Aspiring physicians who dream of attending a U.S. medical school should know that getting an acceptance letter from one of these institutions is not an easy feat. In the 2017-2018 school year, the average medical school acceptance rate among the ranked institutions that submitted admissions data to U.S. News was 7 percent.
Medical school hopefuls who are filling out their American Medical College Application Service forms, commonly known as AMCAS applications, should be thoughtful about what information and anecdotes they choose to share in these documents, experts say.
What Is the AMCAS?
AMCAS is a centralized medical school application system designed by the Association of American Medical Colleges, a nonprofit coalition of U.S. medical schools and teaching hospitals, which allows students to simultaneously apply to multiple medical schools. The AMCAS is solely available to first-year medical school applicants, so transfer applicants would need to reach out directly to the school they are interested in attending, rather than applying through AMCAS.
Some U.S. medical schools do not accept AMCAS applications. Osteopathic medical schools typically ask prospective students to apply via the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service, commonly known as the AACOMAS. In addition, public medical schools based in Texas typically require students to submit their admissions materials via the Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service.
Because the AMCAS is often a pivotal factor in medical school admissions decisions, here is a guide on what the AMCAS application includes and how to compile an effective AMCAS application.
Overview of the AMCAS
An AMCAS application has nine parts.
The first three sections of the AMCAS involve providing basic background information. In section one, the student is asked to provide his or her name, birth date and other identifying information. In section two, he or she must provide information about schools attended, including every single postsecondary institution. Finally, in section three, students must answer biographical questions, including questions about citizenship status, criminal history, languages spoken and military service.
The fourth section of the AMCAS requires students to give a detailed account of what postsecondary courses they have taken and what grades they have received in those courses, including any withdrawals or incompletes, which are used to calculate an official grade point average.
In the fifth section, a student will describe his or her jobs and extracurricular activities and highlight the three most meaningful experiences. This is the portion of the application where a student can mention awards, honors or publications.
In the sixth section, students will identify the people who will be writing their letters of recommendation, and in the seventh section, students name the medical schools where they plan to send their application.
The eighth section is the essay portion of the application. The way someone fills out this section depends on whether he or she is applying to an M.D. program or an M.D.-Ph.D. program. All AMCAS applicants must write a personal essay, but M.D.-Ph.D. applicants are required to write two additional essays, one of which explains their rationale for choosing an M.D.-Ph.D. program as opposed to an M.D. program and another which describes their academic research.
The last AMCAS application section is where students must provide their MCAT scores. Any scores earned since 2003 must be included, unless those scores were voided at the time of the test. Students who are applying to a dual-degree program, which combines a traditional M.D. degree with another type of graduate degree such as a law degree or MBA degree, may be required to submit results from graduate school entrance exams like the GMAT, GRE, MAT or LSAT.
How to Time Your AMCAS Application for Success
AMCAS deadlines vary depending on the medical schools where a student applies. Among the 144 medical schools that accept AMCAS applications, deadlines generally range between Oct. 15 to Dec. 1.
However, medical school admissions experts say prospective students who submit AMCAS applications in the summer have a significant edge over students who apply later, because there are more interview spots available for summer applicants.
Dr. Anam Tariq, a nephrology fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who chairs the student and resident committee of the Islamic Medical Association of North America, says medical school hopefuls should begin their AMCAS application as soon as possible and allow plenty of time to work on it. Tariq warns that the application process can be very time-consuming, not only for the applicant, but also for those writing recommendation letters and submitting other materials on the applicant’s behalf, so it’s best not to attempt to finish at the last minute.
“It’s a giant portfolio, showing how incredible you are and why you are applying to these particular medical schools,” she says. “You don’t want to sell yourself short.”
Creating a Unique and Interesting AMCAS Application
Medical school admissions experts say there are three places in the AMCAS application where a student can convey his or her personality: the work and activities section, recommendation letters and the personal comments essay.
Work and Activities Section
Admissions officers say they are more impressed with work and activities lists that describe a student’s long-term commitments to his or her passions, as opposed to lists that include numerous short-term projects, such as brief service trips. The quality of a student’s activities matters more than the number of activities, admissions officers suggest.
“I think applicants get so worried about saying that they’ve done everything that they forget to say what they’re really good with and what they really value,” says Dr. Flavia Nobay, an associate dean for admissions at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.
However, Nobay says that sometimes students omit activities that ought to be on the activities list, such as jobs they have worked in order to put themselves through school.
“They won’t put that down, and what a mistake that is, because it means so much,” she says. “Medicine is hard work. Showing us that you work hard in your everyday life also matters, and that can be the value that you’re showing us. It doesn’t all have to be remarkable research or remarkable community service.”
Admissions experts say it is perfectly fine to list a project in the work and activities section that is unrelated to medicine or health care. In fact, experts say that including a non-professionally relevant endeavor in this section helps a student convey that he or she is well-rounded and has interests outside of science.
Keith Baker, assistant dean for admissions at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, notes it is actually more impressive to him when a student has done community service work that is not related to the health care sector than health-related service work. When a premed student performs non-health community service, it suggests the student is not doing good deeds simply out of a desire to improve his or her resume, but rather because he or she genuinely cares about his or her community, he says.
Baker says hands-on volunteering experience, where students directly reach out to people in need, impress him much more than charity work that does not require direct contact with needy individuals, such as fundraising.
“I like to say that the more hands-on, direct experiences you can have with people who you are serving looks much better than working in a sterile environment and in an indirect fashion,” he says.
Also, Baker suggests that when students state in their AMCAS application that they intend to participate in an activity that is relevant to medical school, those future plans will not significantly improve their candidacy.
“Their profile essentially stops in time once they submit their application, meaning that we will consider experiences that have transpired but we do not really hold much weight on experiences that have yet to take place,” Baker warns. He says telling admissions officers that you are about to begin a health care job, such as a job as a medical scribe, is unlikely to boost your acceptance odds in a meaningful way.
Less is sometimes more when it comes to recommendation letters, admissions officers say.
Baker says it is a mistake for students to request recommendation letters from people who do not know them well, and submitting more letters than is required is not necessarily better than submitting the minimum number of letters.
He urges students to focus on getting recommendation letters from the mentors who are their very strongest advocates, because lukewarm endorsements are worthless. “The more opportunities you give letter writers to say something awkward or not flattering about you, the more opportunity there is for you to not look good,” he says.
Personal Comments Essay
Admissions officers say the personal essay someone includes in an AMCAS application should include a compelling argument for admission.
“You don’t have to be a Nobel laureate or a Pulitzer Prize winner to put your personal statement together,” Nobay says, “but it has to make sense and it has to answer the fundamental question of ‘Why medicine, and why me in medicine?'”
Nobay says her school receives about 6,000 applications annually, so it’s unlikely that someone would be admitted to her institution unless his or her application makes a positive impression.
Dry writing that doesn’t convey personality makes it difficult to assess a student’s core character traits and motivations, Nobay says. In addition to her role as an admissions dean, Nobay is also an associate professor of emergency medicine. “What it becomes is like a bullet-point list of a thousand pieces of data, and it becomes really hard to put a picture together,” she says.
Medical school applicants should think about what makes them special and why they want to attend medical school before writing their AMCAS applications, she says.
She encourages applicants to reflect on how they are unique from other medical school applicants and ask themselves the following questions: “Am I somebody who is super geared to community service? Am I someone who is super curious? Am I somebody who is really focused on working in disparities in health care?”
Application Mistakes to Avoid
One of the biggest mistakes medical school applicants make is trying so hard to appear perfect that they no longer seem human.
Baker says it is typical for medical school applicants to present themselves as “someone who is bulletproof, who has basically overcome very little and looks very good all the time.” But Baker says this is a serious error, because he wants to see evidence that a medical school applicant is a compassionate and thoughtful person.
“I want to know you’re a real person,” he says. “I want a genuine snapshot of who you are, and that requires demonstrating vulnerability. I want to know that your journey to medicine has been transformative.”
Being clear and specific is a fundamental component of an impressive AMCAS application, Baker says. “Two applicants that have exactly the same profile can present themselves in such a manner to look good or to look bad based upon either their carelessness or their thoroughness,” Baker says.
“Applicants that have full transparency are the ones that end up getting the most traction,” he says. “When there’s red flags on applications, generally those red flags are associated with evasiveness and non-specificity.”
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