How to Become a Doctor: A Step-by Step Guide

There are few professions with higher stakes than the field of medicine. The consequences of a doctor’s decisions can be enormous, leading to either marvelous or disastrous results.

Becoming a physician in the U.S. is a time-consuming endeavor, and anyone who intends to pursue a medical career in this country should expect medical training to last at least seven years beyond college.

Doctors are typically well compensated. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary among U.S. doctors in May 2019 exceeded $200,000.

Here is a list of the rungs on the ladder into the U.S. medical profession.

1. Explore your options.

2. Take premed classes and earn good grades.

3. Participate in meaningful extracurricular activities.

4. Prep for the MCAT and ace it.

5. Prepare applications to multiple medical schools.

6. Impress med school interviewers and get at least one acceptance letter.

7. Enroll in the right type of medical school for you.

8. Pass the first two portions of the allopathic or osteopathic national medical licensing exam.

9. Apply for and match with a residency program.

10. Graduate from medical school.

11. Start your residency and get a general medical license.

12. Achieve board certification within your medical specialty or subspecialty.

Step 1: Explore Your Options

A young person who dreams of becoming a doctor should investigate the profession as much as possible before embarking on this arduous career path, experts say. Aspiring physicians should conduct informational interviews with doctors and gain some clinical experience so they can gauge whether they would excel at and enjoy the practice of medicine.

Potential doctors should also take demanding science classes to assess their personal affinity for technical fields of study, since those academic disciplines aren’t right for everybody, experts say.

[Read: How to Decide Between Medical School and Another Health Care Degree Program.]

College hopefuls who are contemplating a career in medicine should look for undergraduate institutions with high-quality premedical student advisers and significant student research options. High school juniors and seniors who are determined to become doctors should investigate baccalaureate-M.D. programs, which can allow them to earn both a college degree and medical degree within seven years, experts suggest.

Step 2: Take Premed Classes and Earn Good Grades

Because medical schools have a significant number of academic prerequisites, premeds need to consult with their academic advisers to ensure that they take all of the necessary undergraduate courses, according to experts. Individuals who discover their desire to become doctors after they receive their college degree may opt to enroll in a post-baccalaureate premed program so that they can complete all of the required premed classes.

Petros Minasi Jr., senior director of premed programs at Kaplan, says a college’s premed or prehealth adviser should be able to tell a premed precisely which undergraduate courses he or she needs to take. Premeds should not overload themselves with multiple extremely difficult classes in a single semester, Minasi warns, but they should take challenging classes as a general rule.

Solid academic performance in premed coursework is the norm among competitive med school applicants, and a stellar undergraduate GPA is a big plus.

Step 3: Participate in Meaningful Extracurricular Activities

A premed who does well in his or her courses but does nothing else is unlikely to get noticed by and admitted into top medical schools. So it’s important that prospective med students do something besides study, experts say.

However, the quality of a person’s activities outside the classroom matters much more than either the quantity of activities or the number of hours devoted to those activities.

Substantive scholarly research or a job as either a medical scribe or a medical assistant tends to be viewed positively in the admissions process, med school admissions officers say. They also suggest that accomplishments in nonscientific or nonmedical endeavors such as music or athletics are an asset, since they make a candidate appear to be well-rounded and suggest that he or she is an interesting person.

[Read: What to Know About Applying to Medical School Later in Life.]

Dr. Mark Rosenberg, vice dean for education and academic affairs at the University of Minnesota Medical School, says that premeds should not focus on maximizing the amount of extracurricular experience they possess, since what really counts is the valuable lessons from extracurricular activities.

Rosenberg, a professor of medicine and a nephrologist, says that his med school looks for evidence of an inclination toward serving others, “socio-cultural humility” and reliability.

Dr. Megan Boysen Osborn, associate dean for students at the University of California–Irvine School of Medicine, emphasizes that it is OK to take a break between college and medical school, since that extra time can allow premeds to gain additional research and clinical experience beyond what they could get as an undergraduate.

Step 4: Prep for the MCAT and Ace It

The Medical College Admission Test is one tool that med schools use to screen applicants, so it is important for premeds to perform well on this exam. The multihour test requires extensive content knowledge; it is not a test that anyone should attempt to cram for, experts warn.

Perfect MCAT scores are rare, since the test is very hard. Premeds should research the median MCAT scores at the med schools they are most interested in, and they should take the MCAT only when they are consistently capable of reaching their target score on practice exams, experts recommend.

Step 5: Prepare Applications to Multiple Medical Schools

Because medical schools generally have lofty standards, prospective med students should take extreme care when crafting their personal statement and when drafting their secondary, school-specific application essays, according to med school admissions officials.

Osborn, an emergency medicine physician, warns med school hopefuls not to rush through the completion of their secondary application forms, since the information that med schools request is often pivotal during the selection process.

Premeds should think strategically about which extracurricular activities they include in their application and how they describe those activities, since admissions officers will scrutinize the activities list, experts suggest. Also, given the low acceptance rates at most medical schools, premeds should plan on applying to numerous schools to increase their odds of admission, experts warn, noting that it is better to err on the side of excess rather than restraint.

Step 6: Impress Med School Interviewers and Get at Least 1 Acceptance Letter

Candidates who look good on paper will be invited to medical school interviews so that admissions committees can gauge if the person is truly as outstanding as they appear on paper, so it is important to thoroughly prepare for those interviews, experts suggest.

Anyone who receives an interview invitation should bear in mind that this is a positive sign about their candidacy, experts say.

Step 7: Enroll in the Right Type of Medical School for You

Aspiring physicians can elect to attend either a research-oriented academic institution or at a school that focuses on primary care.

They also have a choice between two types of medical degrees: the Medical Doctor, or M.D., degree and the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, or D.O., degree. Both programs involve a mix of medical science courses and clinical rotations. However, one key difference is that D.O. schools teach numerous hands-on healing techniques that are distinctive to the practice of osteopathic medicine.

Step 8: Pass the First 2 Portions of the Allopathic or Osteopathic National Medical Licensing Exam

Allopathic and osteopathic medical students at U.S. medical schools typically take two of the three parts of their national licensing examinations during medical school, experts say. M.D. students take the United States Medical Licensing Examination, or USMLE, while D.O. students are required to take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States, or COMLEX-USA. D.O. students may elect to take the USMLE in addition to the COMLEX-USA.

Dr. Chris Cimino, a vice president with Kaplan Medical — the unit of Kaplan that prepares aspiring doctors for the USMLE licensing exams — says the vast majority of U.S. medical students pass the licensing exams they take during med school.

Step 9: Apply for and Match With a Residency Program

Fourth-year medical students generally attempt to match with a residency program within the medical specialty they find most interesting. Most medical students participate in the National Resident Matching Program, though some get involved with specialty-specific matching programs such as those for aspiring urologists and ophthalmologists. Some medical specialties, such as orthopedic surgery, are highly competive so usually only the highest-achieving medical students are able to match.

Step 10: Graduate From Medical School

Once someone has earned a medical degree and graduated from medical school, he or she is officially a doctor. However, even after a person obtains a medical degree, he or she typically needs to complete a medical residency within a particular medical specialty, such as pediatrics or radiology, in order to practice medicine independently in his or her community.

There are some regions of the U.S. where med school grads who have not obtained residencies can work as health care providers, such as Missouri, Utah and Arkansas. The intention behind this accommodation for individuals with a medical degree but without a residency is to address doctor shortages.

Step 11: Start Your Residency and Get a General Medical License

Medical residencies vary in length, usually ranging from three to seven years depending on the specialty. Residencies allow medical school grads to learn the art and science of a particular area of medicine, whether it is obstetrics-gynecology or dermatology.

[Read: Choose a Medical Career to Suit Your Personality.]

Toward the beginning of their residency, medical residents take the last part of either the USMLE or the COMLEX-USA, which makes them eligible for a general medical license that allows someone to practice medicine without being supervised by another doctor.

However, they still need to apply for a medical license in their jurisdiction, since medical licensing boards not only evaluate licensing exam scores but also conduct background checks. Licensure candidates should plan on submitting their curriculum vitae or resume to their licensing board, since one reason for the licensure procedure is to ensure that candidates are technically qualified.

Residents who want to develop extraordinary expertise within a particular niche of medicine, such as cardiology or hand surgery, may opt to pursue a medical fellowship within that field.

Step 12: Achieve Board Certification Within Your Medical Specialty or Subspecialty

After someone has completed the necessary residency and fellowship training, they must pass the applicable board exam. Then they can apply for board certification within their discipline through the American Board of Medical Specialties.

What to Consider Before Trying to Become a Docto

Since it takes many years to become a board-certified doctor, it’s foolish to pursue a career in medicine solely out of desire for prestige or money, experts say. Medicine is a demanding profession, so once someone becomes a doctor, the struggle isn’t over.

Employment as a physician often requires irregular hours and sometimes involves significant stress, according to experts, and it often necessitates a degree of selflessness since there are numerous inconveniences involved in health care professions. However, there is something exhilarating about helping patients through dark times in their lives, doctors say, adding that they take pride in their work and receive gratification from improving the well-being of others.

“It’s a long journey and it’s a hard journey,” Osborn says to aspiring doctors, “and so I hope that you enjoy each step.”

Searching for a medical school? Get our complete rankings of Best Medical Schools.

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