Ask a Medical School Admissions Expert: Dr. Jessica Freedman

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Dr. Jessica Freedman has not only written three best-selling books on the Medical School admissions process, she is the founder of her own consulting firm. Having previously served on the Medical School Admissions committee for The Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, Dr. Freedman has closely assisted many residents and medical students through the admissions process with great success. She has received several honors including numerous awards for her mentorship at Mount Sinai and is extremely well-recognized for her expertise in this field.

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

Jessica: The major components of the written application are the personal statement and application entries. I advise applicants to start jotting down insights about their experiences as they complete them so, ideally, the process should start years before the applicant has to submit the formal written application. However, the most intensive brainstorming and writing should begin about three to five months before an applicant plans to submit. The best applications show insight and introspection, which results from allowing documents to “simmer” over time. In other words, rather than working on a personal statement intensely over one or two weeks, it is best to work on it a bit, put it aside, and then come back to it with fresh eyes.

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

Jessica: This question is tough to answer because each individual medical school application reviewer has his or her own preferences and ideas about what is most important when deciding whom to interview. One reviewer may rely heavily on the personal statement, for example, while another might focus on the application entries. Finally, a school may put a lot of weight on secondary essays that are submitted after the primary application. I encourage applicants to approach each piece of the application as if it might “make or break” the candidacy.

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

Jessica: The biggest mistake some applicants make is not spending enough time on the written application. Many applicants think that because they have a great GPA or MCAT score, for example, that their written application won’t make a difference so they rush their work without highlighting experiences and personal milestones in the most effective way. With more than 43,000 applicants applying to medical school each year, your written application must distinguish you from other candidates whether you are a viable candidate for a top-10 school or a “less competitive” state school.

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

Jessica: Medical school admissions officers are looking for a commitment to medicine, maturity, compassion, sensitivity, maturity, professionalism, the ability to succeed in a rigorous scientifically based curriculum, among many other attributes. Most applicants cannot possess every attribute that medical school admissions committees like to see in applicants and that is okay!

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

Jessica: Nothing, other than a poor academic record, automatically disqualifies an applicant. We are all human and make errors in judgment, especially when we are young. I have had clients who were accepted to medical school despite academic dishonesty, institutional actions, and misdemeanors. As long as an applicant presents “mistakes” in the right way and can show what she has learned from an experience, these incidents are not always deal breakers. In fact, such mistakes can sometimes work to an applicant’s advantage if presented in the most effective way.

VT: What about the med school admissions process differs the most from undergraduate admissions?

Jessica: I am not an undergraduate admissions expert, but I think the intense focus of the med school admissions process most distinguishes it from undergraduate admissions. Medical school admissions committees like applicants with diverse interests, but, fundamentally, all applicants must demonstrate an interest in, and aptitude for, medicine and science. Applicants also do not have as much freedom to apply to schools that are the right fit as they do during the college process. Because medical school admission is so competitive, applicants must apply to multiple medical schools, and, if they are lucky, they then can choose from among acceptances.

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

Jessica: Medical schools are seeking diverse classes and this extends to the majors of accepted applicants. Many applicants major in a science because this is where many of their interests lie. But it really doesn’t matter what major you choose as long as you are true to yourself. Medical school admissions committee members want to see that you are committed to everything you pursue. That said, if you do decide to major in a non-scientific discipline, be sure to take some upper level science courses to show you can do well beyond the prerequisites.

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

Jessica: A very high GPA and MCAT often result in automatic interviews. Many medical schools won’t advertise this, however. Without question, an outstanding academic performance will put you ahead of others during the initial screening process. You must then have the activities and letters of reference to add to your academic achievements, however.

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

Jessica: Every applicant has his own way to study and prep for the MCAT that works for him. Some do very well studying on their own while others need the structure of a course to keep them on track. I therefore advise students to review their past successes (or failures) to determine the best study plan. I don’t find much difference between big name “test prep” companies, and the quality of individual teachers and tutors they provide can very tremendously. What I do advise is that students prepare for the exam as they complete each of the prerequisites that will be tested; I find that most students prefer Examcrackers study books for this purpose.

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

Jessica: Letters of reference offer objective evaluations of your candidacy. In these letters, as in every part of the application, medical school admissions officers are looking for evidence that applicants possess the very long list of qualities and characteristics they are seeking (see my book, The MedEdits Guide to Medical School Admissions for this list). Letters of reference should substantiate and offer further evidence for the claims you make in your application entries and personal statement. Admissions officers are also looking for letters that are genuine and not formulaic.

Go to Dr. Freedman’s website, MedEdits Medical Admissions, for more information.

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