The Road to Medicine

What does it take to become a doctor in the United States?


The Road to Medicine: What does it take to become a doctor in the United States?
The Road to Medicine
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I. What premedical requirements must students fulfill to apply to medical school?

  • Professions in medicine are some of the most sought-after positions in the United States. Young people often develop interests in medicine for a variety of reasons in America. Some may find that they enjoy science class or biology in school. Some may have mentors or role models who are doctors that inspired them to consider a career in medicine. Sometimes students even cite popular TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy as the reason why they became interested in medicine. Whatever their reasoning may be, there are many, many students in the United States who are interested in becoming doctors.
  • In order to apply to medical school, students must satisfy many requirements. In college, premed students must complete at least one semester of mathematics at the level of calculus, multivariable or higher, many credits in topics ranging from biology to organic chemistry, biochemistry and physics. Within those courses, they must work hard to get high grades; generally, admissions counselors estimate that students should aim for a 3.5 or higher GPA in order to reliably assume they will be admitted to any medical school at all.
  • Academics aren’t the only factor premed students have to stay on top of. Many medical schools look at extracurricular activities, including research, volunteering, and advocacy. Sometimes students have a particular area of interest such as social justice or benchtop research that really sets them apart from the rest of the crowd. Admissions committees generally don’t require any specific type of research. For instance, applicants don’t necessarily have to have experience in wet lab or benchtop research. Some applicants have done global health or biostatistics computing research. Many applicants volunteer at hospitals to get a sense of what their future work environments might be like. This is also a great opportunity for them to start thinking about what specific branch, or specialty, of medicine they would like to learn more about.
  • On top of grades, volunteering, research, and other extracurriculars, schools also look at the important metric that is the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). This 7.5-hour-long test covers topics such as critical reading, physics, biochemistry, and psychology, among other topics. The highest score that one can obtain on the MCAT is a 528, which is rare. It is generally understood that obtaining a 515 means that an applicant can reliably expect to get in somewhere provided that they have a solid GPA and a decent amount of extracurricular work.

II. What is the premedical culture like at undergraduate institutions in the United States?

  • Premed students in the United States often get a bad rap. They are stereotypically understood to be “type A” and hyper-competitive. Compared to college students who study other disciplines and plan to go into different careers, the typical “premed” student seems to be generally understood as more nervous about grades given the emphasis medical schools place on academics and test scores. Of course, students who plan to go into business, law, engineering, and many other fields have reasons to be a little anxious about landing interviews at esteemed firms or securing jobs in certain industries. However, given the slew of strict college requirements place upon premedical students, many undergraduates (premed and non-premed) would agree that students who plan to become doctors tend to be a little more nervous than the average college student.
  • However, the number of requirements and expectations that premedical students must meet has its merits. An actual physician must be sure to stay on top of all their duties and stay caring as well as conscientious. The number of tasks that premed students and medical students must remember to attend to trains them to manage high workloads. Doctors must be diligent and serious when it comes to taking care of their patients, people who come to them at their times of greatest vulnerability. Learning how to balance grades, standardized test prep, volunteering, research, and extracurriculars can be a daunting task, but successful premed students are able to develop important career skills by doing so in their undergraduate years.

III. What does the medical school application process entail?

  • Many medical school applicants take gap years in the United States. More and more students take years off between college and medical school every year for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they would like to boost their profiles to make sure they are the strongest applicant they can be before applying to schools. Sometimes they did not get a chance to fulfill all of their premedical requirements during undergrad. In fact, many students don’t even realize they would like to become doctors during their college years. In these cases, they would go on to take a post-baccalaureate course at their university or another university to fulfill these requirements. Another common reason for taking a gap year before medical school is burnout. The road to medical school is certainly challenging and competitive. After four years or more, it is totally understandable for students to be “burned out.” During the gap year or years, students may find a way to balance research (so as to demonstrate continued interest) and time to rest.
  • Medical school is also extremely expensive. Though schools vary widely in how much they charge for tuition, it is usually not something for which students can get significant scholarships. The majority of students must take out loans that they will pay back much later. Medical school is usually four years, but there are some MSTP (Medical Scientist Training Programs) or MD-PhD programs that waive tuition since the med students will also be doing research for labs in their universities. These students are often expected to go into research or at least integrate research heavily into their medical careers. Beyond the tuition, the process of applying to medical schools itself is very pricey. One must fill out a general AMCAS application that is sent to all the schools they apply to (analogous to the Common Application for colleges) and then secondaries to all the medical schools. The secondaries cost on average $60-$100, and most students apply to twenty or thirty schools. Schools then consider applicants over a period of slightly less than a year and send out applications on a rolling basis. They then invite students to interview at their institutions. Students must cover the cost of flying to the interview and staying overnight by themselves.
  • At the interviews, applicants must be sure to dress conservatively. Most students wear the same type of clothes in a business attire style. Schools are generally looking for mature, composed, and serious applicants who have compelling reasons to want to become doctors and who have good reasons to want to attend their specific schools. Usually, applicants have some pretty good reasons: their family is located near the school, they find the curriculum to be particularly solid, or they have some other personal reason to be drawn to that school. The interviews usually take a whole day and can be quite nerve-racking. Afterward, schools vary heavily on how long it takes to render a decision and notify applicants. The wait can be quite nerve-racking as well.
  • Given the heavy cost of applying to medical school, another reason applicants take time off before medical school is money. Many college graduates work at consulting firms or other companies to save up money before enrolling in medical school. When their peers are interviewing at tech, law, or financial companies that fly their applicants out and cover all the costs for interviewing, money is really an important consideration medical school applicants must account for. Furthermore, compared to their peers who start working immediately after college, medical school students are ever more financially disadvantaged because they are not making any money during school unless they are MSTP students who receive a stipend.

IV. Given all of the challenges students must face, why are there so many applicants to medical school? Why is the number of applicants rising sharply?

  • Even though the requirements for medical school can put immense strain on students due to academics and finances, many students still are determined to go to medical school. This could be because they are determined to help people through healing. Sometimes they themselves were sick and were very grateful for the physicians who helped them. Maybe a family member fell ill and relied on the care of an empathetic team of doctors. Whatever their specific reason may be, students are generally united by the desire to help people. Furthermore, being a doctor is one of the most respected professions. Doctors are seen as knowledgeable and caring. They hold a lot of authority and are influential in many fields from pharmaceuticals to policy-making.
  • Another reason that so many people want to go into medicine is how doctors are portrayed in television and in many other cultural outlets. Often, the profession is glamorized in a way that is not reflective of reality. Many of the doctor dramas streaming in the United States portray medical practices that would never be allowed in the real world. Nevertheless, many young people get the idea that being a doctor is equivalent to always being heroic and triumphant when in reality, sometimes the biggest points of pride in a doctor’s career are quiet acts of empathy. Though it is exciting and wonderful to save a trauma patient’s life in an intense marathon surgery, it is equally if not more important that a doctor be able to understand the emotional struggles that come with illness and their impact on not only the patient, but also the families. Being able to comfort the palliative patient and responsibly explain options to them and their families is just as important as being able to perform that heroic, dramatic surgery.

V. What comes after students are admitted to medical school?

  • After students have been admitted to medical school, they must balance a variety of considerations before making the ultimate decision. Which school will minimize the cost? Often, schools in the states that the student is from are much more affordable since the family of the student has been presumably contributing to state taxes, which fund the medical schools within that state. Which school would allow them to rotate at hospitals that specialize in fields in which they’re interested? Which school would best prepare them to match into the residencies they want? Many schools host “second looks” where students return to the school after being accepted to compare the schools at which they have been admitted. The programs at second looks include mixers, tours, more detailed info sessions as well as other events where students can simply meet one another.
  • Once students have chosen where to attend, they must commit to enroll and withdraw offers at other schools so that other schools can take applicants off their waitlists and finalize their classes as well. If they have enrolled at a school outside of their home state, they have to move to a new town and find a place to live as well as roommates to share the cost of rent.
  • It is often a big transition for students. Many students will have to buy a car if their school is located in an area that does not have convenient public transportation. Not only do they have to acclimate to a new environment, but they also must get to know an entirely new group of classmates.
  • On top of that, the med school curriculum is typically very different from the undergraduate curriculum. Many schools offer a lot of “unstructured time” in which students must organize their own schedules. This can be a daunting task for recent college graduates who are used to having a number of set class times throughout the day. There’s an entire host of questions students must answer with regard to their new academic lifestyle: Where do they study best? Are there any good cafes or libraries near where they live? Who do they want to study with?

VI. What do students have to do during and after medical school?

  • During medical school, students must learn anatomy through “anatomy practicals” and dissections. They also must cover a wide range of topics covering bioethics to endocrinology, epidemiology, cardiology, cancer, and much, much more. The first year of medical school is called “M1,” the second year “M2” and so on and so forth. The summer after M1, students generally start research in a field in which they are interested. Attending lectures by experts in various fields is a great way for students to find out what they would like to learn more about. They typically reach out to professors and doctors who come to lecture. Sometimes they even email potential mentors they’ve never met before.
  • The summer after M2, they take the USMLE Step 1 exam that they must pass in order to get their medical license. After Step 1, they must take Step 2. The score on Step 1 is a contributing factor to their residency applications. Various specialties require different ranges on the step exams.
  • Med students also must complete clinical rotations and clerkships where they learn more about the different medical specialties and figure out what field they would like to go into. They are evaluated by faculty for punctuality, professionalism, and medical knowledge. These evaluations are incorporated into their residency application profiles.
  • Finally, medical students must get their residency applications ready and ask for recommendation letters from research mentors and faculty. After they submit their applications, they must wait for interview invitations from various hospitals. There are limited numbers of spots available in various specialties based on the needs of the patient populations. Some specialties have many spots available for residencies; for instance, internal medicine has many positions because there is high need for internists.

VII. Discuss with your tutor

a. Why do you think there are so many steps involved in becoming a doctor? What are the requirements to become a doctor in Korea? Compare and contrast the processes in Korea and America with your tutor. How are they different? How are they similar?

b. What qualities and characteristics do you think students must have in order to become doctors successfully? Why do you think so many students demonstrate an interest in the medical profession, but only a fraction of these students actually become doctors? Have you ever considered going into medicine? If yes, why? If no, why not?

c. Why do you think doctors are so respected in the United States? How are they perceived in Korea? Why do you think perceptions of doctors in Korea are the way there are? What are the similarities and differences between attitudes toward doctors in Korea versus in the United States?

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