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Medical School Requirements: What Does It Take?

medical school requirements

Because the study of medicine requires a fundamental understanding of the sciences and mathematics, as well as the ability to do well in these disciplines, medical school requirements are focused primarily on biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. However, some medical schools also require students take courses in other disciplines.

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Degree

The vast majority of medical school applicants will enter medical school with an undergraduate college degree. The question many students have is does the undergraduate college status or level of prestige matter when it comes to medical school admissions. There is no clear “yes” or “no” answer to this question. Some undergraduate colleges are especially prestigious or notoriously difficult and medical schools might consider this when evaluating a student’s GPA from high caliber school. By the same token, if a student attends a college that is not considered challenging, the GPA will be considered within that context as well.

For example, let’s say Student A went to a very prestigious college which is notorious for giving out very few As. She has a GPA of 3.45 with an upward trend. Now, let’s say student B went to a less prestigious college and earned a 4.0 GPA. Student A, depending on other factors such as the MCAT score and activities, might be considered a more competitive applicant than Student B who went to a much less rigorous undergraduate college. The MCAT is really the great equalizer in this process. So, if Student A and Student B both earned a great MCAT, let’s say a 523, they would both be equally competitive assuming all other factors were equal.

There are many students who attend less competitive colleges for good reason (they weren’t serious high school students, they went to the less expensive state school for financial reasons) and medical schools know this! There are also many prestigious state school honors programs that medical school admissions committees consider quite impressive.

Major

Applicants often ask me what major “looks good” on an application. My response is always “the one that interests you the most.” Students can major in nonscience disciplines. In fact, medical schools are always seeking applicants who are intellectually curious and diverse; they don’t want an entire class of biology and chemistry majors. If you do choose to major in a nonscience, however, take some upper division science classes to prove that you can perform well in them, something medical schools like to see whatever an applicant’s major. Independent research, whether for credit or during a summer break, is also looked upon favorably. Medical schools like to know that you have the ability to think critically, design an experiment or project to study a topic or answer a question, evaluate and interpret data, and understand their significance. Though this kind of research traditionally is associated with a scientific discipline, you will learn these same skills by doing research in other disciplines, including the humanities, economics, and math. Therefore, high level research in other disciplines is also respected and valued.

Courses

While premedical requirements might vary from medical school to medical school, the vast majority of medical schools require students take the following courses:

  • Introductory biology with lab (two semester sequence)
  • Inorganic (general) chemistry with lab (two semester sequence)
  • Organic chemistry with lab (two semester sequence)
  • Physics with lab (two semester sequence)

Some medical schools also require the following courses:

  • English (two semesters)
  • Calculus or statistics or college mathematics (two semesters)
  • Social sciences (psychology, sociology, two semesters)
  • Biochemistry (one semester)
  • Genetics (one semester)

In addition to the courses listed above, we recommend students take upper level science classes in any discipline.

Since premedical requirements differ, it is important to review each medical school’s required courses before you apply. We recommend taking all required courses at a four year university in the United States or Canada, however, some medical schools might accept credits earned at a community college.

What about advanced placement (AP) credit?

Many students who take AP classes in high school “place out” of some required prerequisites in college. Not all medical schools will accept this AP credit, however, so it is important to check with individual medical schools regarding specific requirements. I suggest that students seek out this information before starting their freshman year. For example, I have worked with clients who “placed out of biology” and took chemistry their freshman year and organic chemistry and biochemistry during the sophomore year. Not only was their sophomore year course load very demanding, but once they realized that some medical schools would not accept their AP biology credit, they had to “go back” and take general college biology as a junior.

GPA

Obviously, the higher your GPA, the better. However, the general ballpark cut-off that medical schools use is an overall GPA of 3.5. That said, schools also pay attention to grade trends. Many students do poorly early in college simply because they are not prepared for the academic course load and don’t have the maturity and time management and study skills to do well. As long as your grades trend upward, medical schools are sometimes willing to forgive a poor performance early in your academic career. But, for the really competitive schools, academic excellence throughout college is essential. Average GPAs for accepted students varies from medical school to medical school.

MCAT Score

As mentioned earlier, the MCAT is the way medical schools can compare applicants from different undergraduate colleges. Quite obviously, the higher you score on the MCAT® the better, but a composite score of 509 on the MCAT® is generally considered the score needed to gain admission to an allopathic medical school. The maximum score a student can earn on the MCAT is 528. An outstanding MCAT score is 518 or above. Average MCAT scores vary from medical school to medical school.

Extracurricular Activities

Research

Most medical schools, even those that are not major academic medical centers, want applicants to have research experience. The type of research doesn’t really matter, but most students engage in some type of basic science research (either for credit, during the summer, or for employment) or clinical research. However, research in other disciplines will also allow you to learn how to think critically, analyze data, evaluate the literature, solve problems, and ask and then answer a question through experimentation. If you can’t find a basic science or clinical research experience, consider research in another discipline of interest – psychology, art history, anthropology – or whatever else piques your curiosity. What you learn through research in any discipline can be applied to future research endeavors and help you to practice evidence – based medicine and to evaluate current studies, which will be necessary throughout your medical education, training, and career. Medical schools are placing more and more value on the importance of scientific inquiry, analytical skills, and the ability to apply knowledge practically. Therefore, significant research experience will be more, and not less, important in coming years.

Volunteering

Lending your services to help others in need is always a worthwhile endeavor. Medical schools are seeking people who are compassionate, caring, and empathetic so demonstrating these traits through community service or volunteer work is important. Medical schools also seek applicants who want to help others in need, including the underserved. Physicians also play significant roles in their communities, so medical schools value students who have demonstrated a commitment to serve their community.

Service work can be performed in medical and non-medical settings, and both are considered desirable. As mentioned above, medical schools value volunteering in a free clinic, nursing home, hospital, or hospice. Spending time in non-clinical settings, such as a soup kitchen, a tutoring program, or helping to build homes for those who are less fortunate, also demonstrates a commitment to serve.

Shadowing

All medical schools want to see that you have varied clinical exposure. This can take the form of doctor shadowing, volunteering in a free clinic, or working abroad in some capacity. Some applicants have difficulty getting accepted to medical school because they may have extensive basic science research but have never shadowed a physician. It is a tough sell to say you want to be a doctor if you have never set foot in a doctor’s office or a hospital. Obviously, as a student, you won’t be given any clinical responsibilities, but admissions committees want to be sure that you understand what it means to practice medicine in a variety of settings.

I often suggest that students seek out shadowing experiences in emergency departments (EDs). I am not suggesting this because I am an emergency physician but because emergency departments are open 24/7, are always busy, and have a variety of patients
with varied clinical presentations. The key is to shadow a spectrum of specialists in different settings.

Completing The Application Process

Since most medical schools extend interviews on a rolling basis, it is extremely important to submit your medical school application as close to the opening date of the system as possible. All three application systems open in early May. AMCAS can be submitted in very late May/early June. Also be aware that AMCAS won’t verify your application until it receives all documentation. Application processing and verification can take up to six weeks, but, if you submit early, this processing often takes much less time. Keep in mind that the AMCAS application system can be accessed in early May and, at this time, you can enter all of your application information (including activities entries and essays), request transcripts, and have letters of reference sent to AMCAS. Submitting the earliest applications possible is of the utmost importance.

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