by Chelese Belmont
“As surgeons, there are so many things we have to know. We have to know we have what it takes. We have to know how to take care of our patients. And how to take care of each other. Eventually we even have to figure out…how to take care of ourselves. As surgeons, we have to be in the know.” – Meredith Grey
So, you’re thinking about becoming a doctor. Maybe you aspire to be like a family member in the field, or maybe you are really good at science and have always loved helping others. Maybe you had an experience with a health professional who inspired you to want to do the same for someone else. Whatever your motivation, as Meredith Grey said in season two of Grey’s Anatomy, you have to be in the know. So, what does the educational path to becoming a doctor entail, and how do you, as a high school student, even begin?
There are numerous undergraduate paths that lead to med school: a student can aim for a combined, accelerated bachelors and MD program, or they can pursue pre-med, biological, or health science majors that will prepare them for the MCAT and med school applications. There is also an option after your undergraduate studies to take a bridge year to do a post-baccalaureate program to prepare you for med school. The best option varies for each student, so let’s break them down as you prepare for your own journey towards the MD or PhD that you dream of putting after your name.
Combined Medical Programs: The Accelerated Track
For students who are extremely motivated and want to get to residency faster, combined med programs are an appealing option, since they allow you to get through undergraduate and medical school in 6-8 years depending on the program. BUT, there are a few things to know about these rigorous programs before you apply:
Combined/Accelerated programs are extremely selective. The Brown PLME (Program in Liberal Medical Education) program, which is a single 8-year program and the only combined program offered by a school in the Ivy League, has a 3.49% admissions rate, which is lower than Harvard’s general admissions rate. Boston University’s 7-year Liberal Arts/Medical Education program is equally low at under 4%. While there are a number of combined med programs that have more forgiving acceptance rates, in general, these types of programs have fewer spots available and are very selective about who they choose from their applicant pool.
Generally, combined med programs require a student to be in the top 5-10% of their class, and many programs require minimum GPA and SAT/ACT scores just to apply. On top of these performance metrics, candidates to the combined med programs often have extensive experience in medical- and science-related activities, including internships in labs, physicians’ offices, or hospitals; leadership positions in science and medical clubs/organizations; relevant volunteer experience; and perhaps even EMT certification. Your fellow applicants to these programs are extremely motivated, intelligent, and passionate, and they take every opportunity to pursue their goals, as is expected of students wanting an accelerated path to the medical field. These programs are rigorous and often require maintaining a certain GPA during your undergraduate portion of your education and achieving a specific score on the MCAT before you are allowed to continue into the medical school portion of the program.
In addition to extremely strong grades and test scores, the application process for combined med programs is accelerated and rigorous, as well. Most programs have earlier deadlines, so make sure to check each combined program’s website carefully, since the Common Application won’t necessarily clearly indicate the earlier deadline for these specific programs. They also require additional essays, often including questions about why you want to pursue medicine and what you have done to pursue it thus far. They may also allow for additional recommendation letters and other materials. You may then also have to do an interview with admissions before the program makes its final decisions.
It is important to get organized early so that you know all of your deadlines and requirements. I encourage my students to start working on personal statements and “Why I want to be a doctor” essays during the summer before their senior year and to make spreadsheets of their college requirements and deadlines, so that by the fall, we are focusing on any additional supplemental essays and application materials to meet the early deadlines.
These programs are extremely appealing to young aspiring doctors because of the time saved, but it’s important to be realistic about the acceptance rates and your performance when considering applying. I always encourage students who apply to combined med programs to also apply to some traditional undergraduate B.S. or B.A. programs as well, in case the combined programs don’t work out. Shoot for the stars, but have a moon landing ready just in case.
Undergraduate Degrees: Another Approach
For students who perhaps don’t have the level of academic performance required to apply to combined med programs or are going to apply but aren’t sure they’ll be selected, there are other avenues to pursue a medical career. You can choose an undergraduate major in pre-med studies (for those colleges that offer it), biology (or any related field like bioengineering or biochemistry), or certain health science majors to prepare yourself for the MCAT and med school applications. You can absolutely major in other topics like the humanities or social sciences, but minoring in a scientific subject may help you with the foundational knowledge tested on the MCAT.
The key to this route is how you do once you are accepted into college and begin your undergraduate studies. Med school applications are selective, so this pathway requires that you excel in your college classes and maintain a strong GPA. It is also important to get involved in science- and medical-related activities, including internships, research, lab work, clubs, and/or work experience that will help you to explore the field and gain vital experience that med schools will ask about when you apply. It’s also smart to form relationships with your professors who can write you letters of recommendation and to start preparing for the MCAT well before you apply so that you can get the best score you are capable of.
For students passionate about science and the medical field, this is a less exclusive pathway than the combined/accelerated programs that still prepares you for medical school at the end of your undergraduate education.
Post-baccalaureate Programs: An additional option
In addition to undergraduate coursework and activities in science/medicine, some students choose to take a bridge or gap year after undergrad in order to prepare for their medical school applications. During this time, some students choose to enroll in a post-baccalaureate program in order to improve their GPAs, expand their scientific/medical knowledge (especially if they didn’t major in a scientific subject in undergrad), get pre-health advisement from mentors in the post-bacc program, and/or take advantage of experiences that will beef up their resumes and thus strengthen their applications. They may also use this time to study for and take the MCAT if they either didn’t perform well or didn’t have time to take it during their undergraduate years. Given that med school applications are so competitive, this is a great option for students who want to improve their chances by doing further preparation before applying.
Ultimately, there is more than one path to becoming a doctor, but the commonality of every path lies in your dedication to exploring the field and working hard academically – and being in the know about your options. A great resource is the Association of American Medical Colleges, where you can learn more about the steps of entering the medical field. And of course, if you need help navigating the application processes, our counselors are here to assist you!
To be a doctor takes a great deal of work, but the career you’ll have at the end of the journey – no matter how long or short it is – will be worth it the first time you heal a patient.