So, you want to be a doctor or a dentist or a pharmacist someday—first of all, thank you. You’ve chosen an incredibly important and rewarding career. But there will be plenty of time for “thank yous” once you’re out in the working world. For now, let’s focus on what really matters: how do you get there from where you are today?
Unfortunately, there is no magic, one-size-fits-all formula for success. But when it comes to choosing an undergraduate institution, earning your degree, getting into grad school, and starting a career in medicine, there are some things that work well—and some that don’t. I like to pass these tips along to every high school student I meet who shows an interest in the health professions. Since you’re still reading, I assume you’re one of them, so now I’ll pass them on to you.
Tip #1: Don’t major in pre-medicine
It may come as a shock, but undergraduate students who major in pre-med are not the most attractive medical school candidates. Why? Because schools want to teach you medicine their own way with their own techniques and their own thematic emphasis. When they’re sorting through thousands of applications, they prefer candidates with training in a broad discipline, like biology, chemistry, English, philosophy, psychology, and so on.
One thing you should keep in mind, however, is that some colleges will let you choose specific “tracks” or “paths” to follow, such as pre-medicine or pre-dentistry, in addition to selecting a major. So you can follow your chosen track to ensure you’re taking the right classes to get into medical school someday while majoring in a specific subject, like biology. If this option is available to you, that’s the way to go.
But that still leaves the question: which major should you choose? Luckily, the answer is easy: anything you want. Seriously. The best major for you is the one you find most interesting. Medical schools do not require a particular major. They only require a series of prerequisite courses, and you can take those courses while completing just about any major you want.
Tip #2: Get to know your professors
Your professors are more than just teachers. They’re experts, mentors,
researchers, advisors—and real people. Build relationships with them whenever you can. It’s one of the best things you can do at college, especially since you’ll be asking them to write reference letters when you apply to med school.
That’s one of the reasons class size is such a critical factor when choosing your undergraduate school. Pay attention to the student-faculty ratio as you’re researching colleges. At smaller schools with smaller classes, you’ll probably have a better chance to get to know your professors and vice versa. And you may have more opportunities to become involved in faculty research, work in a lab, and intern in health settings.
Tip #3: Location, location, location
When it comes to a college’s location, close to home versus not so close and city versus suburbs are very important considerations. But for students considering a future in health care, there’s even more to it. The location of your undergraduate school will play a major role in determining the opportunities available to you while you’re there. For instance, our campus, near downtown Denver, gives students access to several hospitals, low-income clinics, and Spanish-speaking clinics that need volunteers, interns, and researchers. Speaking of volunteering . . .
Tip #4: Get out of the classroom
Health care isn’t just a degree; it’s a passion, a privilege, and an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. If you want to be a successful health professional someday—not to mention get into medical school—you need to demonstrate that passion. The best way to do so is by being involved.
Be involved in research to get a better understanding of the science that goes into health care. Be involved in a health care setting by volunteering or shadowing to demonstrate maturity and knowledge of your chosen field. Be involved in the community to show you understand that health care is a service profession.
In the end, everyone who applies to medical school is smart and talented. It’s the real-world experiences you gain, along with your leadership ability, teamwork, and professionalism, that will help set you apart.
Tip #5: Study!
Sure, this one seems obvious. But if you hope to go to medical school, don’t underestimate the importance of good grades, especially in your science and math courses, as well as any other medical school prerequisites. The competition is fierce. Schools receive thousands of applications, and they’ll only accept a couple hundred. If you want to be one of the chosen few, your grades will be incredibly important.
On top of your exams, papers, and labs, you’ll also need to prepare for one of those standardized tests: either the MCAT, DAT, GRE, or VCAT, depending on your chosen field. No matter which of these tests is in your future, do not take it lightly. And never, ever take the official exam “just to practice.” Graduate schools put a lot of emphasis on these scores. Prepare for the test as if your future is at stake—because, truly, it is.
Tip #6: Start a journal
I know the last thing you want is another homework assignment. But this one will actually save you time in the long run. It doesn’t have to be a detailed “Dear Diary” where you pour your heart out. It should just be a list of goals and accomplishments that you keep updated during your time as an undergrad. Keep track of the hours you spend volunteering, research projects you take part in, awards you receive, and other experiences worth noting. Then, a few years from now, when you start filling out those graduate school applications, you’ll be able to look back at your list instead of relying solely on your memory.
Tip #7: Become a writer
Strengthening your writing skills is one of the most important things you can do as an undergrad. There’s a reason why English, literature, and writing classes are required for science majors. When you apply to medical schools, they’ll be looking at more than just your science and math abilities.
The quality of your writing will play a critical role in determining the fate of your med school applications, and admission officers say they frequently reject applicants because of poor writing skills. Take your English classes and writing assignments seriously—as seriously as you would any lab or research project. And if you find the grades on your papers aren’t as high as you’d like them to be, ask for help. Becoming a good writer takes work, and it’s something you can improve if you put in the effort.
Tip #8: Don’t panic
Pursuing a career in health care is extremely rewarding, but it’s also extremely challenging and competitive. Simply put: it’s not something you should—or need to—rush into. You’ve got plenty of time to choose your path, and there are many people around willing and able to help you make the best choices along the way. Talk to your advisors and mentors. That’s why they’re there.
So, that’s my list. Is it everything you’ll need to know? Definitely not. Does following my advice guarantee you’ll get into medical school? Nope. But it won’t hurt either. Many of you will go on to have wonderfully successful health care careers. Many more of you will decide along the way that health care isn’t necessarily for you, and that’s absolutely fine too. It’s not for everyone. There are plenty of other equally great choices you can make when it comes to your degree and career. Just don’t major in pre-med.