Preparing for Medical School: What You Need to Apply

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Preparing for Medical School: What You Need to Apply

So, you want to go to medical school. Whether you’ve just arrived on your undergraduate campus as a freshman or it’s mid-senior year when you decide you want to take the plunge - you need a plan. It is definitely never too early, nor too late, to decide where to go from here and get yourself organized. But how do you decide what you need?

If you’ve just graduated, there’s no need to panic that you don’t have all of the requirements – there is still time. To guide you through exactly what you need to be truly ready for applying to medical school, we have outlined the pre-med prerequisites, tips for studying for the MCAT, and the necessary academic and extracurricular preparation as you start preparing for medical school

Medical School Application Timeline

For students who are sure they want to go directly to an MD or DO program after their undergraduate education, they will need to start preparing for medical school soon after they get to campus. Students can and do go straight from undergrad, but if they decide late that they are going to medical school, that’s okay too.

That being said, it is more and more common to take a gap year between your undergraduate years and time in medical school. A gap year buys you a little more time to get the courses and experiences you need under your belt to adequately prepare yourself to apply for medical school. As a matter of fact, the median age of a student matriculating to medical school is 24 years old. 

Undergraduate course requirements

There are currently 154 accredited allopathic (MD) medical schools and 34 accredited osteopathic (DO) medical schools in the US. Each school has its own set of prerequisites or “recommended” coursework, usually including classes in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, math, social/behavioral sciences, and writing. To find out each individual school’s requirements while preparing for medical school, you can should reference this blog, or go to that individual medical school’s website.

Although different schools have slight variations, there is a general consensus among most medical schools that a strong foundation in science is a necessity for success in medical school. A general guideline for recommended courses would include: 

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

Additional prerequisites are likely to include at least 1-2 semesters of English, math (usually calculus), and sometimes statistics. For example, Harvard Medical School also requires a language, writing, or humanities course prior to admission.

Some undergraduate colleges will accept Advanced Placement credit as a substitute for these requirements, but most will not. If you do have AP credit for the prerequisite courses, you should take a higher-level class in that department to demonstrate mastery of the material. There is variation as to whether you can take community college or summer courses to meet these requirements. In general, schools want to see that you have taken these classes in the most challenging setting available and were able to excel. There are a lot of classes here that you need to take, so it’s important to plan ahead when possible to make sure that you complete these requirements.

Undergraduate Majors for Medical School

In terms of choosing your major, most students pick a science major because they are passionate about the STEM fields or they under the impression that it is necessary for medical school. Most MD or DO programs don’t put much weight on your choice of major so if you’re interested in humanities subjects, feel free to pursue those. You should choose a major that is challenging, where you can excel because you are passionate about it, and where you have the flexibility to complete your pre-med prerequisites. Many schools are actually more impressed by an engaged well-rounded student. Some institutions, such as Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, has created the FlexMed program, which allows college sophomores to apply for early assurance of acceptance, specifically to allow students pursue their individual interests.

If you decide you want to go into medical school a little later into the game, you can always take post-baccalaureate classes to fulfill the prerequisites. These programs are also useful for boosting your GPA if you didn’t have the best academic track record in college.

Scheduling and taking the MCAT Exam

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a requirement for entry to all medical programs and a key component of preparing for medical school. The few exceptions include special admission pathways such as early acceptance or BA/MD or BS/MD programs. The MCAT offers approximately 20-25 exam dates throughout the year. Some dates do fill up, so it is important to schedule early if you know when and where you want to take it. Keep in mind you should aim to schedule your MCAT exam approximately 18 months before you plan to enroll in medical school. 

For those students applying without a gap year, this will likely be spring of their junior year. Taking it early, when you are prepared, is important because it allows you the flexibility to retake it if necessary and not have to wait for the next application cycle. You should expect to set aside about 3 months of dedicated study time before taking the exam. Do not underestimate the MCAT!

GPA Requirements and MCAT Scores Medical Schools Look For

There is no standard “requirement” for GPA or MCAT score for acceptance to medical school. Yet, it is an extremely competitive process with only about 42% of applicants getting a spot in an entering class. Your GPA and MCAT scores are an integral part of demonstrating your ability to succeed in medical school.

MCAT performance has been linked to future performance on USMLE and board certification examinations. The median MCAT score at many top schools is above 511, with some of them at 520, while the average GPA for top schools are mostly above 3.8. Although many schools have transitioned to a more holistic admissions process, academic performance is still a strong indicator of future prowess in the classroom and is crucial to get your foot in the door throughout the admissions process. You should especially aim to keep a high science GPA. The bottom line is, these numbers are important. 

Extracurricular Preparation

GPA and MCAT scores are not the only measure of future success when preparing for medical school. You will also need to demonstrate to a medical school admissions committee that you possess additional characteristics of a successful future physician such as empathy, communication skills and leadership, through your extracurricular activities. 

It is important that you convey strong working knowledge of what it means to practice medicine. Many students tend to join pre-med student groups, work as a scribe, or take a service trip for a week to build their profile. But this isn’t the best way to prepare. While there are no “bad” activities per se, the ones we mentioned are just far too common and not reflective of passion. 

In order to impress admissions committee members as you continue preparing for medical school, you need to maintain sustained involvement in a medical setting or toward an initiative that conveys that you have characteristics that are highly desirable in future doctors. Whether done through clinical volunteering or shadowing experiences, make sure that you take advantage of your time outside the classroom and pursue extracurriculars that showcase your collaboration and leadership abilities. Your goal should be to portray passion in a way that helps you stand out from other applicants. 

Once the MD and DO timeline inches closer, you need to start planning your school list and personal statement topic. But for now, while your focus is still on preparing for medical school, make sure that you bring competitive numbers, activities, and a resumé that all contribute to demonstrating your dedication to the field. Let your application display that you have the qualities needed to be ideal doctor. Best of luck!

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