Are you drawn to helping people? Do you love science? The path to becoming a physician is long and arduous and can take many different routes. As a high schooler, there are numerous aspects to consider and plan for before you even get to college. After all, according to U.S. News and World Report, the medical school admissions process is extremely competitive, with schools becoming even more selective since the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a surge of interest in the field.
Understanding yourself: Is a medical career right for me?
If you are a high school student who envisions a future in medicine, there are some critical questions you need to ask yourself before committing to a college major that leads to medical school, such as:
- Do I love to learn?
- Do I have what it takes to get accepted into medical school?
- Do I work well as part of a team?
- How much of my personal life am I willing to sacrifice?
- How will I pay for it?
According to Medical School Headquarters, there are five definite reasons to go to medical school—and five not to go:
Five reasons to go:
- Improving the lives and health of other people
- Being a leader in a healthcare team
- Seeking amazing clinical and non-clinical job options
- Being a lifelong learner in an intellectually stimulating career
- Being able to perform surgery
Five reasons not to go:
- Don’t go for money
- Don’t go for prestige
- Don’t go because it looks cool on TV dramas
- Don’t go because of parents pressuring you
- Don’t go if you want a great work-life balance
Explore Your Medical Career Options
Once you’ve decided a career in medicine is the right path for you, your grades are where they need to be, and you’re willing to put the time into a residency that can take years to complete, you’ll need to think about the various specialties. The options are vast.
The American Medical Association identified eleven top factors that medical school students claimed as the key influencers when choosing a specialty. The study ranks by number most to least important factors:
- Personality fit—99% of respondents
- Specialty content—98%
- Role model influence—81%
- Work/life balance—77%
- Fellowship training options—61%
- Future family plans—61%
- Income expectations—48%
- Length of residency—43%
- Competitiveness of specialty—39%
- Expectations of family—29%
- Education debt—22%
How hard is it to get into medical school?
Here’s what one doctor had to say about the path to medical school: “Realize that at most colleges and universities there is no such thing as a “pre-med” major. If you are referring to the percentage of freshman students who have an interest in going on to med school, it varies but can be significant.”
“As an example, during the first week of my 200-student freshman chemistry class at UNC, the professor asked the class to raise their hands if they plan on going to medical school. About a third or more of the hands went up. By the time I took inorganic chemistry from that same professor the percentage was down to maybe 10 percent. I think the previous year’s organic chemistry classes weeded out a lot of would-be docs.”
Do I need perfect grades in high school to become a doctor?
Grades are important. Applicants should strive for a GPA of 3.5 or higher. Know this: of the more than 55,000 that applied to medical school in 2019, less than 22,000 were accepted to at least one school. This means that more than half were rejected.
How much does medical school cost?
The average total cost of medical school in the U.S. is $218,792 according to Education Data Initiative. The average yearly cost is nearly $56,000. This is a 2021 statistic. Every year, the average yearly cost goes up by about $1500. Keep In mind, annual salaries for med school grads who are doing a residency range from $63,400 to $68,500, depending on the specialty. A residency can last anywhere from 4 to 9 years—the longer programs for specialties such as neurosurgery, orthopedic surgery, and plastic surgery to name a few.
So, while your peers in the business world are moving up the ladder, jumping to higher-paying jobs, and improving their lifestyles, doctors don’t begin that process until they have completed residency training and gone on to private practice. If you are interested in studying a specific niche within a specialty, you may need to do a year’s fellowship training. This can add up to 13 or 14-years total.
How long does it take to become a doctor after high school?
According to one noted source, becoming a doctor in the U.S. typically takes between 10 and 24 years. You must complete a 4-year undergraduate degree, then complete 4 years of medical school. Upon graduation, you are a doctor. However, to succeed in a specialty – even family practice – you’ll need to “match to a residency” which can last anywhere from 3 to 7 years, depending on the specialty you choose. After this, you’ll need to complete a licensing exam.
What’s the typical salary of a doctor?
In 2018, Primary Care Physicians in the United States earned on average $237,000, while specialists earned $341,000, according to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report. This marked about a 21.5% increase for PCPs from 2015 and about a 20% increase for specialists. A department head can make in excess of $500,000.
What classes should I take in high school if I want to be a doctor?
Every high school student interested in a medical degree must show an affinity for the sciences. When applying to college, you will need to show that the classes you took in high school include: biology, chemistry, physics, and math (BCPM). Your grades in these courses will be closely reviewed. It should also be noted that college and medical school admissions panels do weigh your BCPM GPAs more heavily than other subjects. If you don’t excel in these categories, medical school isn’t right for you. But if you do, your next step is to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Taking AP courses leads to AP exams, which many universities recognize for both undergrad and medical school credits.
Soft Skills Needed to Become a Doctor
If you still see yourself as a physician, high school is the time to finetune your learning skills: study habits, time management, test-taking, and written and verbal communication. English class is where you will improve your communication skills. Med school curriculum often includes writing multiple styles of essays, analyzing literature, giving oral presentations, and taking comprehension tests. It starts with your application to medical school, and continues throughout your career as a physician, where you’ll use these skills every day to write reports and communicate with colleagues and patients.
Extracurricular Opportunities to Prepare for Medical School
Although grades are an important aspect of your potential for college and medical school admission, review panels also take into account other aspects of your life, such as extracurricular activities or pre-clinical experiences. High school students with an eye on being a doctor can pursue activities that give them valuable training and insights, including anatomy and biology clubs. Another option is the Medical Explorers Club, which provides exposure to how medicine works at local hospitals. You can also sign up for volunteering opportunities with Doctors Without Borders, an international organization that delivers urgent medical assistance - not only in war zones - but in high-need communities. High schoolers are often recruited to help with fundraising and awareness efforts.
Medical Summer Immersion Programs for High School Students
Many leading universities today offer summer and online programs for high school students. Young motivated scholars 13 and older can study with renowned faculty. Pre-College Online Programs are offered throughout the U.S. Here are just a few:
● Women’s Health
● Global Health
● Neuroscience & Medicine
● Medical Research
● Biomedical Engineering
● Cancer Medicine
● Sports Medicine
● Women’s Medicine
Going Straight to Pre-Med Right After High School
Going from high school to med school is not typical at most universities, but there are options. These include completing a BS-MD track or an Early Assurance Program (EAP). A BS-MD program combines undergraduate school with medical school, allowing students to complete bachelor and medical degrees over a seven-year period. Requirements vary from program to program
In an article with the American Academy of Medical Colleges (AAMC), University of Rochester student Jayson Baman gave his first-hand experience with the BS-MD program, one of only 50 in the U.S. “A big advantage of being in a BS-MD program is the familiarity you develop with the medical school while still an undergraduate. Because physicians and researchers know that you are serious about medicine, you often find it easier to secure internships or shadowing positions.”
Another popular option is the Early Assurance Program (EAP), which is rapidly growing in popularity and available at leading schools, such as Georgetown University and Wake Forest University. To qualify, students must apply for med school in their sophomore year, demonstrate strong grades, and have completed science and pre med coursework, depending on the school’s requirements. Students accepted into EAP programs are not required to take the MCAT for entry.
If these options are not in your wheelhouse, you can apply to med school in the traditional manner. Take the MCAT exam, and show that you have succeeded in one year each of: biology, general inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and related lab work for each course.
What to Consider When Applying to Colleges for Medical School
Once you’ve decided a career in medicine is the right path for you, your grades are where they need to be, and you’re willing to put the time into a residency that can take years to complete, you’ll need to think about the various medical school options, how many you’ll need to apply to, and how to improve your chances for acceptance.
IvyWise offers 4 tips worth considering for high school students who seek admission to med school”
1. Know your chances for admission
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the rigors of training for a career in medicine, the field is still in high demand. Here is a table you can use to search the general admission rates for the last few cycles of applicants. Using the GPA and MCAT scores you find on this chart, you can plot where you might land. This is a valuable resource if you have a general idea of your GPA range and are preparing for the MCAT. You can see how important it is to maximize your MCAT score, but also how a super-high MCAT score doesn’t compensate for a low GPA. Both need to be in an excellent range for students who are competing for medical school.
2. Take challenging undergraduate courses
Med school admissions officers know how to read transcripts, including the level of difficulty of your course load. If they are unfamiliar with a school or have only a few applicants from that school, they’ll investigate transcripts of promising students. Differences in course difficulty (i.e., taking Physics for Poets instead of Physics for STEM Majors) are a red flag, especially if it is a recurring theme in one’s application. So, don’t opt for the easy route through premedical requirements. You don’t want this called out during the evaluation and selection process. Healthcare is looking for doctors who learned material the traditional way…with rigor.
3. Know when to apply
Ask yourself; Am I in the best possible position to apply and get accepted? If you think your GPA and MCAT scores are the best that they’re going to be, and that you can cite exceptional extracurricular and co-curricular experiences, then go for it.
If, however, you believe that a postgraduate program will help shore up a less-than-stellar undergraduate GPA, or that more time preparing for the MCAT would lead to a notably improved score, then you might want to hit the “pause” button and perhaps move the application cycle back a year to optimize your application. This has the added benefit of providing more opportunities to add meaningful clinical experiences, conduct research, volunteer, and develop your leadership abilities.
4. Do thorough research on your list of potential med schools
Prospective med school students should take a holistic approach to determining which medical school is the best choice. This starts by evaluating multiple factors, including the school's academic approach, student services, campus, location and general environment.
"They should make sure that they see themselves thriving in that medical school environment"
- Carlos Tapia, Executive Director, Admissions and Enrollment, ICAHN School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Texas
Many medical schools today offer a Second Look Experience designed to give you onsite exposure, experience the campus, meet with students and faculty to ensure that this is the school for you.
Becoming a doctor is a lot of work and demands that you commit a good part of your life to training. But if helping people manage diseases and lead healthier lives is your passion. And if you want the opportunity to even save lives, then this noble profession could be your future.