The Path to Medical School for High School Students

So you think you want to be a doctor ‘when you grow up’? (Or – your child has aspirations of becoming a doctor?) That’s a great aspiration for the right person to pursue. Below are twelve questions to ask and suggestions to follow to achieve the goals directly related to obtaining an advanced degree in the medical profession.

1. Is a doctor what you actually want to be? First of all, you need to ask yourself if you actually want to be a doctor, or if you just want to be in the medical profession. There are many roles in the medical field that do not require an M.D. – like a nurse, emergency services worker, pharmaceutical representative, etc.

2. Why do you want to be a doctor? If money is your main motivation in pursuing any career, this alone will not be enough to give you the persistence, patience, and passion needed to be successful. If your motivation is to ‘help people’ or save lives, see question #1 – there are many other career paths that will meet this same goal. If there are a specific reason (or countless reasons) why you are sure that a doctor is the occupation you want to pursue, then read on.

3. Can you actually be a doctor? If you are interested at this age, and you really understand the amount of work that will be involved, then you probably already have a 4.0+ GPA and your SAT scores are above average for the college of your choosing. However, if you have not yet taken the most advanced courses for science at this point, then start taking what is available NOW. If you are already a junior or senior, then you may already know where you are going to school. Have a Plan B and a Plan C lined up just in case – and read the next two suggestions carefully.

4. Do your homework. Literally – spend a lot of time studying now. Since you are still in high school, you don’t really have a clear picture yet of how college or grad school will be. (Even if you have taken ‘college’ courses at a local university, or you are currently taking all AP courses – trust me, I took mostly AP classes in high school – it is not the same as college.) It is a lot of studying on your own without clear guidelines on how – so learn what works for you now, and try to get in good habits before you start college.

5. Research colleges like it is your second job (graduating from high school with a solid GPA is your first job). Know which universities have the best programs for pre-med. There are many books, websites, and other sources you can use to find out this information (Don’t rely too much on Internet search engines – actually spend some time and maybe a small amount of money – like $50 – to get books that show much more than a website will for free.)

6. You do want to have some idea of where you want to go to graduate school as well – but, things change and you should leave your options open in this area. However, you should always do a reality check that your pre-med program is aligned with the expectations with 4 or 5 of your top program choices for your graduate degree. In other words, focus on graduate school as it relates to your school(s) of choice for your undergrad degree.

7. Be ready to skip some parties in college. College is a lot of fun but also a lot of effort to maintain a high GPA while also having a social life. If you are serious about going to medical school (or graduate school for that matter), and you are enrolled in a pre-med program for undergrad, then your GPA has to stay very high. Your friends who are in other disciplines may not understand why you can only go out on the weekends, and spend so much time in the library. Have a little fun, but know that you will be somewhat different from most other majors in that you have very high standards to meet to get into med school.

8. Make some friends who are also pre-med. This ties into #4 – Find some people who are in your classes, who seem to be focused on becoming a doctor as their end goal (rather than knowing which fraternities have the best parties). There will always be those people who can cram just before an exam and can write a paper with a hangover, but those are not the people who are going to pull you up when you need a little extra help.

9. Don’t be discouraged or go into panic mode if you do poorly on one test or one paper. Go talk with your professor (please observe their office hours and be polite above all else) about what you can do to be more well-prepared for the next exam. If you follow these suggestions and still are falling behind, get involved in a study group (see #8) and also try to study in the way that the tests are designed. Worse case scenario is you have to drop the course or take an incomplete or you have to retake a course later on. Your options in case of continual failure should always be discussed with your professor first, and your adviser next (see #10).

10. Have an adviser (in college – this could be graduate student or professor) and a mentor (this will usually be a well-respected professor or a doctor with whom you work at some point), both of whom will guide you along your journey to becoming a doctor. If these two people disagree at some point, get a third or even fourth opinion so you can see who is giving you better guidance. If you are uncomfortable with your adviser, get another one, ASAP. Based on my experience with a not-so-great adviser, I chose a new adviser whom I really trusted and respected and this was a great decision.

11. Make sure all your activities are aligned with your end goal. If you have the right adviser (#9), this person can make very helpful suggestions on what you should be doing in addition to taking the required courses. You may want to volunteer at a medical facility, work as a lab assistant in the biology department, or intern in the summers. If you can get paid doing something related to your degree, even better, but remember that everything you do can go onto your med school application.

12. Stay focused, and remember why you have to study when everyone else is going out, and why you are currently planning for something that won’t happen for another five years (med school). Being a doctor is a very admirable goal, and med school is so selective because not everyone can be a doctor. If you can, then go for it, and do not let anyone else’s negativity bring you down. Provided that you have the right motivations, the intelligence, and the conscientiousness to complete med school (and all related experience for a degree), then you can be successful in your goal to become a doctor. Best of luck!