How to Get into Medical School

There and Back Again: A Student's Tale

The following is adapted from a 2013 presentation by George Fox University graduate Austin Park, who majored in chemistry. He was accepted and is attending the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver, Colorado. It is an excellent summary of the application process by someone who has not only applied, but who has been accepted. Updated in April 2015 with help from Luke Rines.  Updated in May 2017 with help from Aidan Morrell.

One does not simply get into medical school meme


The following is the advice I can give concerning the process of applying to medical school. That said, there is more than one way to do this. I might not have the best way, so this is not gospel.

Letters of Recommendation

Read our procedure for requesting letters of recommendation from faculty. This must be completed prior to faculty writing you a letter of recommendation. Give your recommenders plenty of time to write their letters,  at least three weeks.  Follow the steps outlined on this document,  Pre-Med Letters of Recommendation Process and Requirements

  • January to September: Take the MCAT
  • Beginning of May: AMCAS primary application opens
  • Beginning of June: AMCAS primary application opens for submission
  • Schools have differing deadlines for submission
  • July to ~January: Secondary application submission
  • September to ~April: Interviews
  • October to August: Acceptance/waitlist/rejection

APPLY EARLY. This CANNOT be said enough. Set yourself up for success by completing each step of the application process as early as possible. If you’re like me and do not want to take a gap year, you should be taking the MCAT around May of the year you will apply (summer before senior year).

So you want to be a doctor: Here's what you can do now

  • Make sure you meet the requirements for ALL schools you apply to, generally:
    • 1 year of General Biology with lab (Some schools require Genetics)
    • 1 year of General Chemistry with lab
    • 1 year of Organic Chemistry with lab (Some schools require Biochemistry)
    • 1 year of Physics with lab
    • 1 year of English (Literature or Composition)
    • 1 year of Math (Calculus or Statistics)
    • Med school requirements differ from one school to the next
    • Check each school for individual requirements
  • Shadow Physicians
    • Find a doctor you can shadow
    • Explore different specialties
  • Volunteer
    • Schools place HIGH value on volunteerism in clinical AND nonclinical settings.
      • Clinical = hospitals, clinics, etc.
      • Non-clinical = George Fox James Project, Kin-dom Events, Habitat for Humanity, etc.
    • Be Involved
    • Pro Tip: Whatever you do, show long term commitment
  • Research!
    • Helps familiarize you with the scientific process
      • Understanding primary literature
      • Running experiments
      • Grant proposals
      • Publications look great on resume
      • Get to know faculty better
    • Some medical schools require scholarly projects (AKA research)
  • This process is expensive. Start saving now.
    • MCAT: $310
    • Primary application: $160 base, $37/school
    • Secondary application: $50-$150 each
    • Flights and hotel: $200-$500 depending on location
    • Getting into medical school: Priceless
    • The AMCAS has a Fee Assistance Program
  • Start thinking about your personal statement and which schools you might attend
  • Pro Tip: The MSAR database provided by AAMC is an invaluable resource . It is 100% worth the money to subscribe to it so you can research potential med schools.    Currently, $28 for a one year subscription.
  • The MCAT

Study all the things meme

MCAT Basics

  • Medical College Admissions Test
  • Try to take it before you apply
    • Pro Tip: You don’t *need* your MCAT scores to submit your primary application (Aidan took the MCAT May 20, submitted his primary June 5, and had the scores automatically added to his primary sometime late June.)
  • Scores are good for three years

The MCAT (2015 revision) Basics

  • Average applicant’s MCAT : 502*
  • Average matriculant’s MCAT: 509*
  • Scores over 508 are considered competitive
  • You want to have balanced subscores. (Ex. 128,128,127,127 instead of 132,124,131,123)
  • You can retake the MCAT
    • Generally your most recent score is the one used in evaluations, although it does vary from school to school

* MCAT Scores and GPAs
* MCAT® Exam: Year at a Glance

The MCAT (2015) Preparation

  • Pay attention in your classes
    • Don’t take classes to "study" for the MCAT
      • That being said, biochemistry and developmental biology helped me on the test
  • The AAMC offers online MCAT practice products
    • For a fee, of course
    • These WILL help you study, 100%, no doubt
  • Kaplan, Examkracker, Princeton Review are all commonly used.
    • Prices range from $100-$10,000
    • May or may not help
      • Austin took Kaplan course, Aidan didn’t. Both got accepted.

MCAT (2020 - COVID) Format (through end of 2020) - check MCAT webpage directly for updates

  • 4 Sections
    • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
      • 48 questions over 76 minutes
    • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
      • 48 questions over 81 minutes
    • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems 
      • 48 questions over 76 minutes
    • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
      • 48 questions over 76 minutes
      • Pro Tip: Passage based questions are different from those on your science tests at George Fox. You are not expected to be an expert on the passage information, only to be able to understand and apply it.
    • That’s right ladies and gentlemen, The MCAT DOES test psychological and sociological concepts. It might NOT be a good idea to find and take that Gen Psych class that doesn’t give exams...


  • Opens beginning of May, available for submission beginning of June
  • General application sent to whatever schools you pick
  • 9 different sections (Some take longer than others)
  • It takes 4-6 weeks for the AMCAS to verify your application after you submit it (Again, get it in early!)

Primary Application Sections Overview

Look up AAMC’s primary application instruction manual on their website, it lays each section out very clearly and will be the best, most up to date, resource for answering your questions about the primary. Here is a rough overview of the primary application.

  • Identifying Information
    • Name
    • Social security number
    • Place of birth
    • Etc.
  • Schools Attended
    • High school, any undergraduate institutions (including community college!)
    • Institutional action
      • Don’t pay a visit to Student Life
  • Biographical Information
  • Coursework
    • Every. Single. Class. You've. Taken.
      • Also your class grades
  • Work/Activities
    • List up to 15 activities, given 700 characters to describe them
      • Volunteering, research, clubs, etc.
    • List up to 3 activities as "most meaningful experience"
      • Given 1,325 additional characters to describe why you designated activity as most meaningful
      • Austin's meaningful: Rock climbing, Organic Chemistry TA, and OHSU research
      • Aidan’s meaningful: Habitat for Humanity skilled volunteer, Providence hospital volunteer, physician shadowing
    • Hobbies also make great additions to activities
      • E.g. baking, dancing, filmmaking. Whatever you do in your spare time that is meaningful to you.
      • These can contribute heavily to well-roundedness!
      • Pro tip: These can/did come up in interviews so make sure you’re serious about your hobby if you list it!
  • Letters of Evaluation
    • Most schools require 3-5 letters of recommendation
      • Some schools require letters to be sent with the primary application, others with secondary
      • Be pro-active with these and pick-up the Pre-med Letter of Recommendation form if you want to get letters from George Fox faculty!
    • Almost all schools participate in the AMCAS Letter Service
    • Who writes the letters
      • Remember those doctors you’ve shadowed and researchers you’ve worked for? Ask them.
      • Basic science faculty
        • Some schools require one letter from non-science faculty
      • Employers
    • The more your recommenders know you, the better
      • Include resumé and personal statement (if you can)
      • Give plenty of time (1-2 months)
  • Medical Schools
    • Designate which schools to send primary application to
    • Also designate which letters of recommendation to send to which schools
    • Apply to a wide range of schools (use MSAR !)
      • It really is a numbers game, so take this list very seriously!
      • Pro tip: Putting enough time into compiling the right list of schools to apply to is arguably just as important as the hard work and research you put into deciding what to include on your application.
    • Things to consider:
      • Cost
      • Location
      • Public vs. private
      • Research vs. primary care focus
      • Students *usually* have a home state advantage (Sorry in advance...don’t count on getting love from OHSU)
    • MSAR: Medical School Admission Requirements
      • Resource put together by AAMC
      • Cost: ~$28 (as if applying isn't expensive enough)
        • Tells you school stats, programs, entering GPA/MCAT score, selection factors, etc.
  • Essays
    • AMCAS Personal Statement
    • 5,200 characters including spaces
    • Prompt: "Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school"
      • You MUST address the two golden questions:
        • Why do you want to go to medical school?
        • Why are you a good medical school candidate?
      • This is a good space to differentiate yourself from the pack
      • Austin compared himself to Samwise Gamgee from "The Lord of the Rings"
      • Another student used examples of fictional and real-life heroes to demonstrate his journey to medical school as a " hero's journey"
      • Be creative! This can win you big points during your interview.
      • Pro Tip: Don't talk about your most meaningful activities (that you listed earlier), you would get bored reading the same thing twice, too.
  • Standardized tests
    • See the results of your MCAT test
  • Schools either:
    • Review your primary application and then decide whether or not to send you their secondary
    • Automatically send you secondary application
  • Completed online
  • Usually require 0-5 more essays, such as:
    • Why X school?
    • Give us a brief autobiography of your life.
    • What do you want to do in medicine?
    • How will you contribute to this school’s diversity?
      • DIVERSITY!!! Diversity is the most commonly-asked question on secondaries
        • Start thinking about it now!
        • Doesn't necessarily have to be race/social class. Some students use experiences with others or coming from a small town as examples of diversity. Everyone is diverse somehow.
  • Pro tip: Looking up these essay prompts online and pre-writing them can save you tons of time and help speed up your turn around time!
  • Deadlines range from 3 weeks (from time of receipt) until ~December

Brace yourselves: hearing back from secondaries takes forever meme

Medical School Interviewing Basics

  • Invitations to interview can come from October – April
  • Good opportunity to check out your fit with the school
  • Some schools will assign you a date, others will let you choose one
    • Choose the earliest possible interview
    • Pro tip: Check to see if you can stay with a med student for your interviews, also, AirBNB and Uber are your friend.
  • Schools may have option to stay with student host
    • Great way to see the school from the students' eyes
    • Save money on hotels
  • Interviews are an excellent indicator that the school likes you (duh)
  • The function of the interview is the same as the personal statement
    • Why would you make a good doctor?
    • Why should X school want you in their program?
  • Interviews can take on many forms:
  • One-on-one and MMI interviews are most common
  • You can be interviewed by both students and/or faculty
  • Interviews can be conversational or question-answer

Preparing for Medical School Interviews

  • Arrive early, helps reduce stress
  • Dress to impress (You are aspiring to be a professional)
  • Bring pencil and paper
  • Know and understand the basics of current issues in medicine, as well as ethical scenarios
    • Health care reform
    • Euthanasia
    • Stem cells
    • Etc.
    • Study up!
  • Be ready to address any troublesome aspects of your application
    • Poor GPA
    • Institutional discipline from our pals at student life
    • Contradictions in application
    • Etc.
  • Have a couple of well-thought-out questions
  • Set up mock interviews with George Fox faculty
  • Look up possible interview questions on the internet
    • Helps get you in the right mindset
  • Research the school before you go
    • Understand unique aspects of the curriculum
  • Pro Tip: Consistency is good, so is answering questions based on your life experience, it shows depth of character
  • The function of the interview is the same as the personal statement
    • Why would you make a good doctor?
    • Why should X school want you in their program?
  • Congratulations!
  • Be sure to send in acceptance paperwork to reserve your spot
    • Schools require a deposit, may or may not be refundable
  • You may hold multiple acceptances until ‘Traffic day’ (May 1st for Austin)
  • If you are definitely not going to a school, politely decline to free up your spot for another student

Not sure if I was a good candidate or I just got lucky meme

  • I'm sorry. It sucks.
  • Some schools offer workshops and exit interviews to improve application for the future
  • Most schools look at re-applicants favorably
    • Pro tip: Do not rush into re-applying with the same application unless you want the same results
  • Try to improve upon weak portions of your application
    • Volunteering (clinical and non-clinical)
    • Shadow physicians
    • GPA or MCAT
    • Pro Tip: Look at the data on MSAR to see what competitive applicants look like for each school
  • We can all agree that the process is awful
  • Hang in there, keep perspective and try to stay objective about your application
  • You can overcome a poor GPA or bad MCAT score
  • Great Ted talk on rejection:  what_i_learned_from_100_days_of_rejection

Suboptimal grades, made it into medical school meme


If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact Dr. Jeff Vargason (chemistry), or Dr. John Schmitt (biology), the Biology and Chemistry department's pre-med committee.

Learn More About Our Pre-Med Program