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Frequently Asked Questions - Applying to Med School

(For detailed explanations, see our Guide for Applying to Medical School for Swarthmore Undergraduates and Alumni/ae.)

What are medical schools looking for?

Medical schools are interested in applicants with excellent academic abilities (as shown in grades and MCAT scores), strong integrity and interpersonal skills (often demonstrated in volunteer, leadership and employment situations), clear motivation for medicine (as shown by significant involvement in medical settings), and demonstrated compassion and concern for others.

What kind of grades will I need to be accepted to medical school?

Currently, applicants with a strong 3.6 average and a score of 513 with at least 126 on each section on the MCAT can be reasonably confident that they will get into medical school. The top schools typically look for students with A- averages or higher. You can get an excellent medical education at any U.S. medical school.

How is my GPA calculated?

AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) takes all the grades you've ever earned from any U.S. or Canadian college or university, and calculates one GPA for all courses taken, and another for all biology, chemistry, physics and math courses taken. The Swarthmore Health Sciences Advisory Committee will also look at the grades you've earned at Swarthmore College, to see how you've performed in relation to others in your class.

Are Shadow Grades included? 

The medical school application services only works from your official transcripts, which do not include your shadow grades.  Therefore, grades for fall semester of your first year, spring semester 2020, and any courses in which you  opted for CR/NC and did not uncover your grades will not be seen by medical schools or calculated into your GPAs. You do not have the option of "showing" these grades. 

Do medical schools make allowances for Swarthmore's rigor and lack of grade inflation?

Yes, many medical schools are aware of Swarthmore and the excellence of its students and its academic program. They are often willing to consider our applicants with grades that are slightly lower than those of their typical admitted students. It normally makes sense to apply to schools where your GPA is within 0.2 points of their average GPA for accepted students.

When should I apply to medical school?

You should apply to medical school when your candidacy is at its strongest. That means good grades, good scores, and good non-academic experiences. The overwhelming majority of  Swarthmore students choose to take time in between graduation and medical school, to either strengthen their candidacies or to spend time doing other interesting things. If there is a weakness in your application, it is a wise strategy to take some time to correct it, rather than to go ahead and waste your time and money applying.

If you plan to attend medical school immediately after graduation, you would apply in June after your junior year.

Don't medical schools look down on people who don't go directly to medical school from college?

No. The average age of people starting medical school is 24, and the vast majority of Swarthmore applicants take some time off. Taking time off allows many applicants the chance to do interesting things, like research, teaching, travel or community service, that makes them even more impressive to medical school admissions committees. It also allows your senior year grades to be included in your AMCAS GPA.

What are AMCAS and AACOMAS?

AMCAS is a centralized application service that you must use to apply to nearly all U.S. allopathic (M.D.) medical schools. Texas state schools have their own application process; TMDSAS is the service for Texas public allopathic and osteopathic schools. AACOMAS is a similar centralized service that is used for all but one of the osteopathic (D.O.) medical schools.

What is the Health Sciences Committee Letter?

The Swarthmore College Health Sciences Advisory Committee produces a letter of recommendation for each Swarthmore student and alum who applies to medical school through our process. The actual letters are written by Gigi, using recommendations you solicit from your professors, coaches and supervisors, and information you provide to her directly. The Health Sciences Office provides the Committee letter directly to the medical schools you select. The medical schools you've applied to will download your packet when they are ready to evaluate your file.

How does the process work?

You submit your primary AMCAS or AACOMAS application, and have all your transcripts sent to there. They process your application and then send it on to the schools that you indicate. When they receive your AMCAS or AACOMAS application, most schools will automatically send you a secondary application, which should be completed and sent back within 2 weeks. A handful of schools only send secondaries to applicants who make it through an initial cut. Once schools have received your completed secondary application, your MCATs, and your Committee letter, they will evaluate your application and decide whether to invite you for an interview. After the interview, they will accept you, reject you, or put you on "hold" or on a wait list. This may happen within a few weeks, or you may not hear anything at all for months.

When should I submit my application?

APPLY EARLY! You can submit your primary application in early to mid-June, and that is what you should aim for, no matter when the actual medical school deadlines are. Most schools evaluate applicants on a rolling basis, so naturally, it is best to have your application complete when there are many seats to fill. Also, you will find it easier emotionally to be one of the first to have interviews and acceptances, rather than one of the last.

How should I choose schools to apply to?

Most students apply to about 15-20 schools. You may know that you would prefer a case study approach to learning, or a focus on research, or an urban setting, and these considerations should enter into your decision-making. You should plan on a mix of schools where you are likely to be a very strong candidate, schools where it is a bit of a reach, and a handful of "dream" schools. You should purchase the on-line Medical School Admission Requirements publication ($28) from the AAMC, which has the most accurate and authoritative information on individual medical schools. There is a description of each medical school, which includes median overall and science GPAs and MCATs of the first year class, requirements and other important information.  You should apply to all the schools in your home state, and not to schools in other states that accept few out-of-staters. You can get an excellent education at any U.S. medical school.

How do I get an application?

You can access the AMCAS application through the AAMC Website  and the AACOMAS application via CHOOSE DO. Both online applications should be available in early May, and may be submitted in June.

How much does it cost to apply?

Applying to medical school is very expensive. AMCAS charges approximately $170 for the first school and $42 for each additional school that you apply to, and most schools then have additional fees as part of their secondary applications. You should plan on spending nearly $3,000 on application fees alone. If you have extreme financial limitations, you can apply for a waiver of those fees. 

When will I find out whether I got in?

The earliest medical schools can accept you is October 15. The latest is the first day of classes.

I plan to travel or live abroad after college. Can I apply from overseas?

Yes, you can apply from overseas since the AMCAS application is Web-based and most secondary applications are also online, but it will be much more complicated, and will require very careful planning and attention to detail. It will be much easier if you choose a place with reasonably good computer (check the AMCAS Website for browser requirements), phone, mail and travel access. You will also need to designate a responsible person (usually a parent) who will serve as a U.S. contact point between you and the medical schools.

You will have to figure out a way to handle interviews, perhaps by planning to be in the U.S. for several weeks in December to travel to a number of schools. (For all these reasons, it can be difficult to apply during Peace Corps service.) Be sure to meet with Gigi long before you leave the country, to carefully map out your strategy, and to make sure all your administrative tasks are completed before you go.

Due to the pandemic, all medical schools interviews in 2020 and 2021 were conducted remotely via Zoom or some other similar service, which meant that applicants did not have to spend time and money traveling to medical schools for interview days. It is not yet known what the COVID situation will be during the 2023 cycle. Further it is not known whether the experience of 2020 will lead some medical schools to stick with the Zoom format, or at least offer it as an option for applicants who would find traveling to in-person interviews difficult or costly. 

Should I apply early decision?

Probably not. Unlike undergraduate school, there is no advantage to applying to medical school early decision. In fact, it puts you at a disadvantage, because if you are rejected, it is then very late to apply to a broader list of schools. The only people who should contemplate early decision are those with a very concrete and compelling reason why they could only attend one particular school.

What transcripts are required? Where/when should they be sent?

You must request transcripts from ALL U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities you've attended, including those you may have attended in high school, even if those courses are on your Swarthmore transcript (with the exception of Bryn Mawr and Haverford courses taken during the academic year). If you have studied abroad, you must request a transcript from the American college that sponsored your program. Swarthmore College uses the National Clearinghouse to transmit your transcripts to AMCAS. You may need to contact each institution you attended to see what process they use to transmit your transcripts. Remember AMCAS, AACOMAS and TMDSAS will not begin to process your application until they have all your transcripts.

It makes sense to request transcripts in May from schools where your work is complete, as there may be some bureaucratic delay. If you are a current student, you should wait for your spring semester grades to be on your transcript before having it sent.

Whom should I ask for letters of recommendation?

You will need about 5 letters of recommendation. You should ask professors in whose courses you've done very well (B+ or higher.) You should get at least 2 letters from science professors in different disciplines, a non-science letter, and if possible, a letter from a coach or a supervisor in a job or a volunteer experience. Do not get letters from family friends, "important" physicians, congressmen, or others who you may think would be impressive. If you have any sense that a faculty member has any dissatisfaction with your work or your behavior, it is wise not to ask them for a letter. Some MD-PhD programs want to see a letter representing each research experience, as does Harvard. The individual letters are photocopied and attached to your Health Sciences Committee letter; then, the whole packet is scanned and transmitted to the medical schools via a secure Web-based service.

Can I see the letters?

Although you are not required to, it is advisable for you to sign the recommendation waiver, giving up your right to see the letters of recommendation, so they will have more credibility with the medical schools. Once you've done that, Gigi cannot give you any hint of the contents of the letter.

Should I apply to osteopathic schools?

Osteopathy is a branch of medicine focusing on healing the whole person, and using physical manipulation as one form of diagnosis and treatment. While osteopathic physicians are in every medical specialty, most are oriented towards primary care. Osteopathic training is similar to allopathic training, with 4 years of medical school leading to a D.O. degree, with residency following. If you think you may be interested in this approach, you should investigate osteopathy further by shadowing or volunteering with a D.O. A recommendation from a D.O is often recommended or required.

When should I take the MCAT?

The MCATs are computerized and offered on 30 dates per year at testing centers around the United States and in select sites internationally. Because it is important to have a complete application as soon as possible, you should aim to take the test before mid-July at the latest. Taking an earlier test may give you more opportunity to re-take it, if you need to. As there are limited seats at each test site, you should register for your preferred date as soon as registration becomes available.

Should I take an MCAT prep course?

Some students find the structure of a prep class and the frequent practice tests very useful. Others have the discipline to study on their own, and do well without it. The AAMC offers free resources, such as 1,100 videos and 3,000 review questions on Khan Academy and an on-line tool: What's on the MCAT Exam." Swarthmore has an agreement with Kaplan to make their MCAT courses available to our students and alums at a reduced price, of $399 or $899 depending on the course format. If you are interested in the Kaplan course, contact Gigi or Jennifer Lenway for registration information. 

What if I'm determined to be a doctor, but my grades aren't good enough?

Many applicants take a few years after graduation to strengthen their academic records. They sometimes choose to take additional science courses at a local university, or enroll in a formal postbaccalaureate program for students interested in medical school who need to improve their credentials. If you feel that your credentials may not be strong enough, be sure to consult with Gigi about your situation.