Rebounding From Medical School Rejections

For many medical school applicants, this is the time of year when a question they never dreamed they’d face — what if no medical schools admit me? — begins to seem all too real.

In 2016, 52,042 hopeful students applied to an average of 16 U.S. medical schools each, and only 21,030 ultimately matriculated. In other words, almost 60% of applicants came up empty.

If you’re facing that reality this year, the first thing you should do is give yourself a break. Many applicants get rejected by medical schools, and a lot of these students are quite competitive. Getting into med school is a tough process.

The important lesson is not to begin examining “what went wrong” from a spirit of failure or self-recrimination — if you keep your eyes on the prize, you can prevail. In fact, re-applicants make up between 18% and 50% of the incoming class at representative medical schools like LSU, University of Miami, Uniformed Services University, and East Carolina. According to the AAMC, re-applicants represented 27% of the overall U.S. medical school applicant pool in the 2016- 2017 entering year.

A Frank Assessment

As you prepare for your second at-bat, the first rule is not to reapply with last year’s application. Medical schools are emphatic that re-applications must be stronger than they were the first time around.

So, how do you know where to improve? Some medical schools, such as the University of Miami and Ohio State, offer feedback. Schools that invited you for an interview are the first ones you should approach for an honest appraisal. If they oblige with their assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, make this the basis of your plan for improving your re-application.

That said, most schools do not offer feedback on your application, and even when they do, it may not tell you anything you couldn’t have figured out on your own (or with the help of your pre-med advisor or an admissions consultant).

Use AAMC Data

The best starting point for your rejection assessment is usually a comparison of your “numbers” — that is, your MCAT score and GPA — with your target schools’ class profiles or with the American Association of Medical Colleges’ (AAMC) application data. Very often, your MCAT score or GPA (or both) were not at or near the average of the schools that rejected you. Clearly, if your numbers fall outside your target schools’ middle 50th percentiles, you’ll know exactly where your application rehabilitation process needs to start. And AAMC data can give you even more precise comparisons; in the application years from 2013–15, for example, only 14 percent of white applicants (the largest applicant group) with GPAs between 3.0–3.19 and MCAT scores between 27–29 were accepted by medical schools. Yet, with the same GPA range but the higher MCAT score of 30–32, their acceptance rate more than doubled to 29 percent.

If you suspect that your MCAT score was a key issue, and you didn’t use a test prep service last time, sign up for a course or tutor with a good track record and focus on the sections of the test that gave you the most trouble. When you schedule your retake, give yourself plenty of time for a third attempt — just in case it’s needed.

For GPA issues, it may be sufficient to enroll in specific undergraduate or extension courses at a local college if you only have a few blemishes on your transcript. The more significant your GPA problem, the more you might think about enrolling in a post-baccalaureate pre-med program or science-focused master’s program. But keep in mind that even stellar grades in a postbac program will be averaged into the rest of your undergraduate transcript, so the GPA needle may not move as much as you’d like.

Improve Your Execution

If your GPA and MCAT scores were basically in your target schools’ range, then your application strategy or execution may have been the culprit. For example, maybe you sent out too few applications (the average per applicant is 16) or made the mistake of targeting only the most selective programs. If the latter was the case in your first go-around, make sure the majority of your new target schools have average MCAT and GPA numbers that you either match or exceed, with some “reach” and “safety” schools making up the rest.

And don’t forget osteopathic schools. With the announcement in 2014 of a single graduate medical accreditation system for D.O. and M.D. programs alike, the idea that osteopathic schools are second-rate is outdated.

If you received multiple interview invitations but got no acceptance offers, you may need to work on your interview skills. Use friends, career services professionals, or admissions consultants to practice, practice, practice.

Whatever other steps you take to improve your application, you also need to rewrite your AMCAS personal statement — and yes, it will be compared to your first personal statement. It’s quite possible that this statement came across as a glorified checklist of pre-med qualifications (shadowing — check; lab research — check; clinical experiences — check) instead of a unified story that captured your passion, personality, and singularity. Rather than just revising last year’s essay, start over, focusing on how the experiences of your reapplication year have made you stronger and more committed to medicine.

Don’t Waste Time

Don’t think impatiently of the months between your med school rejection and your reapplication as a period of wheel-spinning. If you enroll in a post-bac or master’s program, you could spend non-classroom time studying for another shot at the MCAT (if you plan to take it again). Above all, deepen the clinical/patient-centered, research, or shadowing components of your applicant profile. Find a role — whether it’s paid or volunteer — that is related to medicine, in order to demonstrate your commitment to improving your application and thus your career. While it may feel like a “lost year,” this period could actually pay big dividends by enabling you to hit the ground in medical school with energy, focus, and stronger skills.

Be Honest With Yourself

What if your post-rejection assessment leads you to conclude that becoming a doctor isn’t the best-fit career for you? Above all, don’t go into denial. If your medical career dreams stemmed from external expectations rather than true passions, medical school rejection is the best thing that could have happened. Don’t let inertia or other peoples’ ideas set you up for future career misery. Rather, congratulate yourself for having the courage to make a major course correction.

Fortunately, you’re still young, and as a pre-med, you’re a smart person with a great academic transcript and a ton of impressive extracurriculars. Whatever you choose, remember that the skills and insights your past pre-med life gave you will add value to your new career. So wear your ex-pre-med scars with pride; you’ve earned them.

One of America’s most experienced admissions consultants (serving clients since 1997), Paul Bodine has helped hundreds of applicants worldwide gain admission to such elite medical and business schools as Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, Chicago, and Duke, among many others.