“Medicine is not just a career, it is a life choice,” said Triesta Fowler, MD, Director of Outreach and Communication in the NICHD Office of Education, at the beginning of her seminar on the medical school search and application process. During her presentation on February 2, 2022, Dr. Fowler encouraged fellows to approach medical school using a scientific thought process. "Discover the right formula to have the best results,” she said.

The seminar stepped through key variables of that formula. For the hour-long session, Dr. Fowler covered what to consider when choosing medical schools and practical matters to keep in mind when preparing an application.

Choosing Medical Schools

Dr. Fowler emphasized two critical factors when selecting an MD program: desired career path and work-life integration.

There are many careers your degree can be used for, explained Dr. Fowler. She encouraged participants to think about desired experiences or to imagine something that hasn’t been done that you want to pioneer. “Like any good experiment…don’t think outside of the box; think like there is no box,” Dr. Fowler said.

Also important is to define what work-life integration looks like for you. Dr. Fowler reminded fellows to take into account family responsibilities, life goals, and self-care. In particular, she said it’s okay to have goals beyond medical school. It’s okay to say you want to be a doctor and something else, and then to find medical programs that match those desires.

Preparing an Application

For the bulk of her presentation, Dr. Fowler stepped through the practical matters of medical school applications, such as timing, testing, selecting schools, and completing the application process. 

Dr. Fowler broke down the application timeline according to the following: January through March is a time to finalize medical school lists, identify your letter of recommendation writers, and prepare/register for a final MCAT attempt if you would like to improve your score. April through June is when you will take the final MCAT attempt and submit applications. By July through September, you will complete secondary applications and go on interviews. October through May is when medical school applications decisions are released, waitlist applicants are notified, and final decisions are made.

Dr. Fowler offered a few words of insight to help fellows with the daunting process of finalizing medical school lists. In particular, she told fellows to consider a range of required test scores, financial burdens that you are willing to take on, fields of medicine graduates go into, and where you want to live. If you don’t do well in cold weather or being away from family, don’t apply to schools in cold climates far from home, she said. The US News and World Report Rankings and the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) database are two key sources for medical school profile information.

Taking the MCAT can be a very overwhelming process. Dr. Fowler emphasized the importance of preparing as early as possible each time you decide to take the test. Other MCAT tips she shared included finding practice platforms that match how you learn best and practicing under real test conditions (such as wearing a mask, if needed, and timing yourself).

Your MCAT score is important, but “more than ever the holistic version of a medical student is being considered,” Dr. Fowler said. In addition to test scores, programs look at preprofessional competencies, thinking and reasoning competencies, and science competencies. Dr. Fowler emphasized that the personal statement is one place where you can think about these core competencies and show admissions committees how your story sets you apart. She mentioned several times that you need to show and reflect. During an interactive portion of the seminar, participants reviewed example personal statements to better understand why showing and reflecting is important. Don’t just tell the committee you want to help people. Describe formative experiences that shaped your career goals and reflect, reflect, reflect.

Letters of recommendation should also be personalized and informative. Dr. Fowler urged fellows to send letter writers unique or specific points about you and your interests. If you want to do community medicine, ask your recommenders to highlight your community service activities. Inform them as much as possible so that they don’t end up sending a “form” letter, which Dr. Fowler said appears very obvious when received.

Your secondary application is another place to elaborate on areas of your profile that you want to draw attention to. But be sure to answer what is asked in secondary applications, Dr. Fowler cautioned. If they ask about your research, don’t talk about community service projects.

Near the end of her seminar, Dr. Fowler reminded everyone that applying to a professional school is an important step in the development of a professional identity. She said that every student should assume that admissions committees will look them up online, which means you need to protect your digital identity. “Be very careful about what you post. Be careful what you link to, what you like, what conversations you get involved in. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Please be judicious about this,” Dr. Fowler stressed. Medical schools can, and do, rescind acceptance offers for failure to remain in good standing.

Finding the Best Fit for You

“Just because it’s the number one medical school in the country doesn’t mean it’s the number one school for you,” Dr. Fowler emphasized at the end of her seminar. “Do your homework! There are many medical schools to choose from. The best thing is to find the best fit for you.”

If you have any questions about this seminar or the medical school application process, please contact Dr. Triesta Fowler at triesta.fowler-lee@nih.gov.