Ask a Medical School Admissions Expert: Dr. Michelle Finkel

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Dr. Michelle Finkel is a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Medical School. Upon completing her residency at Harvard, she moved up as a faculty member and eventaully became the Assistant Residency Director for Harvard Affiliated Emergency Medicine Residency where she interviewed many applicants and reviewed countless applications, personal statements, and resumés. Dr. Finkel is currently a board-certified Emergency Physician and the founder of Insider Medical Admissions.

VT: What is the single most important thing applicants should focus on in a medical school application?

Michelle: Your overall goal throughout the application process is to distinguish yourself from other candidates, and the best way to do that is by showcasing your achievements. The admissions process is a persuasive one: Your role is to convince medical schools that you deserve a slot at their institutions. The best way to persuade is with facts, just like a lawyer does when s/he is trying a case in front of a judge. Saying you are compassionate or hardworking is not convincing. You need to prove your value by relating your academic, clinical, research, community service, leadership, international, or teaching achievements in a way that builds your case.

VT: What are the biggest mistakes one can make on a med school application?

Michelle: A few of the mistakes I’ve see are as follows: 1) Excessive modesty. It's okay to be a shy person but not a shy applicant. 2) Applying unrealistically. Ensure you apply to enough schools and make sure your list includes true safety schools. To get a sense for your competitiveness, compare your GPA and MCAT scores with those in the Medical School Admissions Requirements book published by the AAMC and speak to an experienced advisor. 3. Having no clinical experience. Institutions not only want to see that you are committed to patient care, they need to ensure you have some small idea of what you are getting yourself into. 4. Sacrificing your GPA for extracurricular activities. Achieving academically is critical, even if you have a compelling candidacy in other ways. Applying to medical schools is like trying to get on a ride at Disneyland; if your grades are not as tall as their sign, they won't even let you get in line for consideration.  Applicants have told me they feel their bad grades have followed them like a criminal record. Don’t let this happen to you.

VT: How much time should be set aside to adequately prepare for and complete a med school application?

Michelle: Good writing takes a long time; successfully finding a qualified reader to critique a rough draft and then incorporating critical feedback takes even longer. Start to craft your personal statement, AMCAS activities, and “most important” statements in January with a goal of getting them submitted as early as possible, which is usually early June.

VT: What do med school admissions officers look for most in an applicant’s essays/personal statements?

Michelle: They are seeking example of achievement written in a compelling manner. In other words, a riveting essay that has no content – no evidence of a candidate’s achievements – isn’t adequate. Nor is a statement that has a lot of content but is boring to read.

VT: Is there anything on a student’s application that would automatically disqualify him/her from being considered for the program?

Michelle: These factors depend on the institution. Different schools weigh academics, MCAT scores, and extracurricular activities differently. Of note: AMCAS does include a criminal background check; illegal activity can be a deal breaker for many schools if not adequately explained.

VT: What undergrad majors best prepare one for med school applications?

Michelle: The key here is to excel academically in whatever major you choose. I’m not the kind of advisor who will tell you to pursue something you don’t like to get admissions officers’ attention. That tactic is not only annoying, it usually doesn’t work.

VT: Is there anything you might see on a student’s application that would quickly put them ahead in the running?

Michelle: A breadth of achievements – academic, clinical, research, community service, leadership, international, and teaching – are notable. Also, pursuing a passion successfully can get you noticed. When I was applying to medical school, I highlighted my work in domestic violence and sexual assault prevention. I showcased the leadership I had had in spearheading, coordinating and implementing a campus-wide awareness week. Pick something that calls to you, and really take it up a notch from what others have done in the past.

VT: What advice do you have regarding MCAT test prep?

Michelle: Start early and note how you best learn. Pursue a program that complements your learning technique. You might do best with a private tutor, formal program, or by studying with friends.

VT: What do med school admissions officers look for in recommendation letters?

Michelle: When I was in academic medicine, a colleague once pointed out the word “shy” in a letter of recommendation because he took that term as very pejorative! The point is that officers are looking for small hints in every letter, and you want yours to be as good as possible. You should not settle for so-so letters; you need to get the most superlative letters you can. In other words, consider a mediocre letter a bad one.

For more admissions help, contact Dr. Finkel at or Like her page on Facebook.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.