If you’re a nurse, chances are you’re a hard-working, compassionate person who wants to help others and enjoys medicine. These qualities are also highly sought-after among doctors. Are you curious about taking that extra step and securing the salary increase that comes with becoming an MD?
But where do you begin? How do you start this journey? What’s required of you? In this guide, we break down all of the steps needed to switch from an RN to an MD.
Understand What You’re Getting Into
Before you commit to this career change, make sure it’s what you actually want, and understand you must be willing to sacrifice what you already have.
Unfortunately, you can’t simply take a quick course and make the switch from RN to MD in a few months or even a year.
You will need to quit your current job as a registered nurse, apply, and get accepted to medical school, which also depends on whether or not you fulfilled your medical school prerequisites in college. You must complete four years of medical school, match into residency, which can last between three and seven years, depending on your chosen specialty, complete residency, and earn your medical license. From there, you will need to find a job, start your own clinic, or pursue a fellowship to further subspecialize.
Just earning acceptance to medical school is no easy task, and medical school itself is incredibly challenging mentally, physically, and financially.
Are you willing to commit upwards of ten years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to furthering your medical education in order to become a doctor?
As an RN, you’re probably earning a stable income and working reasonable hours. If you’ve been working as a nurse for years, heading back into the classroom as a student for the next several years will be quite a change.
Not only that, you’ll also need to be prepared for this decision financially. You’ll be going from earning a stable income to paying for a medical education, and more likely than not, you’ll rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in med school debt.
The average total student debt after college and med school is over $250k. However, it’s important to remember that this is the average, which includes 27% of students who graduate with no debt at all. This means the vast majority of students leave medical school owing a great deal more than $250k.
Depending on your stage in life, you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of going back to school. Are you willing to invest over ten years of your life and $250,000 of debt into becoming a doctor?
Med school tuition debt is no joke. Learn more with our guide: Why Are So Many Doctors Broke? Is It Worth the Debt?
You should also familiarize yourself with the various aspects of the medical school application process to better understand the time and effort it requires. The medical school application consists of:
- GPA and prerequisite courses
- MCAT score
- Work and Activities section
- Personal statement
- Letters of recommendation
- Secondary applications
We’ll cover each of the application steps next.
Step 1: Ensure You Have Your Prerequisites
Once you’ve decided that you want to become a doctor, it’s time to complete the prerequisites needed to apply to med school.
If your nursing degree was a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), chances are you’ve already completed the prerequisite courses for medical school.
However, on the off-chance that your degree didn’t cover these prerequisites, you might have to enroll in additional courses to fulfill them.
For reference, the required coursework for most medical schools is as follows:
- 1 year of Biology with lab
- 1 year of General Chemistry with lab
- 1 year of Organic Chemistry with lab
- 1 year of Physics with lab
- 1 year of English
- At least 1 semester of Mathematics (Ex. Calculus or Statistics)
Sometimes required or recommended courses:
- Physiology or Anatomy
- Behavioral Science, such as Psychology or Sociology
- Humanities, such as Ethics, Foreign Languages, Speech Communication, Philosophy, or Literature
- Computer Science
One way you can do this is by enrolling in a post-baccalaureate program (post-bac).
If you’re an RN with an associate’s degree in nursing, you need to go back to school and get your bachelor’s degree. A science major will cover the majority of your prerequisites, but any major you choose will do—just as long as you make time to fulfill each of your prerequisites.
Learn more about the prerequisites required to apply to medical school: Premed Requirements: Prerequisites and Other Beneficial Courses.
Step 2: Take the MCAT
Completing your prerequisites is just one part of the process. You also need to take the Medical College Admission Test, better known as the MCAT, which is a 7.5-hour standardized exam designed to assess a premed’s foundational science knowledge and critical thinking skills.
The exam is broken down into 4 sections, each worth a total perfect score of 132 points. A perfect MCAT score combining all 4 sections is 528.
The MCAT ranks as one of the hardest examinations in the world, and studying for the MCAT is no easy task, especially if you’re still working as a nurse.
What makes the MCAT so challenging is the fact that it’s not only a test of what you know; it’s a test of how you think. To achieve a high score, you must be able to synthesize information, think critically, and analyze what is presented to you within a short amount of time.
Plus, many questions on the MCAT combine content from different subjects, including biochemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, general chemistry, biology, physics, psychology, sociology, humanities, and social sciences.
There’s also the dramatic length of the test itself. On exam day, you should expect to be at the test center for at least eight hours. Some of this time will involve signing in and taking breaks, but you will still spend six hours and 15 minutes just on content. The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) only takes three hours to complete, including breaks.
However, while daunting, the MCAT’s difficulty is based primarily on how well you’re able to prepare and stick to a personalized study schedule.
Ideally, we recommend studying around 40-50 hours a week for about three months, but each person’s situation is different. If you can’t dedicate that much time to studying every week, aim for 20 or so hours every week for six months.
Step 3: Gain Extracurricular Experience
The Work and Activities section of your application is where you can briefly describe your medical experience and key accomplishments. Applying through AMCAS, you can choose up to 15 premed experiences, ranging from volunteering experiences, employment, honors, extracurricular activities, and more. You then have the opportunity to discuss how those experiences have shaped your desire to become a doctor.
Med school admissions committees are chiefly looking for activities in a few core areas: clinical exposure, research, and community involvement. By participating in activities in each of these areas, you show adcoms that you have the relevant interests and well-rounded experience to know whether or not you really want to pursue a career in medicine.
Already having worked as a nurse is a major advantage you’ll have over other applicants, as your clinical experience is extensive.
Med school admissions committees want students who are dedicated to clinical medicine and have spent time in clinical settings volunteering, shadowing physicians, or working in clinical roles like scribes or EMTs. Therefore, being a nurse is a major asset.
However, you’ll still need to gain other experiences. Of your 15 activities, you can select three as your most meaningful. This gives you extra space to speak about your most impactful experiences in more detail. Naturally, one will likely be about your experiences working as a nurse.
You don’t need to spend an equal amount of time in each area. The most essential thing to convey to an admissions committee is your passion. The more passionate you are about an activity, the more likely you are to take on a leadership role, and leadership is definitely something adcoms are looking for. This is why it’s vital to choose activities you are genuinely passionate about.
Adcoms are also looking for longitudinal commitment. Working for years as a nurse illustrates your commitment but remember to also show this in your other activities. Have you volunteered with an organization for a long period of time? The longer you’ve participated in an activity, the more dedicated you appear to admissions committees. If you don’t have examples of these sorts of experiences, get started on them as soon as possible.
Read our AMCAS Work and Activities Section Guide, and check out these Work and Activities Examples From Top Matriculants.
Step 4: Write a Narrative-Driven Personal Statement
Another essential component of your application is your personal statement. A personal statement is a 5300 character essay that begins by asking you why you want to go to medical school and become a doctor.
Essentially, you must use your life experience to concisely demonstrate why you’re the right fit to become a doctor. If someone’s making a movie about your life and the events that sparked your ambition to become a physician, what key moments do you want highlighted? What does the audience need to know about you in order to understand your story and where you come from?
Admissions committees want to get to know the real you to assess whether or not you have what it takes to face the rigorous day-and-night grind of medical school. They don’t want a list of your accomplishments; they have your CV. What drives you? Don’t just state that you’re dedicated to helping others; prove it with tangible examples from your life.
As a nurse, your journey to medical school is already unique, and your passion and experience are already apparent. Be honest about your journey. What are a couple of key moments from your career that inspired you to leave your job in order to pursue medicine even further?
Stories stick in a person’s mind a great deal more than dry facts. Saying you’re compassionate and hard working is not enough. In order to be successful, you must craft a story that allows your audience—admissions committees—to infer those qualities about you.
Step 5: Secure Strong Letters of Recommendation
To apply to medical school, you’ll need four to five letters of recommendation that illustrate the strong relationships you’ve cultivated.
While the personal statement is a crucial piece of your application, it’s also naturally biased. Letters of recommendation are written by respected professionals, such as physicians, professors, and mentors, which means admissions committees are going to take their word over yours. If the people you ask to write your letters of recommendation have worked closely with you and speak very highly of you, adcoms will certainly take notice.
The general suggestion for letters of recommendation is to obtain two from science professors, one from a non-science professor, and the other two from extracurricular supervisors or mentors. However, if you are not returning to school for an undergraduate degree, you may no longer have a close relationship with your professors, depending on how long you’ve been a nurse.
If you have to take more premed classes, be on the lookout for professors you connect with. Visit their office hours and show enthusiasm for the class as well as the professor’s own research.
It’s good to have letters from MDs you’ve worked with, but ultimately, the most important thing is having strong, personalized letters from people who will vouch for you and can speak to your strengths on a deep level. The more respect and admiration your letter writers have for you, the better.
Have you worked closely with many doctors before? What do they think of you personally and professionally? What do they think of your decision to pursue medical education and earn your MD?
Only choose letter writers who know you well and think extremely high of you. If you work with a well-known doctor or professor but don’t have much of a relationship with them or haven’t spoken to them much, do not ask them for a letter. Letters are far more impactful the more the letter writer knows you.
Learn how to ask, who to ask, and how to secure strong letters with our comprehensive Medical School Letters of Recommendation Guide.
Step 6: Secondary Applications
After you submit your primary application, secondary applications will arrive within two to four weeks. Most schools send out secondary application requests to all applicants that meet minimum requirements because schools make money from secondary applications, and it’s a chance to gauge your interest and learn more about you.
Submit your secondaries within 7-14 days of receiving them. This is an extremely short time frame, so preparing for your secondaries in advance is essential.
Learn more with our Medical School Secondary Application Guide.
Once you submit your secondaries, invitations to interview could start to arrive at the end of August and last into the spring of the following year. Nervous about interviews? Give yourself peace of mind with our Comprehensive Medical School Interview Guide.
The Medical School Application Timeline
The medical school application process is a lengthy one.
The AMCAS application opens during the first week of May for the following year’s medical school class, but you cannot actually submit your primary application until the end of May or early June. This gives you about a month to fully prepare your application. For example, if you plan on starting medical school in the fall of 2025, you need to start the application process in the spring of 2024.
We cannot stress this enough: Applying early is one of the most important medical school admission strategies.
The following is our medical school application timeline, which outlines ideal deadlines versus what’s technically possible. Technical deadlines are not the deadlines to follow, as medical schools use rolling admissions.
Admissions committees look at applications as they receive them. The first applicants receive the first secondaries. The first people to submit secondaries get the first interview invitations—and these are far from unlimited. Medical schools only have so many interview slots available, so the longer you delay submitting your application, the worse your chances of acceptance.
Follow our Medical School Application Timeline and Monthly Schedule to ensure you submit your materials in a timely fashion.
Create a Stand Out Application with Med School Insiders
Applying to medical school is a long, tedious, and expensive process. And, unfortunately, working as a nurse does not automatically qualify you to enter medical school.
To make the switch from RN to MD, you’ll need to leave your job and apply to medical school—that means earning any undergrad prerequisites you still need, taking the MCAT, and completing each component of the application to the best of your ability. After that, you’ll hopefully be accepted, and then you’ll have four years of medical school followed by three to seven years of residency before you can become a professionally licensed physician.
Navigating through this path alone is difficult, especially when you are applying with unique circumstances.
Med School Insiders can help you create a stand out medical school application. Our Comprehensive Medical School Admissions Packages are designed to maximize your potential with one-on-one advising, essay editing, application editing, mock interviews, and more.
We’re dedicated to creating a generation of happier, healthier, and more effective future doctors, and we’ll help you become the doctor you’ve always dreamed of.
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