There are two types of physicians in the United States—MD vs. DO doctors. Medical doctors (MDs) study and practice allopathic medicine, and they make up nearly 90% of the doctors in the US. Doctors of Osteopathy (DOs) study and practice osteopathic medicine. Osteopaths go to osteopathic medical schools, and they have a different philosophy surrounding medicine and patient care.
This article will describe both types of doctors, including differences and similarities in the doctor journey and how each doctor approaches patient care. If you are a premed trying to decide which kind of doctor you want to become, we’ll help you decide which is right for you and cover how the medical school application works for becoming an MD or DO.
MD vs. DO: What’s the Difference Between Allopathic and Osteopathic Medicine?
An allopathic doctor, also known as a medical doctor (MD), is the most traditional path to becoming a doctor in the US. MDs are typically considered to be more scientifically oriented than DOs, having rigorous training in medical sciences and anatomy. Osteopathic doctors (DOs), on the other hand, have a different philosophy of medicine, which emphasizes holistic care, the interconnectedness of the body’s systems and organs and their influence on each other, and patient-centered treatment.
MDs and DOs are both licensed to practice medicine in the US. Both have to complete four years of medical school, followed by residency. Nearly every specialization available to an MD is also available to a DO. However, despite these similarities, a DO degree does not have the same reputation as an MD degree. This is generally because the statistics for acceptance for DO schools are typically lower than allopathic (MD) schools. DOs also have a harder time practicing medicine outside of the United States.
MDs tend to have more opportunities for specialized training in certain areas of medicine, such as psychiatry or surgery, while DOs may need to seek out additional education and training after completing their residency.
MD vs. DO Differences and Similarities
|Doctor of Medicine (MD)
|Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)
|Allopathic medicine focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of disease.
Allopathic is the most common medical practice.
Most MDs specialize beyond primary care.
MDs must pass the US Medical Licensing Exam.
|Both MDs and DOs require a bachelor’s degree and four years of medical school.
Both must pass the MCAT to enter medical school.
Both have the same requirements for licensing.
Both can practice in all 50 states in the US in any medical specialty.
|DOs take a holistic approach focused on treating the whole patient, not only their symptoms.
DOs are trained in osteopathic manual manipulation.
Most DOs practice in primary care.
DOs must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam.
The Allopathic Philosophy
Allopathy is a medical philosophy and system in which medical doctors, pharmacists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals take a science-based (also called evidence-based) approach to treating patients with modern, mainstream medicine, such as drugs, radiation, and surgery.
Allopathic physicians have the title of MD (medical doctor). MDs focus on both prevention and acute care to maintain the health of their patients.
What Are the Benefits of Seeing an Allopathic Doctor?
Allopathic doctors are the main doctors available to people throughout the United States, so it’s likely you’ve seen one or more already. MDs may be the only option for patients requiring additional care, such as specialized procedures or surgeries since most MDs specialize beyond primary care.
The Osteopathic Philosophy
Osteopaths (DOs) differentiate themselves from MDs with a whole-body approach that treats the person—not the symptoms. The focus of osteopathic medicine is on preventing illness and understanding the connections between the various systems and organs in the body, as well as how they influence each other.
Osteopathic medicine is holistic and patient-centered. Osteopathic doctors (DOs) look beyond the physical symptoms of illness or injury; they consider the overall health and wellbeing of their patients, utilizing a wide range of hands-on techniques, such as massage therapy to encourage healing and relieve pain.
The manual medicine therapies that DOs employ treat the musculoskeletal system—the body’s interconnected system of nerves, muscles, and bones. These manual medicine therapies are known as osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM).
The extensive training that DOs have in manual therapies and other alternative approaches to treatment means they are typically well-suited for careers in primary care, as well as other areas where MDs may not have the same level of expertise.
There are four principles of osteopathic training and practice, also known as the tenets of osteopathic medicine. They have been approved as policy by the American Osteopathic Association House of Delegates.
- The body is a unit; the person is a unit of body, mind, and spirit.
- The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing, and health maintenance.
- Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated.
- Rational treatment is based upon an understanding of the basic principles of body unity, self-regulation, and the interrelationship of structure and function.
What Are the Benefits of Seeing an Osteopath?
DOs prioritize holistic, whole-body care that combines the emotional, social, and physical aspects of health. Typically, DOs have more training than MDs in manual therapies, such as massage, which can be helpful in promoting healing and managing certain types of pain.
Osteopathic medicine focuses on preventative care and wellness. DOs are specifically trained to search deeper than the symptoms of an illness or injury to uncover the underlying causes. They also tend to take a more proactive approach to healthcare by suggesting lifestyle changes as well as other preventative measures. If you’re looking for a more personalized and holistic approach to healthcare, a DO may be what you’re looking for.
Choosing Between the MD or DO Path for Premeds
Choosing between the MD or DO path depends on your own goals, preferences, and beliefs about the practice of medicine. You may prefer allopathy for its focus on academic advancement and scientific research, or you may like the sound of osteopathy for its more holistic approach to medicine and patient care.
In most cases, your decision to pursue either path comes down to your philosophy about how best to treat people.
The allopathic path is certainly the more traditional one. Osteopathic physicians make up only 11% of all doctors in the United States.
If you are interested in pursuing a career in a specialized medical field, such as neurology or surgery, choosing to become an MD will provide more options to specialize in your skill set and career.
If you are interested in pursuing a career in primary care or other manual therapies, DO may be the better choice. DOs have extensive training in alternative approaches to treatment, such as massage and manipulation, and they typically receive more training in manual therapy techniques than MDs do.
Ultimately, the decision will come down to your individual goals and preferences, so it is important to carefully consider your own values and your desired career path when making this choice.
1 | Curriculum
The osteopathic medical school curriculum is nearly identical to allopathic medical schools. Just like allopathic medical schools, the first two preclinical years are focused on building a core foundation of medicine in the classroom. The latter two years constitute a medical student’s clerkships, with training in similar specialties to allopathic medical schools, including internal medicine, OB/GYN, pediatrics, family medicine, surgery, psychiatry, etc.
However, DO schools provide 300-500 hours in the study of hands-on manual medicine, referred to as osteopathic manipulative medicine, or OMM for short. The thought is that such body manipulation can bring about systemic healing.
2 | Examinations
To get into an osteopathic medical school, you still have to take the MCAT. However, in osteopathic medical school, you take the COMLEX exam rather than the USMLE. DO students can also opt to take the USMLE Step exams if they desire to enter an MD residency after completing medical school.
The more important thing to note when comparing MD and DO schools is not the exams during medical school but rather the competitiveness of exam scores in getting into medical school. DO program matriculants have lower average MCAT scores and lower average GPAs. If you’re not competitive for traditional allopathic medical schools, osteopathic medical schools could be a good option.
3 | Future Training Options
Unfortunately, earning a DO isn’t respected to the same degree as earning an MD. Considering osteopathic medical schools cover the same content as allopathic medical schools, and then some, there is no good reason for the DO to be less respected. However, this is the reality of the situation.
The lack of respect for DOs may be because it’s less competitive to get into DO schools, and as a result, most of the strongest students opt for allopathic medical schools.
What this means is your options may be limited when it comes to residency. In some specialties, such as plastic surgery, it is nearly impossible to match if you have a DO. The year I matched into plastic surgery residency, only one osteopathic medical student matched into plastics, and it was considered a big deal.
That being said, if you are interested in primary care, it will make less of a difference, unless you’re shooting for top internal medicine programs. These top internal medicine programs are also very competitive, and DOs are at a sizable disadvantage.
Differences in the MD vs. DO Application Process
The application process for allopathic and osteopathic medical schools is very similar. Both use a centralized application service, saving students the hassle of sending a different set of application materials to each school they apply to.
Students applying to allopathic medical schools will use the American Medical Colleges Application Service (AMCAS), while osteopathic medical school applicants will use the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOMAS). If you want to apply to both allopathic schools and osteopathic schools, you can do so—but you will need to apply through both systems.
Alternatively, if you are applying to medical or osteopathic schools in Texas, you may be required to use the Texas Medical and Dental School Application Service (TMDSAS). Curious about applying to schools in Texas? Check out our TMDSAS Application Guide for Texas Medical Schools.
While the process for applying to allopathic or osteopathic medical schools is very similar, there are some key differences to be aware of.
Both allopathic and osteopathic applications include a personal statement, letters of evaluation, and an experiences section. The key difference is that osteopathic applicants must specifically address why they want to become an osteopathic doctor in their personal statement. Additionally, osteopathic applicants should include at least one letter of recommendation from an osteopath.
Learn more in our comprehensive guide: AMCAS vs. AACOMAS vs. TMDSAS Med School Application Differences.
Applying to Medical School for an MD
The American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) is the AAMC’s centralized medical school application processing service and the primary application method for first year entering classes for the vast majority of US medical schools. You only need to submit one set of application materials to AMCAS, regardless of how many schools you apply to. (So long as none of those schools are osteopathic or utilize the Texas application system, TMDSAS).
AMCAS has no say in admissions decisions. The service only collects, verifies, and delivers your application materials to the schools you apply to. Admissions decisions are made solely by each individual medical school.
AMCAS is the standard, so the majority of first year applicants will apply through it.
The allopathic medical school application is made up of multiple components, which are all essential to the success of an applicant. The application includes personal details, letters of evaluation, a personal statement, a work and activities section, and your GPA and MCAT score.
Letters of Evaluation
For the AMCAS application, although you are allowed to submit up to 10 letters of evaluation, we recommend every applicant submit 4 to 5 strong letters of recommendation. Quality over quantity is more important here.
Variety is best, but again, don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of variety. Ideally, your letters will be from:
- A non-science professor.
- A physician you shadowed or worked with.
- An extracurricular or volunteer supervisor.
- An employer.
To ensure you’re able to fulfill all of these letter types, begin building relationships early and continue to nurture those relationships leading up to the application cycle.
It is essential that all of your letters of recommendation be strong, as a neutral or even okay letter can negatively impact the chances of your acceptance. Admissions committees use letters of evaluation to get an outside perspective of who you are, your attributes, and how well you get along with others. A lukewarm letter illustrates that you either did not take time to build strong relationships, or the people you worked with don’t have anything good to say about you.
Read our Letters of Recommendation Guide for everything you need to know, including how to ask for letters, who to ask, and strategies to ensure you receive strong letters.
The medical school application personal statement is a 5300 character essay that asks students to describe why they want to become a doctor. It’s your chance to share your unique story behind what has inspired you to take this path and show admissions committees that you’re committed to becoming a doctor.
It must not be a rehash of your CV or any other aspect of your application. Your personal statement must bring something new and interesting to the table, and it should help admissions committees understand who you are. Remember, there are thousands of other applicants just like you who have a natural gift for the sciences and want to help people.
What makes you unique? What makes you stand out? What about your past has put you on the path to becoming a doctor? Did you have an epiphany one day that you were destined to become a physician? Or did your passion for medicine grow over time?
Many applicants struggle with this part of the application for several reasons: It can be difficult to speak about ourselves authentically, writing an essay requires attention to detail and editing skills, and you must find a way to capture the attention of your readers, all while complementing the overall narrative of your complete application.
We have a number of resources available on our blog to help you master your personal statement. Read our guide on How to Write a Personal Statement, which includes 11 steps to writing a stand out personal statement. Also check out our Personal Statement Prompts to help you get started, Bad Personal Statement Examples, and How to Edit and Revise Your Personal Statement.
Work and Activities
The work and activities section is a chance to show all of the experiences you’ve had related to medicine, personal development, schooling, etc. It’s here where you will describe any research, clinical experience, or volunteer work you participated in. These are the core experiences admissions committees look for but depending on your background, you may choose to include other activities you feel demonstrate the skills and attributes that will make you an excellent medical student and future doctor.
Include some core experiences, such as research, clinical exposure, and community involvement. Activities in these areas demonstrate you have both the well-rounded experience and the relevant interests to know whether or not you want to pursue a career in medicine for certain.
You are allowed to choose 15 activities in total, and you have 700 characters to speak about each. From those 15, you can choose three as your most meaningful. This gives you 1325 characters of extra space in addition to the 700 characters to speak about each of these three activities in more detail.
For this section, be sure to clearly and effectively describe the experience. You don’t have much space, so brevity and clarity are of the essence. You must be concise and make every word count. Don’t detail the activity; describe your specific role and individual experience. Speak about your responsibilities, and use one or two sentences to explain what you learned or gained from the experience.
While you aren’t required to choose three most meaningful experiences (MME), we recommend you utilize at least two, as many admissions committees save time by only focusing on your most meaningful experiences. Choose the experiences that were most significant to you to give admissions committees unique insight into what helped you grow and prepare you for the rigors of medical school.
For more information on crafting an effective experiences section, read our Work and Activities Guide.
GPA and MCAT Score
Your application wouldn’t be complete without your GPA and MCAT score. AMCAS sends your grades and scores to each of the schools you apply to.
The MCAT is a huge undertaking. At 7.5 hours long, it is one of the most difficult standardized tests out there. Plan well in advance for taking your MCAT, and be sure to research average MCAT scores for recent matriculants at the schools you want to apply to.
Utilize our MCAT Study Guide, which includes study strategies, resources, FAQs, and more.
Applying to Medical School for a DO
AACOMAS is the centralized online application service for the US colleges of osteopathic medicine and the primary application method for students who want to pursue osteopathy. So long as you are only applying to osteopathic schools, AACOMAS verifies, processes, and submits your application materials to the schools you choose. This simplifies the process, as you will only need to submit one set of materials, which AACOMAS will pass on for you.
Letters of Evaluation
AACOMAS allows applicants to submit up to 6 letters of evaluation. We highly recommend applicants focus on quality over quantity, aiming for 4-5 strong letters.
Your letters must include:
- 3 academic letters from undergraduate professors (2 science and 1 non-science.)
- 1-2 letters from extracurricular pursuits, most commonly DO research and clinical experience.
- At least one letter must be from a DO.
One of the main differences between the AMCAS application and the AACOMAS application is that DO applicants must include at least one letter of recommendation from an osteopath. Acquiring one or more letters from people working in osteopathic medicine illustrates that you have dedicated time to developing relationships with DOs and demonstrates you have spent time getting to know what it’s like to be an osteopath.
While getting at least one letter of recommendation from a DO is important, don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of acquiring more osteopathic recommendations. What’s most important is that all of your letters are strong. The person writing the letter should know who you are personally and be able to speak in detail about your experience and strong attributes.
Read our AACOMAS Letters of Recommendation Guide to learn more.
The AACOMAS personal statement is a 5300 character essay that asks why you want to become an osteopathic doctor. If you are applying to osteopathic schools, you must explain why you specifically want to become an osteopath, not just a doctor.
This is a key difference between the MD and DO applications. It means you cannot use the same personal statement if you plan on applying to both types of schools.
Your DO personal statement is an opportunity to show who you are and why you’d make a great fit within the osteopathic medical community. Ensure you specifically address your passion for and commitment to osteopathic medicine while illustrating your unique story.
Writing, refining, and editing your personal statement will take time. Make sure you start this essay many months in advance and begin thinking about topics as soon as possible. Quite often, premeds go through multiple iterations before they land on a stellar personal statement. You’ll need plenty of time to acquire constructive feedback, make those necessary changes, and perfect what you want to say.
Read our full AACOMAS Personal Statement Guide.
Experiences and Achievements
The AACOMAS experiences section asks you to list your non-academic work, such as your non-healthcare work, volunteer work, and extracurriculars. The achievements section gives you the space to list your academic awards, scholarships, and honors.
This section is called Work and Activities on the AMCAS application. AMCAS only allows 15 experiences with 700 characters to describe each. AACOMAS, on the other hand, allows you to add unlimited experiences and achievements and gives you 600 characters to describe each. Your experiences and achievements will not appear in any order, and you are given no extra space to describe the activities that were most meaningful to you.
You will also have an opportunity to write mini-essays in regard to a variety of extenuating circumstances. The mini-essays have a 500-character limit, and subjects include a dishonorary discharge from the military, a misdemeanor, if you’ve ever had a license suspended, and so on.
For more details and strategies, read our guide to the AACOMAS Experiences and Achievements Section.
GPA and MCAT Score
AACOMAS will send your GPA and MCAT score to all the osteopathic medical schools you apply to. Generally speaking, osteopathic medical schools have a lower GPA and MCAT score threshold for matriculants, but average scores still vary from school to school.
When premeds have a lower-than-ideal MCAT score, they are often tempted to apply to osteopathic schools instead. While this may be an ideal fit for you, it is critical that you take time to research the osteopathic philosophy, as well as its four principles, to ensure osteopathy is right for you. Going down this path simply because you have a lower GPA or MCAT score will hinder you in the long run, as osteopathic schools are looking for medical students who are passionate about osteopathy.
Learn how you can still gain an acceptance with a low GPA, and if you are concerned about your scores, speak to one of our one-on-one advisors, who can assess your situation and help you make the best decisions moving forward.
Becoming an MD or DO
Whether you choose to pursue a career as a DO or MD, the journey is long and tedious. Our team of one-on-one advisers can help you determine the best path for you and help you get accepted at both allopathic and osteopathic medical schools.
Our team is made up of DOs and MDs who have years of experience serving on both admissions committees, so you’ll receive key insights into the selection process. We can help with every aspect of your application, from MCAT tutoring to mock interviews to essay editing, and everything in between.
For the latest guides, how-to advice, strategies, and industry trends, follow the Med School Insiders blog. We’re committed to helping you succeed as a premed, medical student, resident, and future doctor. Sign up for our weekly newsletter to receive our latest articles, videos, and study strategies straight to your inbox.