Are you a high school student with dreams of studying pre-med in college and becoming a doctor? Maybe you’ve heard how difficult it can be to get into med school and are trying to plan ahead in order to raise your chances of acceptance? Well, you’ve come to the right place!
This guide will go over everything you can do in high school to make yourself more prepared to begin a pre-med program in college. I’ll go over the classes you should be taking, the extracurriculars you should be participating in, and what you need to be thinking about as a high school student.
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The Importance of Having a Game Plan
Preparing for pre-med also means looking ahead to med school as well. In high school, you should be setting yourself up to succeed as a pre-med college student so that you can present your strongest application to med schools down the line.
You likely know that, unless you’re applying for a BS/MD or BA/MD program, you don’t start med school until after you graduate college, when you’re about 22 years old. That’s years away! Why do you need to be thinking about med school now?
The reason is that getting accepted into med school is notoriously competitive, and med schools will be looking for candidates with an obvious commitment to medicine.
Think about it: if you needed to have an operation or a broken bone set or an illness diagnosed, you’d want someone who really cared about medicine, learned all they could about the subject, and were dedicated to their work, right? Not someone who became a doctor because they couldn’t think of a better job. Similarly, med schools also want to accept people who are passionate about medicine.
So, while it’s not required to start planning for med school while in high school, starting pre-med off on the right foot and being able to show med schools that your interest in and commitment to medicine was obvious even back in high school will go a long way in showing them that this is a career you’re genuinely interested in and excited about.
You want to be well prepared for pre-med by the time you start college and have already begun to gain the knowledge and skills necessary for being a great doctor. In the following sections, I’ll go over exactly how to do this!
Skills and Knowledge You Need to Prepare for Pre-Med
Again, being a great pre-med student means that, when the time comes to apply, you’ll be impressive to med schools and able to show them that you’re an ideal candidate. So, in high school, you’ll want to be thinking about how to be both a strong med school candidate as well as a strong pre-med candidate.
What exactly do med schools look for in applicants? The best way to figure this out is to look directly at what med schools are saying. Here’s a sample of what three med schools are looking for in candidates. Their responses are similar to the majority of med schools across the country.
NYU School of Medicine states that they take into account "excellence in coursework at the college level; capabilities as judged by college instructors and premedical committees; the results of the Medical College Admissions Test; and the results of an interview at the School." Additionally, they recommend courses in English, Biology, Chemistry (organic and inorganic), Physics, Biochemistry, and Genetics.
The University of Michigan Medical School "holistically evaluates candidates for admission across a range of attributes necessary for successful development into a compassionate, skilled physician serving the needs of a diverse and changing population. These attributes include:
- Academic excellence
- Written and verbal communication
- Desire to learn
- Integrity and ethics
- Reliability and dependability
- Resilience and adaptability
- Social/interpersonal skills and teamwork"
Stanford University School of Medicine states that, "Desirable candidates for admissions are academically ready to succeed in our curriculum, have life experiences that will enrich our learning environment, and have personal qualities that will serve them, their colleagues and their patients well in their professional lives."
Now, obviously, some of those things, like MCAT scores and extensive college coursework you can’t really complete as a high school student. However, there’s still a lot you can start working on. As a high school student preparing for pre-med and eventually med school, you will want to focus primarily on three things:
- Preparing yourself for college classes
- Gaining experience relevant to med school
- Demonstrating personal qualities desirable in med school students and doctors
Working on each of these three areas in high school will make it easier for you to succeed in college and impress med school admissions committees when it comes time to apply. Read on to learn how to accomplish each of these things!
Using Your Classes to Prepare for Pre-Med
Med schools won’t look at your high school grades when they review your application (although some allow AP credits earned in high school to cover certain entrance requirements), but colleges definitely will, so you shouldn’t slack off in high school.
Doing well in your high school classes is important because, not only will it help you get accepted to your top colleges and their pre-med programs, it will also help give you the discipline and knowledge necessary to do well in college, when your grades really do matter for med school. If you have a pattern of getting high grades in high school, that will make it much easier to get high grades in college!
Let’s look more specifically at the areas you should be focusing on.
In pre-med and med school, you’ll definitely be taking a lot of science classes, so it’s important to have a strong foundation in this subject by the time you enter college. Doing so will likely allow you to take more advanced science classes in college and get higher grades since you’re starting with solid background knowledge.
If your school offers them, taking AP Biology and/or AP Chemistry are two of the best classes you can take to help you be prepared, since you’ll be taking multiple biology and chemistry classes in college. AP Physics is also useful since pretty much all med schools have a physics requirement as well.
The MCAT also has numerous questions in each of these three subjects, so getting a firm foundation on them early on will help you when it comes time to study for that exam in college. Keep your notes from these classes, as well as any finals or comprehensive exams you took in them. They may come in handy later on if you need to quickly review basic information on a subject.
Also, pay particular attention during labs. It can be tempting to zone out and let your lab partners take over every now and then, but lab work is something you’ll be doing throughout college and med school (and sometimes beyond), so it’s critical that you understand how to set up, run, and analyze an experiment. Additionally, the MCAT has a question type, called Research Design, that specifically tests your knowledge of research projects.
If you have room in your schedule for science electives, see if your school offers any classes in biochemistry, human physiology, or a related class.
In addition to science, math is the other subject you should be focusing on in high school if you want to be pre-med. Like science, take advanced math classes, and the higher the level (i.e. AP Calculus BC over AB), the better.
You’ll be taking multiple math classes as a pre-med, and, as your science classes become more advanced, they’ll begin to incorporate more higher-level math as well.
Pre-med students often have rigorous course schedules, so you don’t want to fall behind or get overwhelmed because your math skills aren’t where they should be. The best classes to take to be prepared are pre-calculus and calculus, but if those aren’t offered, or you have extra room in your schedule, a statistics class will also be useful to take since statistics is used in many areas of medicine.
In your math classes, pay particular attention to how to analyze graphs and data tables, since these topics will be specifically tested on the MCAT in its Graphical Analysis and Data questions, and you will often be asked to interpret visual data like these in your future classes.
Taking challenging math classes can help prepare you for college pre-med classes and beyond.
Even though math and science are the two most important subjects to focus on to prepare yourself for pre-med, you shouldn’t let your other classes suffer. Aim for solid, if not spectacular, grades across the board in your other subjects.
In particular, you should also work to do well in your English classes. Strong writing and communication skills are important for both college and med school, and many med schools have an English requirement for their applicants. So, doing well in your high school English classes can only benefit you down the road.
You may also want to consider social science classes in psychology and/or sociology. The MCAT has multiple questions on both of these subjects, and they can help you understand different areas of medicine better, even if you don’t specialize in psychology. This is because understanding why people behave the way they do and make the choices they do will help all doctors who work with patients and need to be understanding and supportive.
Being an Exceptional Student
For all of your courses, particularly your math and science classes, make sure you talk to your teacher if there is a concept you are struggling with.
High school classes are usually much smaller than college classes, and you can use that additional one-on-one time to ask for help and clarification. This can be much more difficult to do in college because courses generally move at a faster pace, teachers are working with more students, and you’re often expected to come in with sufficient background knowledge.
In order to do your best in your college classes, you want to minimize all the content gaps you have. So, if you don’t understand a particular chemistry lab or are baffled by your calculus homework, speak up! It’ll help you be more successful when you’re a pre-med student.
Additionally, in your classes you should work to be a model student, not just through your grades but through the way you act as well. Make an effort to always complete work on time, encourage cooperation and teamwork when working in a group, and offer help when a teacher or classmate needs it. Most colleges require you to submit letters of recommendation from your teachers, and if a teacher can point to an instance where you helped a classmate who was struggling with homework or got your group to work together when people were disagreeing, that will make your application stand out much more than if they could only talk about your grades.
Acting in a responsible, mature, and helpful way in high school will make it an easy pattern to follow by the time you start pre-med. Having strong letters of recommendation will help you get into your top pre-med schools of choice and will help you know what to expect when you need letters of rec for med school.
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Using Your Extracurriculars to Prepare for Med School
Your extracurriculars are also an important way to prepare for pre-med in college. Getting involved in extracurriculars that relate to medicine, or even just working directly with people, can help you decide if pre-med is really the best choice for you, and it’ll show schools that you’re serious about studying medicine. Additionally, if you do well in your extracurricular and impress your coaches or supervisors, they can help write you letters of recommendation when college admissions roll around.
The best extracurricular to get involved in if you want to prepare for pre-med is volunteering at a hospital. This is because, even though you won’t be personally performing any medical work, it’ll give you the best idea of what being a doctor is like because you’ll be in a hospital, be working with patients, and be able to learn more about medicine by observing doctors and other medical professionals.
As a college student, having hospital volunteering experience will give your med school applications a boost, and it will look even better if you began this work in high school. We have a complete guide to being a hospital volunteer which you should read through if you’re thinking about volunteering at a hospital. To get started, talk to your advisor or contact nearby hospitals to see if there are open volunteer positions.
Other volunteer options include volunteering at a retirement home, homeless shelter, even a school. Basically any place where you interact regularly with people will help prepare you for working with patients. There are also clubs you can join that will help prepare you for pre-med, including science-related clubs like Science Olympiad or Science Fair that you can participate in.
Over the summer, you may consider participating in a medical program specifically for high school students. These programs often take place at colleges or universities, and they give participants a chance to conduct research, observe doctors working, and/or learn how to conduct simple medical procedures. While they often have hefty price tags, they can be a great way to help decide if becoming a doctor is what you really want to do.
Just like you are doing in your classes, strive to be a great member of whatever extracurriculars you choose to participate in. Take leadership opportunities whenever you can, whether that means gaining a leadership position in the club/activity, taking charge of a new event, or suggesting new ideas for the future. Additionally, be a team player whom people can trust to be on time, get their work done, and work well with others. Your coaches and supervisors are a great resource for letters of recommendation and, as with your classes, it’s never too early to show that you have the type of character a doctor needs and people who can attest to that.
What If You Don't End Up Applying to Med School?
So, what happens if things change and you decide that med school isn't for you? That's fine and actually very common. Most people who, at some point in their life, decide they want to be a doctor, end up changing their mind. This can happen for a variety of reasons, such as discovering a different career that interests you more, learning you can't handle the sight of blood, or deciding that you don't want to be in school that long.
Attending med school and working as a doctor requires a lot of long, hard hours, and, if you find yourself disliking the above activities or losing interest in the idea of med school, you absolutely should not become a doctor just out of fear of having wasted your time preparing for med school. Being a doctor when you love the profession is hard enough, and if you choose to become a doctor despite disliking the job, trust me, you'll be miserable.
The good news is that, even if you follow all the above advice to the letter, you won't be behind your peers or at a disadvantage if you choose a completely different path than your original plan of med school. As I mention below, following the advice in this guide will help prepare you for any future major and career, perhaps with a slight math/science slant. That's because the steps you need to follow to prepare for med school — get good grades in a variety of subjects, obtain leadership experience, cultivate relationships with teachers and classmates — will serve you well in the future no matter what you end up majoring and what career you end up pursuing.
Now you know how preparing for pre-med in high school can help you be confident and successful when you begin college and eventually apply to med school. Taking higher-level classes, particularly in math and science, will help you be more prepared for your pre-med classes, the grades of which will be carefully scrutinized by med school admissions officers. Participating in extracurriculars related to the medical field will help you get skills you’ll use down the line and show med schools that you’re committed to being a doctor.
All of that advice is useful no matter which med school you want to attend or what type of doctor you want to become. But, should you be doing more work in high school? Should you already be figuring out which med schools are your top choices and what you want your specialty to be so that you can tailor your classes and extracurriculars even more?
The short answer is no. Trying to figure these things out so far ahead of time will only put added stress on you, and they won’t help you get accepted. Most pre-med students apply to over a dozen med schools, and, once you get into med school, many people don’t choose a specialty until their third year, after they've completed rotations and gotten a better sense of what different specialties are like. This means that no one is expecting you to have these things figured out as a high school student.
Additionally, even if you are certain right now that you want to attend, say, John Hopkins for med school and become a pediatrician, there is a high chance that will end up changing your mind at some point in time, so trying to prepare exactly for that path can end up hindering you down the line.
Instead of trying to have everything planned out, just follow the above steps which will help prepare you regardless of which med school and specialty you end up choosing. You can think about these things, but remember that you have plenty of time to keep your options open!
Curious about what classes you'll have to take in college for pre-med? Our article on the requirements for med school has you covered. Plus, check out our list of the seven books every pre-med student should read here.
Want a great extracurricular? Learn how to volunteer at a hospital and get a first-hand look at the work doctors do.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.