Career Advice: So you wanna be a Physician?

One of my roles as a Faculty member is that I also get to serve as an advisor for students who are interested in professional programs after undergrad. Mainly I deal with students who want to go to Pharmacy school, Medical school and Graduate school. So I’ve decided to give my advice in a written way on this blog.

Today’s case: Medical School!

(Previous cases): Pharmacy School

What classes do I need to take as an undergrad to get in to Medical school?

The classes that a student needs to take to get in to Medical school are actually pretty rigid. They’re based on the classes that you would need to take in order to do well on the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test). Here are the classes that you absolutely need to take:

  • General Chemistry I and II (full year sequence)
  • Organic Chemistry I and II (full year sequence)
  • General Biology (full year, one minimum)
  • General Physics (trig or calculus based, one year)
  • English Composition (Comp I and II)

Those are the MINIMUM requirements to do well on the MCAT exam.

I would also recommend that you take at least Microbiology and Biochemistry in addition to your first year Biology classes. Though not required, they are definitely possibilities to show up on the exam.

What major should I have to get in to Medical School?

It doesn’t matter. No really, it doesn’t. You could be a music major, a business major, a psychology major. It honestly doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you get in the classes that you need to take for the MCAT by the end of your JUNIOR year of college. Most people CHOOSE to be Biology or Chemistry  majors because they already have to take so many classes in those subjects anyway. It makes your life easier to have your major classes also be required for the MCAT, but this isn’t required. (In fact, Music and Physics majors have some of the highest acceptance rates to medical school just because you have to be super talented to balance both those majors AND the additional science classes).

So what is up with this MCAT exam?

The MCAT exam you should take a year before you want to start  medical school. For traditional students this would mean at the end of your Junior year or the summer between the Junior and Senior year. This means that you should also have all of the classes that you need to learn the material done by the end of your Junior year.

The MCAT exam is given in 4 parts:

1. Physical Science – this tests your knowledge of Physics and General Chemistry. The maximum score on this section is 15 points, the average is 8, a “good” score is considered 10 or above.

2. Biological Science – this tests your knowledge of Biology and Organic Chemistry (including lab techniques!). The maximum score on this section is 15, the average is 8, a “good” score is considered 10 or above.

3. Verbal reasoning – this is like the type of verbal reasoning you had to do on the ACT or SAT. This is also why you had to take those English classes. ;) The maximum score on this section is 15, the average is 8, a “good” score is considered 10 or above.

4. A writing sample – this is an essay that you’ll need to write. This is not graded on a number score but instead on a letter score from J-T, with J being the lowest and T being the highest. Some schools care more about this value then others.

Your total point score for the MCAT is based on sections 1-3, the highest possible score being 45, the average being 24, most schools won’t consider you in you have less than a 30. Obviously the higher the better.

What sort of grades do I need to get?

Short answer: A high GPA.

Long answer: Generally 3.0 is the cut off for all medical schools. If you have less than a 3.0, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree with your career path.

Your GPA is seen as a measure of your ability to put forth hard work and be successful. Thus a medical school doesn’t want you if you can’t prove through your GPA that you’re capable of hard work and being successful. It is as simple as that.

While 3.0 is the “bare minimum” – most school doesn’t want below 3.5 and MOST schools have an average GPA of around 3.7.

The better the school, the higher your GPA needs to be to be considered. There are many websites that can tell you the average GPA and MCAT scores for students who attend those schools.

Also, medical schools generally consider BOTH your overall GPA and your science GPA. So make sure they are BOTH 3.0.

So all I need is a good GPA and a good MCAT score and I’m good for Medical School?

Oh child, how I wish that were true. There are a few more components, though the GPA and MCAT score are the most measurable.

You’ll submit the first semester of your senior year your application to medical school which will include your GPA, your MCAT score AND letters of recommendation. Those letters are pretty important. If you have any letter that says anything questionable about you, you’ll likely not be considered no matter how good your grades are.

For instance, if one letter says “This person can take an exam and do well, but I wouldn’t trust them to change my oil because they have terrible lab skills and no long term memory retention” – well, you can bet your bottom dollar that you’re not likely to progress to the next step of going to medical school.

Make sure that you can get strong letters from faculty members who have spent time getting to know you. Science professors are always a good choice. ALSO, make sure that you get a letter of recommendation from a Physician that you have shadowed.

Which brings us to the next point – you absolutely should shadow/work for/with a physician. If you haven’t had any medical experience at all, the med school isn’t likely to believe that you’re serious. So volunteer at a hospital over the summer, call up your dad’s coworker’s friend who is a doctor and ask if you can shadow them. Listen. Learn. Experience.

Okay, so I’ve submitted my application with  GPA, MCAT score, letters of recommendation – I’m done right?

No, now you have your on-campus interviews. If you’re lucky you’ll get invited to an on campus interview. Here you’ll be shown around the school, you’ll have interviews with different faculty members and with other current medical students. You’ll be asked very specific and general questions to get an idea of your character and whether you have what it takes to be a physician.

Things you could be asked:

  • Why do you want to be a physician? (Be sure to highlight specific experience, things like your shadowing are good to bring up here. Don’t assume they remember everything you put in your application packet).
  • Questions about current issues. You should be familiar with current topics in the media that relate to health care. Maybe about the health care bills, or insurance issues, or about global health care topics. Be prepared to talk knowledgeably about these issues and be able to explain your position AND alternative positions.
  • Questions about medical ethics. You should have formed by this point a view point on where you stand on various medical issues related to your profession (RU-586, abortions, euthanasia, etc come to mind). Be able to give a solid reason for your point of view but also being able to talk intelligently and accurately about the other point of view.
  • Questions about balance in your personal life. You’re likely to be asked questions related to how you would handle certain situations like balancing family and school life. Be prepared to give examples of how you’ve done this in the past. You may also be asked about how you plan to handle the debt you’ll be acquiring in medical school. Other sneaky ways to ask this is “What books have you read lately?” If you haven’t read a book recently it is unlikely that you have learned to balance school life and personal life.
  • Questions that you can’t answer. You will most likely be asked a question that doesn’t seem relevant and also seems strange to you. The goal is to see how you handle pressure in an unknown situation. One question I’ve heard used is: “Why are manhole covers round?” This isn’t an obvious question. In some light it doesn’t make sense in the context of a medical interview. This is a think-on-your-feet question. Why is a manhole cover round? Some possible answers: (Real reason) So that the cover won’t fall through the hole (this is Physics here). (Smart ass reason) Because the manhole is round. (Bad answer) I don’t know.

My best advice:

My best advice is to do the following:

Freshman year: Take General Chem I and II and General Bio I and II

Sophmore year: Take Organic Chem I and II and Calculus (if your major requires Calculus based Physics) and at least 1 other Biology class

Junior year: Take Physics I and II and at least 1 other Biology class in the fall semester

End of Junior year: Take MCAT.

Do the best you can on all these classes, get yourself some internship or shadowing positions during the summer, make sure you work hard and can get good letters of recommendation, be cognizant of your own abilities.

Realize that desire and ability are two VERY different things.

What should I do if I don’t get in to medical school?

Take a year off and get more experience. Get a research position in an academic lab somewhere. Go get a Master’s degree. Work at a hospital or clinic or doctor’s office.

Call the schools, find out why they didn’t accept you, correct your deficiencies. You may need more life experience. You may need better grades or a higher MCAT score. Do things in the next year to make your weakness a strength.

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7 Responses to Career Advice: So you wanna be a Physician?

  1. Wow SS4BC, this brought back memories. I started undergrad wanting to go to med school. I made it through all except Physics II and the MCAT. This is definitely great advice though!

  2. That’s some great advice SS4BC, I had a few friends that wanted to go to med school (some did, but not all) and I was not jealous of the courses that they had to take. For my degrees I had to take a few of those courses, but mostly the lower level ones.

  3. eemusings says:

    Fascinating how different things are here! You need to have taken certain HS subjects. Then you have to try to get into first year med (actually called something like medical sciences or biomed…). And then they prune it some more for second year, and then you embark on the 5-6 years of the med course.

  4. Christina says:

    Great post! I wish I had read this before choosing Biochemistry as a degree. Despite the fact that I hated the subject, I THOUGHT it was what med schools were looking for. I have since changed and am much, much happier.
    A question for you… I am really struggling with who I will ask for a faculty reference letter. My school has class sizes over 200 on average and thus, we don’t really get to know our profs very well at all. What is your advice regarding getting to know a prof?

    ps. I love your blog! Thanks!

    • SS4BC says:

      If there are teaching assistants in your classes that know you they will usually write the letter in place of the professor (with the professor signing it). But this isn’t as strong as someone knowing you. So I would try to do grading for a prof, working in their lab, go to every office hour, SOMETHING to make you stand out.

      Also, you’ve inadvertently shown the huge benefit of a small liberal arts college. :)

  5. TMcImmy says:

    Re: GPA
    A 3.7 from one school may not be equal to a 3.7 from another school. There are schools that have held the line against grade inflation better than others. It’s a subject I think SS4BC has covered previously, but mostly it’s just worth remembering that a lot of med schools are aware that a 3.3 from Harvard (to name an obvious example) might carry more value than a 3.6 from a small school.

  6. Pingback: Growing a Doctor: The Seed | Bioethics.net

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