Applying to medical school is nowhere near as simple or straightforward as many pre-med students hope to believe.
The average med school application timeline – from start to finish – can take about 1.5 years.
But every student is different, and sometimes it can take even longer.
In this article, I will try to break down the entire application timeline step-by-step so that you have the best chance of going in prepared, no matter where you currently are in the process.
Let’s make sure nothing catches you by surprise.
I want to make sure that you know what is going to happen,
when it’s going to happen and, most importantly,
how to manage the entire process successfully.
An Overview of the Med School Application Process
Before we look at the process itself, let’s review what you need to get done PRIOR to submitting your application:
Medical School Prerequisite Courses
While every medical school is different, the following classes are most commonly required before matriculation into medical school:
- 1 year of general biology + lab
- 1 year of general chemistry + lab
- 1 year of physics + lab
- 1 or 2 semesters of organic chemistry + lab
The following are only required by some medical schools:
- 1 semester of biochemistry
- 1 semester of calculus
- 1 semester of statistics
And of course, a completed undergraduate degree, regardless of the discipline/major.
Note about Prerequisites:
You are not required to have completed all of your prereqs before applying to medical school, but you will have to complete them before matriculation.
This means you CAN continue to work on your sciences during the 1+ years that it takes to apply and get accepted into medical school.
Every medical school in the United States, most schools in Canada, as well as many other schools overseas, will require an MCAT score. While your MCAT does NOT have to be completed before you submit your application, it is highly recommended to ensure your application is not put aside and forgotten. And just to be safe, wouldn’t you rather wait to see your scores before sending off your application?
My advice? See how you score, and then submit your apps.
However, every situation is unique. If you find yourself navigating the application process BEFORE taking your MCAT, stop and read my advice in Applying to Medical School Before Your MCAT.
Along with your GPA, your MCAT score will help the admissions committees decide whether or not to review your application and potentially offer you an interview.
If you're wondering where to begin, read my guide on How to Start Studying for the MCAT. For even more on MCAT prep, check out my free Ultimate Guide to MCAT Prep. It will help you formulate a concrete study plan by helping you figure out where you stand now, identify your goals, and then figure out what it takes to reach them.
Letters of Recommendation
Another thing to consider is the timeline for your letters of recommendation. Professors are notorious for taking their time on these.
Just because you’re in a rush, doesn’t mean they have it at the top of their to-do list. Whatever you do, DON’T wait until the last minute to ask for them. If you don’t have them yet, start asking NOW (or at least in the months before you’re thinking of applying).
Once all of these – your prerequisite classes, MCAT, and LORs – are done (or underway), the primary application can be completed, and the waiting can begin.
The Med School Application Timeline
The ideal year prior to matriculation looks something like this.
I say ideal because, in working with non-trads, I’ve seen every conceivable unconventional path.
- Primary Applications – Summer
- Secondary Applications – Summer/Fall
- Interviews – Fall/Winter
- Acceptance – From Fall all the way to start of med school
Your initial medical school application is the most time consuming aspect of the whole process. This application includes everything from personal statements and essays to filling out various forms about your background, coursework, extracurriculars, work experience, and anything else you’ve done up to this point in your academic and professional career. On top of this, you’ll also need to submit letters of evaluation and standardized test scores.
Given the amount of effort that goes into the primary application, you cannot think of this as something to ‘knock out quickly’. Instead, think of this as taking a full-time college course, one in which you invest a few hours every week to work on collecting and inputting your information, writing your essays, and revising and improving your personal statement.
If you’re still studying for your MCAT, consider also dedicating a few hours per week to slowly chip away at your application. This ensures it’s not left for the last minute.
Most medical schools in the United States (and Canada) use one of the following centralized application platforms:
The American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) is the primary application processing service for most MD applicants to U.S. medical schools. It typically opens during the first week of May for the next year’s class.
Submissions begin around the first week of June, which gives you at least a month (or more time, if desired) to work on and complete your application.
The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS) is for DO applicants to osteopathic medical schools. Similar to AMCAS, its application cycle also opens during the first week in May with submissions beginning around mid-June.
The Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS) is the primary application processing service for all of the public (and some private) medical, dental, and veterinary schools in the state of Texas. Its application opens on May 1st, while the first applications are transmitted to schools on June 1st.
The Ontario Medical Schools Application Service (OMSAS) is the application service for the six medical schools in Ontario. Applications open in July, and students must submit their completed application by early October to be considered.
Primary Application Verification Process
Once you complete and submit your primary application, it then goes through a verification process. During verification, the application service will complete a detailed comparison of the information you enter about your completed coursework and what your official university transcript says. (Note: Try to be as correct as possible when filling this out!)
AMCAS also re-calculates your GPA during verification. Do NOT be alarmed if the AMCAS GPA differs from what’s on your transcript. This is because the application service uses a given formula to standardize GPAs to account for the fact that applicants are from institutions with different academic calendars and different grading systems.
Depending on the time of year and how many applications are coming in at the same time, this process can take anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks. I recommend planning for 5 weeks, just in case.
Omissions and/or incorrect information can delay your application’s verification. It is the rule that more than 10 omissions or errors will require AMCAS to send your application back to you for re-submission.
The other application platforms have similar verification processes, in which a student’s completed coursework and GPA are compared to their official transcript to check that everything matches and is accurate.
Once your application is verified, it gets forwarded to the schools of your choosing.
You do NOT have to specify every school in advance.
This means you can choose just one school when you first submit your application. Then, when you know it’s verified and ready to go, you can choose additional schools to receive your application. After designating additional schools, you must recertify, update the application, and pay the additional fees. Updating the application in this way should NOT delay the processing, meaning the newly selected schools should see your applications right away.
Why does this matter?
If you’re stuck in a race against the clock, where you want to apply early but don’t feel ready to take your MCAT, one trick to beat the timeline is to complete and submit your application to a single ‘burn’ school.
This is a school that, if rejected, won't set you back too much.
Then, after your application is verified and your MCAT scores are in, you can decide if the numbers are good enough to apply. At this point, you simply add in all of your dream schools and instantly submit a complete application without having to wait for an entire multi-week verification process.
Phew! Your applications are in. You can finally sit back and relax!
Not so fast…
Your primary application was unfortunately just the first step. A comprehensive, but somewhat ‘generic’ resume if you will.
The secondary application is a chance for the schools to get to know YOU better.
Which means many, many more essays.
And unfortunately, even more application fees.
Some schools will automatically send a secondary application.
Others will only send secondaries to students who meet their specific criteria.
This means that, once your primary application is verified, you will be hit with an influx of secondary applications over the coming weeks and months.
Usually starting the day your primary was verified and continuing through the summer and fall of the year before matriculation to medical school.
Turnaround for these secondary applications is critical!
Many students rush to take their MCAT and submit their applications in the hopes of getting in early for rolling admissions (most US schools).
But then, when secondaries come in, they take their time.
Don’t lose any early-MCAT advantages you had by delaying your secondaries! These are just as critical for getting you to that early interview.
How do you ensure you don’t waste the precious buffer you built by testing and applying early?
Triage your secondaries to create a system for timely completion, as follows.
Start writing your secondary application essays even before you receive the actual requests.
How can you do that if every school has different essay prompts?
While every school may be unique, they don’t always change their essays from year to year. This means you can research what was asked in prior application cycles and start writing accordingly. Create a Google drive folder or similar repository where you keep your prompts and essays.
You can also check out Dr. Gray’s Medical School Secondary Application Essay Library to see what prompts other students have received from certain schools for their secondaries.
And if I haven’t convinced you yet… also listen to his podcast about the importance of timeliness in submitting secondary applications: Does It Matter How Fast I Turn Around My Secondary Essays?
Create Your Triage List
Some schools judge secondary turnaround time more than others.
While this isn’t clearly known, I recommend researching to find out which schools prize timeliness in their secondary submissions.
2- Create your List
Of all the schools you’ve applied to, I bet there are some you’d be more excited to attend than others. Rank all of your schools in a list of priority with your first choice school at the top and your fallback schools at the bottom.
This is your triage list.
Unless a school is known to not judge turnaround time, you will set your secondary application completion goals by the sequence of this list.
If you receive back-to-back secondaries from school choice numbers 5, then 10, then 3, aim to complete your secondary applications in the order 3, 5, then 10.
If school choice number 6 sends you a secondary while you’re still on number 5, the secondary for number 10 is now delayed as you complete and submit for number 6.
Follow this plan within reason, as you slowly complete and submit all of your secondary applications, ideally within 30 to 60 days of receipt.
Whatever you do, please don’t be the student who rushed to test in April, submitted their primary application on time in June, and then took until November to begin turning in their secondaries. Instead, submit the secondary as fast as you can, without sacrificing quality (or sanity) in the process.
If you apply early enough in the cycle, you may have some breathing room before receiving secondary applications. Some will come within days of submitting your primary. Others might take months to receive.
But the later you apply, the sooner you’ll get slammed with lots of secondaries at once. So plan and prepare accordingly!
Most medical schools will set a deadline for secondary submissions in December or January. Others might specify a window of two weeks or 30 days from receipt for submission. No matter the deadline, get those secondaries in!
The Waiting Game
And now comes the absolute worst part of the application cycle:
And even more waiting.
I’m an action-taker, with ADHD.
Give me a challenge where I have to DO something, and I’ll be all over it.
Tell me to wait, and I will absolutely lose my mind!
Over the course of my IVF and fertility journey, I’ve had to do a LOT of waiting.
At first, I dealt with it by driving myself crazy.
Googling, researching, reading, obsessing, all while waiting for the next step.
I regained my sanity when I learned to channel my waiting and frustration into healthy, time-consuming activities.
In addition to work, I channeled my stress into fitness, hobbies, spending time with people (mostly virtual or masked thanks to the pandemic), and dare I say, lots of Netflix.
Instead of driving yourself insane,
How can you use this time to better yourself as a person and/or as a future doctor?
Can you take on extra volunteering, research, or clinical work?
Can you learn a new language or pick up a new hobby or skill?
And let’s not forget about preparing for the next step– the interview.
The Medical School Interview
Interviews typically begin as early as late July and can run all the way through February prior to matriculation.
Getting the coveted interview does NOT mean you will be accepted.
The interview is your opportunity to win your seat, so make sure you are as prepared as can be.
You can begin by reading Dr Ryan Gray’s book: The Premed Playbook Guide to the Medical School Interview
And consider dedicating a few hours each week to researching and practicing interview questions. Too many students go into their first interviews unprepared, hoping to get the hang of it as they go.
You put so much time and effort into your academics, MCAT, and application.
You can't afford to get complacent now.
You HAVE TO train for this.
Anticipate the questions.
Formulate thoughtful and concise responses.
Lastly, be informed about your own application and personal statement.
What’s worse than incorrectly answering a question about yourself?
Once you complete an interview, you’ll likely hear from the schools within a few weeks, letting you know whether you’ve been accepted, rejected, or waitlisted.
So what does this mean?
Congratulations!! You’ve been offered a coveted seat for the upcoming school year. You don’t have to make a decision right away. Instead, you do need to think long and hard about whether this is the school you want to attend.
Unless it’s your dream school, it’s okay to wait a bit to see how many other acceptances you receive. It’s best to see all of your options clearly before choosing the medical school that is best for you and your situation. AAMC protocols require students to narrow their acceptances to no more than 3 schools by April 15. After that, students must choose the one school which they plan to attend by April 30 and withdraw any acceptances from other schools or programs.
Unfortunately, you will receive quite a few rejections.
When it happens, it will feel like a sucker punch to the gut and a dagger to the heart, all at the same time. You will feel miserable and crushed. You may spend the day crying and start questioning why you even went down the pre-med path in the first place.
This is absolutely okay!
You’re a human being. Don’t expect yourself to simply brush it off and move on.
Give yourself the time to mourn. Give yourself a reasonable time to grieve, but then pick yourself up and keep going.
Because you will get rejections, perhaps ALL rejections, during your first application cycle.
But remember, you only fail when you fail to get back up. And all it takes is ONE acceptance.
So keep going!
If rejected, I urge you to reach out to the school and see if they’ll let you know why you were rejected.
As painful as it may be, you will learn a lot.
Once, I had a student tell me ‘I think I need a higher MCAT score.’
But when I made her reach out to the schools, the results were astounding.
Their feedback was in regards to her application. They told her it read too much like an impersonal CV and less like a human being dedicated to medicine. She sought help to update her application and got accepted the following year, without having to retake her 507 MCAT.
This is the most painful reply. Being put on the waitlist means you’re in limbo. You haven’t been accepted, but you haven’t been rejected. This means that while they don’t have a seat for you yet, you’re on a list.
Every time an accepted student says ‘no thank you’ due to choosing another school, another name comes off the waitlist to get an acceptance. Given that each student has some time to decide, the waitlist is a slow process.
I’ve had students who never got off the waitlist (but applied and got accepted again next cycle), and some who came off the waitlist as late as 3 weeks before the white coat ceremony, when they were about to lose their minds while waiting.
What do you think?
As you can see, the medical school application process is a lengthy one, with intense hard work and deadlines every step of the way. The hard work doesn’t end after your MCAT either as you’ll find yourself working on primary applications, secondary applications, and interview prep. Then the waiting begins.
Knowing what to expect will ensure that you’re prepared and also that you won’t be caught off guard with what you need to do every step of the way.
I want to hear from you.
Which aspect of the med school application timeline do you find most daunting, and why?
Let me know in the comments below.