Don’t let these avoidable missteps keep you away from your dream career
We’ve all heard of accomplished premed students who didn’t get into any medical schools.
But despite the 4+ years of hard work that includes brutal organic chemistry classes and countless hours of research, shadowing, and volunteering, they can’t seem to break through and earn their white coats.
In my decade-plus of helping premed students get into medical school, I’ve noticed systematic differences on medical school applications between students who got in and those who didn’t make the cut.
Now I want to share with you the 4 biggest medical school application mistakes that keep students away from their dream of becoming a physician.
Mistake #1: Applying to Too Many Reach Schools
Here’s a statement from Captain Obvious: Getting into med school is hard.
However, many medical school applicants don’t realize just how hard it is to get into even one school.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop many applicants from applying to too many schools—roughly 25-50%—they have little to no chance of getting into. In other words, what some applicants consider to be "target" or “safety" schools are often much tougher than they think to get accepted to.
A lot of students feel they should apply to the Stanfords and Harvards of the world, thinking, “Why not? What if something crazy happens and I get accepted? Can’t hurt to apply!”
Except it can hurt. Not only is it expensive to apply to medical school—it’s also very effortful. Almost every school you apply to will ask you to complete a secondary application (i.e., more essays), which often leads to what I call “secondary fatigue.” And when secondary fatigue kicks in, effort and work quality decline.
Therefore, you’ll want to be incredibly thoughtful about which schools you apply to—and how many. Otherwise, you’ll realistically be applying to fewer schools than you think, perhaps even submitting lower quality materials.
Because school selection is one of the most important—and underrated—components of successful medical school admissions, we put in significant effort to help our students choose the right schools.
Depending on your stats, my recommendation is to apply to somewhere between 15-25 carefully selected schools, with the following rough breakdown for the typical applicant:
- 3-5 “reach” schools
- 7-8 “target” schools
- 6-7 “undershoot” schools
- 3-5 “far undershoot” schools
Less than 15, and you risk not achieving the right balance of competitiveness. More than 25, and you risk even greater secondary fatigue.
Mistake #2: Spending Too Much Time on Their Personal Statement
I often ask premed students about their #1 struggle or worry when it comes to medical school applications.
Their #1 response? How to write their personal statement.
And their concern is valid; the personal statement is incredibly important, yet difficult to get just right.
Medical schools practice holistic admissions, meaning they evaluate every part of your application together in hopes of understanding your readiness for medicine.
Each aspect of your application tells a different part of your story. For example, whereas your personal statement provides a bird’s eye view of who you are and your road to medicine, the AMCAS Work and Activities section offers a detailed look into how you’ve spent your time to understand what it means to be a physician, as well as your accomplishments and growth along the way. Moreover, your secondary essays provide an opportunity to tell medical schools why you’ll be a strong fit for their institution specifically.
Applications that are weak outside of the personal statement are akin to incomplete stories. They leave the reader with more questions and hesitations. Therefore, I encourage you to devote similar levels of effort to every part of your application
Mistake #3: Trying Too Hard to Write About the “Perfect” Topic
Another very common question I receive about personal statements and secondary essays is, “Would it be a good idea to write about [X/Y/Z] topic?”
And most of the time, my answer is the same: “Every topic can lead to a strong or weak essay depending on how compellingly it’s written.”
In other words, there’s rarely such a thing as a “good” or “bad” essay topic, only strong or weak execution.
Oftentimes, students have great personal stories to share that demonstrate their unique qualities, but they don’t think admissions committees will be interested in reading about them.
For example, they might say, “But that’s not directly related to medicine,” “I don’t think med schools want to hear about that,” or “Don’t adcoms expect students to write about [topic]?”
I discourage students from this type of mind reading because guess what? The essay topics most students “think” will impress admissions committees are often incredibly similar, leading them to write cliché essays.
Therefore, I recommend that you first think of the qualities you want to demonstrate in your essay and then consider when in your life you’ve demonstrated those qualities. That way, you’re much more likely to come up with a topic that reflects who you uniquely are and is much easier to write about.
Mistake #4: Asking Too Many People for Essay Feedback
Like many things in life, more feedback on your essay isn’t necessarily better.
Recently, one of my students rewrote an entire essay despite loving their original idea because their undergraduate advisor suggested another topic.
Unfortunately, their second essay wasn’t as strong as their original one, nor did it convey the ideas they hoped to.
Anyone you send your essays to will have an opinion on how to change it. While everyone means well, know that each additional set of eyes can dilute your voice and weaken the points you're hoping to make.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't show your work to anyone else, but I encourage you to run your essays by no more than 2 people who know you—and the medical school admissions process—well.
Moreover, as long as your work accurately captures what you're hoping to convey, is grammatically correct, and engagingly written, you should confidently move on to the next essay.
Bonus Mistake: Submitting Applications Too Early
It's true: The earlier you apply to medical school, the greater advantage you can take of rolling admissions.
However, I've seen many students rush to submit their applications ASAP even if their essays are subpar.
Unfortunately, submitting lower quality materials can hurt you more than submitting early can help you.
Therefore, it's much better to submit a fantastic application several days to weeks later than you'd hoped rather than submit a so-so application ASAP.
(Further reading: The Ideal Medical School Application Timeline)
The medical school admissions process is one of the most difficult out there.
However, after navigating 4+ years of tough classes and seemingly endless extracurricular activities, the last thing you’ll want to do is sabotage your admissions odds by making easily avoidable application mistakes.
Now I’d love to hear from you. Are you struggling or have you struggled with any of the mistakes discussed above? If so, how has this article helped you think differently about your approach? I’ll read and respond to every comment below.