medical education, medical school admissions

The medical school application cycle lasts for a few months and could go on for up to a year for some students! While applications can be submitted as early as April, waitlisted applicants may not get their acceptance letters till May of the following year. This is a nail-biting, stressful period in most applicants’ lives, usually coinciding with the last year of their undergraduate degree. Students have to keep up their GPA for their fourth year coursework along with trying to meet the regular milestones in their on-going medical school application timelines. And that’s not all! Students also have to prepare for the MCAT exam and build up their extracurricular profile with appropriate clinical experience, research work etc.

With all of this going on, and the fate of their future hanging in the balance, is it any wonder that aspiring medical school students often feel overwhelmed and stressed out during this period of their lives? While for some, this period ends with the joy and relief of finally getting an acceptance letter, others are left exhausted and drained with only rejections to show for their hard work. Either way, the long rigors of the med school application process take their toll on students’ mental health and thus, they are not set up for success in the next phase of their life.

So how can you avoid this? How can you manage to keep up with the many demands on your time and attention while also retaining some amount of sanity and mental peace?

Here are some tips to help you:

Be Organized and Efficient

The first step to managing stress during the medical schools’ admissions season is to plan ahead. There’s no getting around the fact that there’s a lot to be done in a short amount of time. Make a feasible plan to help you complete and submit all your medical school requirements in time. Do your research about how much time each activity will take you and accordingly, allocate time for each task and then move on to the next. Break the big tasks, such as MCAT prep, writing essays, collecting letters of recommendation, studying for finals, completing primary applications, and preparing for interviews, into smaller tasks. For example, you can allocate time to prepare for different sections of the MCAT and take practice tests over the course of a few months. You can set aside a dedicated time for writing first, second and third drafts of your personal statement for medical school. You can review the requirements and deadlines for each medical school from their website and accordingly plan out what needs to be done and when to sit down to fill in and submit the applications. That way, when the time for submitting applications rolls around, you should already have the individual components and required documents ready on hand.

Another tip is to remember to plan ahead for every step of the admissions process and cut off unnecessary stress wherever possible. For example, typically, you will only have two to four weeks to complete and submit your medical school secondary essays. You can find out when to expect the secondary applications from the school admissions website and make sure you have some time set aside in that period to complete them.

Many schools also have early assurance medical programs for high-achieving students. Sometimes, early assurance program matriculants can skip some of the traditional med school application components such as interviewing multiple times or submitting their MCAT score. The earlier you can secure a spot at a medical school, the fewer schools you will have to apply to. So this option can save you not only time, but also money.

Staying organized, efficient, and proactive is crucial if you want to stay cool and calm during your med school applications cycle!

Build and Follow a Healthy Lifestyle

College isn’t exactly the time when young people are thinking about their health, fitness, or wellness. For many, it’s the first time they are living alone and enjoying freedom. This often leads to a lot of unhealthy habits like eating junk food, sleeping at odd hours, and lack of exercise. The irony is, future doctors are also guilty of these bad habits, simply because with their packed schedules, they often don’t get time to practice a healthier lifestyle. All these bad habits can contribute to poor physical health and reduce your ability to cope with the pressures of application season.

If you want to fix this, it’s best to start by making small changes and work towards incorporating them into your daily life till the new habits become normal for you. Start by focusing on these three aspects of your health: exercise, diet, and sleep. For example, take out half an hour from your schedule to exercise every other day. Exercise can refresh and energize you, allowing you to decompress a little before getting back into the grind. Rather than relying on coffee and sugary snacks as your source of energy, try incorporating fruits, veggies, and healthy fats into your diet. And finally, make sure you sleep the required 8 hours a day to avoid chronic fatigue and stress. Coffee is not a substitute for sleep!

Take regular breaks

While it’s important to create and follow a schedule to stay ahead of your medical school deadlines, it’s also crucial that you plan for regular breaks. Take a walk after a strenuous MCAT study session. After working on your essays for a few days, take a couple of days of break before returning to finalize them. Listen to some music to relax before you start doing mock interviews with common med school interview questions.

Without these little breaks, you’ll start feeling exhausted before your day has even begun. Proper rest and relaxation are key to keeping a positive frame of mind as you work towards your dream of becoming a doctor.

Cultivate Healthy Coping Mechanisms for the Long Term

This is an essential step for any aspiring medical student. It’s simple – if you’re not really able to cope with the pressures of the medical school application process, you will most likely also struggle with the workload of medical school in the future. On the other hand, if you can cultivate healthy coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety, these will serve you well all through your life in med school, during residency and beyond. Some examples of healthy coping mechanisms that help people deal with situational anxiety include deep breathing, meditation, exercise, and journaling.

Another advantage of practices like meditation and journaling is that you develop a more introspective mindset. This can actually help you as many components of the medical school application process require the applicant to talk about themselves, their story, their passion for medicine and so on. Taking the time to introspect about who you are, what your journey has been, how far you have come, and where you’re going is an essential part of the medical school applications process. For example, if you’re applying to medical schools in Texas, you’ll have to submit three essays including a personal statement, a TMDSAS personal characteristics essay and an optional essay. You’ll have to dig deep to find fresh material for each essay that also connects to your journey as a medical school applicant. Meditation and journaling can help you get into that reflective, creative mode with ease.

Seek Out Support

One of the worst things about the medical school application process is how overwhelming it is. It can be a lonely time as you see your to-do list get longer and longer and you feel you’ll never get it all done. That’s why it might be a good idea to seek out support from those who can help you in this process. For instance, if you’re struggling with your MCAT prep, you can take the help of an MCAT tutor or join an MCAT study group to help you through the process. Some students choose to join MCAT prep classes as they prefer a social learning environment with interactive Q&A sessions. Or, if you’re extremely nervous about interviews, you can ask your friends and family to help you conduct mock interviews. You can also look up successful matriculants from previous years and ask them for advice or guidance about application submissions, timelines, essays, and any other topic that’s confusing you. Talking to people who have successfully navigated the application process can boost your own confidence. Remember, it’s always better to reach out and ask for support when you need it, rather than trying to do it all by yourself. Sometimes, it’s as simple as being able to talk to a peer in your own situation so you know you’re not alone and can get through this.

Select Your Extracurriculars Carefully

For quite a few pre-meds students, the AMCAS Work and Activities and AMCAS Most Meaningful Experiences sections, and the equivalent sections in TMDSAS, are a greater source of stress than the letters of recommendation, MCAT or medical school interview! In these sections, applicants add information about their extracurricular activities and impactful work experience, including research work, clinical experience, shadowing experience, volunteer work, interests, hobbies and more. This part of your application that requires a long-term strategy. Motivated to impress their dream medical schools, many students take on much more than they can handle. They pack their schedules full of all different types of extracurriculars just for the sake of building up their medical school resume

First of all, this is a bad idea because admissions committees are looking for meaningful experiences. They value honesty and integrity and look for quality over quantity. Impressive extracurriculars are of no use if you are unable to effectively communicate the value you brought to each experience and the impact it had on you.

Secondly, indiscriminately picking out extracurriculars for the sake of your application is just creating unnecessary stress and fatigue in your life. Such extracurriculars will feel like work and drain your mental energy every day. Instead, take some time to try different activities till you find the ones which really inspire you. If you enjoy your extracurriculars, working on them will feel like a fun break rather than yet another boring task in a busy schedule.

Focus on the Tasks Rather than the Results

The medical school application process is highly competitive, and applicants can feel the pressure as they prepare their applications. Most students have a list of dream medical schools and safety or back-up medical schools. It’s always good practice to research each and every school you’re applying to. That way, you can make sure you have all the applicant components ready as per the necessary timelines. However, in this process, students often get overly focused on achieving specific results.

For instance, many students go through medical school admissions statistics to find out the median GPA and MCAT score of matriculants at their dream schools. It’s good to know these figures so you can plan which schools to apply to, but you should not get fixated on specific numbers for your personal goals. This is an inadvisable study strategy as it creates unnecessary pressure on you. Its much better to just focus on doing the best you can in your coursework, MCAT study sessions and practice tests and tracking your progress to see how you’re improving. Focus on growth and improvement, rather than specific “cut-off” figures. Many schools don’t even have a strict “cut-off” for either GPA or MCAT; while they do require students to show a good academic record, they may also accept average scorers who demonstrate other strengths.

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

Comparing yourself to others is an inefficient use of your time that typically exacerbates stress. Everybody is different – the strategy that works for you, may not necessarily work for others and vice-versa. For instance, another pre-med student might be taking on a lot of difficult coursework because they want to prepare for life at their dream medical school. This doesn’t mean you should look at them, panic, and suddenly increase your own course load! What’s the point of taking on a challenging course load if at the end of the semester, you get poor grades which pull your GPA down? Instead, evaluate your choices from the perspective of your own dreams, not someone else’s. What are the prerequisites for medical school for your target universities? Are you taking all the required classes? Do you have the bandwidth to take on some of their recommended classes too? These are the questions you should ask before you take a carefully considered decision about your course load.

Limit Your Time on Online Pre-Med Discussion Boards

The internet is a wonderful resource for students. Whenever you’re confused about any aspect of the medical school application process, it’s so easy to log in to online platforms, forums, and discussion boards and see how others in your situation are dealing with it. There are certainly some legitimate sources of information out there – for instance, you can check out this AAMC resource for medical school applicants dealing with application anxiety. But there are also numerous unofficial, unverified pieces of information passed around in online discussion boards such as premed Reddit which can actually amplify your anxiety.

First of all, remember not to trust everything you read online. You should always verify data for yourself by going to the official school admissions websites or the AAMC website. Otherwise, you might end up wasting time acting on false information or worse, you could mess up your application due to incorrect guidance. Next, even if you’re just looking to make some useful connections with people going through the same process as you, remember that it’s easy to lie on the internet. It’s much better to form peer support groups or study groups in real life than online. If you do go online, make sure all members are verified. Finally, looking around these websites can be extremely overwhelming. There’s so much information to process, so many different sources, often contradictory. It’s also easy to start comparing yourself to others and feeling inadequate. When that happens, you know it’s time to switch off.

Its not possible to avoid the internet completely during the medical school application process, as so much legitimate information is accessible there. Instead, try to limit your time there. Focus on research, fact-finding, and official data rather than reading unverified data and comparing your progress to other students.

The medical school application process is both long and exhausting, requiring students to go above and beyond to prove their suitability for medical school. This causes tremendous stress and fatigue, which can play strange tricks on your minds and maybe even make you doubt your dreams and abilities. Just remember every doctor was once exactly where you are and probably felt just like you do. If they can make it through, so can you!

With the tips we’ve provided above, you should be able to get through this med school application cycle with your peace of mind intact.