Preparing for Medical School: An Overview

Preparing for Medical School: An Overview

As my first post, I would like to cover some basics about premedical curriculum in the United States. This subject can be subdivided and discussed in much great details, but I will save that for different posts in the near future.

Pursuing a career in medicine in the United States is definitely different than in Indonesia. For one, medicine in the U.S. is a professional degree comparable to doctorate degree (or S3 in Indonesia), so you can only go to medical school if you have a bachelor degree.

To go to a medical school, you need to 1) fulfill course requirements during your undergraduate study and 2) take MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test). The admission is also extremely competitive; AAMC wrote that the average GPA of medical school applicants is 3.53 and that of matriculants is 3.67 in 2011. You also need to rack a good MCAT score and extracurricular activities (such as: clinical experience, community service, leadership position, research, employment). I will go into these admission factors in more detail below.

Course Requirements

In brief, most medical schools require:

  • 1 year of biology with lab
  • 1 year of general chemistry with lab
  • 1 year of organic chemistry with lab
  • 1 year of physics with lab
  • 1 year of college level English.

Those are the basics that you definitely have to fulfill and will be basic materials covered in MCAT (which I will be happy to talk about in much more details in a separate post). Additionally, some schools are also required: biochemistry, humanities, calculus, statistic, etc. For this reasons, before you apply to a specific school, make sure to check individual schools’ admission websites.

What to major during undergraduate level study?

The question of what one should major during college is often raised. Guess what, you can pretty much major in anything you want as long as you fulfill the aforementioned requirements. While most pre-meds (nickname for those who want to go to medical school) major in biological sciences, (because let’s face it, most people who are interested in going to medical school are usually those who enjoy biological science), it is by no means a requirement for medical school. Although there are some advantages to major in biological science since you will automatically fulfill most if not all of the medical school course requirements just by taking all of your major requirements.

However, there is a growing trend in which medical schools seek applicants who are “more well-rounded” and thus they really value applicants with more diverse majors, such as humanities, social sciences, art, business, or engineering. Again, this is as long as most of the pre-med requirements are fulfilled (which at times could be challenging if you are majoring in something that requires a lot of major classes, but again this can be done as long as there are wills. I know a lot of people personally who have done this). Don’t choose a major because you think it will impress the admission committee or that it will give you a higher chance to get into medical school – it will not be worth it. The bottom line is: please just major in whatever interests you. This is your last chance to study something that you truly enjoy before you commit your life to the demanding professions in medicine.

When to take the pre-med classes and when to take MCAT?

I would say, try to aim finishing your english, general biology, and general chemistry during your first year of college. Then, you can take physics and organic chemistry in your second year. This will give you enough preparation and basics such that you can take your MCAT during your third year or at the end of third year especially if you aim to get admitted to medical school right after graduation from college. It is also helpful to take your preparation classes early to see your competitiveness to being admitted to medical school. If your grades on these prerequisite classes are less than stellar, aim to take a few more upper division classes in the field and do well in them to show your mastery of the subject. This is kind of a way to redeem your less than stellar grades.

However, I understand that this could be difficult to finish during the first two years especially for those not majoring in science. If so, do not fret. Finishing these classes up to your third year is perfectly fine (in fact, I was in this category too!). If for any reasons, you cannot finish these prerequisites by the end of third year, you should consider postpone taking your MCAT and postpone applying to medical school directly from college. It is often referred to as “taking a year (or more) off”. This is, again, perfectly normal. In fact, about 60% applicants to medical school are not seniors from college which means they take one or more year off after college. Even some of them actually had careers in other fields but decided to come back to pursue their callings in medicine. Again, more and more admissions committee appreciate more diverse students pools and really appreciate these “non-traditional” applicants. My advice is to apply when you are most ready to present your strongest application. This could be during your senior year or 1 year (or 2 or 3) after graduation. Everyone is different!

What else beside the numbers?

Unfortunately, fulfilling course requirements and having strong GPA and MCAT score will NOT guarantee you a spot in any medical school in the US. You also need to show that you are a well-rounded person with real interest in medicine. In general my advice for extracurricular activities during college is to join whatever interests you especially during your freshman years. Then from the on, pick and choose an organization or club that you are really passionate about, then pour your heart and soul into it. Get a leadership position in the organization and make a difference. This will speak volume in your application. Admission committee really appreciates sustained efforts and participation (often shown by leadership position, but can also be shown by other means), They can generally sense it when you have “check-list mentality” and just rack up memberships in different clubs only to bulk up your resume.

Research is an example of a great extracurricular activity that I think everyone in a research university should take advantage of. This is where you will study your field of interest (or major) in a real world sense, and use what you learn in classes to solve real-world problem. Medical school admission committee definitely values research as a part of undergraduate education, because research is an integral part of medicine. But again, do not feel pressured to do research if it is not something that interests you just because you think that’s what it will take to get to medical school. But keep an open mind with that research really means. Research does not always mean pipeting solutions in a laboratory. Do not cross it off your list before giving it a chance.

While research is optional but recommended, clinical experience is definitely a must. It is expected that you will have some forms of clinical experience before applying for medical school. The reason for this is because medical school is a long challenging process, and they would like applicants to have realistic sense of what being a medical professional entails before committing. The easiest way to go about this is to shadow different kinds of physicians and volunteering in the hospitals. If you want to take it to whole another level, you can also get certified as an EMT or a nurse aid or getting a part time job as a scribe (which I personally think is the most awesome job for a premed student. You should definitely try to apply if there’s a program surrounding your area).

Last but not least, I just want to close by reminding everyone to get to know your professors, organization advisers, physicians you shadowed, etc, because they will be great resource for letter of recommendation. Make sure they also get to know you, so your letter will be personal! (I can also have a post related to obtaining letter of recommendation for the purpose of applying to medical school if there is enough interest)

For those who intend to apply to medical school is international students, please remember that it is even more competitive to apply as an international students. You are held to a much higher standards to get admitted. In fact, some schools will not consider international students at all. As I said before, do your research for a specific school before deciding to apply to that school. Also think about the time commitment (it takes at least: 4 year of college + 4 year of medical school + 3 or more years of residency) and money (medical school tuition is really expensive), before you commit. Good luck!

Priscilla Sugianto is a first year medical student at Stanford University School of Medicine. Prior to that she worked full time at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine in iron biology research. She obtained her BS in Biochemistry from UCLA.
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