In this section of our Application Corner, we will attempt to answer some frequently asked questions regarding AMCAS, the primary application for both MD and MD/PhD programs. The following topics will be discussed:
- What is AMCAS?
- What is needed to begin?
- What are the sections on the application?
- What is the activities section?
- Do I need to use all of the slots in the activities section?
- How should I fill out the activities section?
- How can I learn more about what is expected of the personal statement?
- What are the additional essays for MD/PhD applicants? Are they optional?
- What typically goes into the “Why MD/PhD” essay?
- What about the “Explain your research” essay?
- How do letters of recommendation work?
- How do I send my scores in to AMCAS?
- What information can I edit after I submit AMCAS?
- When should I submit AMCAS?
- What should I do before submitting my application?
- Where should I apply?
- Are there other resources I can access for more help?
Feel free to browse around as you desire… happy hunting!
1. What is AMCAS?
AMCAS stands for the American Medical College Application Service. If you’re interested in attending medical school, AMCAS is the first application you need to fill out! Thus, you might also hear AMCAS called the “primary application.” For those who used the Common App to apply to colleges, AMCAS is very similar. It is one big, centralized application that gets sent to every school to which you apply. After that, most schools will send you a supplemental application (with more questions, essays, etc) specific to that institution, otherwise known as a “secondary” application.
A link to AMCAS can be found here. Note that you will only want to proceed to the sign-in page if you intend to submit your application during the current cycle!
2. What is needed to begin?
You’ll want to start by thinking about your letters of recommendation. We recommend speaking with your professors around March so that you can provide them with any materials they request and so that they have ample time to write. Then when you log in to AMCAS, you’ll see a form you can give to your recommenders or your school’s pre-medical committee as early as May. Your application can be submitted regardless of whether your letters of recommendation are uploaded, but we recommend getting started with this process ASAP since it almost always takes longer than expected.
Most importantly, however, you should obtain the transcript request form from AMCAS and provide it to your school. If you are a current senior and your most recent semester grades are not in yet, ask your school to hold the transcript for a few days until those grades are reflected. Your institution should know how to send the transcript as long as you provide them with the AMCAS form and any other internal forms required by your school (generally found online if you search for your registrar or records office). AMCAS will reflect when your transcript has been received, and this MUST happen before AMCAS will actually send your application anywhere. This process is called “verification,” as AMCAS verifies that the grades on your application match your transcript.
3. What are the sections on the application?
The application currently has nine (9) sections:
- Identifying Information
- Schools Attended
- Biographic Information
- Course Work
- Letters of Evaluation
- Medical Schools
- Standardized Tests
4. What is the activities section?
Put simply, this section is a standardized version of a resume or curriculum vitae (CV) so that everyone’s experiences are in the same format. If each student simply submitted a resume, medical schools would be looking at lots of different styles, issues with files, and perhaps missing information about dates/hours/etc. This is just a universal way to input all of that information!
You receive 15 slots to enter activities in which you have participated, awards you have won, or even hobbies throughout your undergraduate years. For each activity, you’ll pick a category from a drop-box of options. This is just a general label that allows admissions officers to do a quick scan to see approximately how your time was distributed. Category labels include work (paid), volunteering – non-medical/clinical, volunteering – medical/clinical, shadowing, leadership, tutoring, hobbies/extracurriculars, and more.
5. Do I need to fill all of the slots in the activities section?
This has been a hot topic of debate for many years. Some claim that you are competing against people who have filled all 15 spots and thus you should have as many activities while others claim that around 12-13 meaningful and committed activities are better than a higher number of activities with a lower commitment.
Put simply, we have seen people with 15 and with less than 15 activities receive acceptances to medical school. We recommend doing your best to fill the slots (perhaps even including a hobby or two to reach 15), but we also believe that medical schools will see right through anything you try to do to “pad” your activities. If you have to choose between using 12-13 of the slots or going through incredible efforts to thinly stretch activities into multiple slots, it is better to be honest and list the lower number. We have personally never heard of anyone being rejected from a school for listing slightly less than 15 activities.
6. How should I fill out the activities section?
There are varying opinions on whether the activities section should simply explain your duties or whether it should provide a few sentences about what you learned with each task. There are also many acceptable formats; some students will write in eloquent sentences while others might use bullet points or lists.
We tend to recommend some combination of these. It is important to provide about a sentence or two about what you did in the role in question – for example, a description of your time as an emergency room volunteer might begin with a list of duties to clarify your level of responsibility: restocked supplies, transported patients, cleaned common areas, etc. This brief, list-type format is generally very useful for conveying what you did without using too many characters.
Afterwards, most of your space should be spent on explaining why this experience was meaningful, and this is often best accomplished in sentence format. Did you learn about the fast paced environment of the hospital? Did you learn how to work as a team despite stressful situations, or how to deal professionally with people who are unhappy/uncomfortable?
As a side note, you do not need to directly link every skill you gained to medical school. It’s not necessary to say, “Doctors need to be patient. I developed this trait and it will help me be a better physician.” Just focus on any lessons or skills you’ve developed over this years. Those reading your application will understand their importance and potential to help you succeed in medical school.
7. How can I learn more about what is expected of the personal statement?
Read our post about the personal statement here!
8. What are the additional essays for MD/PhD? Are they optional?
No! These essays are not optional. Individuals applying to MD programs will have one essay (the personal statement, 5300 character limit), but MD/PhD applicants will also have two more essays to complete for a total of three. One of the additional essays will allow you to explain why you are pursuing the dual degree (2500 characters), and the other will give you a chance to describe your research experience (10,000 characters). If you have applied to a mixture of MD and MD/PhD programs, they will all consider your personal statement, but only MD/PhD programs will see your two additional research essays.
9. What typically goes into the “Why MD/PhD” essay?
A good “Why MD/PhD?” essay will explain your motivations and desires, similar to the personal statement. However, you’ll want to use this space to emphasize why both the clinic and the lab are appealing to you. Ultimately, there are many ways to become a physician scientist — other examples might include attending a research-intensive MD program or building in a year or two for research. So why are you choosing to pursue the dual degree? How do you plan to spend your time as a future physician scientist and/or incorporate both elements into your practice? How did you learn about the field, and why do you think it would be a good fit for you?
10. What about the “Explain your research” essay?
The research essay can be daunting not only in length (10,000 characters!), but also because your intended audience includes those with advanced degrees like PhDs, some of whom may even be experts in your given field. We have found that for this essay, providing details of exactly how a technique works is often not very important. Instead, spend your time explaining why you chose that method, what you were able to observe, and what questions were answered or still remained.
For example, your readers do not need a step by step description of how to do affinity chromatography. Instead, try to explain why this technique was necessary and what the results meant for your overall research goals. As a test, after you write a paragraph or two, highlight the “technical” sentences where you are simply explaining how a method works. These explanations may be helpful every now and then for instances when the technology is extremely complicated or when the way a procedure works is important for your result, but generally, you will want to have just a few sentences highlighted. Most of your time should be spent on analysis and significance… Any scientist should be able to follow your train of thought and understand your ability to ask and answer questions as a researcher!
11. How do letters of recommendation work?
This will vary depending on how your undergraduate institution works. Many schools will now do some version of a composite letter or a letter packet. Other schools, however, do not have a centralized system, so you will submit individual letters from each recommender. We will cover this more in a future post in our Application Corner!
12. How do I send my scores in to AMCAS?
Fortunately, this part is easy – as long as you use the same AAMC ID you have always used, your score(s) will automatically upload into your application! If you’re extra paranoid like me, you can double check that any scores are listed under the “Standardized Tests” section.
13. What information can I edit after I submit AMCAS?
Unfortunately, once you submit your application, most information cannot be changed. Most notably, this includes your activities section and essays (so be sure to proofread these before submitting!). The main and most frequent things you will change will be your contact information (keep this updated!) as well as your school list. You can add schools to AMCAS at any time, as long as it is before the application deadline. (For example, if you are awaiting an MCAT score, you may apply to just a few schools at first and then add other schools once you have a better idea of how competitive your score is and if it fits into the typical accepted range at a given school.)
14. When should I submit AMCAS?
Check out our timeline of the MD/PhD application season for more information about this. We truly recommend buckling down and getting the application in ASAP; you will be competing with fewer applicants for more available seats, and you’ll learn about any potential problems early enough to do something about them.
As a general rule, June is considered early, Mid-July through August is considered average, and any time after that is considered late. You can sometimes “balance out” a later submission time with the quick return of secondary applications (so you are still fully complete by, say, early September – this helps a little), but there is absolutely no harm in submitting early as long as you can do so without error. Early is really best!
15. What should I do before submitting my application?
Make sure that everything you have written is an accurate, honest representation of yourself. Medical schools reserve the right to contact any of your references to check on the hour counts on your activities, for example, if anything seems awry.
The best way to see what your application will look like to admissions committees is to select the “Print” button and then download your application as a PDF. You may notice once you submit your application that the spacing has been altered or there are strange characters ($*% and so on) where you separated any paragraphs, but rest assured: your application will look exactly like the PDF! So admissions committees will not see any characters there are not present on the PDF version. Use this version of your application to proofread, format, and double-check everything. We suggest reading your application out loud to hear how it flows.
16. Where should I apply?
UAB!!!! (Just kidding, although I will add that I don’t regret my choice of school for even a second!). See our earlier post here about how to choose your school list. 🙂
17. Are there other resources I can access for more help?
Yes! Aside from the information page that AMCAS provides to you before logging in, they also have their own FAQ section here. If you browse around their site, you should find tutorials on how AMCAS works. For other general tips, you can also visit our previous post here to read about 10 pieces of advice for application season!
Good luck to all applicants and future applicants!
Emily Hayward, MS-1