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Tips for Getting into Medical School

September 4th, 2013  |  Published in Pre-Med Tips  |  4 Comments

Medical student in virtual anatomy lab

Source: Flickr/unottingham

This week as a feature of my postbac program we had an information session with the assistant dean of admissions. This was very informative since it was essentially a question and answer session and left out all of the basic information that we already knew as reapplicants. Keep in mind that some of the information here is very very specific to VCU and their requirements. I will try to note these below. Also remember that this is my interpretation of what was said during the information session and may not be entirely accurate. We can discuss this in the comments!

General Tips

  • learn to keep anxiety under control
  • increase your academic confidence
  • build good study skills
  • get tutoring if needed (it won’t say on your degree “got a BS in Biology…but with tutoring”…no shame!)
  • manage your time wisely
  • never sacrifice sleep because it is involved in memory recall and retention of information
  • prioritize your tasks with a calendar
  • organize your tasks in an hourly format
  • learn to say no for social engagements

The Questions & Their Answers

1) What should I do in my gap year?

Find weaknesses in your application and improve upon them. This can mean doing coursework if your recent semesters’ grades weren’t so hot, getting a job in the medical field, doing community service (very important to VCU..e.g. Americorps), doing research, or just getting a job to pay off your student loans! Doing research can be a big plus later in life if you are intending to apply to competitive residency specialties such as radiology, academic orthopedics, anesthesiology, and dermatology–having publications under your belt makes you a better applicant to residency programs. Most importantly, during your gap year keep your hands in medicine!

2) Should out-of-state students gain in-state residency before applying?

Only do this if you are totally in love with the school and would go there no matter where else you get in. VCU for example receives 6000 out of state applicants per year but only accepts 105, whereas they receive 1000 in-state applicants and accept 105. Being in-state won’t necessarily improve your chances even if it is a smaller pool.

3) How much consideration is given to the secondary application during the review process?

A lot! Don’t ever rush a secondary application because if you leave something off the admissions committee will think you don’t care.

*The following part of the answer is specific to VCU*

The VCU secondary asks for:

  • SAT scores becuase if you didn’t do well on the MCAT they want to see how you do on standardized tests in general
  • high school information to determine if you have a rural background.

4) Are secondaries given by invitation only?

This depends on the school. At VCU secondaries are given by invitation-only; generally if you have no MCAT or less than a 24 on the MCAT you won’t get  a secondary. As well they have an about 3.0 GPA cut-off. VCU tries not to send a secondary to someone who has absolutely no chance.

5) Is there an advantage to submitting your application early?

Yes! Interviews are handed out on a rolling basis. If you apply late you may not get an interview even if you are a good candidate. (Note: for students in the VCU Premed CERT program who have a guaranteed interview, you will definitely get an interview when you apply even if you apply late as long as you met the requirements to earn a guaranteed interview.)

6) If a medical school is my #1 choice should I apply early decision?

Maybe. If you choose to apply early decision you can’t apply to any other schools until October 1st. This means you are literally putting all of your eggs in one basket. You need to be an absolute stellar candidate to take this risk, or just willing to take the risk. If you don’t get in on early decision you will have to apply to all the other schools you like for the first time after October 1st. This could definitely be too late for a reasonable chance at the other schools just because it will be so late in the cycle. Even though schools say their official deadline is in November of December, by then many interviews have already been handed out and the class is filling up because many schools have rolling admission.

7) What is the importance of getting a recommendation letter from a physician?

Don’t get a recommendation letter from a physician if you only worked with them for a short period of time or if you know them because they are a family friend or a relative.

VCU, in particular, prefers objective letters from people who know you well such as a professor, PI, or employer. They want your recommendation letter to go beyond academics and include your leadership skills and how you work in small groups.

8 ) *VCU only question* When should I get my letter of recommendation from the postbac program?

If you applied before the program began in August you should go ahead and submit all the required recommendation letters and then add one from the postbac program before the scheduled date of your interview.

9) *VCU only question* Is it better for postbac CERT students to schedule an earlier interview?

No, you should schedule a later interview (Jan/Feb) because they will need to see your fall semester grades before considering you, especially if your undergraduate grades are questionable. There is no advantage to an earlier interview. Committee members make the final decision regarding your rank among applicants, not your interviewer. The interviewer will present about you orally while your AMCAS summary is on a computer screen. The committee members discuss each applicant for about 5 minutes after the interviewer’s 5 minute presentation. Some committee members fixate on poor undergraduate grades but the CERT faculty tries to advocate for the CERT students. You have to finish the postbac even if you get accepted; otherwise your acceptance will be rescinded.

10) Can I use my personal statement from the last time I applied to medical school?

No! The admissions committee hates this. As a reapplicant you need to discuss your goals in a way that showcases your maturity; perhaps event X made you realize you had something to work towards, etc.  Your maturity will be assessed in your interview as well. You need to develop people skills in order to do well in the interview.

11) What is a strong MCAT score?

Generally most medical schools consider an MCAT score that is higher than their average to be strong and a score equal to their average to be acceptable.

*VCU specific information*

The average MCAT score at VCU was a 30.5. They consider 29 & 30 average, below 29, below average, and 30+ good. There is little statistical difference between a 28 & a 30 or a 30 & a 32, so they keep that in mind when reviewing your app.

12) *VCU specific* How is the writing score from pre-2013 MCATs considered?

Your writing score can help you but not hurt you. VCU considered the writing score in the past (before it was eliminated) because of a study which said that a high writing score is correlated to membership in Alpha Omega Alpha (medical honors society). At VCU, previously, a good writing score would have helped balance a low verbal score. However, unlike VCU, a study by the AAMC found that few medical schools ever considered it.

13) * VCU specific* Do you compare my second application to my first medical school application?

Yes, if you checked the “reapplicant box” then they read your personal statement again and look for how you changed from the first to the second application.

14) *VCU specific* Does retaking the MCAT multiple times look bad?

After 4 times, yes.

15) *VCU specific* Since the new MCAT curriculum includes sociology and psychology, will having taken a bunch of humanities courses in undergrad be looked on favorably?

Yes, this makes you well-rounded and you should have learned how to understand people by taking these courses.

16) Can I use old recommendation letters from the first time I applied to medical school?

Yes, but ideally you should update them. Send them back to your recommendation letter writer, update them on your life, and ask the to mark the recommendation letter for the Spring of the year in which you are going to apply. Confidential letters on letter head are preferred; do not email your recommendation letters to the medical school.

17) *VCU specific question* What is the maximum number of recommendation letters I can send in?

Minimum 3. Maximum 5. Having more letters won’t hurt you but they will read all of them.

18) *VCU specific question* Do I need a committee recommendation letter?

No, VCU now requires 3 recommendation letters from persons who know you well. However, other schools may require recommendation letters. Fortunately the undergrad premed advisers have offered to write recommendation letters for CERT students and this can be arranged in their office.

19) *VCU specific* Which courses should I take during a postbac to increase my chances of admission?

Make sure you take challenging courses. Why you took certain classes will come up in interview, so talk to the advisers about your best options for electives. Don’t just take easy courses to fill hours, and taking lighter courses in the semester right before you apply(and the last semester of the program) is not recommended.

20) *VCU specific* What sort of patient exposure is valued?

Both shadowing and hands-on patient care. Scribing is probably the best form of shadowing, “ultra-shadowing.” But, you must get hands-on patient care (meaning taking patient history, taking vitals…not just handing them blankest or bringing them water.) Sometimes you can get hands-on patient care at a free clinic, but otherwise doing a week-long alternative Spring Break or a medical mission trip can be a good opportunity. You can get either paid or unpaid hands-on patient experience.

On your application be sure to write how many hours you spent with each physician you shadowed in the description box. For VCU, over 100 hours of each form of patient exposure is ideal, but they value quality of the experiences over quantity.


That’s it!

Over all the information session was very helpful, although hearing that I have to get hands-on patient experience now is a nightmare! Since I am not EMT-certified and I don’t have a CNA license I can’t very well just waltz into a clinic and start taking blood pressure. Although I mentioned I wanted direct patient contact at the free clinic where I volunteer, they just don’t have the space for anyone like me at this time–especially someone without license to be a nurse, physician, or physician’s assistant. I’m thinking that maybe a medical mission trip could be a good idea, but this is so expensive and since I’m almost entering the third trimester I can’t really just plan to jet off to Honduras during the winter holiday! Then in the Spring semester, I’m fairly certain infants aren’t welcome on medical missions…so that is out of the question as well. I’ll keep racking my brain for a solution.

I hope these Q&As gave you some insight into how medical schools consider applicants. I think even reading the VCU-specific questions are worthwhile since some of the information they gave could possibly be generalized to all schools–but not all of it. Use your judgment! Let me know if you have any questions about anything I wrote above. I tried to take diligent notes during our meeting.

Tomorrow is the interview workshop; hopefully this is equally informative but more hands-on! Be sure to expect a blog post about that as well.


  1. Jeff says:

    July 9th, 2014at 5:27 pm(#)

    Will VCU never send a secondary invitation to someone who does not have an MCAT score? I take the MCAT in August, so they will have it before the application deadline but will I have to wait till after they receive my scores? The rest of my application is submitted and ready, and my GPA is competitive, does that matter?

  2. Jennifer says:

    July 18th, 2014at 3:01 am(#)

    I tried to answer this in question #4 but basically most of the time unless you have your MCAT score in you won’t get a secondary.

    Don’t worry about this. The most important thing is to have your primary application submitted before July. Then when you *do* receive a secondary, complete it within 1-2 weeks. The sooner the better. Most of the time you can find out what the secondary questions are by looking on the Student Doctor Network forums and then write your essay now. Then when you get invited by VCU to fill out your secondary application you can submit your essays immediately and look awesome 🙂

  3. VCU_SOM_2016 says:

    November 5th, 2014at 11:51 pm(#)

    Some good information here and some maybe a bit dubious, but it’s always best to contact Admissions at each school for the best info.

  4. Jennifer Isaacs says:

    November 9th, 2014at 2:36 am(#)

    Definitely. I’ve said this many times throughout my blog but I think I failed to mention that here. Always double check with a school because times change and each school has their own personal preferences.

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