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How to Become a Doctor: A Guide for Science-Loving Students

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If you’re thinking of becoming a doctor, it’s important to know the steps you must take to earn a white coat and a career in a hospital or practice.

As children, we declare our career aspirations without considering the steps we’ll take to get there. But over time, it becomes important to have more than just a career goal.

As the end of high school approaches, you need a plan! A plan ensures that you can reach your career goals as efficiently and effectively as possible.

In this article, we’ve put together a step-by-step plan for becoming a doctor. Consider this a checklist that will help you achieve your dream of a successful career in the medical field.

1. Graduate from high school.

The first step for almost any career roadmap, of course, is earning a high school diploma.

But simply earning the diploma isn’t enough to prepare you for college, medical school, and a medical career. You’ll also want to perform well in high school.

Earn a high GPA and high test scores on the SAT and/or ACT. These numbers will help you get into a good college, which can eventually propel you into a great medical school.

In addition to building your resume, you should begin preparing yourself to excel in medical school.

  • Take math and science classes, particularly AP courses.
  • Do you enjoy these classes?
  • Do you perform well in them?
  • If not, a career as a doctor might not be the best fit for you.

Some high schools have medical programs or clubs related to the medical field. If your school offers these opportunities, take advantage. The more you do that’s related to your future career, the more you’ll prepare yourself—and determine if it’s truly the right choice for you.

2. Get accepted to college and earn a bachelor’s degree.

During your junior and senior year, it’s time to get serious about college applications.

This means taking the ACT/SAT (and taking them again if needed), considering which teachers you’ll ask for letters of recommendation, and beginning work on your college essays.

Which colleges should you apply to?

As you build your list of colleges, you don’t necessarily need to limit your selection to schools with pre-med programs.

You also don’t have to choose a university where you’d like to attend medical school, as your graduate school can be different from your undergraduate school.

However, you should make sure that the colleges you choose have strong science and math programs.

What should I major in?

Students are often surprised to learn that your undergraduate major doesn’t factor heavily in admissions to medical school.

Some students major in English, for example, and still go on to medical school.

  • The majority of medical school hopefuls major in Biology.
  • Others majors in sciences like Physics or Chemistry, Engineering, or even the humanities.

Still, it’s usually best to major in a field that will prepare you for medical school and help you pass the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test).

Majoring in a related field also helps you complete prerequisites for medical school that also count toward your degree.

What are prerequisites for medical school?

If you’re interested in a specific medical school, we recommend that you visit their website for prerequisites.

In general, however, medical schools require the following:

  • Biology-two semesters
  • Chemistry-2-4 semesters, typically both organic and inorganic
  • Physics-two semesters
  • English-two semesters
  • Mathematics- two semesters, typically calculus and statistics

Some schools also require biochemistry and psychology and/or sociology. Although not required, it can be helpful to take a foreign language and a course in medical history or anthropology as well.

To complete the second step on your career roadmap, you should successfully meet these prerequisites and earn a bachelor’s degree.

  • If you’re a top student, take a look at combined BS/MD programs, in which you can get a medical degree in seven or eight years.

As in high school, it’s also a good idea to involve yourself in relevant extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and even research. These will bolster the competitiveness of your med school application and prepare you for a successful career.

3. Take the MCAT.

While still in undergraduate school, you’ll need to take the MCAT. Most students take the exam during their junior year of undergrad.

You can think of the MCAT as the SAT for medical school. It’s supposed to predict your chances of success in medical school, and it’s a hugely important part of your application.

The 7.5-hour exam is multiple choice and has four sections:

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

The score range for each section is 118-132, with a median score of 125. You’ll also receive an overall score ranging from 472-578.

  • The average overall score is a 500. A score over 500 is enough to get you into many medical schools, but it’s best to aim for a 508-509.

The MCAT is administered 15 times throughout the year, so you’ll have a variety of dates to choose from.

  • The test costs at least $305 and sometimes costs as much as $355.

For this reason—and because it takes 7.5 hours—it’s good to wait until you’re fully and confidently prepared to take the exam. You want to avoid having to take it twice!

You can prepare for the MCAT using a tutor, an MCAT Prep program, or an MCAT Prep book. You may also want to form a study group with some of your cohorts. Seek advice from students who have successfully passed the MCAT and are already in school.

In addition, make sure you’ve taken courses that will prepare you to answer questions about biology, physics, psychology/sociology, and critical analysis.

After you take the MCAT, your scores are automatically delivered to the American Medical Colleges Application Service (AMCAS).

This means you don’t have to send your scores separately to medical schools, unless you apply to a school that doesn’t use the AMCAS.

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4. Apply to medical school.

Applications to medical school should be submitted in June prior to your first year of medical school. Experts recommend using the Medical School Admissions Requirements database during this process.

The database contains information about application deadlines and requirements, average test scores and GPA, and acceptance rates. Access costs $28.

  • Because admission to medical school is extremely competitive, it’s recommended that you submit about 15 applications.

Luckily, you won’t have to fill these applications out separately. Most medical schools use the AMCAS mentioned above, which is basically like the Common Application for medical schools.

  • The application is similar to what you submitted to undergraduate schools: transcripts, test scores (the MCAT), an essay or personal statement, and a resume.

The AMCAS charges an initial fee of $160 for applying to one school, then $39 per each additional school. Applying to medical school can be costly, but consider it an investment in your future.

In July or August, the schools you applied to will either reject your application or invite you to complete a secondary application. These applications differ for each school. You may be asked to pay an additional application fee or answer a series of essay questions.

If the school likes your applications, you’ll be asked to the final phase of admissions: the interview.

  • Practice the interview with friends or family members beforehand, and do your best to appear confident.
  • It’s important to demonstrate your genuine passion for the medical field (and the school in question), as well as your commitment to this career path.

Assuming that the interview goes well, you’ll then receive an offer of admission from the school.

5. Begin medical school.

Once you’ve been admitted, it’s time to earn your medical degree. Medical school differs from undergrad in both rigor and structure.

The first two years will be the most similar to your undergraduate experience, as you’ll mostly be learning in a classroom setting.

  • These classes will build the foundation you’ll need for your internship/residency and your future medical career.

After completing your first two years of classes, you will take the United States Medical Licensing Examination, also known as the USMLE-1. To continue with your medical education, you’ll need to pass this exam.

  • The 8-hour exam is divided into 1-hour blocks. The exact number of questions you’ll answer varies, but the test is limited to no more than 280 questions total.

You’ll be required to answer no more than 40 questions per block.

6. Complete rotations.

Your third year of medical school is all about practical experience. You’ll have the opportunity to work with a supervisor in a variety of medical settings.

These rotations give you hands-on experience in multiple medical specialties, allowing you to determine which you’re best suited for (and which you enjoy the most).

During your fourth year of medical school, you’ll take elective classes related to the specialty you’ve selected. At this point, you will also take the second part of your licensing exam (USMLE-2).

7. Finish a residency.

A residency is essentially a supervised internship at a teaching hospital. You’re only known as an “intern” during the first year, however.

You get a chance to rank your preferences, and NRMP then uses a computerized algorithm to compare applicant preferences and program director preferences. You may not get one of your top choices, however.

Depending on your specialty, you’ll spend about three years in your residency. Some programs may take longer.

  • General Surgery, for example, is a 5-year residency. Residents do receive a salary, but it averages about $48,000—much less than you’ll earn as a full-fledged doctor.

During the first year of your residency, you’ll also take the third and final portion of your licensing exam.

This is the most difficult of the exams and tests your ability to provide medical care in an unsupervised setting (just like you’ll do as a real doctor).

8. Find work.

Once you’ve completed your residency and passed your licensing exams, you’re ready to become a practicing doctor! You can find work in a hospital, a clinic, or a private practice related to your chosen specialty.

But you’re never done learning. As a doctor, you’ll need Continuing Medical Education credits to keep your license current. Some hospitals also require a certain number of CME credits for doctors to continue seeing patients.

In short, CMEs are educational activities that maintain, update, and develop your medical knowledge for years to come.

Advice from Doctors and Medical Experts

This section comes straight from the doctors and medical experts themselves. They’ve confirmed what I said above and provided their own advice.

Dr. Trent Douglas, a renown plastic surgeon:

Becoming a doctor is a life that is extremely gratifying but does come with some sacrifice.  After college, there are four more years of medical school followed by residency training that can last anywhere from 3-8 years.

Many doctors who become neurosurgeons, cardiothoracic surgeons, plastic surgeons, or vascular surgeons may train for 6-8 years after medical school.  Although the regulated 80-hour residency work week has introduced some work-life balance into many young doctor’s careers, there is still a good deal of personal sacrifice to be made.  As a resident and beyond, there will be night, weekend, and holiday call schedules that must be worked as well as unpredictable hours from time to time.

I could not imagine my life not being in the operating room but the conscious choice to take on eight years of training after medical school did not come lightly.  If you are considering a career in medicine, use the resources available at your university and visit local physicians in specialties in which you may be interested.

We have several college students from local universities visit our office every year to get a taste of what a day in the life of a plastic surgeon looks like.  Like anything good in life, you must be dedicated and willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve your goals.

The life of a physician is one of delayed gratification with regard to free time and financial security.  You will get paid as a resident, albeit not much.  So if you are just out of college or medical school, your peers may be off on ski weekends, driving new cars, or living a bit larger than you.  Don’t worry, with time and patience, your time will come too.

Dr. David Lenihan, CEO of Ponce Health Sciences University:

There is no out- of- the- box path that you need to take in order to pursue a medical education. Too many students believe that they must major in biology, join the pre-med society, and spend all of their free time shadowing a physician.

This strategy isn’t a foolproof direction.  Instead, medical schools understand that becoming an exceptional physician requires a much broader skill set than simply being great at biological sciences. You must be able to communicate effectively with people from all backgrounds, you have to be able to provide advice with the gravitas of an expert, you must be able to work effectively on a team where people have different areas of expertise.

You can show an admissions committee that you have these skills in a variety of ways. You could be involved in the theater, play a varsity sport, or lead a campus organization. Simply put, don’t let your desire to go to be a doctor limit you in the pursuit of your other passions.

Dr. JoAnn Yanez, executive director of AANMC:

Know yourself – your strengths and weaknesses – and find a career that joins your passion and life goals. Find mentors – once you decide on your path, begin networking and looking for mentorship. Never underestimate the power of positive mentorship!

Recap: Becoming a Doctor

There you have it! Becoming a doctor is a bit more complex than most career paths, but having a step-by-step plan in mind will help you stay on track.

You’ll need to:

  • Graduate from high school.
  • Apply to colleges.
  • Take plenty of science and math courses and earn a bachelor’s degree.
  • Take the MCAT.
  • Apply to medical schools.
  • Complete two years of classes in medical school.
  • Pass the USMLE-1.
  • Complete your rotations.
  • Pass the USMLE-2.
  • Choose a specialty and take relevant electives.
  • Get matched by the National Resident Matching Program.
  • Complete a 3-5 year residency and pass the USMLE-3.
  • Begin practicing!

Keep in mind that each step is essential to your success at the following step. For example, if you don’t pass a portion of the licensing exam, you won’t be able to continue in your medical program. Additionally, the GPA you earn in the first two years of medical school classes are instrumental in getting you matched with a good residency.

With hard work, commitment, passion—and a good plan—you’re sure to achieve your goal of becoming a doctor.

Don’t forget to check out our College Planning and Career Success boot camps to set you up for success!