Pre-Application Summer Preparation as a Sophomore
Question: I’m a sophomore and I plan to apply to medical school next year. I’ve heard that there’s a lot of paperwork and essay writing involved. Is there anything I should do this summer to get a head start?
Answer: The first thing you'll write for us is an Intake Form, which asks you to reflect on your readiness for the application process. You can find it on our website under The HPA Pre-Application Interview Process. There are three written pieces that you’ll need to produce in the spring semester in preparation for your Pre-Application Interview (PAI) with HPA advisers: an autobiography, two short essays, and an activities list. The activities list is a good piece to get started on: you'll write a short paragraph describing each activity you've pursued in college (and you can include meaningful ones from high school if you'd like). Even if you don’t write up all of the required information over the summer, spend some time reflecting on your personal narrative—your motivation to become a physician, ways that you’ve tested that interest, ways that you’ve developed the competencies that medical schools seek in applicants. Try to think beyond what looks good to medical schools; focus on what you will bring to patients and the healthcare system as a physician.
For some students, it helps to learn about others’ paths to medicine and how they frame their career interests. You could gain these insights by talking with physicians and older peers who are in medical school, reading memoirs (Atul Gawande, Danielle Ofri, and Perri Klass are a few authors that students have enjoyed), watching documentaries, or reading blogs and other online information (like the stories on the Aspiring Docs Diaries).
Applying to Medical School Using HPA
Question: I am thinking about applying to medical school this summer, to start med school in fall of 2014. I know there are things I have to do through HPA. What are they?
Answer: This will all become clear when you come to an Applicant Workshop! The workshop is mandatory, and will be offered at least a few times during the fall semester. The basic tasks to work with HPA will include: having an introductory one on one with an HPA adviser in the fall, writing some essays, filling out forms. The process is outlined briefly on our website.
Deciding When to Apply
Question: Hi HPA – I know a lot of people are deciding to take time off between graduation and medical school. When do they usually decide that that’s what they’re going to do?
Answer: Good question! Some students decide very early – freshman or sophomore year – and plan their premed related activities and classes across all four years. Some students don’t decide until the very last minute before they would have to submit the application in the summer. It varies widely, but the most common time is junior fall. We go through all of the application logistics at our HPA Applicant Workshop in the fall semester and follow up with an “Evaluating Your Candidacy” workshop to help students reflect on their readiness for the application cycle. In consultation with advisers and others, many students may opt to take additional time in order to strengthen their candidacy before applying. Reasons can vary, and may include: a desire to improve academic metrics or improve relationships with potential writers of letters of recommendation; a need for more clinical experience; more time to study for MCAT; more time to save money to finance the application cycle; lack of clarity or confidence in career goals; or other priorities that will interfere with preparing the application this year. More information on taking time off can be found in our Life After Graduation Question of the Week Archives.
Applying After Graduation
Question: Hi HPA – I’m graduating this spring and have made a two-year job commitment, so I don’t plan to apply to medical school until I’m away from Princeton. Will HPA still support me? Is there anything I should be doing before I leave campus?
Answer: We would definitely recommend stopping by to meet with an HPA adviser if you haven’t been in recently. We’ll add you to our database of potential applicants for a future year, and that way, we’ll be able to reach out to you when you should be starting the process for your chosen application year. We can also look over your candidacy as it stands and give you our analysis of strengths and areas you might address in your time off before applying. Logistically, you may also want to ask for some of your letters of recommendation from Princeton faculty in person before you leave, since it is good professional form to ask in person, and it’ll be easier to track people down while you’re here. Guidelines for letters can be found online here: http://hpa.princeton.edu/application-process/letters-vecollect. Enjoy your time away! Only about 20% of our applicants starting the process this year are rising seniors, so more and more, we’re seeing students taking time to enhance their candidacies via one or two year post-graduation opportunities.
Applying and Deferring
Question: Hi HPA, I am a junior who wants to take a year off before going to medical school. My plan is to go through the process next spring, however, since I’m on campus and it’ll be easier to get letters of recommendation and to interview with you for my committee letter. Once I’m accepted to med school, I’m going to ask for a one-year deferral. I know I want to go to med school but I also know I’m not ready to go right after I graduate. I’m just trying to get the process done ahead of time. That’s OK, right?
Answer: We are so glad you asked this question. It is a common misconception that going through the application process while on campus, then deferring, is the simplest way to go for applicants who know they want another year. We do not recommend this course of action. Not all medical schools have deferral policies, so you would be limiting where you could apply (never a good idea if you’re trying to maximize your competitiveness). Of the schools that do have deferral policies, they vary considerably in terms of what they will accept as a plausible reason for wanting another year. Their goal is to fill next fall’s entering class, and they generally view your request to wait another year with a critical eye. Some schools only accept deferral requests from individuals who have been accepted to internationally known programs like the Peace Corps or Teach For America, or have received a Rhodes or Marshall, or have a family emergency that prevents them from being able to matriculate in their intended Class. It is best to plan to apply to medical school in the spring of the year before you really want to attend. Whether you’re on campus or not really isn’t an issue. The interview with our office can be done on the phone or during a time when you’re back on campus. Letters of recommendation can be gathered in large part before you graduate. The application process itself is done entirely online and can be done from anywhere in the world. By all means, come talk to us about your individual case, if you’d like. Generally speaking, however, wait until the spring of the year before you’re prepared to matriculate.
Applying Early Decision to Medical School
Question: I was wondering what your opinion is about applying to medical school Early Decision.
Answer: The med schools that offer Early Decision (ED) programs - and not all do - typically select 5-10 students by this means. This number is quite a bit lower than the number of ED candidates admitted to most undergraduate colleges. One applies at the earliest moment possible in June, and med schools are not obligated to notify applicants until October 1. No one should apply "ED" without checking with the med school about the competitiveness of his/her credentials and discussing your idea with advisers at HPA. A med school dean or director of admissions should tell you that your grades and MCAT scores are competitive for their ED program, or at least what the numbers of last year's admitted ED candidates were. Applying early is very risky because when you submit your initial AMCAS application you may indicate only that one school. If you get deferred into the "regular" pool of applicants - and you won't know until Oct 1st -, or if you're outright rejected, only then may you apply to other schools. Applying to these other schools in October gives you a very late start, and will put you at a disadvantage. At Princeton we typically have 0-1 person apply early each year, usually to their state school. They have spoken to us, and to admissions people, beforehand, and their numbers are well above the averages for accepted applicants at that school. For a vast majority of applicants, however, the risks of the ED option (delaying your application at other schools) outweighs the benefit of focusing on one school. Lastly, if an applicant wants to make sure that a certain school knows he/she is especially interested, there are other ways of communicating this; applying "ED" isn't the best way to tell a school you favor them.
Barriers to Medical School Acceptance
Question: Hi HPA - I'm still debating whether to apply to medical school in my junior or senior year and I don't know whether my profile is strong enough. Looking at students who apply and don't get accepted from Princeton, do you see any trends?
Answer: There is rarely a single, solitary factor that keeps a student from gaining acceptance to medical school -- it's generally a much more holistic, nuanced, complicated situation. If we had to pinpoint the most common factors that contribute to not being accepted, they would be:
- low academic metrics (overall GPA, science GPA, overall MCAT, MCAT subscores);
- applying to too narrow a range of schools;
- applying late;
- lacking clinical experience;
- weak written or oral communication with schools (in application materials and interview);
- serious / recent disciplinary action.
We try to provide tools for self-reflection to applicants, and we are happy to advise any student at any point in their academic career regarding the strengths and weaknesses of their candidacies relative to their career goals. Of course, we can't be 100% sure of every candidate's likelihood of success in the application process, but we try to provide an honest opinion based on our experience.
How to Talk to Medical School Admissions Personnel at Fairs
Question: Dear HPA, I wanted to go to the med school fair at Yale last month but couldn't make it. But I did come by and talk to the admissions people from Hopkins last week. I'm wondering if you can advise me on how to talk to admissions deans at these types of things. Is it OK to talk about my grades? And will there be more events like this during the year, and is it worth it for me to go if I can't talk about my individual situation? Thank you.
Answer: It is always wise to have questions about the particular medical school whose representative you're talking to. It's best to do some quick research online before the event, and learn a little about the schools curriculum, location, student organizations, etc. Then, come up with some questions based on what you would want to know if you were an M1 (first-year med student) walking the halls at that school. In other words, put yourself in the position of a current med student and imagine what concerns you might have. It can also be helpful to ask if any Princeton alumni at their school are available to correspond via email.
As for speaking about your individual record, it is fine to be straight with an admissions dean and share your "numbers" (MCAT, GPA), but only one-on-one, NOT in group sessions. Admittedly, one-on-one time is rare. Remember, however, that the MSAR (Medical School Admissions Requirements, available at HPA) enumerates average MCAT scores and GPA's of accepted students at all U.S. medical schools, so you should be able to 'size yourself up' on your own. In group situations, our advice would be to keep the conversation less numbers-based and more focused on the character, curriculum, and unique qualities of the med school in question. It is certainly acceptable to ask for the business card of the person you're talking to, and follow up with additional questions (within reason!) after the event.
Visiting Medical Schools/Dropping by Admissions Offices
Question: Is it appropriate to visit medical schools I’m interested in before I apply, just to get a sense of what they’re like? I will be home this summer and there are a bunch of med schools in my city. Can I just call the school and ask for a tour or a meeting with someone in admissions?
Answer: Unlike college admissions offices, few med schools have enough admissions staff capacity to offer these opportunities for prospective students. Check the websites of the schools you’re interested in to see if there are such opportunities, though – if you go to the Admissions Office page, there will often be information about potential visits either in the FAQ or the “Contact us” section of the website. In fact, setting aside a few afternoons this summer to surf med school admissions office websites would be a productive use of time, since it will help you get a feel for the differences between schools.
There are some medical schools that offer open house/tour days on campus. During the academic year, we announce these in Vitals in Local Area Events or Educational Opportunities, depending on the proximity of the school to Princeton (this week, we have notices about open houses at Jefferson, Rutgers NJMS, U Penn and UNECOM open houses listed). During the summer, Vitals goes on vacation, so we post any open house announcements on our homepage under Events, and/or on Facebook.
If you have friends at medical schools, it’s appropriate to see if they can show you around the unrestricted areas of their schools, or set up ways for you to meet with current students and just talk about their experiences. Also, come to the info sessions we set up for you, where med school admissions deans and directors come to campus specifically to meet Princeton pre-meds and talk about their programs. This year, Hopkins, WashU, Weill-Cornell, Pritzker, Rutgers NJMS and Quinnipiac were here, to name a few. Doctor is In visits, particularly the ones with current medical students, can also provide insight into the schools.
Once you’re invited for interviews and visit schools as a prospective student, you’ll get a good feel for the various places. Interviewed applicants are given tours, meet faculty and students, and have access to admissions and financial aid staff for answers to their most pressing questions.
"I'm going to be a pediatrician!"
Question: Hi HPA, I wanted to ask you about something that I was told by one doctor I shadowed: she told me that since it is the “era of primary care,” that I should portray myself (in the AMCAS application and interview) as going into pediatrics as opposed to what I'm really thinking about, which is emergency medicine or working in the NICU or PICU. I just thought this sounded strange and I wanted to ask you if medical schools really give a preference to students who are interested in primary care. Thank you!
Answer: Very interesting to hear this, and not a little unsettling . . . It is our view that under no circumstances should you portray yourself in the application process as someone other than who you are. Self-awareness and authenticity/sincerity are big in medical school admissions. Besides, medical schools' admissions offices aren't really in the business of filling different specialties. That would be a true exercise in futility, since nine out of ten medical students enter a specialty other than the one they thought they would enter when they started med school. You are not expected to know your specialty as a pre-med, and if anyone at a medical school asks that question they're most likely aiming to discover whether you're aware of the different specialties and whether you've thought of the personal/professional life balance that is a struggle for all busy physicians; or, they’re simply making conversation, perhaps in an attempt to share with you information about their own specialty. They're not looking for you to commit to any specialty, or even to primary care more generally, and you run the risk of sounding fairly naïve if you do say something like, "I'm going to be a pediatrician!"
High School Activities: Appropriate for AMCAS?
Question: I have some questions about the AMCAS application, specifically the Work/Activities section. Is it common to include activities from high school in this section?
Answer: A great question! At HPA, we’re lucky to engage in regular conversations with students and alums about the many ways that work and activities have enhanced their Princeton experiences. If your PAI Activities lists and conversations with us are any indications, most of you have a wealth of activities and work experiences from your college years to choose from. We’d suggest putting together your list from those activities. Including activities from high school might be read as stretching far back or suggestive of a lack of current involvement – something that we’re just not seeing when talking to Tigers about their experiences!
An exception would be for applicants for whom there is a direct connection between college commitments and previous activities. Maybe you began working in a lab in high school and continued researching there during your college years. Perhaps you’ve been performing with the same chorale group since tenth grade. If this is the case and earlier activities show some sort of continuity into your time at Princeton, you should feel free to include them in your AMCAS Work/Activities section. Remember, if an activity didn’t continue into college but you feel that it had a meaningful effect on you and you’d like for the admissions committee to know about it, you can always incorporate a discussion of it into your personal statement.
A lot of soul-searching and decision-making goes into compiling individual Work/Activities sections for AMCAS. If you have more than 15 items or aren’t sure which entries to include, please know that HPA advisors are happy to talk with you about crafting your final list.
Waiting to Hear from Schools
Question: My applications have been complete at schools since August and there are several schools that I haven’t heard from. How should I interpret not hearing back from a medical school? Does this mean that my application is on hold but still in consideration? Or is it more like a silent rejection?
Answer: Every school has its own process and timeline – they may not have even reviewed your file once at this point, they may have reviewed it and put it ‘on hold pre-interview’ meaning that they could revisit it later, or they may have decided not to pursue your candidacy and haven’t told you. There’s no way to know which situation you face at any given school, so best to just assume that an interview is still possible. In the meantime, stay productive in your activities, consider people you may ask for one more letter of recommendation if needed, seek out more information about the schools so that you can send messages describing your continued interest with new details, and be in touch with us at HPA so that we know which schools you’re particularly interested in hearing from in case we’re in touch with the schools. Over 200 interview invitations were extended November and later last application cycle, so keep hanging in there!
Canadian Health Care
Question: I just got back from an interview at a medical school and they asked me what I thought of socialized health care. When I used Canada as an example in my answer, they pushed me to see how much I knew about Canada's healthcare system (or any socialized medicine, for that matter) and I'm not sure I answered the question that well. Do you know where to look for more info on this?
Answer: Canada's government website includes information on the healthcare system: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/topics/health-care-systems.html Familiarizing yourself with the way health care works for Canadians is a good idea, particularly as the issue of socialized or national health care is likely to remain a topic of discussion in the U.S. Congress for years to come, and may even make it into the presidential debates this month.
Question: I wanted to ask you about how to handle my grades from this fall. I'm a senior, applying to med school right now. Will the med schools I've applied to see my fall grades? Should I send them a transcript when the semester's over? Do my grades from this semester count?Answer: As they say, "it ain't over 'til it's over." Some of your medical schools will request a fall transcript, and you should comply with this request. So, yes, your fall grades "count," meaning they may be scrutinized by some of your schools. For the medical schools that do NOT make such a request, we'd recommend sending an update with your grades pro-actively if your performance is on par (or better) than previous semesters (you can include grades within an update letter and offer to send an official transcript upon request, perhaps including some information about what you're taking and what your co-curriculars will look like in the coming term). Also, if you're a non-science major who has the minimum of science classes OR a student with a borderline science GPA, then your performance in additional science this fall should be shared with medical schools. The most common situation in which a medical school asks for a fall transcript is when the applicant has been put "on hold" or officially waitlisted; in some cases, schools may even request a spring transcript, though most admissions decisions will be made by the time you complete the spring term. Make sure you have the Registrar send a transcript that's "official," not merely a printout of the grades you access online.
Responding to Acceptances
Question: Some of my medical schools start sending acceptances next week. What’s the proper way to respond to news of acceptances?
Answer: Starting October 15 for medical school, and December 1 for dental school (others schools’ dates vary), you may begin to receive acceptances from schools. A few DO schools are sending acceptances starting in late summer. First of all, if you’ve just been accepted, congratulations! Go and celebrate, and then come back to this answer!
This may sound obvious, but accept the first seat you’re offered, even if it isn’t at one of your top choice schools and you’re confident that you’ll receive another – it’s always better to have one seat than none at all. If you later get accepted by another school that’s higher on your list, send professional letters 1) withdrawing from the first school, and 2) accepting the second school’s offer (this is a good time to become familiar with the AAMC’s traffic rules if you’re applying to MD programs).
Many schools will give you specific instructions on how to respond to an offer of admission. If you are offered a seat at a school and do not receive specific instructions, the basic first step is to write a letter to the Dean of Admissions, stating that you accept the position. Include your name (obviously) and your relevant contact information for the time from acceptance to matriculation, as well as any other information that you are asked to provide. If you haven’t done so already, this is a good time to get a permanent (non-Princeton) email account, so you won’t have to send an update when your Princeton account expires (please use a professional username). Most schools require a deposit, which is often refundable, to hold your seat. Send your response by certified mail, with a return receipt, so that you will know when the school receives it. At this point, you should also send letters withdrawing your candidacy from any school that you haven’t heard from, that you would not attend given your current acceptance. This gives them a more realistic idea of their applicant pool, and may be of benefit to others who are still waiting for interviews and acceptances. It’s okay to hold off on sending such a letter to schools you still wish to gather more information about – there is nothing wrong with staying in the applicant pool for numerous schools even after gaining an acceptance.
Also note that acceptances are contingent on continuing to do well. Maintain your good academic and disciplinary standards, and in general avoid doing things that could result in having your acceptance rescinded.
Question: Do medical schools I am currently applying to see the classes that I take spring semester of senior year? Will it look bad if I am only taking 2 classes and neither is a science class?
Answer: When you completed your AMCAS application last summer, you were asked to list courses for the spring semester. The medical schools will not hold you to those classes, unless you had a pre-medical requirement like the English/writing requirement that you had not fulfilled. We see that you are taking a science class now, so you are in good shape, especially for a non-science major. As for “only taking two,” that is one of the normal patterns for senior year at Princeton, where people are expected to be working hard on their theses second semester.
Question: In addition to thank you letters, is it ok to write letters of interest, as you mentioned in your previous email? What would these letters consist of and to whom should they be addressed? I have written letters to my interviewers already, but if there is something more that I can do to express my interest, I definitely want to take advantage of that and do anything I can - especially for my top choice.
Answer: If you are certain that you would attend one medical school over all others – and you have interviewed at that school – it is appropriate that you write that school and say so. This is commonly called a "Letter of Intent". You would write the dean or director of admissions (always check proper titles, name spellings, in the MSAR online). If you really hit it off with your interviewer, he/she may be copied on that letter. While we would have told you several years ago that these letters had to be snail-mailed, we are hearing more and more from medical schools that email is fine. We don't think a mailed letter on good quality paper can hurt, but follow the school's advice for communication. We are happy to read over your letters before you send them. Please also forward a copy of your letter to HPA so that we have a heads up about your interest - medical schools are in touch with us about applicants from time to time.
This should be more than an I-really want-to-come-please take-me-letter. You should describe why you and the school are a good match. Be succinct; don't say the same thing three times. These are busy people. If you have grades to send, such a note could “introduce” those. Indeed, it is a good idea to send an update note whenever something of note happens in your academic or professional life. Finally, follow this letter up with brief notes, still expressing your interest, to the admissions dean/director every three to four weeks. At the end of the day, medical schools want applicants who want them, and they will be gratified if you have expressed a commitment to them.
As a postscript to our larger audience, if you are not ready to commit to one school this way, that is FINE. But you can still write letters of interest to the medical schools that you particularly like.
Question: I'm a current applicant. Is it a good or bad idea to send a letter to medical schools? For the ones I haven't heard from, I was thinking along the lines of restating my interest and tying my application together more. And what about sending letters to schools where I've interviewed - and if I sent a letter to them what should I say? Thanks!
Answer: There are different kinds of letters that you can send, the most serious of which is the letter of intent, described above. You should wait to write this letter, however, after you have finished most, if not all, of your interviews - you wouldn't have much credibility if you told a school they're your first choice when you've only visited one or two (and you might change your mind with more interviews)!
Apart from the letter of intent, you can send new information about your activities or accomplishments, updates when you have new grades, and otherwise indicate your continued interest with the schools where you have not been invited to interview or have not heard anything at all, but do not make a commitment as you would in a letter of intent. Again, keep the letters brief and to the point.
For schools where you have interviewed, some will let you know when you interview what kinds of additional information they might want (or you can ask if they don't bring it up). Generally, it's fine to send updates of significant information (grades, publications, etc).
We'll discuss how to communicate with schools where you have been waitlisted at a later date . . .
Reapplying After Being Accepted
Question: Dear HPA – I’m done with my interviews at medical schools and have one acceptance—at School X. However, I have been turned down from some other schools where I would rather go. And there were many more that did not interview me but I really think I have a shot at. I’m thinking that I’d like to reapply to medical school for 2011. I really do not want to go to School X. How do I start the process again?
Answer: This is a serious matter. Please come in and talk to us about your reasons for not wanting to attend School X. We’ve advised you from the beginning to apply only to schools you would attend, and to keep an open mind throughout. In general, we never advise former applicants to reapply when they were accepted to at least one U.S. allopathic medical school previously. Aside from the logistical issues of going through the process again when you already have an opportunity awaiting you, some schools will ask if you’ve been accepted to medical school before, and knowledge that you have been accepted would seriously damage your chances the second time around. Most schools feel, as we do, that enrollment in a U.S. medical school is a privilege and a wonderful thing. The only time we can think of where such a reapplication might be OK is if a serious personal crisis led you away from your goal in the midst of this application cycle (a death in the family, an illness, etc), and a number of years passed before you came back as an applicant; depending on the uniqueness of the situation, we suspect that med schools would understand why you stepped away from the chance to attend med school the first time around. But even in that scenario we would advise you to ask first for a one-year deferral, and try to renew that deferral if you needed more time to get back on track.
Etiquette for Informing a Med School You're Going Elsewhere
Question: What is the best etiquette for the letter I will send to XYZ School of Medicine telling them that I will not be attending? I have been accepted and I feel bad saying no to anyone.
Answer: Saying no is just part of this process for many applicants, and medical schools accept it and don't take it personally -- they want you to attend the school that's the best fit for you, and they have plenty of other eager applicants to fill your spot! Follow the instructions that you were given, if they were given -- often this will mean uploading something into an online portal or sending an email. If you weren't told specifically what to do, you could do both. Address your correspondence to the dean/director of admissions. If you have already accepted a seat in their entering class, simply say something like, "Thank you very much for your offer of admission, but I have decided after considerable thought and discussion with my family to attend another medical school. I am very grateful for the time spent considering my application. Sincerely . . ."
If you were interviewed but still don't have a final decision from the school--and still know you'd like to go elsewhere--, you can say, "I write to withdraw my application from further consideration at XYZ School of Medicine. I am grateful for the time spent considering my credentials and the opportunity to interview. Sincerely . . ."
Remember that AAMC "traffic rules" dictate that you choose ONE school by April 30.
What Happens When an Applicant Isn't Accepted?
Question: Hi HPA – I know that most students get into medical school but what about the ones who don’t? What do they usually do?
Answer: Of the approximately 50 students who were not accepted over the past four years, about 2/3 of them reapplied in a later year and were accepted. Most, but not all of them took two years – it is common to take a year to to address any areas of the candidacy that needed strengthening (and take a step away from a long, stressful to reflect and regroup), then put the application in at the end of that year to go through the interview year. Commonly students need additional academic preparation to bring their metrics up, time to retake the MCAT, time to gain more clinical exposure, or just time to be out in the real world and gain new perspectives and personal growth. We’ve had students reapply up to four times who were eventually accepted, and some who have expanded their school list to osteopathic (DO) schools or overseas MD programs to expand their options.
Of those who chose not to continue in the application process, some went into other health careers (dentistry, physician assistant, public health, nurse practitioner), some attended masters or doctoral programs to focus on the research aspect of health, some are approaching health as consultants, sales associates, or device makers in health-related companies, and some followed other passions to go into finance, software engineering, or law. It can be hard to track students who are not accepted since they often lose touch with our office, but we’re always happy to hear from past applicants about the directions in which life took them.