Becoming a doctor
A career in medicine offers a diverse range of opportunities to serve people in need. Medical schools are looking for bright and hard working people who understand the needs of their communities and want to make a difference in the lives of others. If you are drawn to helping people and have the desire to use science and humanity to serve society, then a career in medicine might be the right choice for you.
Can you do it? Should you do it?
If you are actively considering a career as a physician, you need to assess whether you're ready to take on the challenges of medical school. Every so often, it's probably a good idea to ask yourself the big questions: Why do I want to become a doctor? Am I certain that this is the right career for me? There are many allied health programs, including physician assistant, nurse practitioner, optometrist, physical therapist and various others that can lead to highly rewarding careers in medicine. However, if you find through your experiences that the role of the physician is right for you, then pursue it with passion.
Take the Premed Test
How will you know if becoming a doctor is the right career choice? Answer the following questions:
- Do I have a good understanding of the role of physicians in modern medicine through first-hand experiences, i.e. internships and clinical experiences?
- Am I interested in my academics, and have I demonstrated my ability to perform well in a rigorous science curriculum? Have I also explored my interests in the humanities, social sciences, ethnic studies and languages?
- Am I willing to prepare for standardized tests like the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and eventually, the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE)?
- Am I exploring my scientific, scholastic or creative interests, e.g., laboratory or clinical research, publications, fine arts?
- Have I made a difference in the lives of others through my extracurricular involvement, e.g., volunteer work, organized activities, teaching or tutoring, sports, etc.?
Certainly, there are many more questions to be considered when considering a career in medicine. Keep in mind that medical school admissions committees will be asking many of the above questions about applicants. If you can answer or have a desire to explore each question with enthusiasm and passion, then you're well on your path to becoming a physician.
A Well-balanced Approach to Medical School
If you have spent a fair amount of time in premedical circles, you may have heard several versions of "what it takes to get into medical school." Some people believe that high grades and stellar MCAT scores are the best and only way to assure success in the medical school application process. While grades and MCATs are important selection factors in the application process, most medical schools will look beyond the numbers to ensure that they are admitting great people, not just great students. Don't be dissuaded from pursuing your dreams because of a bad chemistry midterm, or even a failed science course. Remember that a "C" probably won't stop you from becoming a doctor, however, Cs in all of your classes will make it extremely difficult for a medical school admissions committee to recognize your ability to handle the workload found in medical school. Therefore, you must find a balance between establishing strong numbers (GPA and MCATs) and demonstrating the qualitative interests that make up your out-of-class experiences. Becoming a successful applicant to medical school depends largely upon a well-balanced approach.
Taking the Right Classes
Academic preparation for medical school begins with selecting courses that meet the premedical requirements as an undergraduate in college. Although each medical school independently decides upon its own premedical requirements course list, most schools will require the courses listed below. Note: various medical schools require some additional courses as well. For the most accurate list of courses required by individual schools, check with the school's admissions office or Web site. A good resource manual for obtaining this information is the most current edition of the Medical School Admission Requirements published by the Association of American Medical Colleges, www.aamc.org.
Premedical Requirements for Most U.S. Medical Schools
- 1 year of chemistry (with laboratory)
- 1 year of organic chemistry (with laboratory)
- 1 year of biology (with laboratory)
- 1 year of physics (with laboratory)
- 1 year of English
- 1 year of calculus*
*Note: Some medical schools may not require an entire year of calculus. Also, some schools will require or strongly encourage additional coursework in the sciences or humanities.
When choosing courses, be sure to seek the help of a premedical adviser in order to be sure that you are taking the correct course series, e.g. short calculus versus engineering calculus.
Choosing the Best Major
What is the best major for premedical students? The answer is: there is no best major. Choose a major that you find most interesting, challenging and satisfying. You should study subjects that you really enjoy, and avoid choosing a major because it might "look good" on your application. No points are given for the major that you choose, however, you will probably perform better in a major that captures your interests.
Many students choose to major in the biological sciences because the requirements for a biology degree are very similar to medical school admission requirements. Don’t be fooled, however. If you truly enjoy studying material outside of the sciences, i.e. humanities, social sciences, ethnic studies, foreign languages, etc., college will be the best time for you to study these subjects. If you decide to pursue a non-science major, then your strong performance in the premedical requirements will be crucial.
Important for Community College Students:
If you complete all of your premedical requirements at community college, it may be in your best interest to take several upper-division science classes at the four-year institution to which you transfer. Performing well in upper-division science courses further demonstrates your ability to handle the rigorous science-based coursework found in medical school. If you are not a science major, it may still be important for you to take additional science courses beyond the minimum requirements to further support application to medical school.
The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is a standardized examination that most U.S. Medical Schools require for admissions. The MCAT is offered twice every year (in April and August) and it plays a very significant role in the application process. The MCAT is an obstacle to be conquered. For some students this obstacle is bigger than for others, but one fact remains; you must show your ability to perform well on standardized exams. Put simply, if you don't feel that you're a good multiple-choice, standardized exam test taker, then you need to become a good multiple-choice, standardized exam test taker. Never fear…the secret to a performing well on the MCAT is preparation, preparation, preparation.
How do you begin to prepare for the MCAT? The best MCAT preparation begins in your basic science courses. The majority of MCAT material will cover topics in the basic sciences: chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and biology. Doing well in these courses will provide you with a solid foundation for MCAT testing material. In addition to these classes, the following upper-division courses will aid you in preparation for the test:
- 1 quarter/semester of human physiology
- 1 quarter/semester of genetics
- 1 quarter/semester of biochemistry
Medical schools will want to know where you spend your time outside of the classroom. You've probably heard that it's important to be a well-rounded student, but why is this really important? Think about the qualities that most patients would want in a physician. Clearly, patients want doctors to be competent and well-versed in their knowledge of medicine and clinical skills. However, most people also want their physician to show compassion, respect and empathy. In addition, many patients want a physician who understands or is familiar with their language and culture.
To prepare yourself to meet the expectations of your future patients, it is important to explore any interest you may have with respect to art, culture, history, athletics, society, politics, scientific research, etc. In addition, your involvement in student organizations, community projects, and many other organized efforts offers a great way to demonstrate your leadership skills and desire to help others. Finally, and most importantly, clinical internships and other hands-on experiences provide an important and necessary insight into the practice of medicine.
Whether you just started thinking about a career in medicine or have dreamed of becoming a doctor since childhood, find out as much information about medical school as possible. Go though this process knowing the steps you will take in the coming months or years to prepare yourself for a career in medicine. And by all means, please seek a premedical adviser to help guide you through the process.