From Dr. House to Meredith Grey and even Dr. Who, physicians are embedded everywhere in pop culture. The usual stereotype is a confident, all-knowing doctor who walks into a scene of panic and despair and instantly provides calm while solving the urgent problem. Does anyone ever ask, “How are they so calm?” or “Why do they seem to know so much?” While TV doctors are a caricature of the reality of being a physician, they do possess some of the same attributes medical schools want to instill in the future doctors of the world. Being a physician means being calm in the face of adversity and attempting to do your best to help your patients on what is often one of the worst days of their lives. But what does it take to become a physician?
The road to medical school is a long and rewarding journey that prepares you for residency and the process of becoming a physician. It is only one part of the journey, but it is the important beginning of the marathon. Before we delve into the details of what it takes to make it to medical school, let’s review the process from a bird’s eye view:
Step 1 – Is medicine right for me?
Step 2 – Complete the medical school prerequisite courses
Step 3 – Get involved with extracurricular activities such as volunteering, research, and physician shadowing
Step 4 – ACE the MCAT
Step 5 – Complete the medical school primary application, secondary applications, and interviews. Then sit back and let the acceptances roll in.
These are just five of the major points along the road to medical school. Below we will address specific questions and topics to help guide you on your journey.
How do I know if medicine is right for me?
Whether you are a high school student considering medicine for the first time, or an investment banker who has decided that finance isn’t for you, this question is the most important question for the pre-medical student to answer. The road to medical school is long, but the road after medical school is even longer! Simply deciding that medicine sounds fun because of what your friends have told you or because of what family has said is no substitute for your own experiences.
The single best way to explore what doctors do and what it takes to become a physician is to “shadow” a physician, which involves following one as they see and treat patients. This direct experience will help separate fact from fiction and is an essential part to deciding: “Is medicine what I thought it would be?” and “Is this what I want to do with my life?”
To put it simply, from pre-medical coursework to becoming a practicing physician is approximately 11 years of your life – how much information do you want to have before you make that decision?
How do I become a doctor?
Ok, so you have done your homework. You have shadowed local physicians, read pre-medical guidebooks and you’ve found that you don’t instantly faint at the sight of blood. What next?
After you have decided that medicine is right for you, creating a plan to enroll in and ace the required pre-medical courses is the next step.
What pre-med courses are required?
While the list can vary among medical schools, a general recommendation for pre-medical course requirements includes:
2 semesters of biology (with labs)
2 semesters of chemistry (with labs)
2 semesters of organic chemistry (with labs)
2 semesters of physics (with labs)
1 semester of biochemistry
1 semester of statistics
In addition to these requirements, some schools may require different math courses (1 vs 2 semesters of calculus or even no calculus at all). Depending on the schools you eventually choose to apply to, some may not even require any form of math coursework.
Can I meet these requirements with community college or AP/IB credit?
This is one of the most commonly asked questions by pre-medical students and is a great question to consider. In general, admissions committees will want to see most pre-requisite work completed at the university level. This ensures an appropriate level of rigor and allows them to compare (almost) apples to apples.
Another factor to bear in mind when deciding is that, as an applicant, you want the highest possible science GPA that you can achieve. If you exempt out of the initial, introductory courses, you are passing up an easy A that will help solidify an excellent science GPA for medical school. Additionally, most universities teach science courses much more rigorously than an AP/IB course, and you may be setting yourself up for failure if you skip the introductory course and immediately begin more rigorous science courses (and potentially get a C or worse!).
Some medical schools even have policies that prevent them from accepting advanced placement and/or community college coursework. By going this route, you may be limiting the pool of medical schools to which you can potentially apply.
In consideration of these reasons, it is generally recommended that pre-medical students take all the core pre-medical requirements at the institution where they will be receiving their degree.
What pre-med major is the best?
There is no recommended pre-med major for admission to medical school. In fact, as part of their mission to promote the diversity of incoming classes, many admissions committees look favorably on majors that may be traditionally underrepresented in medical schools. The best major for aspiring pre-medical students is the major they are most interested in. Choosing a major that excites you will make the long hours spent studying easier and provide purpose to focus you during the pre-med years.
For students considering traditionally more difficult majors (physics, mathematics, engineering), don’t shy away from those majors because you’re worried about maintaining a 4.0 GPA. As part of the holistic admissions process, most medical school admissions committees will consider the perceived difficulty of a major. This is not an excuse to slack or underachieve and expect an admissions committee to curve your GPA, but rather encouragement that a 3.8 mechanical engineering GPA will not be assessed in an identical context as a 3.8 political science GPA.
Again, no matter the major that you choose, ACING your prerequisite courses is essential; these will be the courses against which all pre-meds are being compared regardless of chosen major.
What extra-curriculars do I need for medical school?
While doing well in the pre-med coursework may feel like a challenge on its own, medical schools want students who can handle multiple projects at once. Throughout your journey on the road to medical school, you will want to explore extracurricular opportunities such as: physician shadowing, volunteering, and research.
What is physician shadowing?
As was alluded to earlier in this article, physician shadowing is a key experience on the road to medical school. While this is an important aspect of deciding whether to pursue medical school, you should not simply stop shadowing once you have made the decision that medicine is right for you. Medical schools want applicants who know what the profession of medicine demands. The road to becoming a fully licensed physician is a long, hard road full of self-sacrifice for the good of the patient. One aspect of the medical school application that best demonstrates applicants’ understanding of what it means to be a physician is simple: how much time have they spent with physicians, and what kind of experiences have resulted from this time?
There is no magic amount of physician shadowing that medical school admissions committees are looking for; however, most advisors would recommend at least 2-3 discrete experiences over a longitudinal time period to allow the pre-med to fully appreciate the shadowing experience and learn the different aspects involved with the physician’s duties. Additionally, while it is important to have goals on the road to medical school, the pre-med years are not the time to narrow your focus. In general, medical schools want applicants who want to be doctors first, not applicants who apply with the sole goal of becoming a pediatric cardiac interventionalist. Because of this, shadowing physicians across multiple specialties is advisable, as it will demonstrate that you have a broad understanding of what it means to be a physician.
Do I need volunteering to apply to medical school?
The short answer to this question is: YES! Volunteering, whatever the project, allows you to learn valuable teamwork skills along with project management and fostering a sense of altruism. From an admissions committee’s perspective, volunteering allows the applicant to demonstrate multiple desirable personality traits.
What do medical schools look for in applicants?
Luckily for you, the Association of American Medical Colleges has spelled out exactly what personality traits they value: AAMC Core Competencies. Understanding these competencies will not only help you with self-assessment and reflection, they will help you understand what medical schools are looking for with personal statements, interviews, and even why they care so much about volunteering!
Back to volunteering…
A longitudinal volunteering experience during the pre-medical years allows an applicant to demonstrate not only altruism and an orientation towards service, but also dedication, reliability, and dependability. These skills are the same skills that will help you flourish during medical school and residency. Therefore, volunteering is an essential part of your pre-medical experience. It complements the academic accomplishments of completing your prerequisite courses and your MCAT.
While many applicants choose volunteering experiences that are clinically oriented, this is not necessary. The most important facet of volunteering is to find an organization or a project that resonates with you. Accomplishing great things over time and helping your chosen project to flourish are significantly more important than finding a clinical volunteering experience. Medical schools will teach you medicine; they want to know that you are passionate, altruistic, and dedicated.
Do I need research to get into medical school?
While research experience can be an excellent addition to your medical school application, it is not an absolute necessity. Again, you should follow your passions when pursuing your pre-med extracurriculars. If you don’t see yourself as a ‘research person’, a short experience in a lab would still be helpful to understand the process of planning, conducting, and reporting research. If after this, you still don’t feel inspired or compelled to continue, concentrate on the other aspects of your pre-medical education. Keep in mind, if you are relatively ‘weak’ in one aspect, devoting more time to a complimentary area (volunteering or shadowing) may help when the admissions committee is holistically reviewing your application.
If you decide that research is for you, continue to pursue it. The research experience does not have to be basic science or even ‘hard-science’ related. When the admissions committee evaluates your research experiences, they are assessing how involved you were with the project, and if you can intelligently discuss the contributions that you made to the research project. Contributing and presenting your psychology research at a national meeting would be looked upon much more favorably than simply participating in a neuroscience laboratory.
How do I prepare for the MCAT?
There is no way around it – the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is one of the most important stops on the road to medical school. Because there is no way to know what medical schools will consider a ‘good’ score to compliment your extracurriculars and GPA, it is important to maximize your score on this exam.
There is no set time to take the MCAT for everyone. Most authors recommend taking the MCAT only after you have completed the accompanying pre-requisites (physics, chemistry, biology, and biochemistry). For many applicants, this time is at some point in the junior year of their undergraduate education. When planning for your MCAT test date, consider how many credit hours you are planning to take during the semester you will be sitting for the test. Many applicants have found that taking the test during the summer allows them ample study time in a low stress environment, potentially boosting their scores.
When it comes to preparing for the MCAT, repetition is key. Multiple companies offer in-person and online preparation services along with comprehensive practice question banks. Just like surgical residents who practice their knot tying before ever scrubbing in on a surgery, pre-meds should have taken many practice MCATs before ever sitting for their actual MCAT. The more test preparation you complete prior to the ‘big day’, the more confident you will feel and the lower the likelihood you will encounter totally new material or concepts.
Applying to medical school
For traditional and non-traditional applicants alike, you should apply to medical school the year before you hope to begin. For example, if you want to begin medical school Fall 2021, you will want to submit your application materials in the summer of 2020. There are multiple application services for U.S. medical schools including the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS), and Texas Medical and Dental School Application Service (TMDSAS). AMCAS is the service for American M.D. medical schools outside of Texas, TMDSAS is specific for Texas medical schools, and AACOMAS is the official application service utilized to apply to osteopathic (D.O.) medical schools. The individual application dates vary according to the application year and which specific application service you are utilizing.
What is a ‘secondary application’?
For AAMCAS, you will receive secondary applications shortly after submitting your primary AMCAS application. These secondary applications require the applicant to answer essay-style questions that usually inquire about specific personality attributes, why the applicant is pursuing medicine, or why the applicant thinks he/she is a ‘good fit’ for a specific school. These applications usually require the payment of an additional application fee. Completing secondary applications quickly is key, as most medical schools will not consider an applicant for an interview until they have reviewed the primary and secondary applications.
What comes next?
After you complete your secondary applications, you will receive interview invitations from medical schools that are interested in you as a candidate. We will cover how to prepare for and ACE medical school interviews in a following blog post, stay tuned!