Questions About the Application Process

Preapplication summer preparation 

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?

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 core 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).

Navigating application expenses 

I was talking to a senior who said I should start saving my money for med school applications now. What’s the average that a student spends on applying?

There are many costs associated with applications, but few are set – most will vary depending on the student. The MCAT costs $300, but preparation can range from a few hundred to a few thousand depending on your preparation method. Your primary (common) application will cost $160 for the first school, and $39 for each additional school. The average student applies to about 20 schools, so that’s about $850 for your primary application. You will receive secondary applications from most if not all of your schools, and those range from $0 to $100+ depending on the school; you’ll likely spend around $1500-2000 on secondaries. So, that’s in the neighborhood of $3000+ MCAT prep and interview expenses. You’re responsible for your interviews – professional clothes, travel, lodging – depending on the proximity of the interviews, this cost will vary widely.

This is one of the many reasons we advise students not to apply until they feel competitive enough to gain acceptance to medical school. We have seen more than one student worried about the strength of their candidacy, who applied to 50+ schools, hoping someone would take a chance on them. The cost for 50 applications will likely end up around $7000, money that would be better spent on taking some postbac courses to improve academic metrics, or supplement income to allow an applicant to accrue more volunteer hours, or otherwise be used to bringing the candidacy to a more competitive level before applying.

There are ways to help mitigate the expenses along the way. Students from low-income backgrounds can apply to the AAMC Fee Assistance Program (FAP; similar fee assistance is available for dental school applications and the DAT), which reduces some application costs. The FAP lasts for two years and provides a lot of benefits, including free MCAT prep materials, access to the MSAR (which is critical for school selection), and a number of free applications. Shopping consignment, outlets, and discount stores can reduce clothing costs (suits are most often on sale in January and July as the seasons change). Keeping your school list local can reduce interview travel costs. Saving up frequent flyer miles or credit card award points can help when you have to travel. Many medical schools have volunteer students who will host you during your interview visit so that you don’t have to stay in a hotel.

Communicating with admissions officers 

I’ve registered for a Virtual Fair with med school reps but I'm not sure if I'll even apply to med school. What should I expect?

It’s great practice to attend graduate school and job fairs before it “counts.” It helps to have developed a one-minute introduction that you can give of yourself (name, concentration, class year, where you’re from, one or two interesting things about you), and then have a couple of questions you want to ask. Some examples: “Do you have suggestions on how to spend the summer as a freshman – it can be hard to find internships without more experience,” or “What advice do you have about how to decide if medicine is right for me?” or “What have Princeton students liked about your school?” You should also be prepared to answer some questions about yourself and your interests. If you’re shy or anxious about attending, you can just sit and observe in the chatrooms. It’s okay to just go and check it out without engaging with the reps – at least you’ll know what a fair is like for future reference! 

See the Center for Career Development guides on attending in-person and virtual fairs for more tips. Also, check out the AAMC’s Do’s and Don’ts for Virtual Fair participants and the Student Doctor Network's 10 Tips for Making the Most of a Virtual Fair.

Is it appropriate to visit medical schools before I apply? Can I call the school and ask for a tour or a meeting?

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. 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.  

During admissions presentations, how specific can my questions be?  Can I ask them about my grades?

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 school's 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, where individual concerns shouldn't take over the group's time. Admittedly, one-on-one time is rare. Remember 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 contact information of the person you're talking to, and follow up with additional questions (within reason!) after the event. 

Individual candidacy concerns 

I was told by one doctor I shadowed that this is the “era of primary care” and I should portray myself (in the application and interview) as going into pediatrics.  Do medical schools really give a preference to students interested in primary care?

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 the majority of 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 premed 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.  If you have experience within specific specialties that have raised your interest, it's fine to share that information, but no one is looking for you to commit to any specialty, or even to primary care more generally.

I know I shouldn't compare myself to others, but it's hard not to. I'm really worried that my disciplinary probation from last year will immediately make me a weaker candidate than so many other applicants. How can I best address this in my application?

First, we know from conversations we have with your peers that virtually every applicant feels like they are inferior to their peers. The phenomenon of comparing your insides to others' outsides runs rampant among premeds (and Princetonians in general: case in point, this article written by a very successful alum). Keep in mind that you have amazing strengths as an applicant (and person!), that medical schools value resilience and perseverance, and do your best to move forward in this process with confidence. If you don't yet feel confident in yourself as an applicant, admissions committees and interviewers are going to sense your self-doubt and doubt your readiness for the next step. 

That said, it's helpful to know what areas of your application may benefit from additional context and enhancement. With a disciplinary action, one of the best remedies is just time--the further in the past the incident was (with no repeated issues), the less of a concern it will be. If there are lessons learned from the situation that you can parlay into actions, that can demonstrate a lot of personal awareness and growth--for example, if it was an alcohol violation, going through BASICS training and then becoming a peer educator who helps others understand healthy behaviors. It may also help to have one of your recommendation letter writers address the situation if they worked with you through it, talk about what you learned and how you matured from it. Plus, you'll talk with HPA about the situation and we'll provide additional context and information in your committee letter packet. This holds true for other areas of concern where context and advocacy could help, like a single semester where your grades slipped, a low section score on the MCAT, or a need to pursue postbac coursework: reflecting on what went wrong, taking action to address it, and having recommenders and HPA explain in more detail (while also highlighting the strengths of your candidacy) can help to allay concerns that admissions committees may have.

I’d like to discuss how the pandemic has impacted my premed preparation when I apply to medical school. Where in the application should I include this information?

The osteopathic (DO) medical school common application (AACOMAS) has specific prompts and space for a short essay for applicants to address this. The allopathic (MD) medical school application (AMCAS) does not, so there are a few places you can include this information: 

  1. In the common application, you can include up to 15 work/activities entries and write a short essay about each one. You could include “response to Covid19" as one of your work/activities entries.
  2. In secondary applications, many medical schools are including a question whose prompt would allow you to address the pandemic. This may be a prompt asking for a time you faced a challenge, or one about ways you’ve demonstrated resilience, or one that simply asks you if there’s any additional information that you’d like to share that was not addressed elsewhere in the application.
  3. HPA will include information about the changes in grading policies that will be sent to schools with each applicant’s committee letter. We will also ask applicants to share information about the impact of the pandemic on their lives and work with them to incorporate this into the committee letter if they would like us to do so.
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?

There is rarely a single, solitary factor that keeps a student from gaining acceptance to medical school -- it's generally a 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);
  • generic letters of recommendation; 
  • 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);
  • issues with professionalism; 
  • 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.  

MD vs. MD/PhD 

I’m about to apply to medical school but I’m still on the fence about MD versus MD/ PhD. Does anyone apply to both? How does the application process differ between the two? Is it more competitive to get into an MD/PhD program?

About 10-15% of our applicants in a given year apply MD/PhD; Princeton gives you a better taste of what it might be like to carry out independent research at the doctoral level than most colleges and universities, and many students develop a passion for inquiry within their discipline.

That said, some of the students most passionate about their research also choose to apply MD only with plans to incorporate research into their four years in medical school. Students applying MD/PhD complete the same “common application” (the AMCAS), but some of the details are a little different:

  • Essays: MD/PhD candidates write two additional essays: one about their rationale for pursuing the dual degree and the other detailing their research experiences.
  • Standardized tests: most programs will only require the MCAT, but some may ask for a GRE score – be sure to check your prospective schools’ requirements.
  • School Selection: your research interests will come into play as you decide where to apply. Some of our applicants choose to apply to some schools MD only and some schools MD/PhD, depending on what a given medical school offers.
  • Letters of recommendation: some programs will ask for letters from each of your significant research experiences.
  • Interviews: most interviews will be over two days while MD only interviews are one day. You’ll meet with potential research mentors as part of the MD/PhD interview process.

Statistically speaking, the acceptance rate for MD/PhD candidates is not too different from MDonly candidates. In 2019, there were 1,813 applicants and 708 matriculants, so about 39% of students who applied eventually matriculated into an MD/PhD program, and we can assume (based on our experience with our own applicants) that some of applicants who were not accepted MD/PhD joined MD only programs. MCAT and GPA metrics for MD/PhD were a touch higher than for MD only applicants nationally (see AAMC FACTS Data), and we’ve seen the same for our Princeton applicants, but we’ve also seen success for students from a range of academic metrics, from a 3.1 GPA supplemented with postbac science coursework, up to a 4.0, with MCAT scores from the 84th through 100th percentile (512-526). The commitment to research, as demonstrated through experience and supported by letters of recommendation, can make a significant impact on the success of an MD/PhD candidate. You can find more specifics in our Explore Careers: Physician Scientist page on the HPA website. This FAQ is particularly useful.

Reapplying 

I have one med school acceptance but there were many schools that did not interview me but I really think I have a shot at.  I’m thinking that I’d like to reapply.  I really do not want to go to School X.  Can I reapply?

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. medical school. Aside from the logistical issues of going through the process again when you already have an opportunity awaiting you, 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. 

I know that most students get into medical school but what about the ones who don’t? What do they usually do?

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 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.