A comprehensive guide to AMCAS: getting started on the primary application

medical school admissions strategy writing

Statistical Mediation & Moderation in Psychological Research (17)You’ve decided to apply to medical school. Congratulations- that’s a huge step! How do you organize everything you’ve done in the past few years into a couple hundred words on your primary application? My goal is for this post to serve as a comprehensive resource as you organize yourself for a writing marathon this cycle. Take a deep breath- you got this!!

How much space do I have to talk about myself?

The first step is to figure out what kinds of questions you’ll be answering in your applications. Let’s start with the primary application:

  • Up to 15 activity statements: ~100 word descriptions of each of your extra-curricular activities.
  • Up to 3 “Most Meaningful Experience” statements: ~200-250 word additional paragraphs on three of your 15 activity statements.
  • Personal statement: ~800-900 word space for your personal narrative.
  • MD/PhD statement (MD/PhD applicants only): ~500 word narrative essay on why you have decided to pursue an MD/PhD.
  • Significant research experience (MD/PhD applicants only): up to ~1500 word technical essay on the research projects you have completed.

*I find thinking about essays in terms of word count more helpful than character counts when planning how to organize content across your application.

More on MD/PhD writing in my next post, but for dual degree applicants looking for organize themselves, below are some pointers to help you get started:

Significant research experience

I would recommend writing this before your MD/PhD statement. The space can feel daunting, but this section helps set up your narrative. I would approach this by stringing together abstracts of projects you have worked on, fleshing out the procedures in detail- specific wet lab and analytic techniques- and explicitly highlighting your contributions with “I” statements. Next, (1) add a sentence at the beginning of each abstract explaining why you pursued the project to transition between experiences and (2) add a sentence at the end of each abstract to highlight what you’ve learned. If you already have abstracts saved for each project, this approach can significantly speed up the writing process.

MD/PhD statement

Given your research experiences, why do you want to pursue an MD/PhD? Keep in mind you’ve already made a case for why MD in your personal statement. This is your chance to highlight unmet needs in academic medicine that stand out to you, and the specific research/clinical question you are most interested in answering. If you’re unsure about your question, focusing on fields is also fine (though the more specific your question, the more compelling your story will be). This is your chance to highlight your depth and breadth of understanding in your research field.

For the rest of this post, we will focus on the MD sections. The different sections should come together to form a comprehensive argument about why you would be an asset to each medical school. Now that we have a sense of the format, let’s start to craft your argument!

What experiences should I talk about?

Before you try to write a narrative- which can quickly become overwhelming- let’s figure out what we can work with:

List out everything you’ve worked on in undergrad

And by that I mean everything! Art clubs, intramural sports, that one project you worked on for four months before dropping it… it’s useful to have all your pieces on the table. Include shadowing experiences, honors/awards, and publications (if any)!

Write 1-2 sentences about each activity 

For each activity, think about a couple things: how long were you involved? Did you have any leadership positions? Did you win any grants or awards? Did you collaborate with any other student groups, teams, physicians, or institutions? Is there any tangible “product” you could talk about (a blog post, video, paper, club event, etc.)? Did you interact with people whose backgrounds are different from yours? Did you learn a new skill? Did you apply those skills elsewhere/teach someone what you’ve learned? Could you provide a recommendation letter to back up the activity?

You likely won’t say “yes” to most of these for your activities- that’s completely fine! Those experiences are still valuable to include on your application. With these criteria, you can start to rank your activities from stronger to weaker depending on how much evidence you have to show that the experiences have been meaningful and productive for you.

Organize activities by “type”

Think broadly in terms of research, teaching, community service (clinical), community service (non-clinical), physician shadowing/clinical observation, paid employment, leadership, and artistic endeavors. You will be asked to assign categories to your activities on AMCAS. Try to balance your app! There will be overlap between criteria, but see if you can roughly represent each category with your activities. Work with the activities you already have- don’t invent something if a category is empty. Prioritize clinical community service and research. You can group all your shadowing experiences into one activity.

Pick out your three strongest activities

Using your ranks in step 2 as a guide, pick out your 2-3 strongest activities. You might only have 2, which actually gives you some wiggle room to pick a third activity that aligns most closely with your narrative. Try to pick 3 activities of different “type”- you don't want all 3 to be research, for instance. One of your three should be a clinical experience. Avoid passive experiences like short-term shadowing. Focus on what you’ve learned from each activity, and think about ways the different things you’ve learned can complement each other.

What’s my story?

I think of the exercise above not just as a useful way to organize your activity statements, but as assembling the building blocks you can use as evidence for your narrative. How should you use this evidence?

The personal statement is a place for you to present the admissions committee your values, interests, and goals. Your values stem from your childhood and important life experiences, and they explain why certain activities are meaningful to you. They set the stage for who you are as a person and why you are drawn to medicine in the first place. You want to show that your values align with values of the medical profession. Your interests are extensions of your values- what have you chosen to pursue up until now? You want to show the committee that you have used your time meaningfully to pursue these interests. This assures the admissions committee that you are action-oriented and will make use of your resources in medical school. Finally, your goals are what you want to pursue in the future. This is your pitch to the committee to convince them you will add value to their school, and eventually to the medical profession. Your goals should build on what you have already accomplished- your pursuits, interests, and conviction should convince the committee that you truly intend to pursue these goals. They can be as simple or elaborate as you want, as long as they are authentic. By the end of your essay, the readers should feel like your values are well suited for a career in medicine, and they should be convinced- and excited- by what you’ve proposed to pursue in your future.

These three areas can help shape the argument of your personal statement. Before staring at a blank piece of paper and trying to write a story from scratch, I would recommend some quick exercises to break down the process into smaller steps:

  • Write down your values. Truly, what do you care about? Some questions to think about- where did you grow up? What is your family like? What did your family teach you? What are the values of your culture? Do you identify with your culture? Are you different from those around you? What makes you happy? Does social injustice bother you? Is there anything about the world that bothers you, or gives you hope? What drives you to act? What do you enjoy about medicine? How do you connect with others?
  • Find themes in your most meaningful activities. What have you been interested in so far? The activities you’re drawn to probably have similarities without you realizing it. Brainstorm different narratives with your 2-3 most meaningful activities. Let’s say you pursued research in stem cell biology, worked at a domestic violence shelter, and shadowed a lot of trauma surgery. Maybe you could be interested in the intersection of regenerative biology/grafts and trauma medicine (research/clinical). Or you could think about the social implications of physical and mental trauma (volunteer work/clinical). Your clinical activity should be the centerpiece of this exercise.
  • Explore! You don’t just want to make up a narrative. Your theme should align with your values- you should genuinely be invested in your story, and you should be able to explain your human motivation behind pursuing your interests. Reflect deeply!

With these exercises, you should have plenty of thought fodder to work with as you reflect on what you’ve done so far, what you care about, and what you want to pursue in the future. Stay tuned for next steps on structuring your narrative into a personal statement. In many ways, this process is a unique opportunity to introspect and reorient yourself for the next phase in your life. Good luck, and happy brainstorming- you are amazing, and I’m rooting for you!


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