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Preparing for Medical School

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by
Founding Dean, College of Allied Health, California Baptist University

Working as a doctor is a truly exciting career. However, one of the most difficult parts of achieving it is getting into medical school. The application process can be challenging, exciting, invigorating, and, at times, frustrating. The more you know about the process, the better off you will be. Here are a few of the key areas you need to be aware of in order to make yourself a competitive candidate.

Passion

One of the most important parts of being a competitive professional school applicant is passion. Passion means being able to answer the following question without any hesitation: Why do you want to go to medical school?

A career in medicine is a challenging journey. The hard work involved means you have to want to be a medical professional more than anything else at this point in your life. You must be willing to sacrifice other things in order to achieve this goal. Free time and time with family are often pushed aside in order to be totally dedicated to your education and to the profession that will be a part of you for the rest of your days. You must be highly motivated, have a heart for serving others, and be driven to succeed in this demanding vocation. Compassion and competition don’t always go hand-in-hand, but you must have both of these characteristics if you are going to do well in medicine. If you don’t have this kind of passion and driving force, you may want to consider an alternative career. Medicine is a long, hard road, but one that has tremendous benefits worth fighting for. 

After answering the “why” question above, you must also consider current medical school acceptance rates—the competition is fierce. Although there is a shortage of doctors projected for the future, in 2009 18,665 of the 42,742 applications submitted to medical schools in the United States and Canada were admitted, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. That’s about 43% of all applicants.

Do your homework

Before applying to medical or health professional school, you need to do some background work and field research. It is a good idea to talk with health care professionals and familiarize yourself the medical education process. Meeting and learning from those in med school and in practice will be invaluable to you. Current students can outline for you the challenges of medical school, while working professionals can give you a realistic picture of what happens when launching this type of career.

Doing ample research about the medical profession and the application process is also particularly essential to your success. Perhaps the best source of information is the Association of American Medical Colleges (www.aamc.org). This organization is designed to provide the most up-to-date info on medical schools in the United States and Canada. Reviewing the AAMC website and communicating with this organization will provide you with valuable information on medical schools, the application process, the different specializations in medicine, alternative careers in health care, and much more.

Academic requirements and the MCAT

Medical schools are, of course, looking for focused and motivated students who excel academically. A very high GPA is a standard expectation for potential students, but it is not the only consideration for medical school acceptance committees. Basic science and math courses are customary requirements, but medical schools are also looking for students who have a strong grasp of the humanities and social sciences, even a liberal arts background. That’s because medical schools want well-rounded individuals. Thus, choosing a major that fits your personality and your areas of strength is a very good idea. You don’t have to major in the basic sciences as long as you take the necessary med school pre-requisite courses; most medical schools require at least one year each of biology, physics, and English, and two years of chemistry (including organic chemistry). Some medical schools may have additional expectations, so it is very important that you double-check requirements at the institutions where you plan to apply.

In addition to science courses, you should take several math courses (preferably calculus-based), and be aware that admission officials look at overall transcripts to assess each individual’s academic ability. Typically, admission committees want to see a pattern of consistency or improvement over time­, so if you had one semester where your grades weren’t as strong as you would have liked, you still have a chance to gain admittance if your academic performance shows consistency and improvement. A well-rounded academic and extracurricular profile will improve your chances of gaining admission to medical school. These institutions receive thousands of applications each year for a limited number of seats, so setting yourself apart academically is hugely significant in your potential for success.

You should also become familiar with the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This exam is designed to assess your skills in biological and physical sciences, as well as your ability to read, write, and interpret information. Preparing for the MCAT can involve a tremendous amount of time and money­, so start doing your MCAT homework in the early stages of your search for medical schools. You are usually allowed to take the MCAT up to three times in one calendar year, and the test is offered regularly from January through September. A good MCAT score is an important piece of the puzzle to gaining acceptance to medical school.

Volunteering

Gaining experience in a health care setting is extremely important before you even begin the application process. This will allow you to get a better picture of the profession, and it demonstrates to medical schools that you have experience in the professional setting. Medical schools are in the business of training future doctors, so they want to know that you have prepared before arriving on campus. Volunteering in a local physician’s office or at a clinic can prove to be very important for your future success. You may find that volunteering also helps narrow your focus on the area of medicine in which you may want to specialize. Spending time in a health care setting also allows you to see the realities of day-to-day medical practice in action. There are many things about being a doctor that can’t be taught in medical school, so the more time you have in the clinical setting the better.

Other health care options

A very important step in this process is recognizing the other health care career options available for you. For example, dentistry, epidemiology, health care administration, occupational therapy, optometry, pharmacy, physical therapy, physician assistant, public health, speech pathology, and veterinary medicine are all excellent careers that should be explored and considered by anyone interested in health care.

You already learned that more than 50% of medical school applicants are not admitted, and preparing for that reality is a necessary part of the process. Allied health careers provide excellent opportunities for motivated and driven students to succeed and become an integral part of the health care team. As medicine continues to specialize, these specific kinds of careers are going to become more and more important in the delivery of high-quality health care.

Applying to medical school requires attention to detail, patience, perseverance, and assertiveness. Good luck as you pursue this path!

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