Medicine is one of the most challenging yet rewarding fields a student can enter. But before you decide whether becoming a doctor is right for you, it's important that you know 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 path is right for you, this guide is what you should read to start preparing yourself early for a successful career as a doctor.
What Is the Career Outlook for Medical Doctors?
Medicine is a super competitive and rigorous field: doctors have a lot of responsibility and must spend tons of time and money on their training. Healthcare is also a growing field, which means that the demand for doctors will continue to increase in the coming years.
As long as you do all the necessary steps below, you shouldn't have an issue finding a job as a doctor.
Let's take a look at the career outlook for physicians and surgeons using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- 2020 Median Pay: Greater than or equal to $208,000 per year
- Job Growth Rate (2020-30): 3%, which is slower than average
Note that 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 (such as dermatology or rheumatology), I encourage you to do your own research on that field's projected career outlook.
To lend you a hand, we've created the following chart, which presents the median salaries and job outlooks for various types of doctors (arranged in order of highest salary to lowest):
|Type of Doctor
|Median Salary (2020)
|Job Growth Rate (2020-2030)
|Obstetricians and gynecologists
|Physicians, all other
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics
As you can see from the chart, all of the above medical specialties make six figures a year. They do have some differences in terms of job growth, however. The job growth rate for psychiatrists is expected to be a well-above-average 14% in the next ten years, but specialties such as surgeons and pediatricians are expected to shrink slightly. There are a lot of jobs in each of these fields though, so don't think there won't be a need for them in several years, even if their numbers are expected to contract a bit.
How to Become a Doctor: 7-Step Career Path Overview
Becoming a doctor is a pretty complex, multi-step process. Here are the seven major steps we'll be covering in more detail below (you can skip around by clicking the links to each step):
Step 1: Do well in high school
Step 2: Get into a great college
Step 3: Take the MCAT (and get a good score)
Step 4: Apply and get into medical school
Step 5: Attend medical school and pass your boards to become a licensed doctor
Step 6: Choose your specialty and complete your residency
Step 7: Take and pass your final boards to practice independently
Still interested in how to become a doctor? Time to get into the nitty-gritty of each major step.
Step 1: Do Well in High School
If you're serious about becoming a doctor, you'll do yourself a big favor by getting focused in high school. As mentioned, this is a pretty competitive field, so 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 you 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 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.
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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 whether there are any opportunities at a nearby hospital or clinic (for example, I had friends in high school who helped escort people who were visiting family members in the hospital). These volunteer opportunities can also help you decide fairly early whether a career in medicine is something you're actually interested in pursuing.
Of course, you don't have to volunteer exclusively in healthcare environments—any community service opportunity in which 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 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/SAT
To get into a great medical school, it helps to go to a great college. And to get into a great college, it helps to get a high score on the SAT/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 SAT/ACT score:
- What counts as a good, bad, or average ACT or SAT score?
- How can you 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'll be better if your college or university has strong science and math programs, since these will be more helpful in preparing 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 the following:
- A high GPA
- Impressive SAT/ACT scores
- Strong letters of recommendation
- Polished and thoughtful personal essays
Some great public schools might not require letters of rec or applications essays. Nevertheless, it's wise to start preparing these materials early on in the college application process if you think you'll apply to any colleges that do require them.
If you're still working on college research, I suggest checking out these guides:
- The best pre-med schools for becoming a doctor
- The best college ranking lists and whether you should trust them
- Whether it matters where you go to college
- How to decide where to go to college
Step 2: Get Into a Great 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 in becoming a doctor: 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 have to 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 (e.g., foreign languages or studio art). Because of this, many pre-med students choose related majors such as 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. It's fairly common for people to wrap up pre-med requirements by taking an extra semester or two in college (some schools call these students "super seniors").
You might 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 to take 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 fact to motivate you to network with as many people as possible.
Develop relationships with professors and mentors by going to their office hours, actively 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 some 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 at 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 their 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., during 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 might 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 will prove to be a big plus for your med school applications.
Step 3: Take (and Ace!) the MCAT
The Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, 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. Why? Because by this point you will have gone through many of your pre-med courses, making studying for the MCAT a lot easier.
MCAT Scoring and Logistics
In total, it takes seven and a half hours to complete the MCAT. The sections on the test include the following:
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
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 scores range from 472 to 578, with the average score sitting at about 500.
This scoring system is still relatively new (since 2015), so there isn't much historical data available we can use to predict what a good or "safe" MCAT score will be for med school admissions. Current percentiles indicate that around 50% of test takers score 500, and 74% score 508, or what MCAT-Prep.com calls a "good" MCAT score. As such, the new MCAT encourages admissions officers to look favorably upon students who score around 500 or above.
The MCAT is administered 30 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 $325 to register for the test. There are Fee Assistance Programs available for students who might not be able to shoulder these expenses.
After your scores are calculated, they're automatically released to the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS); you won't have to submit them separately to any schools unless they don't use AMCAS.
If you're adequately prepared the first time you take the MCAT, 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 seven-and-a-half-hour exam, you really don't want to have to take it twice.
There are several different ways you can prep for the MCAT:
- Independent study: This might work for students at schools with strong pre-med support who are also performing well in their classes. Solid 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.
- MCAT prep course: Pre-med students commonly take prep courses when they want a solid review schedule to keep them on track. There's a lot of material to cover, and a good course helps ensure that there aren't any major gaps in your content knowledge or strategy. They can be very expensive, unfortunately, with most costing several thousand dollars. Kaplan and The 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 provides some free study material if you're looking for a place to start, though it won't suffice if you're putting together a full study plan. Dr. Flowers Test Prep is another, more comprehensive resource for online prep.
- Private tutor: Students whose grades aren't up to par or who have done poorly on the MCAT before might want to consider this option. If you decide to hire a tutor, pick 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.
You can also buy an official practice test for the MCAT through the Association of American Medical Colleges for $35, in addition to other official study guides and prep materials.
Step 4: Apply and Get Into 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.
Research 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 Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) website is one of the best tools for looking into important medical school information. For a $28 year-long subscription, you can easily access the following:
- Acceptance rates
- Average MCAT and GPA of applicants and accepted students
- Numbers of out-of-state students
- Application requirements
- Application deadlines
As with any school or program, there are med school ranking lists. Because US medical schools' admissions criteria and curricula are so stringent and rigorous, though, admission to any school in the country should be considered an accomplishment. If you end up in medical school and follow through with a residency at a good hospital, you'll have no trouble finding work as a doctor.
Know the Different Types of Medical Schools
There are two types of physicians in the US:
- Allopathic physicians (MDs)
- Osteopathic physicians (DOs)
Both types are fully licensed physicians and are often very similar in the way that 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, 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.
You can read more about osteopathic medicine on the American Osteopathic Association site.
Allopathic or osteopathic: which type of med school is right for you?
Put Together Your Med School Application
There are three parts of the med school application process.
Part 1: Primary Application
You send in your primary application by June the year before your first year of med school. Most med schools use AMCAS, which is like a Common Application 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.
Part 2: Secondary Application
This usually happens in July-August on a typical application timeline (i.e., one on which 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, though, schools send fairly extensive lists of essay prompts (e.g., "Why are you interested in attending this medical school?") for you to answer.
If the medical school is happy with your primary and secondary applications, you'll move on to the next part.
Part 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 over 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 (1) committed to the medical track, (2) confident in your abilities, (3) eager to learn, (4) warm and empathetic, and (5) grateful for the opportunity to be there.
Step 5: Attend Medical School and Pass Your Boards
After fulfilling all the pre-med requirements and submitting all those applications, you finally arrive here: medical 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 of med school will look like:
- Years 1-2: Primarily classroom-based courses
- Year 3: Training in each major medical specialty (also known as rotations)
- Year 4: Primarily elective courses based on preferred specialty
There are some other important steps along the way, such as board exams, that I'll address in this section 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 medical 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 whether you should continue with your education and medical licensure (another name for the USMLE exams is "Boards").
At most med schools, you need to pass this exam in order to progress to your third year of school.
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 kinds 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 (we give more information on this in the Residency section below).
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 of med school is dedicated mainly to taking elective courses to prepare you for your preferred specialty and continuing gaining hands-on experience. You'll also take the USMLE Level 2 (which is similar to the first examination, except that it simply tests more advanced knowledge); this exam includes a clinical knowledge part and a clinical skills portion.
Step 6: Complete Your Residency
Residencies, also known as internships, are supervised positions at teaching hospitals. You will be matched to an available residency position through the National Resident Matching Program (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 will spend at least three years in your residency program but may spend more time there depending on your specialty. In your first year, you'll be known as an intern and will 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 will have to do as a licensed physician.
You'll get a salary as a resident, but it won't be much. The average resident earns about $48,000 a year, which should 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
Step 7: Take and Pass Your Final Boards
Once you've finished 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 might want to practice in a hospital, clinic, or private practice.
You'll have to keep up with Continuing Medical Education in order to practice as a physician, no matter your 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 medical career.
Summary: The 7 Critical Steps to Becoming a Doctor
This is a ton of information to take in at once, especially if you're at the beginning of this process or if you're still unsure about entering the medical field.
To recap, here are the seven major steps you must take to become a doctor:
- Do well in high school
- Get into a great college
- Take the MCAT (and get a good score)
- Apply and get into medical school
- Attend medical school and pass your boards to become a licensed doctor
- Choose your specialty and complete your residency
- Take and pass your final boards to practice independently
You should also keep in mind two important takeaways:
- 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 these steps at the same time. Once you're in medical 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 even 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 info on what to do to prepare for med school while you're in high school, you're in the right place. Check out these great medical programs for high school students and our list of the best books every pre-med student should read.
Starting to research different college or med school options? Start off with this complete list of BA/MD and BS/MD programs in the United States. You might 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.