Admissions Blog

With the next admissions cycle almost upon us, final year MD student Qimeng Gao shares some of the common pitfalls in applying to medical school to help our admissions blog readers. Qimeng, from the Duke-NUS MD Class of 2018, is a student reviewer in our MD admissions process and currently pursuing research projects related to transplant immunology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. 

pitfall applying to medical school

1. Don’t paint a false image of yourself. Be yourself!
The most important thing when you prepare a medical school application is to be yourself. Be honest and be sincere. Tell the admission committee about your journey so far—what kind of person you are and what made you decide on pursuing medicine. It’s okay if it took you a while to figure out what your true passion is, and it’s not the end of the world if you haven’t figured out if you want to become a general practitioner or a subspecialized neurosurgeon. Don’t feel like you have to say you want to do research and/or stay in the academics to get into medical school—because you don’t. The majority of practicing physicians do not consider research as their priority. Many are involved in teaching, policy-making, volunteering, public service, etc. At the end of the day, if you can convince yourself that medicine is for you, don’t doubt yourself thinking your story won’t be convincing enough for the admission committees.

2. Don’t ask someone for a recommendation letter just because he or she is accomplished in the medical field. Find recommendation letter writers who know you well.
The whole idea of recommendation letters is for the admission committee to find out a bit more about what other people think of you in academic/professional/social settings. A common mistake is to find letter writers who are well connected/giants in the field of medicine, but do not know you well. Sometimes, it becomes obvious in a letter that the recommender may not know the person at all. It can be difficult for a professor who has been lecturing a 500-people biology 101 course for the last 30 years to remember a specific student. An ideal letter usually comes from someone with whom you have worked closely for an extended period of time and therefore, can advocate for you at both professional and personal levels.

3. When preparing for the MCAT, don’t set out thinking that you can retake the test. Put in your best effort and allocate sufficient time to study —do it once and do it well.
It is true that you can get into medical school with an imperfect GPA and below average MCAT score; however, most people accepted at medical schools have stellar GPA and MCAT scores, which, to the very least, proves to the admission committee that they are capable of surviving the intense medical school curriculum. So, work hard on your university coursework and take the time to study for your MCAT. Although it is true you can take MCAT multiple times, the most efficient way is to take as much time as you need to study for it and nail it once and for all.

4. Don’t apply to a school without knowing what it is about. Research the school that you are applying to thoroughly.
You are making a commitment to spend four years of your life in medical school and investing more than 150,000 SGD on your education. So, it’s probably reasonable to do some research on the school curriculum and your future career path on your own. Go to info sessions, reach out to admission office/current students/alumni so that you know exactly what you are getting yourself into.

5. In your essays: Show, don’t tell
“Show, don’t tell” is a frequently delivered advice for medical school application essays/personal statements. Don’t tell people that you are a “team player”, instead, illustrate that quality by telling a story of how you worked in a team setting. Don’t tell people that you are interested in research and academic medicine, instead, describe your active involvement in research and showcase your research output (posters, talks, manuscripts, etc).

6. Don’t make excuses for your past experiences. Acknowledge your mistakes.
If you have made mistakes in the past, always be honest with the admission committee. It’s more important to acknowledge it and talk about what you have learned from the experience. A common pitfall for medical school application is finding excuses for your mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes—and it is more important to learn something from those mistakes than to argue about whether you have made a mistake or not.

7. You don’t need to include every single award that you received. Keep your application short and sweet.
Something that a lot of applicants do, myself included, is throw in as much information as possible into the application. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you can think from the application reviewers’ perspective, what they really need is a synopsis of what you have done and important awards that you have received. Listing honors/awards/activities that you have received/done in middle school is unlikely to affect the admission committee’s decision to accept you as a medical student.

8. If it doesn’t work out the first time, don’t be discouraged.
Unfortunately, there’s a limited number of spots offered by medical schools each year and there will be people who fail to secure an acceptance letter. DO NOT be discouraged—it may just mean that the admissions committee doesn’t think you are prepared for medical school at this point of time. Take as much time as you need to do some soul searching and think about the aspects of your application can be improved upon. If medicine is really for you, your time will come.

By Qimeng Gao, a successful re-applicant to Duke-NUS and enrolled in the Class of 2018

Special thanks to my classmate Gwen Hwarng for her valuable suggestions!