Medicine is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding fields a student can enter. Before deciding whether becoming a doctor is right for you, it’s important that you’re well-informed about every step you’ll have to take along the way.
Here, I’ll walk you through exactly how to become a doctor, starting with high school. This career is definitely not for everyone - it requires huge investments of time, money, and effort - but if this career path is right for you, this post will help you start preparing now for a successful career.
Medicine is a super competitive and rigorous field - doctors have a lot of responsibility, and have to spend a lot of time and money on their training. Healthcare is also a growing field, which means that the demand for good doctors will continue to increase over the coming years. This means that if you pass all of the necessary steps, you probably won’t have an issue finding a good job.
Let’s take a look at the career outlook for physicians and surgeons (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics):
- 2015 Median Pay: $187,200 per year
- Job Outlook, 2014-2024 (percent change in employment): 14%, which is much faster than the average % change of 7%. This means that there will likely be an increase in demand for doctors.
Pay and job outlook can vary depending on what type of doctor you want to be, so if you have a particular specialty in mind (e.g. dermatology, rheumatology), I encourage you to do your own research on projected career outlook.
How to Become a Doctor: Career Path Overview
Becoming a doctor is a pretty complex, multi-step process. Here are all the major steps I’ll cover in more detail in this post:
- Do well in high school
- Get into a great college
- Take the MCAT (and get a good score)
- Apply and get into medical school
- Become a licensed doctor by passing your boards
- Choose your specialty and complete your residency
- Take and pass your final boards to practice independently
Still interested in how to become a doctor? Let’s get into the nitty gritty details of each major step.
If you’re serious about becoming a doctor, you’ll do yourself a big favor by getting focused in high school. Like I mentioned, this is a pretty competitive field - the earlier you start distinguishing yourself as a great student, the easier the process will be.
Here’s what you can do in high school to help prepare for later steps:
Focus on Science and Math
To fulfill all pre-med requirements in college (I’ll get to that in a bit), you’ll have to take quite a few science and math classes. Lay a solid foundation by taking a science and math course every year, and make it a priority to take advanced and/or AP courses. You’ll also want to keep your GPA (in these classes and all others) as high as possible.
This is an important step because it also gives you a tiny glimpse into what college and medical school will be like. If you don’t enjoy science and math courses in high school, it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy them later on. Use this as an opportunity to think critically about whether you’d like to pursue this career.
Do Plenty of Community Service
Being a good doctor isn’t just about being a science and math whiz - it’s about being invested in caring for other people. Show how you care about helping others by volunteering consistently in high school.
It’s best if you can do volunteer work that’s at least somewhat related to healthcare. You might see if there are any opportunities at a nearby hospital or clinic (I had friends in high school who helped escort people who were visiting family members in the hospital, for example). These volunteer opportunities can also help you decide fairly early whether a career in medicine is something you’re interested in pursuing.
Of course, you don’t have to volunteer exclusively in healthcare environments - any community service opportunity where you’re helping other people is a good fit. Read more about the benefits of community service, and then check out our list of the nine best places to volunteer.
Is working in healthcare a good fit for you? Volunteering in the field is a great way to find out.
Get a Great Score on the ACT or SAT
To get into a great medical school, it helps to go to a great college. To get into a great college, it helps to get a high score on the SAT or ACT.
Plan on taking your first test by the end of your junior year - this gives you time to take your test of choice again if you want to try to raise your scores.
Read these guides for more info on how to get a great score:
- What counts as a good, bad or average ACT or SAT score?
- How to get a perfect score on the ACT or SAT
- How long should you study for the ACT or SAT?
Submit Stellar College Applications
Your senior fall will be all about researching and applying to colleges. You don’t necessarily need to go to a school with a dedicated pre-med program, but it helps if your college or university has strong science and math programs - they’ll help prepare you for the MCAT and med school.
If you want to go to a top-tier private school, you’ll have to submit applications with:
- High GPA
- High SAT/ACT scores
- Great letters of recommendation
- Polished and thoughtful personal essays
Some great public schools may not require letters of rec or applications essays - nevertheless, it’s wise to start preparing these materials early in the college application process if you think you’ll apply to any colleges that require them.
If you’re still working on college research, read more about:
- The best rankings lists and whether you should trust them
- Whether it matters where you go to college
- How to decide where to go to college
College is where you really start focusing your studies and preparing for a career in medicine. Here’s everything you should do as an undergraduate to prepare yourself for the next major step: medical school.
Meet All Pre-Med Requirements
Most medical schools require students to have taken a series of courses as undergraduates. This ensures that they have strong foundational knowledge in math and science, and will be well-prepared for the more advanced courses they’ll take as med students.
Here are the core classes that most medical schools require:
- Two semesters of biology with laboratory
- Two semesters of inorganic chemistry with laboratory
- Two semesters of organic chemistry with laboratory
- Two semesters of math, at least one in calculus
- Two semesters of physics with laboratory
- Two semesters of English and/or writing
This comes to 12 course requirements at minimum, which doesn’t give you a ton of wiggle room if you also have to meet requirements for a major without much pre-med overlap (say, romance languages or studio art). Because of this, many pre-med students choose majors like biology or chemistry - this makes it much easier to meet both pre-med requirements and the requirements for your major.
If you decide later in college that you’d like to apply to medical school but you know you don’t have time to fit in all these requirements, don’t panic just yet. It’s fairly common for people to wrap up pre-med requirements by taking an extra semester or two at college (some schools call these students “super seniors”). You may also look into full-time post-bac programs if you have more than a few requirements left to fulfill. These options mean extra time and extra expenses, but they’re helpful (and sometimes necessary) steps before applying to med school.
Keep Your Grades Up
Your transcript will be a very important part of your med school applications, so your academic performance should really be your #1 priority as you work your way through college.
Build Relationships With Professors and Mentors
You’ll need a few strong letters of recommendation from respected faculty members when you submit your med school applications - use this to motivate you to network with as many people as possible.
Develop relationships with professors and mentors by going to office hours, participating in class, and taking opportunities to work on research projects.
Your nerdy professors will prove to be invaluable resources when you’re applying to med school, but only if you have relationships with them!
Get Some Research Experience
Having research experience under your belt is a big plus for med school applications, especially if you can squeeze in a publication or two. Working in a biology or chemistry lab would probably be most helpful for medical school.
There are a couple ways you can get research experience as an undergraduate:
- Work as a research assistant (paid or unpaid) in an on-campus lab or an off-campus research institute. Look at campus job postings, or approach specific professors in your department about potential lab openings. If you don’t have time during the semester to take on extra work, consider summer opportunities.
- Complete an undergraduate thesis, which involves research work. This usually requires a professor to officially take you on as his/her student. Each school (and each department within a school) will have its own procedures and policies for undergraduate theses, so educate yourself early on (i.e. freshman year) if you’re interested in this track.
Continue With Community Service
Medical schools are going to look at your community service record as an important part of your application. You should make time for volunteer work in college just as you did in high school.
The good news is that it should be easier to find relevant advocacy and community service clubs and organizations in college. Here are a few example activities you may be interested in (although this list is by no means exhaustive):
- Volunteering at a homeless shelter
- Joining a public health advocacy society or organization
- Volunteering at a nursing home, or engaging in other forms of elder care (e.g. Meals on Wheels)
- Joining a peer counseling organization
It’s better to stick with a few clubs or activities over the long term (as opposed to jumping around between activities year after year). This demonstrates that you’re consistent and reliable - it also opens up opportunities for leadership roles, which is a big plus for your applications.
Ace The MCAT
The MCAT (or Medical College Admissions Test) is used as a predictor of your success in med school, and as such is weighted pretty heavily when compared to other parts of your application. Most students take the MCAT their junior year - this is arguably the most optimal time to take the test. You will have gone through many of your pre-med courses at this point, which makes studying for the MCAT a lot easier.
Test Scoring and Logistics
In total, it takes 7.5 hours to complete the MCAT. The sections on the test include:
- Physical Sciences
- Verbal Reasoning
- Biological Sciences
- Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior
Each section is scored on a range from 118 to 132, with a median score of 125. You’ll receive an individual score for each section in addition to an overall score. Total (overall) scores range from 472 to 578, with the average score sitting at about 500.
This scoring system is relatively new, so there isn’t any historical data available to predict what a good or “safe” MCAT score will be for med school admissions. Hypothetical percentile ranks state that the 85th percentile score will sit at 508-509. This coincides with a score of 30 on the old MCAT, which was thought to be a good score to aim for. The new MCAT encourages admissions officers to look favorably upon students who score around 500 or above.
The MCAT is administered 15 times per year, so you have quite a bit of flexibility when it comes to scheduling the test. Be prepared for some hefty expenses - it costs $305-$355 to register for the test depending on how far in advance you sign up. There are Fee Assistance Programs available for students who may not be able to shoulder these expenses.
After your scores are calculated, they’re automatically released to AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) - you won’t have to submit them separately to any schools unless they don’t use the AMCAS. Get more information on test dates and registration.
If you’re adequately prepared the first time you take the test, you could save yourself the cost of an extra registration fee.
Studying for the MCAT
Plan on studying 200-300 hours if you want to do well on the test. Since it’s a 7.5 hour exam, you really don’t want to have to take it twice.
There are a few different ways to prep for the MCAT exam:
- Independent study. This may work for students at a school with strong pre-med support who are also performing well in their classes. Strong foundational knowledge is the most important factor that affects performance on the MCAT, but students would still, of course, need to spend significant time preparing.
- An MCAT Prep Course. Pre-med students commonly take prep courses when they want a solid review schedule that will keep them on track. There’s a lot of material to cover, and a good course helps you make sure there aren’t any major gaps in your knowledge of content or strategy. They can be very expensive-- most are several thousand dollars. Kaplan and Princeton Review are a couple of the most popular options.
- Online Prep - Online resources can offer a great combination of structure and flexibility when you’re working to cover a lot of material. Khan Academy offers some free study material if you’re looking for a place to start, although it won’t suffice if you’re putting together a full online study plan. Dr. Flowers Test Prep is another, more comprehensive, resource for online studying.
- A private tutor. Students whose grades aren’t up to par or who have poorly on the MCAT before may want to consider this option. If you choose to seek out a tutor, choose someone with glowing recommendations and years of tutoring experience - they won’t come cheap, but they’re also less likely to waste your time and money.
Applying to Medical School
The medical school application process is extremely long. If you want to start med school the fall after you graduate from college, you’ll have to start your applications your junior year.
Researching Medical Schools
The average student applies to about 13 schools to optimize their chances of getting in - I wouldn’t recommend that you put together a list much smaller than that.
The MSAR (or Medical School Admissions Requirements) website is one of the best tools for looking into important medical school information. For a $25 year-long subscription, you can easily access:
- Acceptance rates
- Average MCAT and GPA of applicants and accepted students
- Numbers of out-of-state students
- Application requirements
- Application deadlines
Like with any school or program, there are med school rankings lists. Because US medical schools’ admissions criteria and curricula are so stringent and rigorous, however, keep in mind that admission to any school in the country should be considered an accomplishment. If you end up in a school in the country, and you follow through with a residency at a good hospital, you’ll have no trouble finding work.
Types of Medical Schools
There are two types of physicians in the US: allopathic physicians (MDs) and osteopathic physicians (DOs). Both types are fully licensed physicians, and are often very similar in the way they practice medicine - they just receive degrees from slightly different types of programs.
We’re most used to hearing about doctors with MDs, so if you’re not familiar with DOs then I encourage you to do more research on these types of programs. DOs receive additional specialty training in certain areas, including using the hands to diagnose/treat illnesses and injuries. Read more about osteopathic medicine.
Allopathic or osteopathic: which type of med school is right for you?
There are three steps to the application process:
Step 1: Primary Application
You send in your primary application by June the year before your first year of med school. Most med schools use the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), which is like a Common App for med schools.
This application includes official transcripts, a personal statement, your resume/CV, and your MCAT scores. Start preparing these materials a few months before submission.
Step 2: Secondary Application
This usually happens in July-August on a typical application timeline (i.e. one where you submit the primary application in June). At this point, a school will either reject your primary application OR ask you to complete its secondary application.
The secondary application will differ for each school you apply to. Sometimes, schools just ask you to submit an application fee to continue with the application process. Other times, schools send fairly extensive lists of essay prompts (e.g. “Why are you interested in attending this medical school?”).
If the school is happy with your primary + secondary application, you will move on to the next step.
Step 3: Interview
If a school definitely does (or definitely does not) want to interview you, you’ll hear back from them pretty quickly. Some students are left in limbo for a while as schools deliberate about what to do with them.
Interviews are the final decision-making phase. Your interview will either make or break your application. Preparing for interviews is tough because each school (and each interviewer) will have its own priorities and questions. Overall, you want to come off as (1) committed to the medical track (2) confident about your abilities (3) eager to learn (4) warm and empathetic (5) grateful for the opportunity to be there.
After fulfilling all those pre-med requirements and submitting all those applications, you finally arrive here: med school. You’ll spend four years here, but that doesn’t mean the experience will be very similar to that of your undergraduate education - there are more decisions to be made, more opportunities for hands-on experiences, and more professional licensing requirements to worry about.
Here’s an overview of what these four years will look like:
- First two years - Primarily classroom-based courses
- Third year - Training in each major medical specialty (also known as rotations)
- Fourth year - Primarily elective courses based on preferred specialty
There are some other important steps along the way - like board exams - that I’ll address here as well.
Years 1-2: Classroom Work
You won’t have much say in what courses you’ll take during your first two years of med school. Your education during this time will be an extension of your pre-med requirements - you’ll take many advanced courses that will give you the important biological, anatomical, and chemical foundations you’ll need to work as a physician.
These courses will obviously have an important impact on your GPA, which will affect how competitive you are when you’re matched for your residency/internship (we’ll get to that shortly). As such, it’s important to keep your grades up - your future self will thank you.
At the end of your second year you’ll take the United States Medical Licensing Examination, or the USMLE-1. This test assesses your medical competency to see if you should continue with your education and medical licensure (another name for the USMLE exams is “Boards”).
At most medical schools, you need to pass this exam in order to progress to your third year of school. Read more about the test and access exam practice materials.
Year 3: Rotations
In your third year, you’ll start working with patients in a medical setting (under a supervisor) within different medical specialties. This helps you gain hands-on experience as a physician, but perhaps more importantly, you’ll learn more about what sort of specialty you may be interested in.
After the bulk of your rotations experiences in your third year, you’ll have to decide what sort of medicine you’d like to pursue. This decision will dictate what sort of elective courses you’ll take in your fourth and final year of med school, as well as how long you’ll spend in your residency (get more information on this in the Residency section).
Med school rotations are a bit more productive than the one the hamster’s doing on this wheel.
Year 4: Pursuing Your Specialty
As you now know, your fourth year is dedicated primarily to taking elective courses to prepare for your preferred specialty and continuing gaining hands-on experience. You’ll also take the USMLE Level 2 (it’s similar to the first examination, only testing more advanced knowledge) - it includes a clinical knowledge and clinical skills portion.
Residencies (also known as internships) are supervised positions at teaching hospitals. You’ll be matched to an available residency position through the National Resident Matching Program, also known as the NRMP.
You’ll be able to note your preferences, but you won’t have ultimate decision-making power over your matches. Once the NRMP sets you up, you sort of have to take what you’re given.
You’ll spend at least three years in your residency program, but may spend more there depending on your specialty. During your first year, you’ll be known as an intern - you’ll be at the bottom of the totem pole, but not for long.
During your residency you’ll also need to pass your final licensing exam (USMLE-3). The third and final licensing exam is taken during the first year of your residency. It tests your ability to utilize your medical knowledge and provide care in an unsupervised setting, which is what you’d have to do as a licensed physician.
You will receive a salary as a resident, but it won’t be much. The average resident gets about $48,000/year, which will cover living expenses and your minimum medical school loan payments.
Here are some example specialties and their respective residency requirements:
- Anesthesiology - 4 years
- Dermatology - 4 years
- Emergency Medicine - 3-4 years
- General Surgery - 5 years
- Internal Medicine - 3 years
- Neurology - 4 years
- Obstetrics and Gynecology - 4 years
- Pathology - 4 years
- Pediatrics - 3 years
- Psychiatry - 4 years
- Radiology - 4-5 years
Beyond the Residency
Once you’ve finished with your residency and passed all your boards, you can officially practice independently as a licensed physician! It probably won’t take you long to find work. You may want to practice in a hospital, a clinic, or private practice.
You’ll have to keep up with Continuing Medical Education in order to practice as a physician, no matter specialty. This ensures that you stay educated and up-to-date on the latest research and best medical practices.
Your education doesn’t end here - you’ll be working to keep up with new information and best practices for the rest of your career.
This is a ton of information to take on at once, especially if you’re at the beginning of this process (or even if you’re still unsure about becoming a doctor). There are a few good things you should take away from this, though:
- You don’t have to decide at the beginning of college that you want to become a doctor (although it does make it easier to fulfill pre-med requirements). The path to becoming a physician isn’t completely rigid, especially if you’re interested in other biological and physical science careers.
- You don’t have to think about all of these steps at the same time. Once you’re in med school, your peers will be thinking about (and worrying about) the same things - there’s no way you’ll forget any important steps.
Becoming a doctor is definitely not for everyone - getting into medical school is really tough, and you still have a lot of training to complete after you graduate. But if you decide you want to enter the medical profession, you now have the info you need to start off on the right foot.
If you want more information on what to do while you’re in high school, you’re in the right place. Check out our guide on 59 great medical programs for high school students.
Starting to research different college or med school options? Start off with this complete list of BA/MD and BS/MD programs in the US. You may also be interested in our step-by-step guide on how to get into a BS/MD program.
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Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.