Last Updated: Feb 1, 2019
Perhaps you feel it—the call to become a physician. The path to medical school and the subsequent practice of medicine is notoriously rigorous and very competitive. Yet, some say the hardest part of the journey is the admission process.
Graduating from medical school and successfully completing a doctoral program is a great accomplishment, one built on careful planning, steadfastness, and determination. But this process begins long before you pass through the halls of any med school, or even college. It starts in high school, and by taking an interest in medicine now, you have already taken the first step.
Ask the right questions
As a high school or college student, the exact meaning of this calling to practice medicine may be unclear to you, but with some reflection, research, and discernment, you will begin to understand just what becoming a physician entails. A great way to begin the process is interviewing several people in the field of medicine: doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, etc. You want to have frank discussions about undergraduate programs, medical school, residency, and the practice of medicine.
This is your chance to learn things you would not read in a textbook or on a website. Find out what physicians would tell their friends or their children about the practice of medicine. And ask plenty of (tactful) questions:
- What aspects of the job do you most and least enjoy?
- How does your practice affect your family life?
- Do you mind having people ask for your expert opinion . . . all the time?
Look for the details and insight only a seasoned physician can share. Discussing your career interest at a teaching hospital may prove the most beneficial, since many of the physicians are accustomed to teaching and discussing their practice. Additionally, if possible, find opportunities to shadow physicians on the job. Witnessing parts of their day will give you a sneak peek at your potential future job. Mentorships (mentoring article) are also very helpful.
Planning for med school
If you still wish to pursue medical school after learning about the 3:00 a.m. calls from the hospital and 80-hour workweeks, then it is time to construct a plan for achieving your goals. Often, students wait until their third or fourth year of college to start thinking about medical school, but deciding that late in the game puts you at a severe disadvantage. To succeed in the competitive medical school admission climate, you must build your future application like an artist compiles a portfolio: you must assemble your best work slowly, over time, with great care.
First, do your research. Find out what the academic requirements are for the medical schools you are considering. In general, requirements are pretty standardized, but there are variations, so look closely. Make sure the courses you are taking coincide with what the schools are looking for. The American Association of Medical Colleges annually publishes an invaluable tool: the Medical School Admission Requirements, or the MSAR.
In addition to looking at the academic requirements, also take the time to investigate the mission, vision, and objectives of medical schools that interest you. Academics are important to your success, but so are the other goals of the institutions you will apply to. Remember: you may not meet the goals of one school, but you could be the ideal candidate at another.
The application process
Medicine is both the art and science of healing. You do not need to be a pre-med or even a science major to attend medical school, and many seek candidates with different academic backgrounds. For example, a candidate with a humanities major brings a unique perspective to the challenges physicians encounter every day. Pursue a major that truly interests you, and cultivate your interest in medicine with extracurricular activities, internships, and volunteer work.
Your grade point average plays an important role in the admission process, but is not the deciding factor. According to one former dean of admission at a medical school, grades only tell part of the academic story. The Medical College Admission Test (test prep article?) (MCAT), however, is the great equalizer between students. It levels applicants’ school, instructor, and course variations and measures their overall academic aptitude.
The MCAT score may be the most important component of your application, and it’s important to approach the exam with ample preparation and strategy. In addition to good old-fashioned studying until the early morning hours, use resources like test-prep books and websites to gain an understanding of how the questions are asked. You should also study the methodologies for developing distracters (reasonable but incorrect answers in a multiple-choice format). Learn how to quickly scan for content in the reading and writing sections—the time limits are stringent.
Your academic credentials and MCAT scores are not the only components in your portfolio. Meaningful extracurricular activities are also important. Far too many students list inconsequential activities that fail to demonstrate leadership skills and integrity. Choose just a few activities, dedicate yourself to them, and seek leadership roles; you will develop skills that cannot be learned in a classroom.
Another piece of your application is community service and volunteer work. Admission committees look for candidates who have demonstrated that they genuinely care for others. Community service shows this. In addition to developing human relations skills and showing motivation toward the field of medicine, your volunteer work should also help you explore working in a medical setting. Hospitals, assisted living facilities, clinics: virtually all health care providers need volunteers in their day-to-day operations.
The moment you decide med school is in your future is the moment you should start planning for the journey, building a portfolio along the way to support your candidacy for admission that will give you the credentials essential for success.