With the MCAT in the rearview mirror (GOODBYE YOU HATEFUL ANIMAL MAY I NEVER SEE YOU AGAIN), the focus for premeds now turns to the medical school application process, administered by a faceless, acronymous agency known as AMCAS.
AMCAS stands for American Medicine Cannot Accept, Sorry (actually, American Medical College Application Service), and will be the most-visited website on my little computer over the next two months. Well, besides Youtube. I have my priorities.
A lot of people have been asking me, “What’s next?” Since the process is kind of convoluted – especially for those unacquainted with the vagaries of the medical school admissions journey – I decided to write up a primer in plain English. You can look on the AMCAS website itself, but the document you’ll have to read is an intimidating 81-page monster.
So here’s the quick and easy explanation. First of all, understand that the medical applications process is all rolling admission. The “deadlines” I talk about are really just the first available date to submit things.
Step 1: AMCAS Application Submission. The AMCAS application is a common application. That means that you fill it out once, select all the schools you’ll be applying to within the application, and you’re done. It’s not that easy; the application itself takes many hours and a lot of investment to finish. Among other things like sending your transcripts and writing your personal statement, you also have to fill in every class you’ve ever taken and your received grade by hand. I have no idea why. You have to input all of your work experience, extracurricular activities, and awards received or publications. In short, your life goes into printed form on the application. Letters of recommendation get sent directly from your recommender to AMCAS (a complicated process I’ll avoid discussing here), so everything at this point is integrated.
On June 5th, AMCAS “opens” for submission. Submission just means I can go in and send my application to AMCAS. Oh yeah, and pay an exorbitant amount of money for doing so. Right now, it’s done but in what amounts to a changeable “draft” form. Once I submit my application, I can’t change some information like the grades I’ve entered or my personal statement.
Interestingly, I can continue to play with my list of schools until data transmission begins. Which brings me to:
Step 2: Verification. The chief advantage of submitting your completed AMCAS application early is that it allows the AMCAS staff to “verify” your application early, a process that can take up to six weeks. Verification simply means that AMCAS goes through your application to see if you’re being truthful. In practice, this largely consists of them comparing what you entered as your grade to what your transcript says you got (now do you see why I don’t understand why you have to enter grades at all? IT MAKES NO SENSE, AMCAS. NONE).
When you submit early, your application is toward the top of the metaphorical stack and gets processed a lot sooner – turnaround times of a few days are not uncommon. If you wait a long time to send in your application, you might wait a very long time to get “verified” – and your “submitted” application can’t go out to med schools until it’s verified. Following me so far?
Step 3: Data Transmission. For AMCAS to send your completed, verified, 100% checked and good-to-go application to the medical schools you’ve listed, three conditions have to be met:
- It is after June 29. On this day, AMCAS will send all the ready applications out. If your application doesn’t meet the other two conditions, you wait.
- Your application must be submitted and verified. If you submit early, on or around June 5 as mentioned above, this probably won’t be an issue. If you wait till late July to submit your application, you might be waiting a while for data transmission.
- Your MCAT score has been received. The score comes in about 30 days after you take the test, so my score will come in right as July rolls around. Hopefully, I’ll be verified by then and it’ll send out right then.
Step 4: Secondary Applications. After medical schools receive your application, they’re supposed to put you through a first-pass screening process – i.e. if you applied to Harvard with a listed GPA of “irrelevant; clowns do not obtain numerical GPAs, their only grade is laughter” they’re supposed to reject you out of hand. What happens in practice is they send you a secondary application regardless of how attractive a candidate you are.
This is, sadly, because the med schools make money off of returned secondaries – it costs the applicant some dough, varied by school, to return the secondary application. The secondary application itself consists of essays, mostly. Some are short, some are long, but the overarching goal is always to turn around the secondary application in a short time frame – remember, the entire process is rolling. The candidate that can return the secondary applications as quickly as possible can get a leg up on obtaining an interview. If you sit on the secondary for a few weeks, the school will fill a lot of interview slots that might have been yours.
Step 5: Waiting. This is the worst part. Once your secondaries have been returned, a med school can invite you for an interview. Or they won’t. They might not contact you for five months, then invite you for an interview in March. Or they might not. You, as the candidate, have no way of knowing if a school is going to reject you or offer you an interview until the last possible day for interviewing passes you by with no invitation. It sucks, but the med schools hold all the cards at this point.
Step 6: The Interview. In order to get in to medical school – any U.S. medical school – you have to pass the interview stage. There are many different kinds of interview: some schools prefer an old-school one-on-one interview with faculty or students, some like panels, and some like new fancy techniques like the MMI (Multiple Mini Interview, which is basically interview speed dating). If you can get invited to interview at a school, the numbers are almost in your favor in terms of acceptances. An interview invite means the school thinks you have the academic credentials to succeed there; now, they want to see if you’d make a good doctor on top of being a decent academic.
The interview is also the only time the candidate, aka me, gets to really decide if the school itself is a good fit for them. You can check out the curricula all you like, read student testimonials on internet message boards (always an unreliable, scary proposition), or look at the pictures on the school website, but you can never tell if a school is right for you until you visit. In the fall, I was lucky enough to visit a med school via a special information session for postbac students only; I came away with a distinct impression of the school I never would have gotten from a pamphlet. So the interview really is two-edged in that respect: half of the interview is the school getting to know you, and half of it is you getting to know the school. Both are equally valuable in a final decision.
Step 7: More Waiting. Now that the interview was completed, you get to wait again. And wait. And wait. And hopefully, you get a phone call.
Step 8: Holding Offers. You can “hold” as many offers as you receive until a date in May 2013, the year I’ll be entering med school, sort of like holding a lot of cards if you’re the loser in a game of BS. On that day, I have to drop all my offers except for the school where I have decided to go, which frees up spots for students on the waitlist at the schools I dropped. At that point, I’ll officially be accepted into the med school I chose, and be off to the races from there!
Sound long, arduous, and painful? It is. Welcome to the life of a medical school applicant! Hooray!