Deciding you want to be a doctor puts you on a long, and often nerve-racking, track. It seems like there are a million things you have to do, and everybody has their own take on how you should do it. There’s so much advice out there, you’ll likely be overwhelmed. But fear not – in this guide, we’re going to simplify everything you need to know about being a successful pre-med and getting into your choice of medical school.
Choosing a College
Some students don’t realize they want to be pre-med until late into college, or even after – and that’s okay! But for those of you who know before college that you want to be a doctor, or even if you’re a current college student questioning your choice, this section is for you.
Choosing which colleges to apply to and deciding which one you attend is a complicated maze. But here’s the good news: it doesn’t matter so much which college you attend. It’s what you make of the opportunities it offers.
That being said, different colleges provide different opportunities and environments. You want to go somewhere you’ll feel comfortable but that also provides opportunities for you to explore outside your comfort zone (med schools love to see you seek out opportunities for growth). You want an environment that gets you excited to pursue your passions – and even discover new ones! It can be helpful if the school has a strong pre-med advising department to help guide you on your pre-med path, but don’t choose a college solely because they have a great med school acceptance rate. In the end, it’s all about choosing the place where you feel happiest and most at home, because that’s where you’re most likely to get involved in the community (both on-campus and off-campus) and excel academically – key things med schools are looking for.
Choosing a Major
Do you need to major in biology to get into medical school? No! Absolutely not. The best aspect of majoring in biology is that it overlaps with many of the prerequisite courses for medical school. It doesn’t mean you have a better chance of getting into medical school, or even that you’ll do better in medical school than people from other majors. I actually had a friend who majored in Classics (Greek and Latin) and was still pre-med! Any major is possible. I personally majored in Neuroscience because I love the brain. But with my electives, I chose to shy away from biology-based courses because I knew I’d have plenty of them in medical school. Because I explored other classes, I found out that I loved Anthropology and ended up minoring in it! To learn more about how choosing a major can affect your pre-med experiences, and chances of acceptance, check out our post on Best Pre-Med Majors.
Your Time in College
College is one of the most unique experiences you can have. You’re in a sort of bubble where the normal rules of society don’t apply. Your friends, your home, and your work are all in one place – how often are you going to find yourself in that situation again? The resources and opportunities in college are also unparalleled. You’re going to the same school as people who want to be editors, journalists, astronauts, and engineers. You have access to faculty doing all sorts of research and counselors whose sole job is to support you. Don’t be afraid to explore and take advantage of your four years!
Following a Pre-Med Path
Between pre-med courses, requirements for your major, the medical school application timeline, and everything else, it may seem like your path to college has already been set for you. You may need to take General Chemistry during your Freshman Fall because Orgo II is only offered in the Fall, and you want to finish organic chemistry before you take the MCATs. Maybe you notice all of the pre-meds at your school join GlobeMed or Camp Kesem, or maybe you feel pressured to do research because “That’s what a good pre-med would do.” All of these choices and activities are good – but only if you’re doing them for the right reasons.
If you are interested in global health and love the organization that is partnered with the GlobeMed chapter at your school, definitely join it! But don’t join because you think it will look impressive on your resume. If your heart glows at the thought of spending the summer being a counselor at a camp for children who’ve been affected by cancer, apply to Camp Kesem! But don’t do it just because you have nothing else to do. And if you’re interested in how to create a knock-out model of a monogenic cause for autism, apply to do undergraduate research in a lab! But don’t apply just because every other pre-med you know has a research position.
All of these activities are related to medicine and many of them are found on pre-med resumes. But if you do them when you’re not actually interested in them, you’ll find yourself going through medical school applications being asked why you joined these activities and you won’t have an answer. You could try to make up one in retrospect, but if you’re sitting across from an interviewer, it’s likely they’ll be able to tell if you have a twinkle in your eye or not when you talk about it. So do the core things you need to – take your pre-med classes, talk to pre-health advisors about generally structuring your course load for the next four years or ask them what kind of medical-adjacent opportunities there are. But never feel like you have to follow the same exact path as other pre-meds. Do the extracurriculars that you want to do, don’t do them to check off a box. In the end, it’s much better to pursue different interests and find your true passion rather than trying to fit yourself into a box. When it comes time for applying to medical school, it will be much easier to convey passion and help selection committees get to know the real you, and that’s exactly what they’re looking for.
Explore Outside the Box
Since college is demanding and being pre-med is even more so, it’s easy to miss out on opportunities. I’ll give you a few examples on how I stumbled onto opportunities that changed my college experience. My first summer of college, I got rejected from a research program I really wanted, and my only other viable option was to do another program which I had to pay for. I applied for a scholarship at my institution’s public service center and ended up not only receiving that scholarship, but another one that office had recommended to me too. Because I formed a relationship with the public service center, I got notifications about their “Alternative Spring Break” and volunteered at a senior living facility for two weeks during my Sophomore year. During my senior year, I participated in another one of the center’s programs which partnered with a local hospital for our Winter Term. For a whole month, I got to work with the Autism Resource Team as well as shadow doctors, sit-in on seminars, and attend grand rounds.
Another impactful relationship I made during college was with my university’s international office. My first experience with them was participating in a popular program where you spend 2-3 weeks teaching science in a foreign country. This had very little to do with medicine. But the following year, when I decided to take time away from college, I was able to work with the same person from the international office, and she helped me create an internship at a medical humanitarian aid organization in Italy.
Exploring outside the box could mean something very different for you than it did for me. These are my stories about how I formed relationships and stumbled into amazing opportunities, but you should investigate what your college has to offer and create your own! Not only will it lead to amazing and unique experiences, but it will also demonstrate leadership and independence on your part (which will help you stand out when applying to medical school). It may seem like I’m advising you to, at the same time, consider and disregard what will help your application to medical school. But my point is this: it doesn’t matter if what you spend your time on is directly related to medicine. If you follow your interests and what you’re passionate about, it will enrich your college experience, and if you decide to apply to medical school it will make you a stronger applicant in ways you didn’t think possible.
Is There Even Time to Enjoy College?
Yes! Don’t let the stress of being pre-med steal the college experience from you. It’s just as important that you enjoy your time, choose activities that you love, and spend time with people you care about. Being happy and making choices based on what you want to do, not just what you think you should do, will keep you healthier and almost always leads to better grades. If you do extracurriculars you enjoy, you’re more likely to take leadership roles. If you research with a professor you like, you’re more likely to get a more personal recommendation letter and form a lasting bond that you can maintain through your med school years and beyond!
Applying to Medical School
Many pre-meds choose to enter medical school directly after graduating, although that’s certainly not necessary! Talk with your pre-health advisor about your particular situation and interests and decide when would be the best time for you to matriculate into medical school. Once you’ve decided, work backward to determine when you’ll be applying and consequently, when you’ll need to have requirements completed.
The first step of applying to medical school is completing the primary, which is done in the spring of the year prior to when you plan to matriculate. For example, if you decide to matriculate into medical school in August 2023, you’ll begin your primary application in the spring of 2022. For undergrads planning to go directly to medical school, this means applying in the spring of your junior year.
Your primary application includes your transcript; test scores; up to fifteen activities including awards and publications (three of which you designate as the “most meaningful” and for which you’re given extra space to write about), and the personal statement. The primary application typically opens the first week of May, and you can submit it beginning in early June. Deadlines to submit are set by each school but typically fall between August and December. Aim to submit your application as early as possible for several reasons. First, your primary needs to be verified before it gets sent to medical schools. The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) is the organization through which you’ll apply to any medical school in the United States. In the process of verifying your primary, AAMC checks to make sure that the courses, grades, and scores you have self-reported align with your official documents. Only once your application is verified will it be sent out to medical schools. You want to allow extra time in case there is something that needs to be changed, and you also want to ensure your primary application is in the first round that medical schools receive.
Medical schools will typically review primaries, and subsequently offer secondaries, on a rolling basis, so the sooner you can get it in, the better! In addition, submitting your primary earlier means that you’ll have more time to prepare for secondaries and maybe can even take a break from writing altogether. The application process is long and arduous, so take any opportunity you can to make it easier on yourself.
The three main components of the primary application are coursework, MCAT, and the personal statement.
If you consult regularly with pre-health, you’ll be on a track to complete the required courses:
- 1 year Biology with lab
- 1 year General Chemistry with lab
- 1 year Physics with lab
- 1-2 semesters Organic Chemistry with lab*
- 1 semester Biochemistry*
- 1 year Math – 1 semester calculus, 1 semester statistics
- 1-2 years Writing/English Composition
*Most schools require either a second semester of Organic Chemistry OR a semester of Biochemistry.
Required courses for medical school do not need to be completed prior to applying. They only need to be completed prior to matriculation. However, you may want to take certain courses before you take the MCAT. For example, it’s helpful for most people to have completed organic chemistry and biochemistry before taking the MCAT. In this case, you’d need to account for that in scheduling your coursework.
You need a minimum score of 500 to be considered for most MD programs, but you should really shoot for at least a 510 to be considered competitive. (his is slightly different for DO programs. You can learn more about MD versus DO programs here. Aim to take the MCAT before you start the med school application process so you can focus solely on studying without also worrying about writing your personal statement on top of it. The MCAT is a beast all on its own and will likely require a special study schedule and particular study strategies.
The final main component of your medical school application is the personal statement. Here is your chance to let your passion shine through and show why you want to become a physician. The most important thing here is “Show – don’t tell”. Explain your motivations to enter medicine through concrete, meaningful examples as opposed to generic statements like “I want to help people”. In talking about your activities and experiences, emphasize what you learned from them and how they shaped your perspective. (This goes for your “Activities” section of the application as well!) For more tips on writing a standout personal statement, see our post “How to Start the Medical School Personal Statement” and check out our database of personal statements from successful med school applicants.
Secondary applications are sent by medical schools once you’ve submitted your primary and it’s been verified by AMCAS. Some medical schools will automatically send a secondary to every applicant for whom they’ve received a verified primary. Other schools will use the primary application as the first selection stage, and will only send secondary applications to applicants that meet minimum GPA and MCAT thresholds.
The secondary application is where medical schools want to really get to know you and get a feel for your character – and ultimately whether you’ll make a good physician. Secondaries generally include essay questions related to your motivations for attending that particular school and specific personal experiences. Common themes include: overcoming adversity, dealing with failure, experience with diversity and how you’ll contribute to the diversity of the school’s community, your core values, most meaningful clinical experience, an educational non-clinical experience, how you work in a team setting and how you deal with conflict, and your career goals. Check out this post for tips on how to write your best secondary essays.
We also have a database of 2018 secondary prompts for most medical schools! The questions will change from year to year, but this will give you a good idea of the kind of questions to expect.
Is It Best to Go Directly From Undergrad to Medical School?
Not necessarily! Everyone’s path is different. The average age of accepted medical school students is actually 24-25, showing that it’s fairly common to matriculate into medical school after some time away. If you’re considering taking a gap year for any reason – maybe you’re tired of academia, still unsure if medical school is for you, or just want enriching experiences, go check out our Gap Year Guide. In the end, what matters is doing what’s best for you.
The journey to medicine is long and difficult, but it’s also thrilling and will reward you with incredible experiences and amazing friends. Having support along the way, including family, friends, and advisors from your university, will generally be the biggest help. With those key players and this guide, you’ll be able to simultaneously complete your bachelor’s degree, get the most out of college, and be a successful medical school applicant.