• Charith Ratnayake

My Declassified AMCAS Survival Guide

To be honest, when I was applying to medical school I really had no idea what was going on. I only knew that it was better to be early than late and that the application opened on May 2nd. The only reason my application cycle was successful is that I was able to rely on advice from my friends and significant other, who had already applied. However, If I didn’t have these resources, I would have been in trouble.

Therefore, being the extremely benevolent and generous person I am (I also just have a lot of free time during my gap year job), I have decided to make this guide to help those who do not know where to start when applying to medical school. This guide is not going to address every single thing about applying to medical school. I am trying to reveal some of the subtle aspects of the application cycle where people run into hiccups, and how to avoid them. Without further ado, here is My Declassified AMCAS Survival Guide.

There it is, your home for the next few months. This purple screen can either be your best friend or your mortal enemy, the choice is yours. Seriously though, it is important to have a positive mentality when you are completing your application. You are more likely to make errors and delay your application if you think about the AMCAS as a chore.

One of the main issues that pre-meds often run into is understanding when to do what. If you don’t have a good grasp of the timeline of an application cycle, you are at a disadvantage compared to all the overachieving gunners who submitted everything on day one. Never let the gunners win.

Important Dates:

May 2nd: AMCAS Application opens

May 31st: AMCAS Application submission begins

These are the two dates that you should have memorized, and chances are you already have. However, there is much more nuance to the application cycle.

The table that I have assembled above (which took me a few hours in Excel, so please clap) is the basic timeline for a typical application cycle. The green signifies early completion of the task, yellow is okay but you have begun to lose the advantage of submitting early, and in the red zone you are considered late. Please don’t be in the red zone.

Did you know that a lot of people take out loans just to apply to medical school? You do not want your finances to be the reason you have to delay turning in some aspect of your application. It is important that you have enough money saved up before you begin the process, but how much is enough?

The 2018 Matriculating Student Questionnaire (MSQ) found that the median number of schools that matriculants applied to was 15. Based on this number we can approximate the general cost for the average application cycle.

This is a grand total of $2566, probably more than you expected.

The numbers for secondary fees and interview expenses also came from the median numbers in the MSQ. Therefore, before you apply try to have at least 2566 dollars saved up, and if you know you are going to apply to more schools save accordingly.

You should probably know by now that the application cycle is rolling admissions. Rolling admission basically means that applications are reviewed as they arrive, secondaries are reviewed as they arrive, and then interviews are given out thereafter. Therefore, it is IMPORTANT (bold means it extra extra important) that you apply early. This fact is lost on a lot of students, so please view the graph below.

As you can see, if you submit your primary late, you will turn in your secondary late, which will drastically reduce the chance you will get an interview invite (II). If Joe Schmo submits his primary in August/September and finishes secondaries around October/November he is competing for the very last interview invitations available. Joe Schmo probably won’t get into medical school.

The AMCAS application is unforgiving. If you are not prepared and ready with all your required materials, you will be late and you will be at a disadvantage.

Above is the typical AMCAS pipeline. There are three phases: submission, processing, and delivery. It is very easy to get stuck in any one of these phases.

Specifically, there are three pieces of information that can drastically delay your application.


Letters of Recommendation


Transcripts. The AMCAS application requires an official transcript from any U.S., U.S. Territorial, or Canadian post-secondary institution where you completed coursework (even if you didn’t receive formal credit). AMCAS will not send your application to the designated medical school until your transcripts are in. In fact, AMCAS will not begin to even process your application until your transcripts are in. The processing phase already takes about four to six weeks, and that is a long time when every day counts.

Once the AMCAS application opens on May 2nd, you should send out your transcript request forms. This gives you the best head start and also allows you to still be early if something goes wrong with your transcripts (incorrect mailing address, financial holds, etc). Remember, that some schools cannot send eTranscripts, so you should account for snail mail time.

Letters of Recommendation. The letters of recommendation (LOR) are actually not due as early as you may think. You can actually get your application processed and delivered to your medical schools without your LORs. AMCAS will just forward the letters to your schools when they are received. Keep in mind that medical schools will not review your application until all your materials are sent, including your LORs. Therefore, my mantra still stands - the earlier the better.

Thus, when the AMCAS opens May 2nd, you should input your recommenders, so they can turn in their recommendation to AMCAS as soon as possible. As professional as your professor may seem, it is very easy to forget a LOR request in the midst of grading papers, doing research, and the other weird things professors do.

MCAT. The MCAT is a little more difficult to give advice about because it really is a case by case basis. However, it is treated like LORs, meaning that your application will still be delivered to schools without an MCAT score, but schools will not review your application until it arrives.

I would personally recommend that you take your MCAT much earlier than when you plan to submit your application. This way you can actually know your score and form a list of schools to apply to based on your score. A great resource to evaluate schools is the MSAR, which available on the AAMC website for $28. With the MSAR you can view admission statistics for each M.D. school and also find out other relevant information for each school that will help you create your school list, like the required courses, location and type of environment (urban/suburban/rural, etc.)

However, there are definitely situations where students have to either re-take or don’t feel prepared so they take their MCAT in May or June of the cycle they apply (May 24th is the last day you can take your MCAT without delaying your application). You can still submit your application to AMCAS without your MCAT, but once your application is delivered to schools they will see your MCAT score whenever it becomes available. This is known as submitting your MCAT “blind.” If Joe Schmo submits his application blind and gets a 497, he is applying with a 497.

If you have to submit blind, I recommend that you only initially apply to one or two state schools because that way your application will still be in line to processed, and you would probably apply to your state schools regardless of your MCAT score. After you get your MCAT score back, you can add schools that are in your MCAT range.

TLDR for this whole section: the earlier the better.

Writing my personal statement felt like hell on earth. I probably have at least seven different versions of my statement saved in the depths of my hard drive. After I finished the first draft of my statement I showed it to my mom, and after she told me it sucked I edited it. Then I showed it to my sister and edited and then to my neighbor and so on.

Although it is important to get different perspectives on your essay, ultimately the story is yours. If you feel like their advice would change your message, then don’t use it.

What I found was that as my statement got better and better the less people would tell me to change. While my mom told me to change fundamental ideas in my essay the last person I showed it to only added some commas. This is good confirmation that your personal statement is near its final iteration.

Finally, the earlier you start writing your personal statement the better, especially because you already know the prompt: “Why Medicine?” Ideally, the semester before you start applying would be a great time to start coming up with ideas and a flow for your personal statement. Trying to cram one of the most important essays of your life into the month of May, on top of finals and maybe even the MCAT, is objectively not a good idea.

Pre-med advisors tend to avoid Student Doctor Network (SDN) like the plague, and for good reason. The neurotic ramblings of your pre-med peers can become an echo chamber of perpetual anxiety and depression, but SDN can also be useful.

After you officially submit your AMCAS application on May 31st (hopefully), you are going to have some free time until secondary invites start rolling in. Joe Schmo waits until he receives his secondary invitation to start writing his secondaries, don’t be like Joe Schmo.

If you google “SDN ______(school of your choice) secondary ______(past year before you apply)”, you will find an entry for almost any medical school.

This thread will have all of the secondary questions from the past year, and because the questions rarely change from year to year you already know what the schools you apply to are going to ask you. PREWRITE THEM (after you turn in your primary application).

If you apply to 20 schools and you start your secondaries after you receive the invitations in your email, you are going be writing at least 10 different essays at one time. As much as you think you enjoy writing, your going to stop enjoying it real fast.

If you pre-write, you will realistically be able to finish your secondaries one to two weeks after you receive them, which can put you ahead for interview invitations.

The interview portion of the application process is extremely important. It is the make or break moment of your application and is where medical schools figure out if you are a good fit.

Therefore, it makes sense that you should practice your interview performance. One of the easiest things you can do is know what your going to be walking into. This is where our friend SDN helps us again.

If you google “SDN ______(school of your choice) interview feedback, you will find an entry for almost medical school.

This SDN site will tell you the format of the interview, the general difficulty of the interview, and even questions the students were asked. It is a great place to start finding questions to practice with.

After SDN, I found it very helpful to have an Anki or Quizlet deck with commonly asked interview questions and just run through them. It is important to have well composed answers to questions like “why medicine” or “tell me about yourself” (I still hate that question to this day). With a general idea of how to answer many of these frequently asked questions, the best way to truly test your interview skills is to practice.

I recommend practicing by using a service such as MedPrep (cough cough) because it puts you in an interview mindset and you will get constructive criticism about how to improve your performance from students who have successfully passed interviews themselves. In addition, it does not break the bank at 40$ for one mock interview. This ends my MedPrep plug.

There are a few different kinds of letters that you can send to medical schools to kindly nudge them to offer you an interview invitation or acceptance.

The Update Letter: This letter documents any new developments in activities that are relevant to medical school. This should be used sparingly and only when you have a significant update. Update worthy news includes: any publications, new jobs, significant awards (PBK, Goldwater, Fulbright). Minor developments like new volunteering experiences or small poster presentations do not necessarily warrant a update letter.

The Letter of Intent: This letter reaffirms the reasons you would like to attend a specific medical school. A good letter of intent mentions new experiences you have had since applying and how they are relevant to the values of the medical school. Be sure not to just re-word the reasons you mentioned in your secondaries.

The In The Area (ITA): This letter tells a medical school that you are going to be in the area for a certain period of time, so it would logistically be easier if they offer you an interview during those specific dates. This is probably the most hit or miss letter. I have heard people that have have had success with ITAs but I have also heard about people that get rejected after they send an ITA. Personally, I think ITAs are unnecessary because they don’t give medical schools any additional information. If a medical school has decided they won’t offer you an interview, they are not going to change their mind because you’re going to be in their city for a week.

The ITA should only be sent while you are waiting to receive an interview invitation. The update letter and letter of intent can be sent during two different points in your application: in order to receive an interview invitation or while you are trying to get off a waitlist. Obviously, it depends on your situation, but the update letter or letter of intent to get off a waitlist is often more powerful because you have had more time to do something significant. Also, if you are on a waitlist you are being more closely considered than an applicant who has not received an interview.

I am a big believer in a letter that combines both the update letter and letter of intent. With this combination you get to both reaffirm the reasons you want to go to school X and show what activities you have been a part of that align with those reasons.

This is perhaps the most important tip of all. There is so much of the application process that is out of your control, so why worry about it? Hang out with your friends, read a book, or re-watch all of Game of Thrones, do anything other than fixate on when your going to get an interview invitation.


There you have it, this has been My Declassified AMCAS Survival Guide. If you made it through my questionable attempts at humor, I hope you learned something about the application process. If you have any questions or need advice feel free to email us at

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