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So You Want to Go to Medical School? 5 Think-Ahead Tips for High Schoolers

05/19/2014 11:15 am ET | Updated Jul 19, 2014

Despite rising educational costs, and changes in the last decade that make medicine less certain as a high-income career, high school students continue to ask, "What can I do to become a doctor?" Given that I encourage students to approach college admissions and career choices based on a good fit model, to me the more important question is, "What can you do to find out if medicine is the right career for you?"

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF MEDICINE IS A GOOD CHOICE?
As I work with students, I find that many have very romantic notions of what being a doctor means, including TV images of attractive women and men dressed in proverbial white coats with stethoscopes hanging around their necks; dreams of prestige, high salaries, extravagant future lifestyles, along with a genuine need to help others. In many cases, the most access they have had to a medical environment is time spent with their own physicians.

In a National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) seminar on medical school admissions, presenters suggested that a) actual exposure to the medical profession, b) practical experience in a doctor's office, clinic or hospital and/or c) time spent in a scientific research laboratory are all excellent ways of finding out if a student really wants to go into medicine. Of note, any one of these activities can also be very impressive on college admission applications.

Here are some ideas about how to go about acting on the NACAC suggestions:

1. Interview -- better yet shadow -- doctors in different medical specialties in which you think you might be interested
An information interview is an appointment you schedule with an individual for the purpose of gaining information about a job or career field from an "insider" point of view. Some questions you might ask include:

  • What led you to become a doctor?
  • What is your day like from the time you get up until you go to bed?
  • What do you like and dislike about your job?
  • If you could do it all over, would you choose the same work? Etc., etc.

2. Apply for a research or experiential internship program for high school students
Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth has a list of excellent Biomedical Science Internships all around the U.S.

Stanford University's School of Medicine also offers a terrific list of opportunities throughout the country for high school students interested in science and medicine. Scroll down the page and there is another list for college students.

adMISSION POSSIBLE Tip
A number of colleges and organizations offer tuition-free, residential programs for low-income high school students. Applications usually become available at the beginning of a the calendar year.

3. Volunteer at a local hospital or a health clinic, especially one that serves low-income patients
Medical school admissions officers often say that beginning in high school sustained, meaningful volunteer work involving patient contact is one of the best preparations for medical school. This kind of activity would also make a good impression on undergraduate admissions officers.

adMISSION POSSIBLE Tip
Having experience working with underserved and/or non-English speaking populations is noteworthy to colleges and medical schools. Also, it doesn't hurt to be proficient in a language other than English.

4. Create your own health-related project
Colleges and medical schools love when students do something significant on their own. For example, one student I worked with created a program that put together small nutritious snack and food packages for patient families during their children's stay at a local hospital. The project began when the student was a 9th grader and was passed along to his younger brother when he left for college. Another student wrote a popular column on teen health issues for her high school newspaper. As might be expected, the most popular topics were healthy, tasty food choices, and stress relief techniques.

5. Attend a summer program for high school students interested in medicine
Stanford, Duke, Penn, USC, Tufts, Michigan, Georgetown, the National Student Leadership Conference and many others offer summer programs that introduce high school students to the medical field.

If students like what they see, hear, experience and/or do, that's a pretty good indication that they might like medicine as a career.

WHAT ABOUT ACADEMIC PREPARATION?
High school students who think they want to attend medical school will do well to prepare themselves academically by taking the most rigorous courses offered at their high schools (a mixture of Honors, AP and/or IB courses), get the highest grades they can and score well on the SAT and/or ACT, proof to admissions officers that they have the wherewithal to thrive in their schools. Colleges also look for students who demonstrate a true love of learning.

Where high schoolers choose to attend college is also an important issue. Incorrectly, many people think that the more prestigious an undergraduate college is, the better the chances are for a student to get into med school. Not true. Acceptance into medical programs often has more to do with how students maximize the resources and opportunities provided at whatever college they happen to attend. As it happens, small, liberal arts colleges often offer the best preparation for medical school because students have greater access to accessible professors who actually teach and mentor them. Undergraduate research opportunities also tend to be more available at small colleges. Have a look at the National Science Foundation list of the "Top Schools from which S&E (Science and Engineering) Doctorate Recipients Received Bachelor's Degrees." Lots of small, liberal arts colleges are on that list, many of which you may not have even heard of.

Another piece of misinformation is that students must be Pre-Med majors, or at least science majors, to get into medical school. Wrong again. According to NACAC experts, a very good student has a better chance of getting into the most selective medical schools by majoring in something other than Biology (or another science). Med schools now look for students who have broad, liberal educations that will help them relate to the world beyond their science interests. As a result, future medical students can major in anything they want, including art history, Russian, or horticulture, so long as they take the required pre-medical school classes (see list below) and score well on the Medical School Admissions Test (MCAT).

The usual required courses for acceptance into medical school are:

  • 1 year, freshman Chemistry with associated lab
  • 1 year, Organic Chemistry with associated lab
  • 1 year of Biology with associated lab
  • 1 year of Physics with associated lab
  • 1 year of English
  • 1 year of Calculus or other advanced Math, including Statistics

Surprised at how little is required?

WHAT ELSE SHOULD YOU KNOW?
Another important part of getting into medical school is helping the admissions people see that you are a compassionate person. You can do that by the choices you make in activities in and outside of school. Word is that med schools are increasingly interested in future doctors who demonstrate that they care about patients.

It's also useful to know that there are a number of universities that offer combined BS/MD or BA/MD programs, which allow students to receive undergraduate and MD degrees in seven or eight years. Todd A. Johnson has put together an excellent, comprehensive list in his BS/MD Programs --The Complete Guide: Getting into Medical School from High School.

Finally, there are a few websites that offer excellent information to high school students about applying to medical school.

The Association of American Medical College's (AAMC) "Aspiring Docs" is especially useful, covering such topics as how to prepare for your future in medicine while in high school, what's it's like to be a med school student today, how to get ready for the MCAT exam.

AAMC's "The Road to Becoming a Doctor" describes different types of physicians, what med school is all about, what the different medical specialties are and how to finance it all.

I hope this helps high school students understand if and what they need to know and do to spend their lives as doctors in the medical world.
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