get feedback directly from schools.

Cross check your credentials against those sought by the schools to which you have applied. Objectively look at the typical accepted-applicant profile for the school to determine if you have met enough of the criteria. For example, if they say that 89 percent of the students have done research and 75 percent are heavily involved in community activities, your application should show that you have those things to give you better odds. Schools have many variations on characteristics and experiences they are seeking.
A good resource to get a sense of what schools are looking for is the Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR®).

Critically examine where you applied. If you only applied to high-profile, well-known schools and did not do your homework about which schools are most interested in students with credentials like yours, you may have neglected schools where you had better odds of getting in.

For example, some state schools have criteria that allow you to apply as a non-resident if you are from a minority group they have designated as underrepresented, have ties to that state (such as an immediate family member living there), or apply to a special program such as MD/MBA or MD/PhD. Do some homework on schools to really find the ones where you will be most competitive.

Mentally evaluate your interviews. How did they go? Did you feel relaxed and able to share your strengths? How were you received? If you need more practice, work with a career center or friend to help you get more comfortable with your interviewing skills. I knew of one student who actually went on several job interviews just to hone their skills!

Evaluate your letters of recommendation. I realize that applicants waive their right to see letters. What you can evaluate are the elements you know: Were they sent in on time? Were they current (dated within the past six to eight months?) Were they relevant to medicine and specifically targeted to entry to medical school?

If you sent a generic letter about your strengths and credentials but it wasn't specifically speaking to your entry to medical school, that is something you should remedy. Another thing to ask yourself is whether or not your letter writers agreed to write you a strong letter. If there was hesitancy, or they responded that they "didn't really know you well," those were cues you might have missed telling you that they were not able write you a very strong, specific recommendation.

Consider timing. Although schools have many admissions processes that follow different timelines, it never hurts to be early. Some schools use a rolling system that slightly penalizes later applications. If you applied later in the process, it could have kept you from consideration because the school ran out of seats.

Address any deficits you find. If you feel you need more exposure to medicine based on your own assessment or feedback from others, be proactive and get it! Think about the things you have the ability to change and do them. More community involvement in areas of your personal passion is always a plus.

Articulate what you have done differently. As a re-applicant schools will want to know what you have changed or done differently. Reflect on what re-applying has taught you and meant for you. If there are lessons or new experiences, share those things in your application.

Brenda Lee

Since there are many factors that contribute to rejections, there is limited value in giving a "generic" response to your question. For example, there are candidates who are rejected who have competitive credentials, who limit their applications to several dream schools, and end the admissions cycle without an admission. If they had applied to a broader range of schools, they would have been offered admission. There are candidates who are rejected because of poor interviews. Capable candidates are rejected because they have not succeeded in distinguishing their candidacy from the other candidates. Rejections also result from credential gaps.

The missed opportunity, knowing your continued interest in gaining admission to medical school, is not discussing strategies for enhancing your competitiveness at the time of the rejection.

At this point, work with your health professions advisors and enlist their support in gathering feedback from the medical schools on ways to enhance you candidacy. In addition, you might contact the schools where you interviewed and request feedback about your former application and the likelihood of success in the upcoming admissions cycle.

Is your volunteer work or other related experiences part of the medical school application?

Sunny Gibson

Yes! The American Medical College Application Service® (AMCAS®) application has space for 15 experiences (of 1,325 characters each) for you to share non-numeric academic, personal and extracurricular experiences. The categories are pre-defined such as leadership, publications, research, work-medical, work-non-medical, volunteer, extracurricular, other, etc. You should definitely spend time actively describing a diverse array of experiences. Utilize that space to share all the things you did to prepare.

Check out the AMCAS Web site in advance. You can download a worksheet or simply initiate an application to see what it's like. You don't actually pay a fee unless you submit the application with transcripts, etc. It's a good idea to get familiar with it early. You can keep a journal of your experiences and their accompanying contact information and date ranges throughout your undergraduate years so you will have the information easily on hand when it comes time to fill out AMCAS.

Brenda Lee

This is an important part of the application. Schools are particularly interested in activities that have had a transformative impact on a candidate, as well as those that demonstrate, if offered admission, that a candidate will take advantage of the vast resources of the institution and make a profound impact.

In addition to using a portion of the personal statement to discuss one's voluntary experiences and service activities, there is an "Experience" section on the AMCAS application for this purpose.

How unwise is it to major in nursing as an undergraduate student if I anticipate attending medical school?

Sunny Gibson

I have to give the "lawyer answer" on this one - it depends. As with any major, you should be able to clearly articulate why you chose it; nursing is no different. Why did that major appeal to you and what did you gain from it? I think it is a misperception to think that medical schools don't like to accept nursing students. One issue is that sometimes the pre-medical classes and nursing classes don't always align. Check with your advisors very carefully about your coursework to make sure you are fulfilling both pre-med and nursing requirements. Some considerations with regard to evaluating any major would be: the academic rigor of coursework (i.e., Did the student choose the path of least resistance? Or was s/he challenged by the courses chosen?) and a clear explanation of major choice. Many of the nursing students and nurses who were career-changers into medicine that I have worked with were excellent and successful applicants. They had insight about medicine that other students did not have and that insight was clearly an asset moving forward into a different role on the medical team. Admissions committees usually consider that a strength if it is presented as such.

Brenda Lee

While there may be individuals participating in the admissions selection process who will look with greater scrutiny on candidates seeking admission from other health professions, they are the exception as opposed to the rule. Having selected another health profession as the pathway to medicine, it is important to discuss why this pathway was selected (for example, initial interest but desired broader patient care responsibility, back up plan if not admitted to medical school, opportunity to earn money to help defray the cost of medical school, etc.) and how it has enhanced your competitiveness for medical school and a career in medicine.

Do you have any advice for recent graduates that aren't immediately entering medical school?

Sunny Gibson

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