Preparing to Apply

Applying to graduate health professional programs is really a cumulative process. The application itself is designed to inform admission committees about who you are as a person.  Keep in mind, they are not only looking for individuals to join their class, but they are also choosing future alum and health care colleagues.

The steps and process can span several years and involve a great deal of careful planning.  It’s a journey. There are many ways for you to experience the journey and share your unique story.  For these reasons, please consider the information that follows as a starting point for understanding the application process, but realize that there is much more for you to learn and do.  Successful applicants are continually exploring, investigating, strengthening their skills and reflecting on their choices.

A great place to start understanding the application process is to review information on the “Your Pre-Health Journey” tab on the "About Pre-Health" page and to read What Should I Know Before I Apply?


You may have heard the saying “timing is everything”.  This is an important phrase to remember as you determine the best time for you to apply.  It is not unusual for students to apply at different points in their journeys – some apply after junior year, some after senior year (referred to as taking a GAP year) and some apply years after they graduate.  You will need to decide when you are sure of your path and when the time is right for you? Since there can be challenges to being a reapplicant, plan to apply when you are the most competitive applicant you can be!

Application cycles for different programs open during different times of the year.  Since many programs use rolling admissions, it is important to know when your specific application schools opens.  Rolling admission means applicants are considered for admission on a first-in, first-completed basis. So it is to your advantage to have your application completed earlier in the cycle.  A good "rule of thumb" is to have your application materials available to admission committees within a month of the opening of the cycle, but be sure to consider your particular situation.  If you apply late in the cycle (even if it is technically before a school’s printed application deadline), it may be too late to realistically be considered.  Later in the cycle a school may have already reviewed many qualified applicants.  Don’t forget that each application service has its own processing time before your application is forwarded to your target schools.  This processing time can vary from service to service and can take longer during peak applicant submission periods. So, plan carefully and don’t let timing keep you from being accepted!

Some schools have their own individualized application process, but many participate in centralized application services.  View the Pre-Professional App Sheet for information about some of the most common centralized application services for medicine, dentistry, physical therapy and more.


Many students underestimate the importance of carefully choosing target schools.  Too many students use the approach “I’ll go anywhere I am accepted!”  Ask yourself, is this how you would approach a job search?  Would you be willing to take ANY job offer you are given regardless of the work environment, location, required hours or pay rate? Or, would you rather know more about a job and be able to consider if it is a “good fit” for you before you commit to it?

Savvy pre-health students take the time to learn about specific target schools.  They consider things like:

  • How closely a program matches their interests and goals
  • The manner in which they learn best
  • Is the program located where they want to live?  

Although written for medical students, Selecting a Medical School: 35 Questions I Wish I Had Asked, is a great reference for beginning to think about the right types of questions to ask.

Yes, it can take time to really understand the difference between schools, but it is time well spent.  The more closely you can match your interests and goals to specific schools, the more likely you are to be accepted!  Not only will you be the type of student they are looking for, but you are also much more likely to enjoy your time in their program.  A side benefit is you also have a much easier time completing any secondary essays because you will have already “done your homework” about specific schools.

Learning More About Your Potential Schools
Letters of

Letters are an important “non-number” way to learn about an individual or applicant through “another person’s eyes”.  In other words, an opportunity to learn about “who you are as a person from another person’s perspective.” Although you may hear both the terms letters of recommendation (LOR) and letters of evaluation (LOE), what is most important is that your letters highlight your positive personality qualities and characteristics in detailed, specific ways. 

Letters of evaluation are such an important part of the application process that the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) developed specific Guidelines for Writing a Letter of Evaluation for a Medical School Applicant.  Although written for medical school applicants, the competencies listed in this document are valued by admission committees in general.  For this reason, it is in your best interest as an applicant to both review these competencies as well as share this resource with your potential letter writers. To be clear, your personal statement, and paragraphs for each of the (up to) 15 activities on your AMCAS application, should note each of these personal competencies listed below.

Personal Competencies from the AAMC guidelines (see PDF link above for details):

  • Critical Thinking
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Scientific Inquiry
  • Written Communication
  • Living Systems
  • Human Behavior:
  • Service Orientation
  • Social Skills
  • Cultural Competence
  • Teamwork
  • Oral Communication
  • Ethical Responsibility to Self and Others
  • Reliability and Dependability
  • Resilience and Adaptability
  • Capacity for Improvement
Letters of Evaluation
  • After choosing target schools, investigate the specific letters each school requires.  Since there can be a difference between what a school accepts and what they prefer, whenever possible, try to provide schools with the letters they PREFER.  Some schools will have very specific and limited letter requirements, while others may allow for more options and flexibility.
  • If you are not yet sure of your target schools’ letter requirements, then think about your options in more general terms. Make sure to verify what is specifically required as soon as possible and realize requirements can change from year to year. 
  • Consider letters from a variety of individuals who will be able to comment on different qualities and characteristics you have because of unique interactions they have had with you.  The goal would be to have all your letter writers’ comments (when viewed in combination) provide an admission committee with a more “complete” picture of who you really are.  Below are letters you may want to consider:
  • Two letters from science instructors
  • One letter from a non-science instructor
  • Clinician letter from someone you have shadowed
  • Research letter (if you have been involved in research)
  • Letter from an employer (can demonstrate work ethic, dependability, etc.)
  • Letter from a unique experience (study abroad, community service, special program, etc.)
  • Consider asking for letters from a variety of individuals who will be able to comment on different qualities and characteristics you have because of the way they know you.  Choose individuals who know you well because they are more likely to be able to write you a strong, positive, tailored letter (non-general and specifically about you).  The strength of your letters really do matter.  An average, generic letter can actually be a negative for your application.
  • When possible, ask for letters from instructors who are faculty members and not teaching assistants.  Faculty members may have more experience are more likely to have worked with a larger number of students.  So, if they compare you to your peers, a faculty member’s comments may “carry more weight”. Still, always try to obtain letters from individual’s who know you best.  See the next section "Approaching Potential Letter Writers" if you feel as if instructors don’t yet know you well enough.
  • Since schools receive thousands of applications each year, some schools choose to limit how many letters they will accept on an applicant’s behalf. Whenever this occurs send your target schools, the specific letters they are asking for (usually through the centralized application).  If there is no limit, then you can have a broader collection - within reason.  Many schools do not want to read more than about five or six letters unless it is an unusual situation like an applicant applying to an MD/PhD program.  Schools also appreciate letters that provide new information, instead of multiple letters just repeating the same information.

Approaching Potential Letter Writers

Asking someone to write a letter on your behalf can be a very difficult thing to do, but remember the person you are asking likely had other people write letters for them too. 

  • Unless there are really unusual circumstances, don’t ask for a letter via email.  Although email may be convenient, it is a very impersonal and you could risk upsetting a potential letter writer.  It’s “okay to set up an in-person or phone meeting via email, but ask if the individual would be willing to write a letter for you in-person.
  • It’s all right to ask someone if they are  willing to write you a letter well in advance. If this is the case, ask if you may periodically check in to give an update about your new activities.  Follow their guidance on the frequency of the updates.  This is especially true for individuals who don’t yet know you well, but are willing to take the time to get to know you better over time.
  • If you will need a letter sooner, then bring information with you to the meeting and offer to follow-up with electronic information.  Many letter writers would like to review a resume and your personal statement (your essay about why you are interested in a particular path).  It’s also a good idea to share the AAMC Guidelines for Writing a Letter of Evaluation with them, just in case they are unaware of this resource.  Remember, the topics covered are general enough to be applicable to other non-medical school paths. Although you can provide valuable information for your letter writers, keep in mind your letter writers will ultimately decide what they write about.
  • When the time is right, ask your letter writers if they think they will be able to write you a very positive, tailored letter? While this may be difficult to do, it can prevent you from having an average or negative letter.  If a letter writer answers, “sorry, no” for whatever reason, then at least you know where you stand and you can ask a different individual.  If they hesitate then they either aren’t the right person to write you a letter or they don’t you know well enough yet.  Hopefully, these will be rare occurrences and the majority of your letter writers will readily answer "yes" when you ask the positive, tailored letter question.
  • Everyone is busy – so give your letter writers a realistic timeline for when you need your letters and understand they will need time to write you a detailed letter.  Work with them on timing that works for both of you.
  • Once your letters have been written, make sure to thank your letter writers!  After all, they have gone out of their way to help you.  Although email thank you messages are convenient, consider a “hand written” thank you.  In today’s electronic world, a “hand written” note can really standout and be appreciated. 
  • Also be sure to update your letter writers on the outcome of your application.  Your letter writers will wonder what happens and they love to hear good news!

What are Confidential Letters and Why Do They Matter?

A confidential letter is a letter where you waive your rights to read it.  Health professional schools prefer to receive a confidential letter of evaluation because they believe the letter writer will write a more honest evaluation.  For this reason, you should seriously consider sending only confidential letters.  Many applications have systems in place to receive confidential letters.  Keep in mind you can lessen the potential stress associated with confidential letters if you have already confirmed with your letter writers that they are able to write you a positive, tailored letter!

Statement & Essays

A personal statement is another important “non-number” portion of your application.  It is an opportunity for you to share your story and answer “Why ____?” It is a great place to let your unique personality shine through.  Although you may come across many tips and resources about writing personal statements, there is no magic formula or form for writing a personal statement.  This statement should really be an original, interesting essay about you that by the end answers for the reader “Why medicine?”, “Why pharmacy?”, or explains why you are so interested in pursuing a specific career path.  Hopefully your personal statement will draw the reader in from the beginning and by the end have him or her thinking “Let’s meet this person, let’s bring them to campus to interview!”

Since your personal statement is usually submitted to a centralized application service, it will be sent to all your target schools, so you should not customize it for a specific school.  You will have the opportunity to address essays for specific schools when you complete your secondary essays.

Compare and Coordinate Personal Statement and Activity Descriptions

Although the character count for personal statements and activity descriptions can vary widely among the applications for different health professional programs, it is to your advantage to compare and coordinate the text from these two sections.  The activities you list in your application should be activities you have experienced or participated in after high school graduation.  Students are generally encouraged not to include any activities before this time unless it is an activity that was begun before high school graduation and has continued through college.  By contrast it is fine to include information in your personal statement from before your high school graduation as long as it contributes to your pre-health journey and/or explains more about who you are.

Since character count is limited in both your personal statement and the activity descriptions try to prevent unnecessary overlap.  Either you can focus on different topics in each of these sections or you can cover a similar topic from different perspectives thus adding new information for the reader.  Just as with your personal statement, be sure to include in your activity section what you have done and what you learned or gained from the experience.

Some students prefer to write their activity descriptions first and then sketch out their personal statements.  Others may write them more at the same time.  How much you have already journaled your experiences can also determine your preference. Journaling as you explore is a helpful way to “jump start” your activities section later and can allow you to reflect upon your experiences. For more information about journaling, see the "Importance of Journaling" section on the "Clinical Exploration" tab of the "Exploring Your Options" page.

Secondary Essays

In addition to writing a personal statement (for the centralized application) your target schools may also ask you to complete secondary essays.  Some schools will send the secondary essay information to every applicant who applies while other schools choose to send secondary essays to students only after they have passed a “screening cut”.   Be sure to return any secondary essays before any given deadlines.  If no deadline is given then it is a good idea to complete and forward your secondary essays within about two weeks of gaining access to the secondary essays.

The purpose of secondary essays are to learn even more about you and to see what you know about the program you are applying to.  So, it is key to answer each secondary essay as specifically as possible.  Even if two schools ask similar questions, consider how you can answer the question tailored to each individual school.  Review your schools’ websites thoroughly and consider what you have learned from any webinars or onsite visits.  Once the secondary essays begin to “accumulate” you will likely appreciate having already done the “homework” on your target schools when you were deciding where to apply.

Writing Resources

Below are some resources you may helpful as you begin the process of writing for your application.  While you should have others proof read your essays and activities for clarity and flow of ideas, make sure your writings stay true to who you are and tell your story.  Sometimes students have so many people read and comment on their personal statement that it isn’t really their story any longer.  Keep it your work, your story and have it match the person who will be interviewing - you!


Landing an interview is an accomplishment to be celebrated and also an event to prepare for!  If you receive an interview then schools are interested enough in you to bring you to campus.  How well you do in your interview(s) can determine if you continue on in the selection process.  So it is to your advantage to know as much as possible about the specific school and the format of the interview(s).  Read the website of the school carefully, paying attention to items like:

  • The mission statement
  • Curriculum
  • Special things the school is known for 

If the interview format is not explained in your interview offer, it is all right to politely inquire.  Read the sections below and 20 Tips to Help You Succeed on Your Interviews to learn more.

Interview Formats

There are many different interview formats and individual schools will use the structure that works best for them.  Below are some of the more common formats:

  • Traditional – you may interview with one individual, several or sometimes even a panel of people.  Usually this is structured in a question and answer format.  Interviewers could be faculty, staff, students or even members from the community.  It is helpful to know if the interviewers have access to any parts of your application. This could change how you answer questions and help you to better know what to expect.  They may have seen your entire application (open file), not have had any access (closed file or blind) or have had access to only portions of your application.   
  • Multiple Mini Interview (MMI) – this is a very different type of format that is becoming more popular especially among medical schools. Schools such as dental and physician assistant use this method.  It is more like “speed dating” and consists of participating in a series of very short interviews based upon scenarios.  Interviewers want to see how you “think on your feet” and how well you communicate among other things.  You can read "What it’s Like to Participate in Multiple Mini Interviews" (MMIs) to learn more.
  • Other possible interview formats include:
  • Group Interview – where you would need to complete a project/task with a group of other applicants.
  • Short Form or Structured Interview – which can involve answering situational or ethical questions in a shorter format.
  • Telephone Interview – at least one medical school in the country is conducting a telephone screening interview 
  • Combination – some schools will choose to combine different formats on interview day.

Interview Preparation

No matter the format, it is important to be prepared and to feel confident going into the interview day!   Knowing as much as possible about what to expect can help calm your nerves. 

A few suggestions for preparing:

The day of your interview:

  • Arrive early dressed comfortably in professional attire
  • Greet everyone with a smile and a handshake (when appropriate)
  • Assume everyone you meet is somehow connected to the process so treat everyone equally well
  • Have confidence and belief in yourself!

After the interview:

  • Thank faculty and staff in-person (if appropriate)
  • Follow-up with a thank you card (hand written may show more effort)
  • Learn from the day and use what you learn to prepare for the next interview