So you want to be a doctor! Great! You’re embarking on one of life’s great callings, a profession admired throughout history and across the world.
However, it takes more than a dream to become a medical practitioner: it requires years of blood, sweat, and tears (often literally), and it all starts before you even attend college. This blog post will take a look at the basics: where to go to school, and how to get in.
Every year, U.S. News & World Report ranks the best medical schools in the U.S. based on peer assessments, National Institutes of Health research grants funds awarded, and faculty-to-student ratio, among other factors.
The top-ranked schools include prestigious private institutions but also public universities. The list should also give you an idea of just how hard it is to get into medical school: top schools admission rates land under 6%. There are quite a few obstacles to overcome before even enrolling, from a tough undergraduate curriculum to the MCAT exam, complex applications, and interviews.
Requirements can vary between different U.S. schools and outside of the U.S. (several incredible medical programs are based in Europe for instance, all with their own guidelines). In the U.S., medicine is studied in graduate school after completing an undergraduate degree not directly related to medicine, but in the UK, for example, undergraduate clinical degrees are a huge part of the landscape. In practically all cases, however, clinical degrees take far longer than non-clinical programs.
In your first year, you’ll focus on the basics and clinical science courses: biology, chemistry, anatomy and more. This is your foundation. During your second year, you’ll go through clinical clerkships to shore up your knowledge of the basics. You’ll also take at least one practical course, a clinical skills course and a health policy course. Your third year will focus on clinical clerkships/rotations, and you’ll become a member of a medical team, rotating through specialties like internal medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry, neurology, radiology and more. Then there’s your residency starting in 4th year, but that’s a ways away, so we won’t address that here.
Harvard University’s Graduate Medical School focuses on three missions: education, research, and clinical care. Founded all the way back in 1782, it’s the U.S’ third-oldest medical college, and its reputation is impeccable. Harvard has four main teaching hospitals in the Boson area, and focuses on a problem-based curriculum. There’s also an extremely specialized biomedical research program, accepting 30 applicants each year. Students work in small groups within one of five “societies”, which compete in sports competitions and attend social events together. The faculty also teaches in science departments across Harvard and works in clinical departments affiliated with the university.
University of Oxford
The University of Oxford’s medical program is split into pre-clinical and clinical stages. For the first few years, students focus almost exclusively on theory, with very occasional patient contact. Later, they undertake a clinical phase at the John Radcliffe Hospital to focus on practice. ~150 students are admitted annually, with another 30 in a graduate course condensing medical studies into only four years. Oxford has two libraries for medicine, one providing resources for pre-clinical studies, and the other focusing on practical knowledge for healthcare practitioners.
Stanford University’s graduate school provides the university’s medical programs, with support from its seven Nobel prize winners, 31 members of the National Academy of Sciences, and 42 members of the Institute of Medicine. Stanford researchers conduct studies on topics as wide-ranging as cancer, immunology, genetics and neuroscience. The school also provides healthcare for adults and children.
University of Cambridge
At Cambridge, graduates can study medicine, either through an accelerated graduate program or a condensed version of the pre-clinical and clinical courses. 260 applicants are accepted overall per year, making this an extremely competitive program for the UK – high BMAT test scores and grades are a must. Approximately 50% of Cambridge graduates become general practitioners, with almost all going on to work for the UK’s National Health Service.
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Founded in 1876, the School of Medicine shares a campus with John Hopkins Hospital in Maryland. Hopkins has served as the model for American medical education for decades, pioneering many pedagogical methods that are now standard at other schools. Students at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine are divided into four colleges named after famous Hopkins faculty members who have had an impact on the history of medicine. This extremely competitive program continues to be extremely selective.
How to get in…
OK, so that’s a quick top five, what are some tips to get in? You’ll need to do a lot of research on your specific target schools, but to get you started here’s some basic, practical advice.
Have a STRONG Overall GPA and Science GPA
Repeat after me: grades matter. There is no substitute and no getting around this reality. For all the talk about schools prioritizing diverse backgrounds, personalities and extracurriculars, if you have weak grades, it’s almost impossible to enter a top medical program. That said, not all hope is lost: consider a post-bac. If you’re not ready to commit to being a doctor at 18, get a different education and do a post-bac after a year or two of experience. Ultimately, you need to follow the path that fits your life best, but be realistic about the amount of work (and grades) it’ll take to enter medical school straight out of college.
STRONG MCAT scores.
Another obvious point is that your MCAT score matters – you don’t want anything under 505 for medical school and you’ll want far higher for a top school. For all of the talk of the MCAT’s flaws, the reality is its not going anywhere, so posting a bad score on this test will compromise your plans. That means tons of studying, taking tons of practice tests, and doing your absolute best. You’ll also want to take it early, and if you have time, often. Cutting things too close to your applications will delay you a year, should you do poorly.
Craft a unique application
Once grades and test scores are out of the way, you’ll know where you stand, and if you’re competitive. Not you need to beat the thousands of other applicants just as ready and committed as you are. This is where you can differentiate yourself through living unique experiences and writing about them in your application. Now it has to be sincere: don’t just go volunteer in a warzone because you want to get into med school. Do something that you want to do because it will be fulfilling to you. That passion will resonate through your application, whether the experience is related to medicine or not. It’s that uniqueness and the spark that will catch the adcom’s attention.
If you had three spots for “meaningful experiences” – we would aim for 2 relating to medicine, and a third “unique” experience.
The AMCAS opens in May and you can submit as early as June 1st – don’t waste time! Admissions are a rolling process, so the earlier you get your app in, the fewer spots are already gobbled up, and the more chances you have. It’s true that acceptances are spread across a year, but nevertheless, the early bird gets the worm. Applying early will also allow you to focus on life’s other priorities, and you’ll know where you stand earlier. Save yourself the stress – if you get in, there will be plenty of time for that.
Get medical experience
One final recommendation: try to get some real-world experience so that you know what you’re signing up for. Medicine is NOT for everyone, and the application process is full of people to whom being a doctor is a result of parental pressure, not genuine interests. Having some practical exposure will prove your seriousness AND help you realize if the field is right for you. Schools want you to understand the reality of the job, so show them that you do.
These are just a few tips to help you get in, but hopefully, they give you an idea of just what you’re getting into. Medicine is a hard field to enter, but few careers are more rewarding.