Succeeding in being admitted to medical school is as much about smart preparation and study as it is about grades.
Foremost is your motivation for pursuing a medical career. Being a doctor requires a commitment to the profession’s high standards of being accountable for your decisions and actions, putting the needs of your patients first and a commitment to lifelong learning. Applicants to med school need to display their humanity and commitment to the moral purpose of medicine.
If you are wondering whether you have what it takes to succeed in medical school and as a doctor, consider the following strategies and practical advice when navigating your undergraduate studies.
Make Wise Choices About Initial Premed Courses
Most students planning on a medical career path think of themselves as smart. However, in their first year of undergraduate studies, they may quickly find themselves facing obstacles that could have been avoided.
I have often heard from students that they were told by premed advisers that they must take two science courses with labs their freshman year. Given that the transition from high school to college can be a major adaptation, students may not want to register for two hard science courses the first semester.
Spacing out the challenging prerequisites in the beginning of college gives you a better chance to do well in each of your important premed courses. If needed, you can double up on courses later when you are more adept at handling the rigors of college — or choose to take a summer course.
Getting mediocre grades in two difficult courses can discourage students and lead them to believe that they are not going to be successful. They may give up their dream of becoming a physician. I have seen them go on to other careers and become successful, yet regret their decision and yearn for their original goal.
Physician assistants, nurses, lab technicians, teachers and others can apply to med school later in their careers, but attending med school is much harder physically and mentally when you’re older.
Don’t Take the MCAT Prematurely
Premed students are often told they should practice for the MCAT by taking the MCAT. This is another piece of poor advice that can damage self-esteem regarding medical student readiness and that does not impress the admissions committee.
Never take the real MCAT until you have had adequate time to prepare and take the recommended courses first. The MCAT includes subject areas like psychology, philosophy, social and behavioral sciences, general chemistry, biology, organic chemistry, statistics and physics.
Reviewing the online MCAT suggestions from the Association of American Medical Colleges, which administers the test, will allow you to begin building your premed schedule years in advance. Don’t sign up for the MCAT until you are ready.
As you practice, ask yourself if your scoring plateau is a score that is high enough without additional study techniques such as those taught in a test preparation course. Sometimes intelligence is not the issue; rather, there’s a need for diverse test-taking strategies.
Do you need to look outside your school for additional preparation? Various companies offer MCAT courses, as do some individuals. Be sure to pick one that’s reputable and long enough to get you to a reliably good score.
Apply Broadly to Medical Schools
Achieving success in medical school also means being smart enough to apply to schools within your grasp, as there are many allopathic and osteopathic schools to choose from in the U.S. and abroad. It’s important to select a few that are an admissions stretch, as well as some for which you are an excellent candidate.
Every year, some premed students make the mistake of not applying broadly enough and only shooting for the highest tier of med schools. Many are disappointed in their results.
You can be an exceptional doctor if you work hard, no matter which medical school you attend. If you do not have the strongest application, then considering both allopathic and osteopathic schools is prudent — perhaps 20 to 30 total.
Remember that not getting accepted into medical school does not necessarily equate to an inadequate IQ but perhaps inadequate counselling, inadequate test preparation or stubbornness in not considering an adequate number of good schools in various tiers of competitiveness. I sincerely believe that it is less important where you go to medical school than how hard you work once you get there.
Med school is a big investment of time, money and commitment. You would not build a house without a foundation. Likewise, being smart enough for med school requires having a background that includes solid performance as an undergraduate and being well prepared during the med school application process.
Manage Time and Prioritize
Thinking about priorities is critical. Don’t choose medicine if it’s not really what you want. Don’t choose medicine if you do not really want to work hard and make sacrifices for it.
In med school, time management is a required skill that has often been honed by the dedicated undergraduate who balances volunteering, doctor shadowing and research with challenging undergraduate courses. Most students aiming for medicine have little time for social groups unless there is a philanthropic focus. If you choose to pledge a fraternity or sorority, make sure philanthropy is a strong part of what you will do with the group. Time demands in other directions may not work well.
When you describe activities on your med school application, the committee wants to see the names of the places where you volunteered regularly. Sports and team commitments may wipe out time for volunteering and shadowing. If the sport is very important to you or your scholarship depends on your participation, then consider planning for a gap year — if it is affordable — to fill in gaps of research, shadowing and volunteering.
You can accomplish multiple goals, but not likely all in the same time frame. If they are important, take more time before applying to med school.
One last priority: The time of day when you study should be your very best point in your circadian rhythm pattern. In the evening, plan for your next day. Writing down your most important priorities and scheduling your day in advance will pay off the following day.
If you are a morning person, go to bed early and get up early to find a quiet, isolated place to study. Getting into this habit will not only make you successful as a student now, but also during your medical career in the years to come.
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Update 04/05/22: This article has been updated with new information.