The Ultimate Guide to the Medical School Application Process

Get a complete understanding of the med school application process– including the admissions requirements, pros and cons of applying, an overview of the timeline, and tips and get a downloadable checklist.

Posted January 10, 2024

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The medical school application process is long, difficult, and highly competitive. Though the overall timeline varies drastically, the average age of most top programs’ applicants is around 24 years. However, the process begins long before that as applicants study for the MCAT, develop relationships with potential recommenders, acquire research experience, and more.

In this article, we’ll outline the benefits and downsides of applying to med school, the different parts of the application process, what’s required to apply, strategies for exam prep, and application tips. We’ll also provide you with a customizable med school application checklist, so you can make sure that you’re staying on top of the many moving pieces.

Pros and Cons of Medical School

The field of medicine is a difficult career trajectory because it requires years of graduate-level academic commitment before full-time work experience. Most MD programs involve four years of medical school, followed by three to five years of a residency training program. Following the residency, the MD candidate will need to get licensed and, eventually, take more exams to get board-certified.

The significant time commitment, as well as the level of difficulty, means that anyone considering going to medical school should seriously consider both its advantages and disadvantages. Here is a brief overview, but we recommend building on it based on your personal circumstances to decide whether medical school is the right path forward.

Pros

  • Many work opportunities in a wide variety of areas – Clinically, MDs can work for hospitals, private practices, pharmaceutical companies, etc. However, there are many other non-clinical opportunities like teaching, government positions, research, and more. The demand for this job has historically remained high, and will likely continue to do so. Also, qualified doctors will not be able to just find a job in their home country, but around the world.
  • Altruistic purpose – The demands of the job can be extreme but, at the end of the day, it involves healing people and improving lives. Very few professions can boast such an objectively positive mission.
  • High compensation levels and relatively stable jobs – The average salary of doctors nationally is well over $200,000, with specialists earning much more than that. While pay levels should not be a primary motivation, they may play a role in the overall career decision. Also, as the majority of the population continues to age, doctors will only be more in demand.

Cons

  • Long learning and training period – As mentioned, the 7+ years required before becoming fully licensed means that it will be a long time before you’re earning a full salary and working completely on the schedule and in the area that you want. This often prevents those more established in a career from transitioning into medicine but is not a complete barrier.
  • Challenging work and environment – The nature of the job means very long hours, chaotic surroundings, and emotionally taxing work. Med school applicants should make sure that they are physically and mentally prepared for this. Also, both medical school and the actual work are academically difficult and require constant focus and lots of studying.
  • Expensive education and licensing – With medical school, a lengthier degree process also means more substantial student loans. The average debt upon graduation is usually somewhere between $100-200K, and residency pay is notoriously low. Once that’s over, you can finally get licensed and if desired, board-certified. Licensing costs vary by state and range anywhere from $100 to $1,000. Unlike licenses, board certifications aren’t required to practice, but are still a pricey endeavor (test fees can cost upwards of 2,000).

The Medical School Application Process

Admissions Requirements

Now, let’s dive into what the application process and timeline actually look like for the average applicant. At a high level, in order to apply to medical school, you will need the following:

  • A competitive MCAT score
  • Resume
  • Additional information (extracurriculars, etc.)
  • Transcripts for all post-secondary education
  • Letters of Evaluation/Recommendation
  • Essay/personal statement responses
  • Completed prerequisites
  • Application fee(s)
  • Letter of Intent (optional)

Almost every school has the applicant submit a preliminary application through AMCAS, the American Medical College Application Service. The caveat to this is if you are planning to apply/attend a medical school in Texas as most programs there use their own application service, TMDSAS. Both are centralized networks that are basically the equivalent of the Common App but for MD programs. After AMCAS/TMDSAS, most schools require that applicants fill out and submit a secondary, school-specific application; however, many of them extend that application by invitation only. If the applicant makes it through both rounds, they will then be invited to interview, after which the admissions decision is given.

Application Timeline

Prospective MD students will need to start thinking about the application long before they actually begin applying. We’ve outlined the different steps under both ideal and possible timelines below. As a quick note–though the AMCAS application is technically open from May/June through October/December, it’s highly recommended that you apply as soon as possible in that window. If you’re not able to apply until August (or later), it might be worth holding off until the next year’s application cycle. Applying late significantly reduces your chances of admission.

Ideal Timeline

<3 Years Before AMCAS Deadline (~June)

  • Start studying for the MCAT
  • Develop relationships with potential recommenders; if your school has a premedical committee, start building a rapport with its advisers
  • Complete prerequisite courses
  • Gain research experience
  • Get good grades
  • Take the MCAT (some students choose to do this during the junior year of their undergrad, right after completing the prerequisite courses, as MCAT scores are valid for three years)
  • Start thinking about target schools

3-6 Months to AMCAS Deadline (January-April)

  • Take the MCAT (if you haven’t already)
  • Brainstorm and reach out to recommenders
  • Brainstorm, outline, and begin to draft personal statements
  • Decide which schools to apply to

1 Month to AMCAS Deadline (May)

  • Check-in with recommenders
  • Polish personal statements/essays
  • Fill out AMCAS–background information, coursework, work/activities, designated medical schools, standardized test scores, etc.

June-July

  • Submit AMCAS
  • Receive and start completing secondary applications
  • Prepare for interviews

August-September

  • Interview
  • Make any necessary updates to your application (address changes, new MCAT test date, letter of evaluation submissions, etc.)

October-November

  • Receive application decision
  • If admitted, choose to accept/decline the offer
  • Start researching and applying for financial aid, grants, and other scholarships

Possible Timeline

>April

  • Study for the MCAT
  • Complete any missing prerequisites

April-September

  • Take the MCAT
  • Reach out to recommenders
  • Brainstorm/draft personal statement responses

September-November/December

  • Submit AMCAS
  • Begin working on secondary applications
  • Submit secondary applications

January-March

  • Interview
  • Receive admissions decisions

As you can see, the timeline is quite broad depending on your circumstances and time restrictions. Give yourself as much time as you can–in the case of medical school applications, the longer you have, the better. However, if you are rushed and need to apply in a certain year, it is possible to get the application in on time.

Med School Recommender Prep Template + Example

The letters of evaluation are an integral part of the medical school application process and can make or break your candidacy. To get great ones, it is not enough to simply ask your professor or prehealth committee to write one. Instead, you need to adequately prepare and support your evaluators from start to finish. The best way to do this is with a Recommender Prep Doc, which you provide to your recommenders after they've agreed to write your letter. It includes the schools you're applying to along with their deadlines and sample content that they can use to support their letter.

Put in your email below and we'll send you our coach-approved Recommender Prep Doc Template + Example, straight to your inbox.

Med School Application FAQs

1. How important is the MCAT exam in the medical school application process?
MCAT scores are extremely important and play a major role in admissions decisions. Because medical school is so academically rigorous, standardized test scores and GPAs are the main indicators that a student will be able to successfully navigate the challenging curriculum. Often, if an applicant with great work experience, a competitive GPA, an interesting story, and good letters of evaluation doesn’t get in, it’s due to a lower-than-average MCAT score.

2. How important is a strong personal statement in the medical school admissions process?
The personal statement essay is also very important. Most of the other parts of the application are just a blur of data; the personal comment section, on the other hand, is the one place where the applicant can make their candidacy personal. We recommend taking as much time as necessary to brainstorm the narrative, go through several drafts with the help of a coach, and polish it until you feel like it’s the best it can be.

3. How many letters of recommendation should I include in my medical school application?
The AMCAS permits ten letters of evaluation. Most schools have stricter limits, however, and may also restrict the kind of letters. Here is the maximum number of letters of recommendation allowed for the top 10 medical schools:

  • Harvard: 6 (may exceed if the additional ones are from research supervisors)
    • At least two from professors in the sciences
    • At least one from a professor not in the sciences
    • Committee letters are counted as one toward the maximum
  • New York University: 10
    • Requires a committee letter or a minimum of three individual letters, two of which must come from science professors
  • Columbia University: 7
    • Requires a minimum of three, one of which must come from a science faculty member, teacher, or research mentor
  • Johns Hopkins University: 3 or a committee letter
    • If you send the three individual letters, two must come from a non-science faculty member and one from a science faculty member
    • You can send additional letters but they will not give you an advantage over the required three
  • University of California–San Francisco: 5
    • Must submit a minimum of three, including two from instructors
  • Duke University: 6
    • Requires four, two from science faulty
    • Also beneficial to have a clinical letter addressing your ability to work with others
    • A committee letter takes the place of the four letters
  • University of Pennsylvania: 10
    • Minimum of three individual letters or a committee letter (preferred)
    • If individual letters, one must come from a science faculty who you’ve taken a class from
  • Stanford University: 6
    • Minimum of three letters; if a committee letter is submitted, only the individual letters within that will count toward the number of letters of recommendation
    • The school recommends that applicants choose recommenders who can attest to their: leadership, originality, creativity, innovation, research skills and independence, clinical exposures and caring experiences, cultural humility, and social justice/advocacy
  • University of Washington: 6 individual letters or a committee letter and 3 additional individual letters
    • Minimum of three individual letters
    • UW recommends that the collection of letters provide a balanced and well-rounded view of your candidacy
  • Yale University: 1 committee letter
    • If your school doesn’t offer a premedical committee, you’ll need to submit at least three individual letters, two of which should be from individuals in science fields

4. What is the interview process like for medical school admissions?

Interview invitations are sent out after the secondary application has been submitted, usually on a rolling basis. The interview process differs depending on the school. Generally, there are four different types of interviews:

  • Traditional Interview – This is what you picture an “interview” to look like, sitting across from an admissions committee member, alumni, or current student and answering questions. Traditional interviews can be blind, not blind, or partially blind. If they’re “blind”, it means that the interviewer doesn’t know anything about the applicant. If it’s partially blind, they may have seen a resume or know a little, but have not looked through the entire application. Interviewers that aren’t “blind” have read through the entire application.
  • Multiple Mini Interview (MMI) – This interview style is a bit unique. Applicants will go to different stations and rotate around, role-playing different scenarios or answering questions. They’re primarily tasked-based and are designed to not give the applicant too much time to answer.
  • Group Interview – In this format, multiple applicants are interviewed together in the same room (or virtual room). They will likely include a question-answer segment as well as some kind of teamwork exercise.
  • Panel Interview – Similar to traditional interviews, panels differ in only the number of interviewers asking you questions. Instead of one, there will be multiple. They usually feel more conversational than back-to-back questions and are not tasked-based. Right now, most of the top programs that use a panel interview style are outside of the US.

5. What type of work and volunteer experience is important to include in my medical school application?

The experience you include on your application should first and foremost be relevant to your goals and support your "why medical school?" response. Typically, medical schools like to see three kinds of experiences: clinical, research, and volunteer.

Some schools will specify what kinds of experiences they want to see, while others won't provide any such instruction. Harvard Medical School, for example, says that it evaluates applications based on "experience in a health field, including research or community work." The University of Washington's Medical School expects applicants to have "sufficient knowledge of the practice of medicine to demonstrate that they are making an informed career decision," which comes in the form of clinical experience.

At the end of the day, the quality of the experiences matters far more than quantity. If you can show that you took away key learning points and are motivated to succeed in medical school and the healthcare industry, you've done what you needed to.


The best way to make sure that your application is up to snuff is to work one-on-one with an expert Leland med school admissions coach. Below are a few of our highest-rated ones; browse all of them here.

Here are a few other resources you may find helpful as you get your application together.

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