If you’re a teen wondering how to go from high school to medical school, the best thing to do is to start preparing as early on as possible. Many high school students decide when they’re kids that they want to be a doctor, and the sooner you start taking the right steps, the better your chance of eventually having “MD” behind your name. If you’re not sure what steps to take along the way, you’ve come to the right place. Below is a step-by-step guide that helps walk you through each stepping stone, from before high school graduation (whether you should take that AP Biology course or pursue summer research opportunities) through the medical school application process and eligibility requirements on your way to becoming a doctor of medicine and landing a job in health care.
Step 1: Start Preparing in High School
If you want to be a physician one day, you should start by taking the right classes while you’re still in high school. The first step you’ll have to take after graduation is getting a college degree. The thing is, if you take the right courses in high school, the degree is bound to be easier to get. Keep in mind that only about 40% of people who apply to medical school actually make it there, despite years of undergraduate study and hard work taking the required courses for the pre-med track. This means that even with the right courses and degree, you have about a 60% chance that you won’t get into medical school, at least the first time you apply – though the most dedicated prospective medical students (that could be you!) won’t let those acceptance rate odds deter them or dampen their drive.
Your college degree can be a pre-med curriculum, which is what most people choose (and what most undergraduate institutions are able to accommodate as a major track). If you’re going to be a doctor one day, you should take as many classes as you can in math, science, and the humanities. With your science classes, you’ll especially need to take as much chemistry and biology as possible, while realizing some of these entry-level classes are intentionally difficult and meant to weed-out students who don’t have a strong enough desire to trudge through the heavy readings, long labs, and difficult exams (organic chemistry is one of those notoriously difficult weed-out classes).
If you qualify to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school, always do so and seek out APs in the health sciences if they’re available. Many of these classes help you get college credits by the time you graduate, which means you’ll be taking fewer credits when you get to university and may even be able to avoid some of those difficult weed-out courses if an AP credit will suffice. Additionally, it looks especially good to undergraduate school admissions committees when a pre-med-focused student has already demonstrated an above-and-beyond attempt at getting a head start, challenged themselves with medical sciences classes, and proven their strong sense of direction regarding their planned career path.
While you’re still in high school, concentrate on taking as many classes as possible instead of trying to graduate early. The more classes you take, especially AP classes, the easier it’ll be when working on your bachelor’s degree, and the more you’ll free up your schedule for relevant extracurricular activities, like medical research, volunteering at the school of public health, or pursuing other healthcare-focused community engagement that’s aligned with medical school aspirants. Ahead of choosing your AP classes, you may want to research several pre-med curricula (which most colleges and universities will post publicly on their websites) to determine what classes are usually required. If you’re unsure about what to take, talk to your high school counselor so you can get some suggestions on which classes to take to prepare you for a pre-med program.
In some areas, there are specialized summer programs that cater to prospective doctors and future medical professionals. Not only will you get some of the classes that can help you later on, but you’ll meet many other students who have the same interests and career goals as you do. In addition, when you apply to medical school, it will look good on your admissions application, as this is proof you’ve been leveraging your time and resources to lay a strong foundation for your pre-med knowledge and experience. Whatever you can do to increase the odds of getting accepted into college and medical school is always a good thing, and younger students should start early focusing on attaining a strong GPA to put them in the best position possible.
Of course, if you want a medical degree you likely already know you’ll have to take the MCAT, and the more science and math you take, the easier the MCAT (medical college admission test) will be. Nevertheless, admissions officials look for more than just a high GPA or high MCAT score, which is why you should also be involved in extracurricular activities and community involvement. These officials usually look for traits such as:
- Leadership capabilities
- Excellent research skills
- Intellectual curiosity
- Affiliations with medical programs and community service organizations
Whatever you can do before you graduate that will enhance your high school and college experience and help you make the most out of it, you should do it. This is especially important if you plan to attend a selective college that has very strict requirements for being admitted there or low acceptance rates. These colleges are very competitive, so the more ready you are, the more likely you are to get admitted, and taking college courses in high school or ensuring your standardized test scores are well above their average could make the difference in your acceptance.
Step 2: Get Your Undergraduate Degree
Most pre-med programs are bachelor of science (BS) degrees, not a bachelor of arts. For high school seniors trying to get into college, this distinction is already clear. Once again, your BS should include lots of chemistry, biology, science, and math, so these are the types of classes you should choose for your electives as well. Many people ask if a college degree is even necessary because they’d rather go straight to med school. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually possible, though we will discuss direct medical programs, which is a special program track that may present a unique opportunity for interested students seeking an accelerated path towards health professions. That said, most medical schools in the U.S., in particular, require an undergraduate degree if you want to be accepted into any MD programs for your graduate studies.
As far as your grade-point average, or GPA, this number is important as well. Again, it isn’t the only thing medical schools look at, but the competition is fierce, which means the higher your GPA, the more likely you are to get into medical school. In fact, many medical schools have specific GPA requirements, meaning you have to meet a minimum GPA score before you are even considered for admission. Naturally, if your college offers a pre-med curriculum, this is what program you should choose.
A good pre-med curriculum requires you to take lots of classes in biology, physiology, chemistry, the humanities, and of course, math. This brings us to another concern—do you have to get a degree in some type of science? While science degrees are most common and most beneficial for anyone who wants a medical career someday, admissions counselors also look at humanities degrees because they are looking for people who can communicate well, analyze problems, etc.
Having said this, if you do choose to get a humanities degree, keep in mind that for your electives, you’ll need to take classes in biology, chemistry, physiology, and anatomy. Without these classes, it’s unlikely you’ll pass the requirements to get into med school, since the pre-med track does have such specific courses entailed, which are often reserved for students who’ve designated “Pre-Med” as their major to ensure they can graduate on time with their chosen major designation completely fulfilled. A humanities degree is one thing, but you still have to have basic knowledge of the sciences and math. You can use your electives to take these science-related classes because this is the easiest way to squeeze them in, but just realize there may not be room for non-Pre-Med students in some of those high-in-demand and required science classes.
Throughout your undergraduate career, you should concentrate on two main things: getting high grades in all of the right subjects and getting letters of recommendation from some of your professors—especially science teachers. These letters of recommendation should be submitted with your admissions package because, remember, the medical school admission process is extremely competitive. The more of an “edge” you have, the more likely you’ll be admitted in the end.
Step 3: Extracurricular Activities and Other Involvement
Many people participate in extracurricular activities and community involvement during their high school years, but it is especially important to do this once you get to college. Most medical school applications have spaces to include this information, and the schools that determine who gets in and who doesn’t always look for it. Naturally, if you participate in activities that center on the medical profession, they will carry more weight, so you should consider these types of activities first.
For suggestions, you can volunteer at a community health center, apply for an internship at a medical clinic, shadow a doctor, take additional courses during the summer, and spend some time gaining extensive research experience or other on-the-job medical training if that’s an option at a local hospital (or one affiliated with your university). It doesn’t matter which department you’re in because you’ll be able to meet people in the medical field and can even start to do some networking. Plus, you can learn a little about medicine regardless of where you work, especially if you get a job in the ER or something similar.
There are numerous advantages to this type of experience. This includes:
- It teaches you how to act more professional, especially around doctors. Physicians are always very professional, and you can learn about their mannerisms and other aspects of professionalism by being around doctors more.
- It can put the information you’ve learned in the classroom into better perspective. You’ll be able to observe the information in a more practical manner, and because of this, it will start to be a lot easier to understand.
- It gives you experience in the medical field. Even if all you do is start learning medical terminology, that will put you one step ahead when you get to medical school. Any experience you get will never go to waste, and it always looks good on your admissions application.
Being a doctor is a 24/7 job in many ways, and college admissions departments want to see a real commitment to the field of medicine. Yes, you need good grades throughout high school and college, but you also need to show them that you’re committed to being the best doctor you can be, which includes showing them that your commitment isn’t just there during working hours. As a doctor, you’ll be working odd hours, and these extracurricular activities get you used to those hours in many ways.
Step 4: Taking the MCAT
To start your medical education, you’ll have to take the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT. The main things they look for and test are basic knowledge in organic chemistry and biology, reading comprehension, and of course, you have to know how to write well. Much like the GRE, there are classes you can take to prepare you for taking this test, and it’s always a good idea to take one. It will not only help you learn the course material better, but it will also prepare you for what will likely be on the test, especially since the test can change from one test date to another.
Most future doctors take this test when they’re not in school, such as over the summer or after they receive their bachelor’s degree. That being said, keep in mind that it can take several months just to study for it and feel prepared. In addition, this is not a test that is given on a regular basis. Instead, it is only given a few times a year, so you’ll have to prepare in advance to take the MCAT. Fortunately, it is easy to discover when the test will be given in your particular area; all you have to do is check out this information online.
Step 5: Apply for Medical School
Once you graduate from high school, get your B.S. degree, and take the MCAT, you’ll be able to apply for medical school. To be a competitive applicant, you should have already participated in some of the things necessary to submit a professional-looking, competent application, such as taking the right classes and participating in community activities. Normally, these applications require one or more of the following:
- An application, plus an application fee
- Transcript from your undergraduate studies
- MCAT scores
- Recommendation letters from professors
- Personal statement
Unless you feel strongly otherwise, it’s a good idea to apply to several medical school programs because it increases the odds that one of those schools will accept you. As a general rule, medical schools only take a certain number of students each year, so the process is extremely competitive. While your academic performance is crucial, your dedication to the profession and commitment to the field also count a lot.
What Is a Direct Medical Program?
We mentioned earlier that schools in the U.S. require an undergraduate degree to apply to medical school, but there are a few schools that offer a B.S./M.D. degree. These direct medical programs guarantee a high schooler admission into medical school, based on certain criteria, which vary depending on the school. Some of the programs won’t even require you to take the MCAT, but you’ll have to check with the college you intend to attend so you’ll know for sure what their requirements are.
Also called direct entry programs, these programs are usually very competitive, and the schools that offer them usually only offer a handful of them every year. This means that if you’re interested in these programs, you should get an early start on learning their requirements so you can make sure you don’t overlook or forget anything important. You can also go online and look up this information, and the sooner you get the information, the better.
Can You Strengthen Your Pre-Med Application So It Stands Out Better?
If you want to be a pre-med student in college, you’ll have to submit an application and some extras if you wish to be taken seriously. In addition to the suggestions mentioned earlier, keep in mind that any volunteer opportunity or part-time job that helps people is going to look good on your application. The medical profession is one that involves helping people at their lowest point, so anything you can do to help people will be an impressive and relevant addition to your resume.
Let’s say you’re unsure which medical specialty you intend to go into, but an opportunity comes up to work with disabled people or people with mental health issues. If you get the chance to do something like this, it’s a good idea to take advantage of it. Being a psychiatrist may not be what you end up specializing in, and it may not even be something you’re interested in at the moment, but you’ll still be helping people and gaining knowledge in the meantime, which always looks good on an application.
Other Things to Consider
Depending on what country you intend to study in, you might have access to something called accelerator programs, which allow you to complete medical school in six to seven years instead of eight. With these programs, you can actually start medical school before you get your B.S. degree, which saves time. One of the most popular schools that offer this type of program is the QuARMS program, which is out of Canada. QuARMS is short for Queen’s University’s Accelerated Route to Medical School, and some details can be found here.
If you choose to go the regular route and get a degree, then apply for medical school, just know that the process is very competitive, which means everything you do from high school on is going to be important. The smartest thing you can do is learn as much as you can about the entire process and research specific schools so that you know ahead of time what their requirements are. Starting in high school by taking the right courses is also smart, but it doesn’t stop there.
Medical school is difficult to get into and difficult to complete, but if you start when you’re in high school and do things that increase the odds of success, you can relax a lot more in the long run. Taking the right courses, working on your GPA, volunteering or working part-time, and mastering your research skills all are important. If you’ve already decided to become a doctor, you likely already have the desire and commitment necessary to do all of these things.
Your SAT and MCAT scores matter, of course, but it’s good to know that this isn’t the only thing the admissions department considers. They’ll look for letters of recommendation from professors, community involvement, and of course, your dedication to the field of medicine. Some medical schools even require that you write an essay, and this is a great way to let the committee know your strengths and how committed you are to being a doctor, and all of this will make a difference in the end.