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Entering the medical profession

I. Admission requirements

This section covers the most common requirements, but note that actual admission requirements will vary by program.

A. Undergraduate coursework:

A minimum of 90 semester hours (approximately 3 years) is required, although a Bachelor of Science degree, usually in Biology, is preferred. Many medical schools accept students from other degree programs as long as the required coursework is completed.

Coursework must include:

Recommended courses:

B. Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)

The MCAT is taken in the spring and/or fall of the application year (the earlier, the better). The test is best taken after all core science courses are completed or nearly completed. The test is taken on a computer at an approved testing location. This test takes over four hours and includes four sections: Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, Biology and a writing sample.

There are typically three test dates per month from April through September (exception: only one test date in June). Practice tests are available online and in print. These are highly recommended since the test style is different from that in our courses.

Visit the Association of American Medical Colleges website for more information on the MCAT. There are prep courses available for the test.

C. The application process

Apply through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) and/or the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS). These services distribute your completed application to the schools you wish to apply to. The medical schools you apply to will then send you a supplemental application, often requiring an additional application fee. Applications should be completed as soon as possible after July 15.

Supplemental applications typically include an optional personal statement. It is recommended that you compose a thoughtful response and not skip this statement, which can give your application an edge. You will also be required to have letters of recommendation sent by either a pre-med committee or your academic advisor. Some medical schools will also require a letter from a physician.

If you pass the initial screening (based on GPA, MCAT scores and additional application materials), you may be invited to the school for an interview. Interview procedures will vary by school. If possible, take time to talk to students who have gone through interviews to find out what to expect. There are also student-run websites that describe the interview process at various campuses, which may provide some insight.

Following the interview (and a final meeting of the admissions committee) you will receive a letter notifying whether you have been accepted, rejected or placed on a waiting list.

In addition to grades and MCAT scores, medical schools will place emphasis on the interest you have shown in medicine, such as volunteer work or work experience in a hospital or private practice environment. School activities and community involvement are also very important.

If you don’t make it into medical school the first year you apply, don’t get discouraged. Look for ways to improve your application. You may need further medical practice experience or improved MCAT scores. You made need to improve your GPA. One way to do this is to enroll in a M.S. degree program in biology, animal science, microbiology, biochemistry or other fields that have some connection to medicine. And, of course, do well in all your coursework.

Consider schools that offer medical degrees other than the M.D. Schools of Osteopathic Medicine offer a Doctor of Osteopathic (O.D.) degree, which can work in the same areas of specialization as an M.D., depending on internships and residencies after medical school. You can also work in a narrower field such as podiatry or optometry. Research these areas and their entrance requirements when you are researching medical schools. You may also want to consider a career as a physician’s assistant.

II. Medical School

A. The first two years cover the basic sciences plus some limited clinical experience. Depending on the school, you may learn to interact with patients as early as your first year. Classroom work is intense – in both M.D. and D.O. schools, you will encounter the equivalent of 30 credit hours of science per semester. First-year classes may include: gross anatomy (usually with histology), physiology, biochemistry and pathology. The second year covers even more ground, integrating what you learned in your first year with body systems. Before you continue on to your second two years, you will need to sit for your first round of medical board exams.

B. The second two years involve clinical rotations. Topics typically include: internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, emergency medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, psychiatry and geriatrics. This is where you learn to be a doctor and begin to find out what area of medicine you are most interested in. Some medical students consider this to be the best two years of their lives. After the second two years, you take clinical board exams, which include interaction with standardized patients (actors trained to portray real patients).

C. Quality time: Don’t forget to carve out some time during medical school for yourself and your family. Become active in student medical associations or help out in student run clinics. Exercise. Take vacations. You don’t want to burn out before completing your first two years of medical school.

D. Financial Aid: Your medical school will put a loan package together to cover your tuition, fees, books, equipment and living expenses. You can also consider special scholarships, including those offered by the Army, Navy and Air Force. While you may carry a large amount of debt when you get out of medical school, you will be making sufficient salary to pay it off and make a good living.

III. Residencies

This is where you get paid, specialized training after you complete your medical degree, whether you plan to be a primary care doctor or a neurosurgeon. Depending on the field you choose, training can vary from a minimum of 3 years to 12+ years.

IV. It’s all over: Now you are a physician.

A. Salaries: average annual salary is $155,000. This varies from field to field and includes M.D.’s and D.O’s just beginning their residencies. A family practitioner makes an average $156,000; an anesthesiologist makes $321,000. A cardiothoracic surgeon, who will spend 10-12 years in residency training, may make over $500,000.

B. Where physicians work: Only 15 % of physicians in the U.S. currently own and operate their own office. Half of physicians work in group practices (which may be specialized, such as asthma and allergy clinics, cardiology groups, orthopedic groups or family care centers). The remaining physicians are employed by federal, state and local governments or health care maintenance organizations, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies or medical schools.

There are over 600,000 physicians employed in the United States – 40% employed in primary care and the remaining in specialties such as surgery, psychiatry or radiology. Job opportunities are still growing faster than average (projections of 14% growth over the next 8 years), with particular shortages in primary care, geriatrics and in rural and low-income areas of the country.

For more information, check out:

The American Medical Student Association 
Student Osteopathic Medical Association