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I don’t know that there are terribly many prospective medical students who read this blog, and I imagine those that do have plenty of advisors to guide them along the path toward getting into medical school. But on the off chance someone might gain some aid from what insight I’ve gained over the past year, here are a few tips for applying to medical school.

Submit your primary application ASAP

I talked about primary and secondary applications in a previous post. The AMCAS application is the one that gets sent out to your schools. It includes all the basics; classes, personal statement, work history, letters of rec. You send your official transcripts to AMCAS once and they verify all your grades and classes before the schools even know you’re applying to them. This process can take up to six weeks (or so the organization says.)

It’s a first come, first serve business though. If you have everything in to them by the first date you can submit your application (June 1 I believe) then the turnaround on verification is about a day. If you wait even a week after that, suddenly that six weeks is pushed to the max. We weren’t even taking the MCAT until mid June, and scores didn’t come out until July, but some folks were still waiting on their AMCAS verification well after everything else was ready to go. It made a much bigger difference in interview invites than I think any of us could have guessed.

And by the way, it takes time to get transcripts sent, not to mention a personal statement and the fact that the application requires you to type in by hand every class you have EVER taken post secondary school (including AP courses.) Plus you’ll have to write a short paragraph about your three most important extracurricular activities, which was pretty excruciating. This is not an application you can run off the night before it’s due.

Apply to a wide range of schools

I have no idea what algorithm they use for deciding to invite people for interviews. All told I had interview invites to a few reach schools, a few right-in-my-grasp schools and two safety school. I was flat out turned down by several schools that had significantly lower average GPAs and MCAT scores than my average, as well as a slew where I felt right on the mean. Why? I haven’t the foggiest. Meanwhile several reach schools not only interviewed me but interviewed me early.

I was always going to apply to the in-state public schools (your chances of getting into an in-state school are wildly better than getting into an out-of-state public school and mildly better than a private school) but aside from that, there was a great deal of arbitrary decision making that went into selecting which schools were on my list. I can’t help thinking that if I had been pickier, I might have had a far emptier dance card come application time.

Of course there was a mild correlation with how quickly I returned by secondary applications which is why….

Turn your secondary applications in ASAP, but don’t skimp on them either

Secondary applications are obnoxious, I won’t lie. You’re asked the same, stinking questions over and over again in slightly different ways so that you have to write out a brand new essay (or tweak the hell out of an old one) each time. By the tenth time I had to come up with a creative way of explaining how I was a diverse student or come up with a reason why I wanted to attend that specific school, I was starting to question how much I really wanted this school to like me after all. We were told to send in our secondaries within 48 hours of receiving them, but it was weeks before I even looked at many of them.

In the end, though, the first four secondaries I turned in were the first four schools to invite me for interviews. In one interview I was told that my essay had been one of the best they had read and afterward they felt they had to talk to me. Meanwhile the schools that I dragged my heels on or that I lazily submitted reworked versions of previous essays didn’t give me the time of day. Secondaries count. Don’t forget it.

Apply to in-state public schools; be wary of out-of-state public schools

All of the in-state schools I applied to invited me for interviews and invited me early.

Meanwhile, an out-of-state public school from the state I had lived in before the postbac, a medical school whose hospital I had volunteered at and whose campus I had lived literally across the street from, was the first school to reject me. (And no, score-wise it wasn’t a reach.) The only other out-of-state public school I applied to not only declined to interview me, but apparently forgot they had even sent me a secondary application. Ouch.

The trends I noticed applying to medical school were based on my own experience and a few close friends. Hopefully it can help give someone the jump on the whole application process as the cycle begins again. Most of all, if you are applying, remember to cast a wide net. Luck plays a bigger role in who makes it to medical school than most of us would like to admit.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the pain and confusion of attempting to cover the cost of education through student loans. There is, of course, an easy answer to avoiding all of this nonsense, so I want to talk a bit about why I chose not to go into the military or apply for the National Service Health Corps.

If it weren’t for the military scholarship, I would likely not be starting medical school in a few months. The seed that was planted in my mind three years ago (by a bygone acquaintance), was that I would apply to the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USUHS) in Bethesda, Maryland. Anyone who promises time to the military after medical school (three to seven years depending on your situation) gets their tuition paid for outright, a small stipend to live on while in school, and a $20,000 signing bonus. (In addition, it was one of the few schools that might have accepted a slew of community college credits as prerequisites. Before I knew I was doing an official postbac, or even what a post-baccalaureate pre-medical program was, this was an important piece.)

Let me tell you, even I know it’s tempting.

The thing about the military is that you can attend medical school anywhere you want to, but afterward your options become extremely limited. The military needs certain kinds of doctors and they need them in specific places.

Everyone who finishes medical school will eventually match into a residency program. This is done by a computer: you list your top programs, the program lists its favorite applicant, and the computer figures out the lowest common denominator. The military has the same approach to residency, but it’s separate from the civilian match program. This means residencies for specialties the military needs–general surgery, general medicine, trauma–are going to far outnumber the ones they have less demand for. Sure, even the military needs pediatricians and plastic surgeons, but those positions are much more competitive. (I looked up neurology and, in my brief research, it looked like there was only a single residency program in the country.)

Beyond the limitations in specialties, there is something about the military that I don’t think would fit me very well. First of all, I’m a wimp and the prospect of boot camp is enough to give me pause. More importantly I do not, as my mother says, suffer fools gladly. I’m not known for keeping my mouth shut when I disagree with someone. I’ve heard that doesn’t always go over well in the military hierarchy.

The other pay-your-way-through-med-school option is the National Health Service Corps. This is a program you apply for (they are very selective) and if you are accepted, they will pay your entire tuition up front. In exchange you agree to do your residency in general medicine (internal medicine, pediatrics, family medicine all count) and work for a number of years in an area that is low on physicians.

Even if you aren’t accepted outright, the program will reimburse you for some of your tuition if you end up working in one of these areas after residency. Many schools also have smaller versions of the program that will give you a break on tuition if you agree to practice in a rural area for some time.

Leaving aside the fact that my heart leans toward neurology as a specialty, there is a reason why the government would be willing to pay for an entire medical education to get you to live and work in one of these locations. It’s not a happening place to be. Many of them are extremely rural, and a number are located on Native American reservations way off the beaten path. Rural areas are rated by how hard up they are for medical care. For the full package, the required level is pretty high. There is only one qualified area in the state I’m living in now, and it’s a men’s prison.

For both the military and the National Health Service Corps, you sacrifice a certain level of freedom in exchange for not having to play the same debt game as the rest of us. The question, of course, is, “Is it worth it?”

If you already wanted to go into the military or if you were planning on rural primary care for your specialty, the answer is, “Definitely.”  But if you’re like me, and would never even consider these options except that the prospect of debt sends shivers up your spine, that question is a little harder to answer.

In the end I decided this: the choice to go to medical school was a choice to live out a dream. There are always practical limitations on our dreams, but there is also value in giving them room to expand and change. Right now I want to be a neurologist. That might change and I might decide that more than anything I want to go into a specialty that would be perfect for the military or the National Health Service Corps.

I spent a lot of time and effort doing things that were not quite on the path I eventually ended up on. I was blessed to have the means and support to change my goals and to not be forced to regret my initial choices. I don’t want to look back six years down the line and think, “I came justhisclose to my dream, but missed it because of money.” Money, even a whole bunch of it, isn’t worth the rest of your life.

That said, I think these programs are wonderful. If you are a prospective medical student considering either of these, please listen to many voices before making your choice. My best advice would be this: if you want the future these programs ask of you, go for it and never look back. But don’t do it just for the money. Do it because at the end of it all you’re going to have lived the life you want to live and the scholarship helped you get there.


PS. If you are prospective student looking into any of these programs, I highly recommend talking to people who have made the commitment and are a) still in school or b) well beyond it to see what they have to say. Also, both programs offer versions of their scholarships you can sign up for midway through medical school or after graduation. If you’re undecided, don’t feel rushed to choose before you start school. Better to have to pay off a bit of interest than to get locked into a commitment you regret. (The National Health Service Corps charges something like 100% interest on the money they shelled out for your education should you not follow through. Those guys don’t mess around.)