If you are here, then you or someone you know is probably dreaming of one day having an MD behind your name. Here is a cheat sheet to get you started or propel you forward as you push towards that dream. But first things first…do not allow yourself to get overwhelmed by this list. It is not a “must do everything now” type of thing. Think of it as forecasting. A Farmer’s Almanac of sorts, so that you know what to expect in the future and what seeds to plant when. I organized the tips into sections, depending on where you are on your premed journey. You’ll also see some general tips towards the end of the list that can be useful to everyone.
High school students
- Summer Programs. If you already know what you want to do in life, consider yourself lucky. Summer can be a great time to get some scientific experiences under your belt. Go for those programs that are in your area of interest. If you’re not sure, or you have more than one area of interest, use this time to explore. You can use these programs to find out if you like a certain career. It’s how I found out that I hate engineering. The website, http://pathwaystoscience.org is a great resource to find programs
2. Picking a college. You may want to choose a college that has its own hospital or is in close proximity to one. All premeds need clinical experience, and it will be easier on you if the doctor you are shadowing is affiliated with your university or at the very least, near your campus.
3. Scholarships. Financial aid is fine but grants and scholarships are better, since you don’t have to pay them back. Don’t stress if you aren’t a straight A student. There are scholarships for everything under the sun. You might get money for being left handed, being from your state or having one blue eye and one brown eye. Start your search on petersons.com.
4. Premed Advisor. As soon as you hit the campus you should run, not walk, to the Premed Advisor’s office. I had a great one and she guided me all the way from freshman to med school acceptance. If your school doesn’t have one, find a med student or doctor to mentor you. You may also be able to get some assistance from the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions at http://www.naahp.org/.
5. Premed Society. Along the same vein, a premed society or club can be a wealth of information. They may have guest speakers, information on research opportunities, test prep and can be a source of support. If it doesn’t exist on your campus, create it!
6. Choosing a Major Technically, you can major in whatever you want and still go to medical school. As long as you get all your prerequisites in before application time, you can major in underwater basket weaving. Per the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) website, “At a minimum, students will likely complete the following types of courses: one year of biology, one year of physics, one year of English, two years of chemistry (through organic chemistry).” But check the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) manual to see specific requirements for every school.
7. Summer Opportunities. There are tons of summer opportunities that can get you the research and clinical experience you need to be a strong med school applicant. But the one I want freshmen to be aware of is the Summer Health Professions Education Program, or SHPEP. It’s a fantastic program, but you can’t participate in this program once you become a junior. This program is hosted by several institutions across the country. According to their website, “SHPEP’s goal is to strengthen the academic proficiency and career development of students underrepresented in the health professions and prepare them for a successful application and matriculation to health professions schools.” Check out naahp.org for a list of other opportunities.
8. Research. Even if research is not your thing, you have to do it. Med schools are looking for this to prove that you can handle high level scientific thought. They also want you to be able to contribute to the scientific community. Visit the science departments at your university and pathwaystoscience.org.
9. Extracurriculars. Med schools are looking for well-rounded people. They don’t want someone who is book smart, but doesn’t interact with patients or team members well. Find some activity, sport, club or volunteer organization to participate in. Don’t try to do too many, though. You don’t want your grades to suffer because you were student government president, playing volleyball and organizing a free clinic all at the same time.
10. What about your GPA? By now you have a handle on what’s going on with your grade point average and know how you’re doing compared to your peers. But did you know that admissions committees break your GPA down into total GPA, BCPM (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Math) GPA and non-BCMP GPA? Use an online calculator to check yours so you can come up with a game plan if yours doesn’t look so hot. You may even need to retake some classes that you did not do well in, to average things out.
11. Letters of Recommendation. Depending on what the class size is at your university, your professor may or may not remember you when it comes time for this. Help them remember who you are. Ask in person and give them your resume with a cover letter telling them what you need them to do and the deadline. Put a small picture of yourself on the cover letter. You also need to give them an AMCAS Letter Request form. You’ll be able to print this form from the “Letters of Evaluation” section of your AMCAS application.
12. Personal Statement. This is one of the most important parts of your medical school application. This is where you get the attention of the person reading your application and separate yourself from every other applicant. You can start writing this before the applications open. Go to my blog post, “Finish The Course” (https://mddreams.com/2016/03/30/finish-the-course/ via @wordpressdotcom) for more details about this.
13. MCAT Prep There are lots of ways to prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), but you should probably start with the people who develop and administer the test, the AAMC. Go here (https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/taking-mcat-exam/) to get official test prep resources and to find out how to register for the test.
14. Fee Waiver But what if I don’t have the money to take the MCAT? Good news, there is help! If you qualify for the AAMC Fee Assistance Program for the MCAT, then you also get financial assistance with your med school applications.
15. Application Timeline Applying to medical school is a year-long process. If you wanted to enter medical school in the Fall of 2018, you would have to submit your application in the Spring of 2017. That summer, you would complete secondary medical school applications and wait for interview invitations to roll in. Your med school interviews would take place in the Fall/Winter of 2017/2018 and then you would find out if you were accepted in the Spring of 2018.
16. AMCAS stands for the American Medical College Application Service. Most U.S. medical schools participate in this centralized application service (Texas has their own). Their website (https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/article/apply-to-med-school-with-amcas/)has a detailed instruction manual and videos about how to complete each section.
17. Choosing a Medical School The first rule in real estate also applies here; location, location, location! If you can’t stand the cold, then there’s no point in applying to Mayo in Minnesota. Once you decide on an area or areas of the country, you want to check the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) to see if you meet that med school’s minimum MCAT and GPA requirements. If your MCAT and GPA are not stellar, you will need to apply to more schools to increase your chances. Apply to one dream school and always apply to your home school or state school.
18. Interviews If you are invited for a medical school interview, you are on the short list! You made it past hundreds, and maybe thousands, of other applicants. Now that you have a seat at the table, make sure you prepare. Review sample interview questions online. Practice with a friend or a mentor. Make sure you learn about the institution and have genuine questions prepared.
19. International Medical Schools There are several respected medical schools in the Caribbean and other places around the world. But before you take that leap, do your research and see if their students do American away rotations. You also need to make sure that their graduates are not having difficulty getting placed in U.S. residencies if you are planning on practicing medicine stateside.
20. Post-Bac Programs These types of programs can be useful if you did not take the pre-requisites for med school or if your pre-requisites are too old. Post baccalaureate programs can also be helpful if you did not do well in undergrad and need to prove to admissions committees that you can handle upper level science courses. Some will also provide MCAT preparation, research and clinical experiences.
21. Gap Year Some students decide to take a year off between college and medical school. But you definitely want to have some structured activities built in, so it doesn’t look like you were goofing off the entire time. One option is a medical mission program like Gap Medics and Doctors Without Borders. You could also travel abroad with a service oriented or language immersion program.
22. Non-Traditional students You may feel that you don’t fit the mold of a typical med student due to your age, major or previous career. No worries. Schools are actually looking for a diverse class with varied interests. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t a 22 year old with a B.S. in Biology. You might be just what they need.
23. Communicating with Professors Don’t wait until your grade is sinking to make sure your professors know and like you. Use those office hours. They get paid to teach you, so wear them out! Go to them for anything you don’t understand in class. Get them to explain to you why you got things wrong on every quiz and test. Let them know in no uncertain terms that you want and need to do well.
24. Tutoring There is no shame in needing a tutor. Most schools have tutors through the different departments. If not, just grab someone is doing well (or did well) in that class and beg.
25. Studying Everyone has different studying styles. You’ll need to find out what yours is quickly. I was one to walk around the library socializing when on a study break. But when it came time to really hit the books, I needed perfect quiet. Monday through Thursday, I was in the basement of the library from 8 PM until. Set a schedule and stick to it.
26. Self Care If you don’t have a non-academic outlet, you will go insane. Find something fun to do. Mine was volunteering, going to football and basketball games and poetry. Exercise and nutrition remains important as well. You need to keep your energy up. I ate my fair share of crap in college, but I balanced it out with fruit and veggies. Learning how to calm yourself is a great skill to develop now. The website beginmeditating.com has some good tips.
27. Finances Say no to credit cards. You do not want to ruin your credit and have that hanging over you as you try to get a loan or an apartment for med school. If you must, get a prepaid or secure credit card that is attached to your bank account so that you can’t spend what you don’t have.
28. Mental Health Becoming a doctor can be an overwhelming process. Don’t be ashamed of getting help if you are feeling depressed or anxious. Most schools have counseling through student health or support services. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has counselors available 24/7 at 1(800)273-8255.
29. Social Media Be careful what you post. Even if you have your privacy settings on friends only, those people can screenshot, save or share your pics and posts at any time. If you wouldn’t want med schools to see it, don’t post it.
30. Stay hopeful. The best thing I ever did for myself was to work at self motivation. I heard something once that said in order to achieve a goal, your mind’s eye needs a picture. You need to visualize yourself becoming a successful doctor. I used to put inspirational quotes and articles on my dorm room wall and look at them daily. Find what works for you and never, never, never give up!
Jarita Hagans, MD is a Family Practice physician, speaker, freelance blogger and author of “MD Dreams: Practical Advice for Every Stage from Premed to Residency and Beyond”. Find more info on http://mddreams.com Follow her on Twitter @doctorjarita and Instagram @jaritah