How to Get a Medical Degree (USA)
Dedication and discipline are two traits that you will need to get a medical degree. To make it through any program, you must be willing to spend countless hours studying and completing necessary program requirements, including passing arduous exams. However, in the end, you are given license to treat and serve patients if you are able to pass all the requirements.
1. Working on the Prerequisites
Obtain a bachelor’s degree. To get a medical degree, you first must receive a bachelor’s degree. You can get a bachelor’s degree in any field, but a related field is preferable. Related fields include pre-med, biology, chemistry, and physics.
Some medical school admission committees like non-traditional students, i.e. students who have taken non-traditional coursework (like English) and students who have taken time off after college in order to enrich themselves
Take the required courses. While you don’t necessarily need to major in pre-med, you must take certain courses to meet most entry requirements for a medical degree. In other words, you must take these courses if you want to be admitted to most medical schools.
You’ll need two to four semesters of biology with a lab, two semesters of organic chemistry (with lab), two semesters of inorganic chemistry (with lab), and two semesters of physics (with lab).
You’ll also need two semesters of math (including one semester of calculus) and two semesters of English or writing.
Not all medical schools require the same classes, so make sure to research the schools you’re interested in to see what their requirements are.
Consider the prestige of your undergraduate degree. When pursuing your undergraduate degree, picking a school with more prestige can only be helpful. Getting into medical school is very competitive, so having a more prestigious undergrad degree can help give you an edge.
Of course, the Ivy League schools are all prestigious, but many large public universities also have good pre-med programs.
Look at acceptance rates from the program. That is, check into how many students are accepted into medical school from the undergraduate program. The higher the number, the better your chances of being accepted.
Volunteer at local hospitals. One way to gain some experience is to volunteer at local hospitals and clinics. Many hospitals have a volunteer programs. For instance, you can work in the ER helping patients attending to their needs in the waiting room. While you won’t actually get any practice as a doctor, you will learn about the environment and gain valuable experience. In addition, it can help you look more attractive to medical schools.
You could also ask to shadow a doctor you’re familiar with, such as your family’s physician.
Some pre-med programs will have clinical experience built in.
Consider volunteering abroad, in an international setting.
If you are committed to your volunteer program, they may be able to write you a letter of recommendation when you apply to a program. There may be a minimum number of hours you have to volunteer before you are eligible for a recommendation.
2. Applying to Medical School
Take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The MCAT is like the medical school version of the SAT or GRE. It’s a standardized test that you must take to be considered for entrance into almost any medical school. Like most standardized tests, each school will have a different “passing” grade that you’ll need to achieve, so check with the schools you’re applying to.
You’ll need to prepare for the exam by using study guides and practice exams, which you can get on the MCAT website.
The exam is split into four sections, which are, broadly: biology, chemistry, psychology, and critical analysis. You’ll receive a score in each of these sections, as well as a combined score.
Register, pay the fee, and take the exam. When registering, you should register more than a month in advance, because the fees are cheaper. Keep in mind, the test generally runs in the $300 to $400 range, and if you cancel too close to the exam, you won’t get a refund. The test has set dates throughout the year with test locations throughout the country.
Know the requirements for the schools you’re applying to. Each school will have a basic level for GPA and the MCAT that they use to screen out students. In other words, if you fall below that level, your application may be automatically rejected.
For most medical schools, you’ll need at least a 3.5 GPA and at least a 30 on your MCAT.
However, those numbers vary from school to school, so try to find that information on the school’s website.
Nonetheless, if one of your scores falls below the minimum, you can sometimes still gain acceptance if you are stellar in other areas. For instance, many schools take into account how your GPA improved over the years. If you did poorly as a freshman and then improved, a medical school may admit you with a lower GPA, as long as you show promise in other areas.
Try a post baccalaureate pre-med program if your grades are bad so that you can improve your standing.
Other factors the school may consider is the competitiveness of your school, outside difficulties, and how difficult your major was.
Fill out the application. When applying to most medical schools, which confer the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree, you can use a common application through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). The centralized application service for osteopathic medical schools conferring the equivalent Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree is the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS). Essentially, you fill out one application that’s verified through AMCAS, and that one application is sent to all the schools to which you’re applying.
The application includes biographical information along with academic information, such as your GPA and MCAT score.
With medical school, you’ll often be sent a secondary application. Sometimes, it’s sent based on how well the school likes your first application. Other times, it’s sent automatically.
This secondary application will include more essay questions, including one on why you want to be in medical school. Pointing out your diversity is often important in this section. Keep in mind diversity isn’t limited to race and class; coming from a rural area can be part of diversity, too, for instance.
Write, edit, and then re-edit. When applying to medical school, like any graduate school, your writing skills can make you or break you. Through your written documents, especially your personal statement, you need to convince the school that you can communicate well and that you deserve to be in their medical school.
When writing a personal statement, it’s important to stay focused. Pick a theme, such as why you want to go into medicine, a personal obstacle you’ve overcome, or a story about your academic career. Whatever it is, make sure it shows who you are, what you’ve done to get where you are, and why you want to be in medical school. In other words, show why you’re special.
It’s fine to build yourself up some in the essay, as that’s part of the process, but you don’t want to go into overdrive patting yourself on the back. Show some humility, too.
Edit thoroughly. Read your documents through several times to find errors and awkward sentences. Have others review all your documents to help you figure out where you can improve. Many professors are willing to read over these types of documents, so don’t be afraid to ask (though maybe bring a cup of your professor’s favorite coffee along if they agree).
Apply broadly. You may have one or two schools that you really want to get into, but your whole future is resting on you getting into a medical school — any medical school. For that reason, it’s important to apply to a wide range and number of medical schools, so that you have a higher chance of being accepted somewhere.
That means you can’t just focus on the highly selective schools. You also need to apply to some “safe” schools that you have a better chance of getting into.
Apply to at least 10 to 12 schools.
Go in for an interview. If you’re lucky, you’ll be invited for an interview. If you get asked to interview, it means you are one of the top candidates, though of course it isn’t a guarantee you’re getting in. If you’re given a choice of times, pick an earlier interview. It also gives you a chance to see the school. Be sure to get there early and to dress professionally.
You have a one-on-one interview, a panel interview, or a group interview. You may also have a multiple mini interview, which is when the school does a series of small interview “stations,” each focused on a particular soft skill. In this type of interview, you’ll only spend eight to 10 minutes at each station.
Be prepared to answer why you would be a good doctor. As with any type of interview, you’ll need to convince the interviewers why the school would be glad to have you. You’ll also need to be up on current issues in the medical community, and you’ll need to be able to explain any problem areas in your application, such as a low GPA.
Also, assume you’re being judged from the moment you step on campus and treat everyone you meet with respect. You never know who’s there to report back to the interviewers and admission board.
Say yes. Once you’ve been accepted to one more or medical schools, you’ll need to decide where you’re going. When you’ve made a decision, make sure you send in your acceptance papers on time, as that tells the school you will be attending.
Also, make sure to send in the rejection notice to the other schools.
Every school should provide you with a way to accept or reject a place at their school.
Reapply if needed. If you don’t get into any school, you can reapply the next year; however, if you do, you need to bolster areas of your application that were weak the first time around. For instance, if you don’t have much clinical experience, take some time to volunteer or shadow a doctor. You can also take extra science classes to help prove you’re ready for medical school.
You can also retake the MCAT if you need to do so.
However, different schools do different things with multiple MCAT scores. One school may take the highest. Another might take the most recent. Still another might take an average of the two scores; therefore, it’s important to check with the schools you’re applying to.
Apply for financial aid. You will need to apply for financial aid through the federal government by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which allows you to apply for federal student loans. Many times, you’ll also need to apply for financial aid through your school, so you’ll be eligible for scholarships.
If you’ve been an undergraduate in the United States, the FAFSA should be familiar to you. You’ll need to fill in basic biographical information, as well as your income. One difference you may have is filling out the form as an independent adult, rather than a dependent. As a dependent, you would use your parents’ income. As an independent adult, you’ll use your income.
The federal government has eliminated some subsidized loans for graduate students, so you’ll have fewer options than you did as an undergraduate.
3. Getting Through Medical School
Engage with orientation. Orientation is there for a reason, and if you blow it off, you’ll be missing important opportunities. Orientation provides you with a chance to meet professors and other students, see the facilities, and learn more about the school, the resources available to you, and the possibilities you have ahead.
In addition, showing up for orientation is a good way to show you’re excited about being there, and your professors will notice.
Have your study habits down. It’s best to understand what works best for you when it comes to studying before you start your medical degree. Once you start, you will need to hit the ground running because you will be expected to memorize information on an unprecedented level.
Glean information from your time as an undergraduate student. For instance, decide whether you work best alone or in a group. Even if you work mostly alone, make sure to have friends on hand to rely on in a crisis.
Use any aids you can to help you, such as highlighters and flash cards. Make copies of everything that will help you, such as class presentations, and if possible, get previous exams from the classes to see what the professors tend to focus on. Make sure you are organized as possible, so you can find what you need when you need it.
Try to focus on studying as much information as you can, rather than going in depth with each topic.
Pick a specialty. You don’t need to pick a specialty before you enter medical school, though if you already know what you want to specialize in, that may influence your choice of schools; however, you can take the first year to begin explore the world of medicine, getting an idea of what piques your interest.
By the second year, you should be focusing in on several interests to see which one you like best. You can join specialty groups at your school, or you can go to physician panels to hear about different specialties.
You can also talk to physicians who are working in the field to learn more about different areas, or look for student groups interested in or based around your specialty.
When choosing your specialty, think about your own skills and personality, as well as the environment you’ll be working in and the kind of work you’ll be doing. For instance, if you don’t like a high-stress environment, you might want to stay out of emergency medicine.
It is helpful to choose a specialty early, but it’s also important you are confident in your decision and it’s something you know you will stick with.
Take the required classes. In year one, your schooling will be mostly class-based, and you’ll take classes such as gross anatomy, histology, pathology, and biochemistry. You’ll also be required to do labs connected to these classes.
Gross anatomy is the study of anatomy, while biochemistry is closer to organic chemistry. Histology is focused on the cells in the human body, and pathology is where you study specific diseases.
By second year, most of your classes will be clinic-based, and in the third and fourth years, you’ll move on to clinical rotations.
Prepare for your third and fourth years ahead of time. In your third and fourth years, you begin clinical rotations, meaning you’ll actually be working in a clinic or hospital, assisting a doctor, resident, or intern. Before you start your rotations, try to familiarize yourself as much as possible with the clinic you’ll be working in.
Ask upperclassmen for tips. They know the ins and outs of the clinics you’ll be working in and can give you a sense of the environment of the clinic.
Make sure you know what kinds of charts you’ll be using, whether paper or computerized, and what access you will have to them.
Focus on learning. While doing your clinical rotations, your main focus should be learning patient care. Observe how other doctors and nurses interact with patients, and take mental (and physical) notes on how you can use that information in the future.
Be the expert on what patients you have. When you’re assigned to work under someone on certain patients, make sure you know everything you possibly can about their condition and other health problems. Read up on them when you can.
Take the Medical Licensure Board Exams The two medical licensure board examinations in the United States are the United States Medical Licensure Examination (USMLE) and the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX). The USMLE is required for licensure for medical students completing a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree and the COMLEX is required for medical students completing a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree; taking the USMLE is also available for DO medical students and many do sit for both examinations. These exams are actually multi-part tests that you take over the course of your medical degree. You must pass all the parts to practice as a doctor, though you can retake portions as needed.
For instance, Level or Step 1 is taken after your second year, and it focuses on what you’ve been learning in your first two years, such as biochemistry, pathology, and anatomy. It consists of 280 questions. You spend eight hours taking the test, though it’s broken into one-hour chunks.
Level or Step 2 is divided into two parts, Step 2 CK (clinical knowledge) and Step 2 CS (clinical skills), and is usually taken in your fourth year. Step 2 CK covers clinical science, specifically the skills you need to care for a patient, while Step 2 CS covers your communication abilities and how well you are able to connect with a patient. Each of these two steps is a one-day exam. Step 2 CK has 355 questions, spread out in 60-minute blocks. Step 2 CS is a practical exam, where you engage with “patients” to see whether you can perform an appropriate examination.
Step 3 is a two-day exam, and its purpose is to decide whether you are ready to apply your knowledge in an unsupervised environment. Generally, you take it during residency, after you graduate. You will have about 233 multiple-choice questions on the first day, divided into 1-hour blocks. On the second day, you’ll have approximately 180 multiple-choice questions, as well as 13 case studies.
Apply for residency. While you’re still in school, you’ll apply for residency. When you apply for residency, you apply in the area you want to specialize in, so your skills should be a good match. It’s now that your chosen specialty from earlier in your schooling comes into play.[
Much like applying for medical school, you’ll also need to write a personal statement when applying for residency. You’ll need to convince the hospital, doctor, or school why you’re a good fit for that particular area.
Study hard for Steps 1 and 2 of the USMLE and/or COMLEX exams, as they can affect your competitiveness for residency. Medical students are often ranked by these scores.