Ask a Medical School Admissions Expert: Liza Thompson

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Liza Thompson has advised medical school applicants for the past 20 years. As the former director of the Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Programs, she has managed admissions processes, the premedical curriculum, MCAT prep, and the medical school application process. While at Johns Hopkins, she also served on the Premedical Education Committee. Liza has developed a great deal of expertise in premedical advising and regularly shares it with applicants through her firm, Thompson Advising.

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

Liza: The “primary” application, which is filed through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS©), takes a great deal of thought and energy to prepare comprehensively. Applicants should plan accordingly. I advise applicants to work backwards from the time when they should submit the application (early in the cycle, in June) and allow ample time to fine tune every component of the application itself. In general, applicants should allow several months from start to finish, to allow enough time to refine drafts of the personal statement and experience descriptions. Applicants usually begin working on the application in the spring of the year of submission or even earlier. Bear in mind that the primary application is only the first step. Applicants should also budget time to fill out each “secondary” application, which individual medical schools require. Medical school applicants rarely anticipate the work entailed in the secondary application process. For the secondary applications, additional essays are usually required and close attention should be paid to this part of the application process; secondary applications are every bit as important as the primary application. 

VT: What is the single most important thing applicants should focus on with this application?

Liza: In the medical school application, applicants should focus on why they want to become physicians and what they might contribute to the medical profession. The motivation for medicine and the reasons for it should be crystal clear to admissions committees. Be thoughtful in the essay and in the experience descriptions on the AMCAS© application; these are the only areas in the application where applicants can express themselves and describe their motivation for a career in medicine.

VT: What are the biggest mistakes one can make on a Med School application?

Liza: There are several mistakes applicants make in the application process. I’ll highlight three important ones that are relatively easy for applicants to fix.

  1. Sloppiness or careless errors are never tolerated in the med school admissions process. If applicants misspell words or use poor grammar in the application essays or experience descriptions, their applications are likely to be eliminated. It’s important to pay attention to detail in the medical profession; if applicants can’t attend to minor details in the application itself, that sends a negative message to admissions committees.
  2. Timeliness of the application is critical. It’s crucial to submit a medical school application early in the admissions cycle. That means having all of the materials ready to submit in June, when the cycle opens. Since most med schools operate on a rolling basis, processing applications as they are received, it’s in applicants’ best interest to submit early. Submitting an application later in the process reduces an applicant’s chances of admission.
  3. Not paying close attention to the secondary applications and/or delaying their submission are costly errors. The secondary applications are as important as the primary (AMCAS© ) application. Applicants should write meaningful and compelling essays; since these essays are tailored to specific schools they are closely read by the individual medical schools. Filing the primary application early but then failing to follow through in a timely way on the secondary applications means that those applicants don’t reap the benefit of rolling admission. When applicants receive the secondary applications they should make a concerted effort to return them as quickly as possible while also writing comprehensive essays.


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

Liza: The chief element admissions officers look for in an applicant’s personal statement is his or her motivation for a career in medicine, along with evidence that demonstrates that the applicant has fully tested his or her impulse to become a physician. Admissions officers will also be assessing applicants’ communication skills, personality traits, and accomplishments. The personal statement is the only area of the application where applicants can readily express themselves; other essays, as in the secondary ones, have more targeted prompts calling for more specific essays. The personal statement allows applicants to put forth their own background and vision for their future career in medicine. Admissions committees want to understand how and why an applicant decided medicine was the right career path.

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

Liza: Repeated disciplinary infractions at the college level or legal infractions cast doubt on an applicant’s suitability for a career in medicine. A disciplinary action early in a student’s college career may be overcome with distance from the action and an acknowledgment as to what the applicant learned from the experience. Repeated infractions are very difficult to overcome.

VT: What about the Med School admissions process differs the most from undergraduate admissions? 

Liza: One of the chief differences that applicants rarely understand is the difference between Early Decision at the undergraduate and medical school levels. At the undergrad level Early Decision is often used to improve an applicant’s chance of admission; there is something in the bargain for the applicant. At the medical school level, Early Decision does not favor the applicant, who is barred from applying to any other schools until the decision is rendered in October. If the applicant is denied admission, he or she would be entering the med school application process extremely late, thus negatively impacting his or her chances at any other school. I never recommend that an applicant apply Early Decision to medical school because of the way it disfavors applicants.

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

Liza: There are no specific majors that best prepare students for medical school. All students must take the same basic science premedical requirements to be prepared for the MCAT and medical school admission. The new MCAT, launching in 2015, will include psychology, sociology, and statistics, as well. You can major in any field and complete the requirements. Evidence shows that liberal arts majors have just as much a chance of getting into medical school as science majors. I encourage students to major in disciplines that truly excite them; if they do so they will maximize their learning since they will be studying a subject which they will delve deeply into with enthusiasm. As the former director of the post-baccalaureate premedical programs at Johns Hopkins and Goucher, I have advised numerous students who majored in fields as diverse as anthropology, psychology, economics, English, music, history, and religion. Their unusual viewpoints and ability to converse on a wide range of topics were highlighted in the med school application and interview process. Study what you love!

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

Liza: Evidence of strong leadership—establishing a new organization and following it through so that it can continue after you move on to other things—is highly prized in the med school admissions process. Showing your passion, through a deep commitment to a cause or organization over several years’ time, is also valuable. Demonstrating the contributions you have made in such endeavors gives med school admissions committees information about your commitment, dedication, and priorities. In turn, these activities help committees understand what drives you and what you might dedicate yourself to in the future and bring to the medical profession.

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

Liza: Practice, practice, practice!  In counseling students through the MCAT for the past 20 years, I have seen a variety of ways to prepare; there is not one perfect way. I encourage students to assess the way they have prepared for high-stakes tests in the past (SAT or the GRE, for example). Some students are highly independent and focused, and have no trouble organizing their test preparation on their own. Others need a focused class in order to mobilize their preparation. There is no evidence that one strategy works better than another; equal results can be obtained no matter the study method. But the one thing that unifies successful MCAT test takers is the large number of practice tests they take. Students preparing to take the MCAT should take all of the AAMC practice tests and take them under real conditions. They should then analyze their practice test results to figure out lapses in knowledge/content or test-taking ability. In turn, students then need to address those issues in order to improve. That may entail reviewing content or figuring out how to improve their test-taking strategies. In the case of the latter, for instance, it could be that finishing the test in a timely way is an issue; doing timed reading can help improve this. Students also usually become quicker at taking the test with repeated practice tests. No matter the method students use to prepare, it’s essential to prepare thoroughly. By the time the actual test day arrives, test takers should feel completely ready for the MCAT.

VT: What do Med School admissions officers look for in recommendation letters?

Liza: Letters of recommendation are an important component of the med school admissions process since they help admissions officers understand applicants more thoroughly. The descriptions that letter writers provide help admissions committees more comprehensively assess the applicant’s suitability for a career in medicine and for specific schools. Admissions committees are looking for evidence of academic accomplishment through outstanding performances in classes which professors attest to in their letters. In addition, committees look for character, professionalism, and personality traits so that they can more fully understand an applicant’s background and motivation for a career in medicine. Letters from people who have supervised volunteer and extracurricular activities help committees understand applicants better. Letters help bring applicants to life and back up what the applicants present about themselves. In that sense, they are a highly valued and important aspect of the medical school admissions process.


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