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Applying to Medical School: The Basics

If you’re passionate about a medical calling, medical school could be right for you. But how exactly do you get there?

We’re here to make the application process as transparent and simple as possible. Here’s a step-by-step walkthrough of questions and advice for wherever you are in the process.

During Your Middle School & High School Years

While good grades in middle and high school will certainly benefit your college applications, medical schools won’t specifically ask for your pre-college transcripts. Don’t be afraid to take risks and explore.

  • Try out as many academic directions as you can, and follow what energizes you.
  • Pursue your passions outside of school, through extracurriculars, work experience, volunteering, and college classes.
  • If you know anyone who works in the medical field— a nurse, a pharmacist, or a physician —ask them if they would let you shadow at their work for a day.

During Your College Years

College is the perfect time to explore a potential career in medicine— as well as any other areas that interest you.

Many of the top medical schools look for similar qualities in applicants: strong academics (especially GPA and MCAT), research experience (lab-based or otherwise), and leadership experience. If you keep these three things in mind during your time as an undergraduate, you will be setting yourself up for success when you apply to medical school.

Selecting a College

We encourage you to find a college that is a good fit for you, rather than looking for a college name you think will look good on an application. In general, our admissions committee focuses less on where you went to college and more on what you did while you were there.

Each year, we have 50 to 60 different undergraduate institutions represented in our incoming class of 96 students— some from smaller private colleges, others from large public universities, and still others who spent a year or two taking community college courses before transferring to a four-year institution.

With that in mind, do take some time to learn about the pre-health advising options at the college you apply to. We recommend that you attend a college with an advisor who is active in the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions (NAAHP), the professional association for pre-health advisors. When you’re learning about your college options, you may want to ask:

  • What is the student-to-advisor ratio in pre-health advising at this college?
  • Does the pre-health advisor only meet with students with a certain GPA range? Or only during certain timeframes?
  • Does this college write an advisor letter of recommendation or a committee letter of recommendation for their pre-med students?
  • If I don’t get into medical school the first time I apply, can I still receive advice from the advisor after I graduate?
  • What advising opportunities would I have if I decide I no longer want to pursue medical school?

Choosing a Major

You don’t need a specific major to get into medical school.

Your college years are the time to explore not only a potential career in medicine but also other areas that you are interested in. Our admissions committee values diverse backgrounds and perspectives, so we’ll look at your application holistically. Your application won’t be passed over because you do or do not have a specific major.

To sum it up: your particular major is less important than the overall passion and dedication you display during college. We want to know you aren’t afraid to follow your passions, even if that means taking a medical interest into an unusual setting.

Registering for Classes

During college, make sure to plan ahead so you have time to take the STEM courses you need to take for the MCAT and any required prerequisites for the medical schools on your list.

We do not have specific prerequisites at Vanderbilt, but you’d be hard pressed to find a VUSM student who didn’t take at least two semesters of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. The MCAT also includes biochemistry, psychology and sociology material, so taking courses in those areas may boost your MCAT performance.

Finally, try out courses that will help you understand whether medical school coursework will energize and challenge you. Medical school curriculum demands a lot of time and energy, so if you’re feeling unmotivated in your STEM classes now, it could be a sign that medical school isn’t the right path for you.

Connecting with Pre-Med Advising Early

Get connected with your pre-med advisor or pre-health office early in your college career. Besides helping you select the correct classes to meet medical school prerequisites, they’ll also give you advice on preparing a strong application. Your advisor will be involved with writing your advisor or committee recommendation letter when you apply to medical school.

If your college does not have any pre-health advising options, check out the free pre-med advising resources from the NAAHP. Volunteer NAAHP members are available to provide advising for students who have no other access to advising.

Leading Outside the Classroom

Besides strong academics and research experience, our admissions committee values leadership experience and dedicated involvement. Here are just a few of the ways you can follow your medical and non-medical interests outside of your coursework:

  • Diving into a guided research project
  • Volunteering with local nonprofit organizations
  • Signing up to interpret in medical settings, if you speak a language other than English
  • Shadowing medical providers near you
  • Taking on leadership roles in extracurricular organizations
  • Working part-time in a medically related role, like as a CNA, EMT, or research assistant
  • Starting something new— whether you’re launching a non-profit, exploring a foreign language, or coding a new app, don’t be afraid to take risks and forge your own path

Starting the Application Process

Some students choose to take one or more gap years after college before applying to medical school, while others apply during the summer before their senior year. Taking time off from school to pursue a fellowship, continue research, or gain work experience can enhance your unique medical perspective, but it’s not required.

Whenever you choose to apply, here are the crucial components to keep in mind:

Taking the MCAT

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is the standardized multiple-choice exam all medical school applicants take. It tests your problem-solving skills, critical thinking ability, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts. Most applicants take the MCAT 6-8 months before beginning the application process, but many med schools accept MCAT scores that are up to 3 years old.

Writing Your Personal Statement

This roughly 500-word essay is the single most important piece of writing you’ll submit during the application process, and it revolves around a simple question: Why do you want to go to medical school?

When you’re choosing what to write about, consider how you can show the admission committee who you are beyond your test scores, grades, and resume. What sets your perspective apart? What unique experiences and interests will you bring into your medical training?

During the drafting process, ask trusted advisers and close friends if they’d be willing to give you feedback on your essay. Remember, you want to submit a statement that accurately showcases your unique perspective and motivations for attending medical school.

Completing the AMCAS Application

The American Medical College Application Service is the common application you’ll use to apply to most U.S. medical schools. This means you only have to submit your transcripts, test scores, and personal statement once.

The AMCAS application opens in May, and individual medical schools set their own application deadlines, generally ranging from October to December. Still, you’ll want to submit your AMCAS app early in the summer so you can hear back from schools as soon as possible.

Since many medical schools admit students through a rolling admissions process, successful VUSM applicants generally take their MCAT and fill out their AMCAS early in the process.

Completing Your Secondary Applications

Once your AMCAS application has been verified, admissions committees will send you a secondary application if they think you might be a good candidate for their school. Second applications typically include 2 to 3 short essay questions about your interest in that particular medical school, and it’s a good idea to submit these essays within just a few weeks of receiving them.

Attending Interviews

Once medical schools begin receiving secondary applications back, they’ll invite groups of applicants to interview. Receiving an interview doesn’t guarantee you admission, but it does mean the school wants to get to know you better, as an applicant and as a person. Interviews also offer you a great opportunity to see if the school’s location, curriculum, and culture fit you well.

Schools typically send out waves of interview invites between August and January, but the dates vary. Once you complete the interviewing process for a particular school, you’ll usually receive an admissions decision within a few weeks.

For a more detailed picture of how these elements play out over the year, check out our VUSM-specific admissions timeline.

What ultimately makes a successful applicant?

There’s no one-and-done formula that will get you into medical school.

Building a strong application starts with significant leadership and research, along with community engagement and medical exposure. But well-rounded VUSM applicants also bring something unique from their background: maybe they were career changers, varsity athletes, prominent student leaders in their universities, published researchers, or individuals who overcame significant hurdles to get to this point in their career. Finally, they had strong letters of support advocating for their acceptance and future performance in medical school.

Additional resources

Do you have a question we haven’t answered here? Reach out to our current med students. These students just completed this process themselves, and they’d love to answer any questions you have about VUSM or medical school in general. Need more resources? Visit AAMC’s Preparing for Medical School and Timeline for Application and Admission to Medical School resources.