Every year medical school applicants ask a question that goes something like this:
“I haven’t heard back from medical schools, what does this mean?”
If this is you, there may be no reason to worry.
In this article, we will go over the admissions timeline. You will learn why it can take so long to receive an admissions decision. And, you will learn two top tips to improve your chances of getting accepted.
Did you know medical schools (MD schools in the US) receive an average of nearly 6,000 applications per year?
Did you know the average incoming class size is around 140 students?
The task of deciding who gets into medical school (and who becomes a doctor) is profound, complicated, and time-consuming. Applicants often wait months before learning if they are invited to interview or rejected.
Keep reading to learn why it takes so long to learn if you will get into medical school. You will also find out the number one task you should do while you wait.
A brief description of the admissions process.
The American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) opens up each year at the start of May.
AMCAS does not allow you to click submit on your application until the end of May.
This gives you a month to complete your application if you want to be among the first batch of medical school applicants.
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After your application has been submitted, AMCAS staff must process your materials before sending them to your designated schools. Medical schools typically begin receiving applications by the start of July. AMCAS uses a first-in-first-out process. The sooner your application is submitted, the sooner it will be sent out to medical schools.
What happens once medical schools receive your application?
With so many applications needing to be reviewed, medical schools have the challenging task of deciding who to interview, and who they want to join their incoming class. Medical schools place a high degree of importance on applicant selection. The process of evaluating applicants often contributes to long wait times.
Note: Medical schools have the latitude to decide their admissions practices; however, having worked at multiple medical schools, I can speak to a general process.
Once AMCAS sends your application, medical schools review it for basic completeness. Basic completeness involves checking that you followed directions and meet the requirements posted on the medical school’s admissions website.
Assuming your primary application meets the basic requirements, admissions staff will invite you to complete a secondary application.
The secondary application is each medical school’s opportunity to ask for additional information. Secondary questions often focus on applicants’ resilience, work with underprivileged, and/or motivations for wanting to attend a particular school.
Prompt response to secondary applications is critical. Applicants are not considered for an interview until secondary questions are complete.
Letters of recommendation, like secondary applications, can also delay the admissions timeline. Ask for your letters of recommendation/endorsement as early as possible. You do not want a missing letter to hurt your application.
The waiting game.
Despite having done everything to satisfy admissions requirements, including:
- completing your application as soon as AMCAS allows;
- responding promptly to secondaries; and,
- checking that all letters of recommendation are complete and on file;
you can wait months before learning the fate of your application.
At this point, your application is in a “waiting to be reviewed status,” meaning it has likely been assigned to one or more reviewers and will be read and evaluated in some sort of prioritized timeline.
Prioritization of applications is at the discretion of each medical school. Many medical schools use a first-in-first-out process. The first applications completed are the first applications reviewed. Reviewers may have the discretion or even mandate, to prioritize applications. At one of the medical schools where I worked, I may have had 50 applications left to review, and several hundred new ones sent to me. Rather than reading the remaining 50, I may have moved to the new batch to check for applications that fell within priority categories. Priorities could include in-state residence, higher GPA or MCAT scores, underrepresented demographics, or other criteria.
Let’s go into more detail on the people who review applications.
The admissions team.
The admissions committee is often thought of as being responsible for the admissions process. In many ways this is correct. Admissions committees are ultimately responsible for deciding which applicants to accept each year. Let’s take a close look at the faculty and staff involved in the admissions process.
Medical school faculty and staff are tasked with numerous responsibilities. Faculty may be teaching multiple classes, supervising and/or conducting research, working in clinical and hospital settings, and participating in various committees (not just the admissions committee).
At some medical schools, faculty on the admissions committee may perform the bulk of the application review. At other medical schools, admissions staff may take on this responsibility.
Staff are responsible for the day-to-day admissions process. They may check for application completeness, communicate with applicants, review applications, conduct interviews, and help with admissions decisions.
Some schools have their own admissions staff who work only for the medical school; these offices tend to employ only a few people. Other medical schools rely on a central admissions office with more staff, but also more academic programs to cover (for example pharmacy, podiatry, physical therapy, physician assistants, biomedical sciences, masters and doctoral level research).
What can you do while you wait?
Applications are brimming with details about the lives of each applicant. I have read applications with as few as 20-24 pages, and others with lengthy essays and letters that numbered 50 or more pages.
It can take a long time for admissions offices to review applications. Therefore, it can take a long time to learn whether or not you have been invited to interview.
Having worked so hard in the hopes of becoming a physician, the medical school admissions process is understandably nerve-racking.
Months may go by before you hear from your chosen medical schools. Don’t panic. If you make sure to complete your application in a timely manner, you will likely be among the first group of applicants to be considered for an interview.
Remain calm and stay positive. There are several critical steps you can take to give yourself an advantage.
Increase your involvement in meaningful experiences.
Continue engaging in meaningful experiences. Ramp up your responsibilities where possible. This is the top recommendation I have for you.
When you receive invitations to interview, be able to provide progress updates. You do not want to restate what is already in your application.
Continuing to engage in meaningful activities leads to the second recommendation I have for you.
Send an update.
Of course an update is only as useful as the details you are able to share. This is why it is so important to continue your participation in quality experiences. Assuming you are doing this, let your application readers know you are still engaged in relevant experiences.
If you recently began an experience at the time of your application, and you are still involved in it long after, update your application readers. Even if you wrote in your application that you plan on staying in a position long after you submitted your application, send an update.
I evaluated many applications that would have benefited from an update letter.
If you only recently started a meaningful experience at the time of your application, send updates to your chosen medical schools.
If you experienced something significant since submitting your application, send an update to admissions offices at your chosen medical schools.
Do not leave your application reviewers wondering if you are still engaged in a particular experience. Send an update. If you do not send an update, at least one, if not two assumptions will be made:
- you are no longer involved in that experience; and/or,
- you are not that interested in attending that medical school.
Avoid this mistake.
Many applicants will send a communication to a medical school stating continued interest and even preferred interview times, just in case an invitation is on the horizon.
Stating continued interest without offering meaningful updates does not help reviewers; this is why it is important to remain involved after submitting applications.
Keep pushing. Keep developing experiences so you have meaningful updates to share with your application reviewers.
Write to your medical schools and update them, especially on any experiences that were new at the time of your submission. Do not repeat what is already in the primary or secondary applications. Provide a meaningful update.
If you do not have anything meaningful to share, use that as a barometer, a self-evaluation and adjust. Increase your responsibilities so you can plan on sending an update in the future. Do not underestimate the value of an update letter.
Think about this: If you include an experience in your application that you only recently began, how are the people reviewing your materials to know whether you are still engaged in the activity? Sure, you may have indicated that the experience would continue for another 1,000 hours, but plans can change. Don’t leave your reviewers guessing.
There were times when an update letter changed the outcome of my evaluation. Without an update, having to go by what was in the primary and secondary materials, I would have recommended rejection.
Updates can display valuable information:
- an experience lasted as long as claimed;
- the importance of a particular experience on your development;
- your ongoing interest (both in medicine, in general, and in a particular medical school); and/or,
- any new developments (additional hours and/or responsibilities, accolades/accomplishments).
Applying to medical school requires committing to years of preparation—studying and pursuing meaningful experiences.
While you are used to being in control of your future, at some point it may feel like it is out of your hands.
Months may pass before you hear from your chosen medical schools. There are many applications and only so many faculty and staff trained to review them.
As explained in this article, there are two important tasks you should do while you wait. You may even improve your chances of receiving an interview.
- Continue with relevant and meaningful experiences, even after completing secondary applications.
- Send a brief email to admissions offices updating them on what you have been doing since submitting your application. This is especially important if you only recently began an experience at the time of your application. The update also gives you an opportunity to demonstrate your enthusiasm for a particular medical school.
Whether you are (or someone you know is) applying to medical school, I hope you found this article useful. I wish you the best in all your aspirations.
Adam Lowrance, PhD
Let me know in the comment section if you found this article helpful. Where are you in the process? Are you applying to medical schools this cycle, or thinking about doing so in the future?