Learn whether reapplying to medical school looks bad, if you can use past letters of recommendation, if you should change your personal statement, and much more to get in after your first attempt
If you’re worried about being a medical school reapplicant, you’re not alone. In fact, since only roughly 40% of applicants matriculate into US MD programs in any given application cycle, nearly 60% of applicants face the decision to pursue a different career or to reapply.
While the process is essentially the same, the thought of reapplying to medical school routinely leads to anxiety. You may have read on online forums or heard from others that reapplicants are viewed less favorably than their first-time-applicant counterparts.
You may have also received conflicting guidance around how to approach reapplication to ensure that you get into med school the second (or third) time around. Should you change your personal statement or use the one you previously submitted? Can you use past letters of recommendation? Can you reapply to the same medical schools, or should you apply to a completely different school list?
This guide is meant to answer those questions and to provide direction on how to improve your application from one cycle to the next. The med school application process consumes significant time, emotion, attention, and finances, so you’ll want to make sure to go through it as few times as possible.
Does reapplying to medical school look bad?
Many reapplicants worry that they’ll somehow be viewed as “damaged goods” by med school admissions committees, leading to a sharp decline in their chances of getting in.
According to AAMC data, during the 2018 application cycle (i.e., for admissions into the Fall 2018 entering class), there were a total of 52,777 applicants, 38,483 (73%) of whom were first-time applicants, and 14,294 (27%) of whom were reapplicants. (Note: AAMC does not specify how many reapplicants were applying a second or third time, etc.)
While we know that 41% of the total applicant pool matriculated into medical school that year, AAMC does not provide information about how many matriculants were first-time applicants vs. reapplicants. Unfortunately, therefore, the available data does not help us answer this question directly.
However, even if it turned out that first-time applicants got into medical school at a higher rate than reapplicants, it would not necessarily mean that reapplicants are viewed less favorably simply because they’re reapplicants.
Perhaps first-time applicants who matriculate into med school are stronger applicants to begin with. For instance, suppose a student with a 3.8 GPA and 515 MCAT score gets in the first they apply but a student with a 3.2 GPA and 502 MCAT score does not. If the latter student reapplies with the same numbers, they will again be uncompetitive for most MD programs. In other words, any issue with the reapplicant label more likely indicates correlation than causation.
Based on my 15+ years of admissions experience, I can tell you that being a reapplicant will not by itself lower your admissions odds. If you have the GPA and MCAT score (i.e., stats), as well as the right extracurricular activities to get into medical school, you can be competitive during application cycles beyond your first. I write this with confidence because we successfully help many reapplicants each year who initially express concern about a “medical school reapplicant disadvantage.”
More than 50% of non-matriculating students from any given year do not apply during the following cycle, or the cycle after that. As a reapplicant, you will be among the minority of individuals who did not allow one or two disappointing attempts to keep you from pursuing your dream career.
By leveraging your application materials to impress upon admissions committees your continued commitment to medicine, you can be viewed as an asset to the larger medical community.
Reapplying to medical school, therefore, does not look bad. Approached correctly, it can look good.
Can I reapply to the same medical schools?
You can absolutely be viewed as a competitive applicant by medical schools that previously rejected you, granted that you meaningfully improve aspects of your application that may have initially kept you out. (More on how to improve future applications below.)
At the same time, you should be honest with yourself about your odds of getting into a specific school given your stats and extracurricular background. Since applying to each school requires time, attention, and an application fee that can be devoted elsewhere, you’ll want to approach your school list deliberately.
Should I wait a year between my original application and reapplying?
It depends on your activities and competitiveness in the first place.
For instance, if you applied to medical school with 20 hours of patient exposure the first time around and will only have 50 hours at the time of your reapplication, it’s probably best to wait another year and use the time to strengthen your application in that regard.
On the other hand, if you had a strong application to begin with and received multiple interview invitations the first time around, you should take that as a sign that you did a lot of things right but need to make a few improvements to achieve admissions success next round.
(Further reading: How to Choose the Right Extracurricular Activities for Medical School)
Can I use the same letters of recommendation when reapplying to medical school?
(Note: AMCAS does not retain recommendation letters from previous application cycles. Therefore, you need to resubmit letters you’d like to reuse.)
You can indeed use past letters of recommendation as a reapplicant. However, you may want to consider removing certain letters, adding new ones, or updating existing ones.
When to add or remove letters
If you were uncertain about the strength of a letter during your previous application cycle and you’re able to obtain one that meets the same requirement, you’re probably better off submitting the new one in lieu of the old.
For example, suppose you previously submitted a science letter from a freshman year biology professor whose class you took four years ago but did not keep in close contact with. Since that letter may be somewhat generic, you may want to ask your postbac program biochemistry professor to write a new letter on your behalf.
Another reason to add a letter is if you began participating in a meaningful activity since your first application and have developed a relationship with a mentor who can speak to qualities that capture the student and person you are today.
When to update existing letters
On some occasions, you’ll be able to submit letters that are largely the same but update them to reflect recent achievements or developments.
For instance, you may have received a letter of recommendation during your first application cycle from a research PI in whose lab you had worked for two years. If you continued working in their lab during your first application year and published a manuscript, you’ll want to ask your PI to add a paragraph or two describing your recent contributions to the lab, any new insights they have about you, and so on.
Should I change my personal statement when reapplying to medical school?
Yes, admissions committees expect you to write a new personal statement when reapplying to medical school.
While your new essay can focus on a similar theme and communicate the same qualities from your previous personal statement, the anecdotes should change.
Suppose you have an incredibly strong public health background and described in your previous personal statement how your work in that field informs your medical work, and vice versa. In your new personal statement, you can again discuss the transactional influences of public health and medicine through new anecdotes, recently developed insights, and your continued commitment to medicine.
Moreover, you’ll want to make sure to retain the core reasons for wanting to be a physician. Otherwise, admissions committees may question your authenticity. If they don’t trust you, schools are unlikely to admit you.
For instance, if your previous personal statement focused on commitment to your local community but your new personal statement centers around research, readers will be wonder whether you’re attempting to write what you assume they want to hear.
Should I change my Work and Activities section when reapplying to medical school?
Assuming they were well written to begin with, some Work and Activities section descriptions can remain the same, whereas other should change or be updated.
Experiences with no new updates or insights (e.g., shadowing you completed three years ago) need not be changed. On the other hand, you can add new activities or modify descriptions. You should modify descriptions whenever you can: a) improve the writing; b) update the description (e.g., a new publication); or c) both.
Your ‘most meaningful’ activity selections can also stay the same. However, if you have new experiences to share, you’ll probably want to rewrite the 1325-character-limit ‘most meaningful’ descriptions. In addition, you should keep at least two of your ‘most meaningful’ selections the same in most instances. Otherwise, you’ll risk being viewed as inauthentic.
How to Improve Your Application for Reapplying to Medical School
It’s natural to feel discouraged and wonder what went wrong during your previous application cycle(s). Were your stats too low? Did you obtain the right letters of recommendation? Were your personal statement and secondary essays well written? Did you apply early, or did you submit applications too late? Did you bomb your interviews?
(Note: To learn more about common medical school application mistakes, I encourage you to read the following article: How Hard Is It to Get Into Medical School?)
As you think through how to improve your application before reapplying, you’ll first want to ensure that you’ve controlled for all possible variables before coming to firm conclusions. For instance, if you submitted your secondaries in October, don’t assume you were rejected due to subpar rec letters or a 507 MCAT score.
I can’t stress this point enough. Students confidently and routinely tell me how they need to simply conduct research for a year or apply earlier to achieve a successful outcome. Once I review their application, however, I notice things like poorly written essays, an overly competitive school list, and so on.
To maximize your odds of getting in as a reapplicant, you’ll want to honestly evaluate every aspect of your application. Sometimes, the areas you think you messed up on are actually fine, whereas issues you overlooked could have played a major role in your rejections.
Here are some steps you can take to improve your application from round to round:
Ask admissions committees for feedback: Some admissions committees will be willing to provide feedback about issues they observed within your application, as well as what you can do to increase your chances during a future admissions cycle. Just make sure to ask politely and communicate a sincere desire to improve your candidacy.
Improve your GPA or MCAT score: If your GPA or MCAT score falls outside the range typically expect for MD program admissions, you’ll want to consider taking steps to boost them during your gap year. To raise your GPA, consider a postbac program, special Master’s program (SMP), or extension courses, among other options. (Note: Achieve high grades in science courses at a reputable school whenever possible, especially in areas where you previously struggled, to show admissions committees that you’re ready to handle the rigors of medical school.) To raise your MCAT score, consider taking a course or receiving 1:1 tutoring, especially around test strategy.
Strengthen your extracurricular profile: You’ll want to attain a certain number of hours or demonstrate a certain level of achievement within the following activities: shadowing; patient exposure, community service/volunteering, and research. Before you reapply, make sure to address any holes in your extracurricular activities during your gap year so that admissions committees don’t question your commitment to the field.
Develop your school list deliberately: Deciding where you apply is one of the most underrated, yet critical aspects of the admissions process. Getting your school list wrong can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection. Some students underestimate just how hard it is to get into medical school or apply to an overly competitive list based on their stats. (e.g., only top-tier schools, no DO programs) Given the resources involved in applying to medical school, you’ll want to go through this process as few times as possible, so approach your school list extra thoughtfully when reapplying.
Apply early: Students focus on submitting AMCAS as early as possible but neglect to send in their secondary applications within the first two weeks of receiving them. However, schools don’t review your work until after your secondaries have been submitted. I strongly advise you to pre-write your essays and apply as early as possible without sacrificing quality.
(Further reading: The Ideal Medical School Application Timeline)
Practice your interview skills: If you received three or more interview invitations but did not get into medical school the first time you applied, take that as a sign that you need to work on your interview skills. Medical schools only invite interviewees that look “good enough” on paper, so you probably did several things right when you previously applied.
(Further reading: How to Ace Your Medical School Interviews)
Getting rejected from every medical school can feel incredibly discouraging and lead you to question everything in your previous application, from your grades and test scores to your rec letter choices and extracurriculars.
Rather than give up or guess what went wrong, it’s important to focus on the things you need to improve or change moving forward and put aside the rest. By reviewing your unsuccessful application honestly and deliberately approaching your next attempt, you’ll increase your odds of becoming a medical student.