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Start Preparing Now for Med School

By Lisa Gaw

What does it take to get into medical school?" I am asked. My mind responds, "Man, it's been four years now...Geez I'm old". After asking my younger peers that just went through the process, I find the major components remain as they were.

First, take a peek into the world of a physician to be sure about practicing medicine as a career. This "peek" can takes various forms, from volunteering at a hospital, shadowing a physician in an office or hospital, or participating in clinical research. Find something that allows you to observe doctors at work, but also to ask questions about their experiences. Ask physicians about medical school, residency training, tuition costs, health insurance, family life, personal time, etc.  After thorough exploration, be honest and realistic before taking another step forward.

Preparation for applying to medical school comes next. Some good resources to consider are medical school counselors at colleges or pre-medical associations on campus. Go to a few medical school websites and get a feel for what courses are required for acceptance. In general, these courses include biology, general and organic chemistry, and physics. Thenumber of credits varies, as do requirements for English and math courses, and a few other courses depending on the individual program.  Outside of required courses, don't forget to do well in your other courses because medical schools look at both overall GPA and science GPA.

Another part of the application considers non-academic activities.  Things to strengthen your candidacy include involvement with different campus groups, service activities, leadership positions, community involvement, research, publications, and other extracurricular activities. In the midst of studying and serving, don't forget to spend time in your hobbies whether it be building model planes or knitting because these fun relaxing activities that are unique to you.

Sophomore year           

Something to start thinking about during sophomore or between sophomore and junior years is the MCAT. This standardized exam is an electronic exam consisting of four parts: reading, writing, biological sciences, and physical sciences with a maximum score of 15 points for each section excluding the writing sample. The writing section includes two essays that are graded on a letter scale. Prep classes are available with Princeton and Kaplan being more familiar ones, and can cost more than $1,000.  A cheaper option is purchasing self-study prep books.  The exam itself is given multiple times throughout the year.  The AAMC website provides a section on the MCAT with frequently asked questions as well as a schedule of exam dates. MCAT scores generally are accepted up to 3 years after they were taken, but check with each medical school.

During your junior and early senior years, think about people to ask for letters of recommendation. A good number to have is at least three.  Letter writers may include principal investigators in research laboratories you worked in, professors of courses you excelled in, past and current employers, sponsors of associations you're active in, the list of options goes on. Give your letter writers plenty of time before they are due, with gently reminders such as a thank you card ahead of time.

Personal Essay

Next to GPA and the MCAT score, the other key part of the application is your personal essay. Basically, this is a statement of your intentions for pursuing medicine as a career and why being a physician is the way in which you ought to practice medicine. Take some time to simply sit and start writing.  Leave the essay alone until a later time and re-read it, editing as you go.  Repeat this once or twice before asking a few people to look over your personal statement.   Don't stress too much over what your statement should say -- remember it is your story.

After gathering all the pieces of your application together, the question is now who to send it to. First, figure out what is important to you: location, ranking, cost, affiliated hospitals, matriculation rates, research opportunities, student life, curriculum, joint programs.  Would you want to live in a metropolitan area or more rural area?  Consider the population the affiliated hospitals serve as they are the type of patients you will see in your clinical rotations. What is tuition and what is the average debt of graduating students?  For the most part, schools have the same courses, but it's the format of the curriculum that differs.  Problem based learning and systems-based learning are a few topics to look into.  If you are interested in research, what research is the program known for and is there faculty conducting research in an area of interest to you?  If you are considering joint degrees, does the school offer joint programs (MD/PhD, MD/MBA, MD/MPH)? 

How is student life? Is there a student center, student government, student organizations, special interest groups? After developing a list of potentials, make sure your final list of schools include some "dream" programs, some realistic options, and a couple of '"safety" schools.  Helpful websites include and  Of note, Texas medical schools and osteopathic school have their own application process, with Baylor Medical College as the exception.

The national application process is rolling. Simply put, the earlier you submit your application, the better your chances of being accepted into a medical school.  Interview offers usually start around October and most interviews finish in January. The Texas application has a ranking process and your "match" is made known in February.  However, the process is too complicated to explain in depth here, but provides all the information one needs.

Interview process

The interview process is a fun and exciting one so enjoy your self.  Book your flights, lodgings, rental cars at least a month in advance.  Research the medical school so that you are at least familiar with it. 

Have friends, fellow applicants, or a mentor mock interview you as practice and have them evaluate you.  I also highly recommend looking over your extracurricular activities, hobbies, and personal statement in case your interviewer asks questions regarding them.  Most interview days follow similar formats: a breakfast and introduction, an overview of the city and school, a glance at the curriculum, statistics on a plethora of topics, lunch, a tour, and 2 or 3 interviews, with some sort of closing talk or Q&A session.  At the end of your interviews, all that is then required of you is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the rest of your senior year.

Overall, the process is somewhat similar to college applications, minus the interviews and MCAT.  With planning and some preparation, the process is easier than one thinks from the start.  As time passes, everyone becomes a pro at interviewing, packing a suitcase, and maneuvering through strange airports and cities.  Before you know it, it will be time to do it all over again for residency programs as you graduate from medical school.  Best wishes!
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