Though many students enter college knowing they want to become doctors, plenty of others make the decision to pursue medicine later in their collegiate careers.
For students who did not start on a premed track in their freshman year, figuring out how to tuck premedical requirements into an already busy course schedule can be daunting. Students may question whether they will have to change majors, whether they will have to extend their time in college and what they will have to do outside the classroom to prepare themselves as prospective medical students.
No matter when you decide to pursue medicine, getting in touch with a premed adviser at your college is the best first step toward becoming a premed student. If you are a college sophomore or junior thinking about shifting toward a premed track, here is what you need to know — based on two hypothetical situations — before making the decision to pursue medicine.
“I just finished my sophomore year of college and think I want to become a doctor. Now what?”
By the end of sophomore year, most college students have declared their majors and developed tentative academic plans to complete their degrees. Sometimes the requirements for those majors will naturally include premed requirements. However, often they will not, and students will have to rework their schedules to fit in premed classes.
Premed coursework requirements vary but typically include two semesters of biology, two semesters of physics, four semesters of chemistry, one or two semesters of math and one semester of psychology or sociology. Additionally, students must prepare for and take the MCAT, as well as engage in volunteer, research and work opportunities that demonstrate their commitment to medicine.
Rising sophomores should reevaluate their academic plans and exchange general elective courses for premed requirements. Students aiming to complete premed requirements by the end of their senior year should also consider taking premed courses during the summers and over winter break.
However, rushing to finish requirements by graduation may not be the best plan, as admission into medical school requires strong performance in prerequisite classes. If you feel that your grades will suffer by trying to finish your requirements by the time you walk across that graduation stage, plan instead to spread them out either by extending your time in undergrad or by graduating on time and taking the classes after graduation.
Note that you do not have to change your major if you decide to work towards medicine. Medical schools accept applicants with a variety of backgrounds and value academic diversity.
Because of the sheer amount of requirements involved in applying to med school, students who choose the premed track after sophomore year should know that even if they are able to fit in all of their required premed coursework over the next two years, it is unlikely that they will be able to apply to med school at the end of junior year. Most students making the shift to medicine in the middle of college will have at least one gap year between their undergraduate studies and med school.
“I just finished my junior year and am thinking about medicine. Can I make the change this late in the game?”
Students who decide to pursue medicine with only one more undergraduate year to go should anticipate preparation for med school that extends beyond their anticipated graduation date. These students may either opt to delay undergrad graduation or graduate and continue taking premed classes in their first year or two out of school.
Students who decide after their junior year to pursue medicine should meet with an academic adviser to lay out a plan for the last year of college and beyond. This plan might include securing a medical-related work position — like becoming a medical scribe or clinical research assistant — with enough flexibility to continue studying for classes and the MCAT.
Like students who decide to become physicians after their sophomore year, students who make this decision after junior year should prevent academic compromise by avoiding loading up on too many premed courses simultaneously.
Additionally, since juniors will leave their undergraduate institutions shortly, they should use the first semester of their senior year to establish relationships with undergraduate professors who are willing to provide strong recommendation letters for med school. At least two of these recommendations should come from science professors, so rising juniors should prioritize getting to know their science professors by attending office hours, asking questions in class and reaching out about academic interests.
It is never too late to make the decision to pursue medical school, but students who choose to do so later in college typically take a different and often extended path than premeds who decided on medicine earlier.
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