If you are considering pursuing a career in medicine, you're probably aware that preparation begins while you're still an undergraduate. The temporary high of declaring a pre-med major can quickly wear off as the grind of the school year kicks in and your toughest courses begin.
As medical school graduates will tell you, the journey to becoming a doctor is more of a marathon than a sprint. A little organization and planning in the beginning can make the difference between steady progress and academic burnout.
Get a bird's eye view of the path ahead by learning about medical school requirements and mapping out when you will accomplish them in your undergraduate years. And while you're at it, why not go the extra mile and give your future medical school application a competitive edge to stand out from the pile?
We enlisted medical professionals to help us compile a list of the basic medical school requirements every healthcare hopeful should complete, as well as advice on how to amplify your application even more.
Medical school requirements will differ from school to school, but there are some standards that will apply pretty much anywhere you go. These basic requirements include the following:
Most medical colleges also share the following minimum coursework requirements:
Many medical schools also have thresholds for minimum GPA and minimum MCAT scores for applicants. Some schools require applicants to complete a certain list of premedical course requirements, while others look for more competency-based admissions, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
Dr. Chandler Park, MD and professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, says the goals of competency admittance are to allow for a wider range of physicians in practice. "My idea of diversity is different undergraduate majors, varying age ranges, different life experiences, personality diversity and thought leaders rather than rote memorizers," he explains.
Park adds that the MCAT traditionally held so much weight because it acted as a predictor for how students might do on medical boards. However, basing acceptance on scholastic criteria alone ignores other competencies physicians need.
"These qualities are the human qualities," he says, explaining that many schools have been focusing more on "human qualities" during the medical school admissions process. "The competency-based standard of practice is supposed to identify these applicants during the screening process so that they will reach the medical school interview stage."
With such wide variations out there, it's imperative to look through the med school requirements at any institution you're considering attending to ensure you aren't missing anything specific to that school. Check out the AAMC's database of medical schools to help you gather information for everything you'll need to gain acceptance into the program(s) you prefer.
Aside from the boxes you need to check, doctors and medical school professors have plenty of advice for how you can really impress with your medical school application — no matter where you apply. Here are some things to keep in mind:
This one might come as a surprise, but according to David Norris, MD and author, cramming your schedule with the sciences can actually be counter-productive. "Only take the classes you need to get into medical school and prepare you for the MCAT," he advises. "Spread the rest of your time in college taking courses that interest you."
"To clarify a common misconception, you are not obligated to study biology because you are pre-med," says Yaolin Zhou, MD and director of molecular pathology at the University of Oklahoma. "You probably will never have another opportunity to study French literature or music or political science," she says. "Do not study something that seems boring or uninteresting just because you think it is what medical school admissions are looking for."
Medical professionals agree that med school hopefuls should take advantage of their time as an undergrad and focus on growing as a person. Becoming a well-rounded, cultured individual could end up helping you stand out from other rigid applicants.
"One of the things that gives an applicant an advantage is to be able to demonstrate that he or she can authentically execute something and handle responsibility," says Dina Strachan, MD at Aglow Dermatology. "An important part of being a doctor is bringing knowledge, skill, creativity and determination together to solve a problem."
Strachan suggests thinking through ways you may have demonstrated that kind of problem solving already and preparing to emphasize them in your application process. "When one looks at a resume and can already tell how a person can add value in the environment, that person becomes an attractive candidate," she says.
Bloodshot eyes and caffeinated beverages are no strangers to most college students after an all-night study session. They might be good enough to maintain your GPA for a while, but pre-med students are going to need to implement more sustainable study habits in order to succeed.
"Get out of cramming for tests," Norris urges. "Instead, plan and pace your study time so that you can really master the subject matter. Do a little each and every day. This will help a great deal in medical school when you might feel overwhelmed."
These improved study habits will not only lessen your stress, they'll likely lead to a nice uptick in your GPA. This is still an important factor in your application, according to Zhou. "Your ability to maintain good grades reflects well on your ability to balance responsibilities and handle coursework," she says.
Maybe it's hard for you to think much farther than gaining acceptance into medical school. But candidates who look deeper will do a better job of preparing for their actual goals in life. "Know your mission and purpose (your what and why) for becoming a physician," Norris says. "Write it down on paper and sharpen it until it's only a few sentences."
And while you are looking into the future, don't limit yourself to medicine, Zhou recommends. "There are many other ways to help people or be involved in the health sciences," she explains. If your reasons for wanting to become a physician can be met by other professions as well, you may need more introspection.
When you have specific goals for your career in medicine, you will also have an easier time in medical school. Park sees many medical students straining to achieve 'honors' in every specialty they rotate through, when that extra distinction won't amount to much beyond graduation.
If you don't look to the future, it's easy to spread yourself too thin. Instead, take some time to investigate your career options and think about what matters to you. "If you like a certain field, look into it regardless of perceived lifestyle or money," Park suggests.
"The best advice I can give all pre-med students is to shadow as many different physicians during college as you can," Park says. "This includes primary care, emergency room physician, pathologist, medical oncologist, surgeon, anesthesiology, etc." He explains that most physicians are happy to have pre-meds student follow them, and it is the best way to truly know what you are signing on for.
"Start with a physician who works at student health. Ask them if they have any advice on physicians you can shadow," Park recommends. He adds that it's important to make note of your questions while you shadow but to wait on asking them until the end, so as not to distract the physician. "Ask them what they like and don't like about their field and medicine in general."
To gain even more from these experiences, Park suggests asking if the physicians you shadow would feel comfortable writing you a letter of recommendation. "Letters of recommendations from physicians who know you and can discuss your personal qualities stand out in an application pile," he says.
In the flurry of memorization and study, it's easy to forget that doctors spend most of their time interacting with people. Park says impressive medical school applicants demonstrate outstanding interpersonal and communication skills-something you can display through leadership positions and in working with diverse demographics.
On top of student groups and activities, there are several ways to be proactive in networking while in school. "Get to know your professors and ask the ones you know best for strong letters of recommendation," says Vish Banthia, MD and CEO of ZendyHealth. "It is important to have professors advocate for you."
"Get involved in something clinical," Banthia advises. "Volunteer at a free clinic and do it for a continued period of time to show consistency and commitment. This can help solidify your interests as well as showing your level of commitment to medicine."
If you are looking for useful summer plans, Banthia suggests getting involved with clinical or basic science research projects. "This indicates curiosity and intellectual prowess. There are various programs that offer such opportunities throughout the country," he adds.
Your experiences don't have to be all healthcare-related either. "Be an interesting and decent human being who genuinely cares about others," Zhou says, adding that great candidates utilize their non-medical interests to benefit others also. "If you're passionate about magic, you can perform magic tricks for sick kids at a hospital. If you're really good at basketball, mentor at-risk youth at a sports camp."
But at the end of the day, make sure you're doing things you are truly passionate about. "Do not merely do things for your application. Everybody is doing those things," Zhou points out. Instead, pursue your interests and think creatively about what you hope to contribute to the world. You might be surprised at the opportunities that open up.
Navigating medical school requirements can seem pretty daunting. But with the basic requirements and this list of advice from doctors who've been there, you're on the right track to pace yourself through school.
Of course, some colleges make this process even easier by offering a specific pre-med track that includes all the necessities as well as access to resources and programs future medical students will benefit from. To see an example of the whole package, check out The College of St. Scholastica's Pre-Med Premium track.