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Tips for the Aspiring Physician

By Lynn Friedman, Ph.D.
Special to washingtonpost.com

What does it take to get into medical school? Do you really have to be a genius? No. The most important qualities you need are passion, persistence, hard work and good guidance.

Fortunately, at most colleges and universities good guidance is never far away. In fact, most universities have health professions advisors who help students learn about requirements and acquire relevant experience. You can seek their advice before and after graduation. Many people don't realize that they want to be a physician until after school anyway.

Health professions advisors help students become acquainted with the requisites for medical school. Forging a good working relationship with a health professions advisor as soon as you decide on pursuing a medical career is important. Meeting with an advisor often is the best way to build a strong relationship.

Health Career Stories

What Courses Should You Take?

If you are interested in pursuing a career in medicine, you will need to take the pre-med curriculum in order to increase your chances of getting into medical school. While medical school requirements vary from school to school, they typically entail: a year of general chemistry with lab, a year of organic chemistry with lab, a year of physics with lab, a year of biology with lab, and a year of English. Many schools also require calculus.

Beyond this, consider pursuing your own interests and consider taking some courses that might facilitate your adjustment to medical school. For example, medical students who have more than the minimum required coursework may feel greater comfort with the medical curriculum. In the clinical arena, undergraduate coursework and experience in clinical interviewing may prove most helpful.

What Experiences Should You Obtain?

Medical schools like to see evidence of your knowledge of and commitment to the field of medicine. Before embarking on this rigorous journey, it is important for you to test out your interests. You can do that in several ways.

Consider doing a research internship either in basic science or psychiatry. Many schools have well-established internship programs, I would recommend joining one if your school offers them. If not, seek out your own research opportunities.

Seek out clinical experience. Many schools have a program in which undergraduates "shadow" resident physicians. This can be an eye-opening experience that will give you a more comprehensive understanding of what it takes to be a doctor. Also, consider working for a local hotline. This will help you to develop interviewing skills.

Pursue community service and leadership roles. Medical schools are interested in dedicated, caring people who are interested in the welfare of others. One way to demonstrate this dedication is to devote yourself to a good cause such as the Special Olympics, working with AIDS victims or participating in improving university life.

Taking the MCATs

In order to apply to medical school, you will need to take the MCAT, a test designed to your knowledge with that of other applicants. Obviously, it is important to do well so you should consider taking an MCAT preparation course like the ones offered by Kaplan or The Princeton Review.

How Do You Prepare for the Application Process?

Your first stop should be your health professions advisor. S/he will help you navigate the admissions process. Medical schools are seeking people who are knowledgeable about the issues facing medicine and the world around them. To gain this knowledge and demonstrate your interest in medicine, join the American Medical Association as a student member and read the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Subscribe to Time or Newsweek and other current events periodicals. Be prepared for questions about what you think are the most compelling issues facing medicine today as well as questions about current events.

When you write your admissions essay, present your experience in a cogent and articulate fashion that shows you are thoughtful and competent. Describe what you have done and how your experiences have deepened your commitment to a career in medicine.

Lynn Friedman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, in private practice in Bethesda, Maryland, who specializes in worklife and organizational consultation and psychotherapy. She provides individual consultation, leads worklife groups, and consults organizations on change management. She has been a washingtonpost.com career advice expert since 1999.