You would think at 22 years old, I would know how to describe myself. Yet, each time I look at my medical school applications with essay prompts asking about what characteristics make me a qualified candidate for medical school, I don’t know what to say.

I’m a qualified candidate because I’m … responsible? Driven? Caring? What could I write in my essays that would set me apart from the thousands of other pre-medical students vying for the same spot? This is just one of the obstacles I’ve faced while applying to medical schools.

When you hear that the application process for medical schools is long, it’s not a joke. My application process began the fall semester of my junior year at Gannon. I’m now halfway through the fall semester of my senior year and I’m still not finished.

It starts off fairly simple: contact your pre-medical advisor, fill out waiver forms and begin to ask faculty for letters of recommendation. Luckily, being a Gannon student, our pre-medical advisor helped greatly with getting the ball rolling. Once these initial steps are done, your next big hurdle is the one that every potential medical student must face. It’s the moment that they know is coming from the instant they decided to pursue a medical career and it’s quite possibly one of the most dreaded parts of the entire process: the MCAT.

The Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT is a standardized, multiple choice exam with sections of Biological Science, Physical Science, Verbal Reasoning and Writing that every student wanting to get accepted to medical school must take. Just hearing about this five hour exam is enough to make any well-adjusted student quake in their shoes. You’ve probably heard stories from teachers or students who have dealt with the exam that scare the daylights out of you. I’m going to tell you this: It is a difficult test. You’re trying to be a physician after all! But it is far from impossible. In fact, with the correct preparation, your MCAT could be comparable to other standardized tests.

The key is to begin your studying in advance and study steadily up until the day of your test, gradually increasing the study time. If you try to cram two weeks before, it’s quite unlikely that you will obtain a score to make you a competitive candidate for medical school. Even if you don’t do as well as you’d like to when you receive your score, the nice thing about the test is that you are able to retake it, similar to the SATs. It’s a big time commitment, but don’t let the idea of the MCAT scare you. It’s not the only aspect of a student that schools look at.

One very important thing that medical schools look for in potential students is clinical experience. Pre-medical classes do not offer you clinical experience in undergraduate studies, so it is up to you to be involved to some degree in clinical healthcare. To get that experience, I was able to obtain a job as a Patient Care Assistant at a local hospital near Gannon, UPMC Hamot. It was actually through a Gannon program, Partners in Patient Care, that I heard about this opportunity and was able to become hired. It has been a core learning and networking opportunity for me on my path to be a physician. There are also many other clinical prospects that are available around Gannon. There are three local hospitals and numerous practices nearby that a prospective student could apply to, volunteer at or shadow a healthcare professional at.

Through the application process, keep in mind that almost all medical schools accept their students on a rolling basis, so do your research and apply as soon as you can! It’s first come, first serve. The school will stop accepting students when their class fills up, even if it’s before the application deadline. It takes about 3-6 weeks for your initial application to clear through whichever medical association pathway you chose and then depending on the school, it can take a few more weeks to receive, complete and return your supplemental application. And of course, there’s the money aspect. It’s not  cheap to apply to medical schools. Make good financial choices however and it’s definitely affordable. If a poor college student like myself can do it, so can you!

The whole process may sound awfully terrifying, but it’s worth every second. Every memory of stress, studying, and waiting seems to vanish when you receive that first phone call or e-mail for your first interview and then finally, the moment you hear those words, “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted!”

Get some insight into the pathway to medical school in Matt’s blog, Sci-Guy.