Charting a course to Medical School: The amsa map for Success

How important are MCAT scores?

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How important are MCAT scores?
Generally, the admissions committees look at many things when considering applicants. For example, they look at academic records, recommendations, and extracurricular activities, in addition to MCAT scores. Ultimately, the importance of test scores is particular to each individual school.
Should I take the MCAT in the spring or summer?
If you have completed all of the core requirements by spring, then definitely take the test in the spring. However, if you will not have them completed until summer, you may be better off waiting until then. The key is that you should take the MCAT as soon after you have completed the required premedical courses (general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and biology). If you are applying to schools for early decision, however, then the spring test time is your only option. Also, remember that most schools have rolling admissions policies, so waiting until August before your senior year may put you at a big disadvantage, as your applications will not be complete until October at the earliest. By the way, if you will have finished all of the required courses by August before your junior year, you may want to consider taking the MCAT at that time. This will give you a chance to retake the test the following April if necessary without falling behind in the application process.
Should I take the MCAT twice?
You should choose this option only if you did not perform up to expectations in your first testing. DO NOT EVER TAKE THE MCAT FOR "PRACTICE". Many schools count each MCAT you take, some will take your best, and some will take only the most recent -- it really varies from school to school. The MCAT registration booklet also advises students to take the test twice if there is a large discrepancy between your first score and your undergraduate grades. Are MCAT preparation courses necessary?
The preparation courses provide a structured schedule as well as practice tests. For those who prefer to study on their own (and save money), there are many good practice books available. These books usually contain several practice tests as well as an adequate review of the subjects covered by the MCAT. The important thing is to make a review schedule and stick to it. The MCAT preparation courses are there to provide structure, not to study for you. The preparation courses do not provide information that has not already been covered in your basic science courses.
How do I get through the MCAT day?
Get a good night's sleep. Relax. You have studied hard! Bring number two pencils, black pens (writing sample), and a sweater. You may also want to bring food to munch on during breaks.
So here you are... done with the MCAT, and probably feeling like a great deal of weight has been lifted off your shoulders. You are relieved, happy, and excited about what is about to happen next -- your application to medical school. Yes, in many ways, the worst is over, but that does not give you an excuse to let up now. In fact, you should be more vigilant than ever. You are about to make some very important decisions, decisions which will affect the rest of your life.
To help you understand this whole process, we've split up this section into five parts (note: we've given "Interviewing" it's own section since it's such an important part of the process):

  • Choosing which type of doctor

  • Selecting medical schools

  • AMCAS, AACOMAS and secondary applications

  • Personal Statements

  • Letters of Recommendation

  • Pre-professional Committees

  • Tips on Applying

Choosing which type of doctor

There are two types of physicians in the United States. One is an M.D. (doctor of medicine) and the other is a D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine). So what is the difference?
A physician is one who has graduated from an accredited medical program and has fulfilled the prescribed internship/residency/specialty training program. D.O.s and M.D.s are alike in that they both utilize all scientifically accepted methods of diagnosis and treatment, including the use of drugs and surgery. The educational requirements are the same for both, and typically, both physicians are examined by the same state licensing board.
The real difference between D.O.s and M.D.s arise from the different point of view and emphasis taken by each. The D.O. recognizes that the musculoskeletal system comprises over 60% of body mass, and that all body systems, including the musculoskeletal system, are interdependent. The D.O. believes that emphasis on the relationship between body structure and organic function gives a broader base for the treatment of the patient as a whole. The D.O. uses structural diagnosis and manipulative therapy in addition to the forms of diagnosis and treatment which allopathic physicians use. The D.O. believes in the 'whole body concept,' and feels that an illness is not just concentrated in one area or system, but that the whole body is affected.
The American Osteopathic Association (AOA) places a greater emphasis on community-related medical treatment. This is reflected by the high percentage of D.O.s who enter primary care specialties. The AOA believes all patients should have the right to select the kind of health care they prefer.
It is important to realize that both D.O.s and M.D.s are physicians. They both can care for a patient's problems, but the fundamental perspectives from which they approach medicine are somewhat different.
Selecting Medical Schools
Where do I apply, and how do I know this medical school is for me?
Every year, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) puts out an updated copy of Medical School Admission Requirements. The book contains valuable information regarding names, addresses, and locations of every allopathic medical school in the United States and Canada. It also contains data pertaining to every medical school, including GPA/MCAT score ranges associated with accepted students, class size, curriculum, requirements for entrance, selection factors, financial aid, class composition, tuition, et cetera. For students interested in osteopathic medical schools, there is a comparable book published by AACOM called the "Osteopathic Medical College Information Book."
With over 125 schools to choose from, how do you know which ten or so schools best suit your hopes, expectations, and qualifications? There are a number of ways that schools can be chosen. Examine the following factors:
1. Curriculum

What are you interested in pursuing once in medical school? Do you want to learn mostly via traditional lectures (traditional curriculum), via classes focused on learning information arranged by organ systems (traditional systems-based learning), or by case studies of clinical problems (problem-based learning). Every medical school has a reputation for coursework or programs unique to itself.

2. Class size/composition

Do you want to be in a class of 200 students, 100 students, or even fewer students? What types of student have been making up the class in the past few years? What percentage are women or come from minority groups?

3. Location

Where do you want to be when you are studying anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, and need a break? Do you want to be somewhere cold? Warm? Rainy? Sunny? Or is there a particular state or city in which you would like to spend four or more years?

4. Tuition and financial aid (be sure to see the financial aid section)

Is there sufficient financial aid available? Will you be able to afford tuition, fees, and books? Are there good loan and grant programs available?

5. Cost of living

Even if you can afford tuition, will you be able to afford the necessities, including food, clothing, and housing?

6. Competitiveness

Do you just want to get through medical school, or do you want to excel among your peers? Do you want grades in your classes, or do you want to be on a pass/fail system? (Yes, many medical schools are pass/fail, and one school, Yale, has no grades!)

7. Reputation

It cannot be denied that some schools have established national recognition in particular areas of medicine. If you are already leaning toward a certain field, this may be something to consider.

8. Out-of-state acceptances

You may decide that you want to attend a medical school outside of your home state. This may be particularly true if you do not come from a state with many medical schools (e.g., Maine, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho). Check the AAMC's Medical School Admission Requirements for out-of-state acceptance rates and tuition (which may vary for in-state and out-of-state students).

9. Other

Is there anything else about a medical school that captures your interest (your great-grandfather graduated from there, et cetera)?

How many schools should I apply to?
This number is up to the individual, but applying to medical school is expensive. The average per student is usually about 10 schools.
AMCAS, AACOMAS and Secondary Applications
The American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) is a non-profit central processing unit for applicants to participating allopathic medical schools, and AACOMAS is the comparable entity for osteopathic medical schools. Most medical schools participate in the AMCAS or AACOMAS application process, and they are rather efficient services. The application is only a four-page "academic autobiography" that is sifted and sorted into a one-page sheet which is sent to all of the medical schools to which you wish to apply. For all of its benefits, the AMCAS or AACOMAS application process is expensive. There is a fee waiver program for financially disadvantaged applicants, but there is a separate application for a fee waiver, requests for which may be submitted beginning May 15 of each year.
The AMCAS and AACOMAS application packets contain an overwhelming amount of paperwork. There is an acknowledgement postcard (which is sent to you when they receive your application), designation forms, an application form, a code booklet, a GPA calculation sheet, a fee waiver request packet, an official transcript inventory form, a pre-addressed return envelope, and four transcript matching cards. There is also a 36-page instruction booklet which is reminiscent of registering for the MCAT. Letters of recommendation are not included in your AMCAS or AACOMAS application. They are sent with the secondary application. The only piece of personal datum, initially, is your personal essay.
The personal essay is one of the most important sections of the AMCAS or AACOMAS application. It allows you to demonstrate who you are by giving you an opportunity to explain your motivation to pursue medicine, or even to explain why your grades or MCAT scores were, perhaps, not so good. Whatever you decide to write about in your personal essay, remember that you want to express yourself in an honest, dedicated, and coherent manner.
The AMCAS and AACOMAS applications are usually available in mid-March and can be obtained either through your preprofessional advisor or directly through the services themeselves. Or, you can choose to utilize AMCAS's electronic application (AMCAS-E) or AACOMAS's electronic application. Electronic applications have their advantages and disadvantages over the paper version, but we recommend that you at least give it a shot. It will save you a lot of paperwork, and you don't have to mess with a typewriter! Check the resources section of this guide for more info.
The sooner you get your application in, the sooner medical schools will be able to evaluate your application. AMCAS and AACOMAS begin accepting applications June 1, and they begin accepting transcripts March 15. Both services suggest that you have transcripts sent to the application services (from all colleges that you have attended) prior to submitting your application so that your application can be processed more quickly. AMCAS and AACOMAS do not make any admissions decisions, and they do not advise applicants where to submit applications. Each participating school is totally autonomous in reaching its admissions decisions. AMCAS and AACOMAS only provide a central application processing service to your chosen schools. It is up to the individual schools to send you secondary applications, an interview invitation, and, hopefully, an acceptance letter. Remember, not all medical schools use the AMCAS or AACOMAS services. Check with the schools you would like to attend to determine their application procedures.
After AMCAS or AACOMAS receives your complete application, they will process it and send copies of it to all of your designated schools. They will also send you a transmittal notification. This notification is an exact replica of what the medical schools will receive. As soon as you receive the transmittal notification, check for any errors. Contact AMCAS or AACOMAS in writing immediately if you need to have something changed. If everything is correct, then AMCAS and AACOMAS have completed their jobs.
Although AMCAS and AACOMAS provide the primary applications to medical schools, the medical schools to which you are applying will themselves send you a secondary application. Each school will send you a secondary application which you are required to return along with an application fee in order to be considered for an interview. The fee varies from school to school. Most schools will waive this fee if you were earlier granted an AMCAS or AACOMAS fee-waiver.
The secondary application is different from the AMCAS and AACOMAS applications in two major ways. This is where your letters of recommendation and more personal information are requested. For instance, they may ask you to explain your best and worst traits or why you chose to apply to that particular medical school. Warning: if you're lucky, secondary applications can start piling up quickly. Try to commit yourself to returning each secondary application you recieve no later than 2 weeks after you receive it. Sticking to this goal will make your life much easier. Once you have completed and returned the secondary application, you can sit back, relax, and wait for your interview invitation.

Personal Statement
Completing your Medical School Application

  • What is a personal statement?

  • Who reads medical school applications?

  • Why do I have to write about myself?

  • Getting Started

  • Dealing with the Blank White Page

  • Questions to Ask Yourself Before you Write

  • Personal Statement Format

  • Revising

  • Top 10 Rules to Write By

  • Mistakes to Avoid with Your Personal Statement

  • General Advice From the Professionals

  • Sample Successful Personal Statements

What is a personal statement?

Medical school application requires two types of personal statements. As you write these statements, remember that this is your opportunity to describe who you are, in such a way that is not possible through your hard data, such as your MCAT score, GPA and college transcript.
1. The first personal statement is required by all schools and is available through the American Medical College Application Service. AMCAS requests a one page, 5,300 character essay and suggests applicants consider the following questions in their essays:

  • Why have you selected the field of medicine?

  • What motivates you to learn more about medicine?

  • What do you want medical schools to know about you that hasn't been disclosed in another section of the application?

In addition, you may want to include information such as:

  • Special hardships, challenges, or obstacles that may have influenced your educational pursuits

  • Commentary on significant fluctuations in your academic record which are not explained elsewhere in your application

AMCAS website:
Other helpful links:
2. You'll also be asked to write a personal statement for each of your medical school applications. Again, this is your opportunity to explain who you are as a human being, and an opportunity to elaborate on the information you provided in your AMCAS application. Be sure to avoid duplication of either the materials in your AMCAS data or the AMCAS personal statement. The more complete picture of yourself you can provide to the schools to which you apply, the better.
Techniques and tips that will help you write a unique, accurate, thorough and honest personal statement follow…have a look, and good luck!
Who reads medical school applications? Medical school application boards consist of both faculty and students. All medical schools are concerned with the student composition of each class and want to create a diverse student population-educational, economic, racial, and social diversity are all considered. You'll notice when you get to medical school that every student does not have the same background. Not everyone is a recent "traditional" college graduate with a science degree…because 21-year-old biology majors are not the only people who make good physicians.
Keep your audience in mind as you write your personal statements, always remembering that it is up to you to explain why you would be an important and necessary member in next year's matriculating class. Your enthusiasm about your own potential and the medical field are vital to both the profession of medicine and to entering medical school.
Why do I have to write about myself? Though technical skill and intellectual ability are important in medicine, how you treat other people and yourself still matter when you work with other medical professionals and when you're treating patients. In part, the way you articulate who you are both on paper and at your interviews will determine for the medical school application board how you will relate with patients and the medical teams you will work with in hospitals and clinics. Medicine is about treating other people…and treatment still includes personal interaction.

Getting Started

Note: The AMCAS website provides a thorough explanation for all that is required for its application. The following suggestions and advice refer to the personal statements required by applications to individual medical schools.
1) START EARLY - If you prepare your application early and give yourself time to work on it carefully and to proofread, your chances of writing a distinctive, professional essay increase dramatically. Give yourself a chance…don't procrastinate, and ask for help!
2) PREPARE YOUR MATERIALS - Before you sit down to write, do some preparation in order to avoid frustration during the actual writing process.
Have the following on hand:

  • Application form

  • Transcripts

  • Résumés

Keeping them in front of you will make your job of writing much easier.

Make a list of important information:

  • names and exact titles of former employers and supervisors

  • titles of jobs you have held

  • companies you have worked for

  • dates of appropriate work or volunteer experiences

  • duties involved

In this way, you will be able to refer to these materials while writing in order to include as much specific detail as possible.

Also have on hand your AMCAS application, which will include many details you won't want to duplicate unless required in the medical school application.

Dealing with the Blank White Page

1) Brainstorm
There's no need to launch into your essay without any preparation. If you create a solid outline and come up with something personal and worthwhile to write, completing this essay may even be fun. If you brainstorm by writing everything down, free form, you'll most likely fill a few pages before you get to whatever it is you really want to say. Don't get nervous in front of the blank page…here are some tips….
List your SKILLS and how you've DEMONSTRATED them.

  • e.g. intuition in the lab, gifted with understanding elderly people, capable of managing many tasks in tandem, etc.

List your PERSONALITY traits.

  • e.g. enthusiastic student, positive attitude, honest, loyal, hard-working

List MAJOR INFLUENCES and MENTORS in your life.

List your GOALS, short term and long term
Principles for writing:

  • A unifying theme is central. Organize your essay around the theme rather than merely listing your accomplishments.

  • Give good examples and explanations. Don't just list; explain how and why an experience or person had an effect on you. These details show your enthusiasm and dedication far more effectively than just saying that you care about something does.

  • Help your reader understand how the information is important and demonstrates your potential for this kind of advanced study as well as the soundness of your reasons for pursuing it.

  • Respond to the question(s). Follow instructions carefully.

  • Cover your bases. Make sure that you've called attention to your successes and relevant experience and that you've explained any discrepancies in your record.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before you Write

  • What's special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?

  • What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?

  • When did you become interested in medicine and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?

  • How have you learned about this field--through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?

  • If you have worked a lot during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed to your growth?

  • What are your career goals?

  • Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre MCAT scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?

  • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?

  • What personal characteristics (for example. integrity. compassion. persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?

  • What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?

  • Why might you be a stronger candidate for medical school--and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?

  • What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?

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