Logo for University of Iowa Health Care This logo represents the University of Iowa Health Care

10 hidden rules of applying to medical school

Date: Friday, April 24, 2020

Applying to medical school can be a stressful experience for even the most capable student. Faculty and admissions staff at University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine have compiled a list to help you tackle the application process and get ahead of the curve.

Letters of recommendation

Select recommenders who know you well and can talk about your strengths in detail. Talk with your recommenders ahead of time about your reasons for wanting to attend medical school and give them plenty of time (at least three to four weeks) to complete your letter. Develop relationships early—people are more likely to help you if they know you well.

Do not overextend yourself

While it is good to get involved with lots of activities, remember that your grades are really important. Strong grades (not perfect, but strong) will be the first thing to open doors for applicants. 

Confidence is important 

It helps to understand that almost everyone feels like they’re not “good enough” at some point. The reality is that you can do this. Confidence is valued in the medical field. If you don’t feel confident in a given situation, it’s OK. Just be honest, because sometimes admitting a lack of confidence can help you gain some. 


Make sure that you are not leaving the interview committee with any unanswered questions. When you are reflecting on your experiences in your interview, make sure you are discussing what you did during that activity, how it helped you solidify a path toward medicine, and offer anything insightful or impactful that you learned.

Quality of written work

Even at your interview, the admissions committee will probably not meet you in person. They will learn about you from your interviewers and recommenders, but will only hear your voice in your written work. Let them hear your passion for medicine throughout your application by using descriptive language and detail at every opportunity. Be sure to proofread. Make sure your application is free of typos and grammatical errors.

Journal about your experiences

You should strive to journal early and often. After work, volunteering, or any other experience, take some to reflect on your thoughts and feelings. It will be much easier for you to write your personal statement if you have prior experiences to draw upon, rather than starting with a blank screen. 

Do what you love

As a pre-med student, you will be a more appealing candidate if the activities you’re involved in are things you actually care about. Even if these activities aren’t medically related, such as teaching kids a sport or working at a coffee shop, they still count. Moreover, they will show that you have valuable skills that can translate to medicine.

Take your time

The application process is a marathon, not a sprint. Give yourself three to six months to prepare for the MCAT and work on your application. If you want to wait a year (or more) after graduation to give yourself plenty of time to apply, do it. A mental break is much appreciated by many of our students who waited to apply instead of jumping right in after graduation.

There is no “right” path

Many students think they have to follow the exact path that a “typical” pre-med student takes in order to be successful. In reality, there are many different ways to get to medical school. Some students take a gap year after graduation, some complete post-baccalaureate programs prior to applying, and some do neither. The point is, there is no one right way to apply to medical school.

Fail, fail, and then succeed

Students often compare themselves to others during the application process. It may sometimes feel like others are more successful. The good news is that no one is perfect, and everyone hits a roadblock at some point. No one tends to talk about their failures, but just because you failed at something does not mean you will not succeed as a medical student.