You’ve had an MD on your mind from an early age. Becoming a doctor has always seemed inevitable—you can’t picture yourself doing anything else. But while you might feel as though you have quite a ways to go before medical school, it’s not as far in the future as it seems.
As you work to complete your undergraduate education, you’ll soon realize time is a precious commodity. There are a lot of application requirements you’ll need to complete when applying to programs. And you have to stay on top of your studies, even during a hectic interview season.
While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, taking a strategic approach can help. Preparing for medical school is all about staying organized and managing your time. Consider this your guide to help you understand what actions you need to take—and when—to be successful.
7 things pre-meds should do to start preparing for medical school
Some of these tips might seem specific to the application process, but they can also help you develop habits that will serve you well throughout your entire career.
1. Be thoughtful about your college classes
Being certain that you want to pursue a career in medicine can be a huge help when it comes to planning your college course schedule. Dr. Clay Dorenkamp, Orthopaedic Surgery Resident Physician, says this knowledge meant he was able to meet with a pre-med advisor and plan his classes at the beginning of his undergraduate education. There are a lot of prerequisites for medical school—general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, physics, etc.—so it’s in your best interest to think about them sooner rather than later.
“These classes are hard and your schedule needs to be developed to allow enough time to study for them,” Dr. Dorenkamp advises.
"These classes are hard and your schedule needs to be developed to allow enough time to study for them."
Just don’t let course requirements keep you from pursuing other classes that catch your attention. Many medical students obtain their bachelor’s degree outside the biological sciences. Dr. Megan Williams, Family and Obesity Physician at Elemental Weight Loss & Wellness Clinic, suggests students study what most interests them. She also recommends thinking about how different classes could help you become a better physician.
“One of the best decisions I ever made was to major in Spanish,” Dr. Williams says. “What that means is I can take care of more patients.”
2. Develop good study habits
Most doctors will tell you that medical school was far more difficult than their undergraduate education. Dr. Williams certainly thought so. This is why it’s essential to figure out how you best learn new material. It will likely make the transition to medical school a bit easier.
“Evaluate which study methods work best for you and stick with them,” Dr. Dorenkamp urges. “I studied completely different than some of my smartest friends.”
"Evaluate which study methods work best for you and stick with them"
Developing solid study habits isn’t just about performing well during medical school. Since continuing education is a requirement for physicians, having good learning strategies can help set the stage for success throughout your entire career.
“The more you develop your ability to learn and retain information as a pre-med, the more successful you will be as a medical student, resident, and physician,” Dr. Dorenkamp offers.
3. Take the MCAT seriously
One of the most daunting medical school application requirements is the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), a rigorous exam. Medical schools scrutinize MCAT scores considerably when reviewing applications, so you truly need to put your best foot forward. That means you need to start studying as early as possible.
“The minute that you decide you’re going to apply to medical school is when preparation for the MCAT should begin,” Dr. Williams urges.
"The minute that you decide you’re going to apply to medical school is when preparation for the MCAT should begin."
Dr. Dorenkamp agrees that you need to do as well as you possibly can. He actually suggests taking it twice.
“The second time I studied for the MCAT over summer break when I could dedicate all my energy to the test, which resulted in a drastic improvement in my score,” he reflects.
4. Gather as much relevant experience as you can
Students know they need to gain clinical experiences like shadowing physicians for applications. But you might wonder exactly how much is enough. Truthfully, the only real guideline is to get as much experience as you can. Also consider the breadth of your experience.
“Get as much variety as possible, because that can give you an idea of the different medical specialties out there,” Dr. Dorenkamp suggests. He recommends shadowing both MDs and DOs in multiple fields.
Gaining a substantial amount of experience can also help you determine whether medicine is truly right for you. It’s not all about glory and pulling off impressive procedures.
“At the end of the day, this is a service industry,” Dr. Williams reminds.
"At the end of the day, this is a service industry."
It’s also worth remembering that shadowing isn’t the only way to gain exposure to medicine. You could also work as a scribe, become a certified nursing assistant, or spending time as a hospice volunteer.
5. Always aim to be early
Thinking ahead is a useful strategy for every part of applying to medical school. You need to plan for things like writing your personal statement and securing strong letters of recommendation. Excellent letters can only come from individuals who know you incredibly well—it takes time to build those relationships. Dr. Williams recalls writing a strong recommendation for a student who worked in her office as a scribe.
“I could write something about her, because after four or five months of working with her on almost a daily basis, I had things to say,” she reflects.
And while it’s possible to submit applications before you’ve received your MCAT scores, Dr. Williams warns against that. She’s had admissions committee experience and says a completed application simply looks better.
"Why would I waste time having you come out and going through the interview process if you’re not even ready?"
“Why would I waste time having you come out and going through the interview process if you’re not even ready?” she poses.
6. Seek out other opportunities
While medical schools want strong students, they also recognize the best physicians have additional strengths. They take notice when candidates can demonstrate that they have leadership skills, tenacity, and other passions. Research experience can also look great on an application. Dr. Dorenkamp reminds that you should be prepared to elaborate about any research you’ve done.
Having a job can also be incredibly powerful. Dr. Williams says it’s a great way to show you have solid work ethic.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding for a lot of people that medical school is not a job,” she says. “Medical school’s a job like nothing else.”
“Medical school’s a job like nothing else.”
Dr. Dorenkamp also suggests rounding out your resume with club involvement and community service experience.
Say you’ve received an acceptance letter or two. While it can be tempting to hit the books in the few months before medical school begins, you’re likely better off taking a break.
“My advice is to do absolutely nothing,” Dr. Williams says. “Once you get accepted, you need to enjoy life.”
Dr. Dorenkamp agrees. “Nothing you do between the two will change how well you perform your first semester in medical school,” he says. “So take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy the ride ahead.”
Start your medical school countdown
Readying yourself for medical school takes time. Even individual application components can take months of effort. The sooner you starting thinking of preparing for medical school as a years-long effort, the better off you’ll be. This is especially true if you have yet to take the MCAT.
The MCAT is a rigorous exam, and medical schools scrutinize scores considerably. They want to make sure students have what it takes to succeed. Learn more about what to expect on test day by reading our article “How Long Is the MCAT? And 4 Other Things You Need to Know to Be Prepared.”
Looking for help navigating medical school applications and admissions?View Our Pre-Med Guide