General Advice: 10 Lessons About Applying

Hello to all – and especially to any prospective MD/PhD students reading this post!

I am absolutely thrilled to be writing for UnABridged. Thus far, my journey has been a whirlwind. I received my acceptance to the UAB MSTP on April 30, moved to Birmingham two weeks later, and have now begun my first laboratory rotation. I am so honored to get started here!

As I reflect on how in the world I ended up at UAB (I’m still pretty sure the program accidentally let me in, but I don’t plan on returning the acceptance any time soon…), I realize that my senior year of college was fairly consumed by the “game” of applying to various schools. I feel uniquely humbled and privileged to have reached my dreams, and I would love to share what I’ve learned with future applicants. I’ll start with some general advice and the lessons that stick with me most as I reflect upon last year, but please stay tuned for more specific advice on components of the application!

I wish I could tell you that the application cycle will be the most fun in the world and that it will be a breeze. It definitely won’t… sorry. Fortunately, parts of it truly were amazing and enjoyable. My interviews allowed me to see an entire city from on top of a helipad, make some wonderful friends, and eat tons of free food. But for the most part, application season is long and scary. Now that I seem to have survived, I hope to share a few thoughts about both the good and the bad to help future students learn from my many mistakes:

  1. Filling out AMCAS is the worst. I mean, it’s a fine system and all. But it’s the worst.
  2. No, I take that back. Secondary applications are the worst. They are the literal worst. (Unless you really like repeating many of the same things you already put on your primary application and also spending something like a million dollars to do so. Then they’re the best.)
  3. In all seriousness, apply as early as possible! You have been working incredibly hard up until this point to make it to medical school. When you apply early, you are competing with less people for more seats. Even at schools where acceptances are not made on a rolling basis, interview slots will be handed out in a rolling manner. Do everything you can to increase your chances and make all of your hard work count!
  4. You will inevitably spill some kind of brightly-colored sauce or food on your favorite interview outfit. Roll with it and wear it proudly.
  5. No matter how much you practice, you are also almost guaranteed to say something completely moronic during at least one interview. As an unfortunate example, I was once explaining that my favorite part of a certain school was their sense of collaboration. I was then caught off-guard by the director asking me if I had any questions, so I chose, “Is this school a collaborative environment?” D’oh!! While you’ll certainly feel like the biggest goober in the world, you should also know that this is completely normal. Force yourself to mentally take a deep breath and to keep on trying!
  6. Do not – and I repeat, do not – take your hardest class schedule during interview season if you are still in school. This was likely one of my biggest mistakes. I was so buried in work and so tired from classes that I wasn’t able to enjoy the experience as much as I hoped. I often had to sacrifice my classwork for interviews. While this was completely worth it, I felt like I missed out on a lot and had to make many unpleasant compromises.
  7. As much as humanly possible, avoid comparing yourself to other applicants. It can be sad and challenging to see others whose application might appear similar to yours receive interviews that you aren’t getting, but there’s always so much more to everyone than what is on paper. You can never predict what schools will want, but please know that eventually, the right place will love you for you. Instead of making comparisons, I tried to genuinely be happy when I heard about others getting interviews. In the end, the whole application cycle is actually hundreds of people striving to reach their wildest dreams after years of hard work. How amazing is it that you get to witness some of your future colleagues starting out their journeys?
  8. An acceptance is the absolute best feeling in the world. Even if it’s from a program that you didn’t consider your top choice, you soon realize what a gift it is to have a medical school appreciate your strengths and to have your hard work pay off.
  9. But on the same token, Imposter Syndrome is REAL, and it affects many students. For about a day after I was accepted, I felt like I was on the top of the world. I was surprised by how quickly I doubted myself. I felt like a fake. I was convinced that I had only put the best parts of myself in my application and that I had merely fooled the school into believing I was something I’m not. What if I can’t do it? It was a crushing thought. I was extremely fortunate to have a wise mentor send me links about Imposter Syndrome and assure me that what I was feeling was normal. I’ll admit that I haven’t talked to every single medical student in the world, but I imagine that if you approach just about anyone, he or she will tell you that there have been intense moments of doubt and panic.
  10. In those difficult moments, know that you do not have to fight alone. Reach out for help. I feel like this is hard for many applicants, as ambition is not always accompanied by a willingness to admit that the journey ahead is scary. But trying to navigate the application cycle – and, as I’m quickly learning, an MD/PhD program – alone is a recipe for disaster. It turns out that most people are awesome and willing to help!

If you’re interested in learning more about UAB in particular and the students here, please visit the Student Profiles section of our website: As mentioned on my page, I am very happy to assist prospective applicants and share more about Birmingham life. Email me any time at!

Good luck to all,
Emily Hayward
Incoming MD/PhD Student


For our Application Corner homepage and links to more specific application component advice, please click here!

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