How to Get to Medical School
So….you haven’t been able to shut up that voice in the back of your head that whispers, “doctor….”? You’ve been frustrated by the limitations of your scope of practice? You’ve yearned to adopt exorbitant amounts of student loans? You’ve thought about going to medical school.
Getting in to medical school can seem like an entry to a secret society at times, one that is not outwardly welcoming to the likes of the ambulance-riders like us. Please let me help you break it down. Learn from my mistakes and triumphs, so you can join the likes of a proud group of physicians who will never let their medic numbers expire.
1. You’ve gotta be BS-ing me.
First, you will need a Bachelor’s Degree (B.S. or B.A.) from a 4-year, degree-granted institution. Unfortunately, medical schools still tend to have a problem with socioeconomic inclusivity which causes problems with them granting credit for pre-requisite courses taken at a community college. Certainly some schools would be okay on a case-by-case basis, but it is the exception, not the rule. If you have not yet received a Bachelor’s Degree, start applying! You may need to take the ACT or SAT. Call their admissions and academic advising offices, set up a meeting. See if you can get credit for any of the schooling you have already completed. Flaunt your role as a public servant to see if you can get tuition breaks. Talk to your employer about tuition reimbursement for career advancement. Look into first responder student loan forgiveness. Get ready to WERK.
Ok, you’re in. You’re a college kid! Come down from your proverbial keg-stand, and return your Animal House sweatshirt.
You can major in anything as long as you satisfy your pre-reqs. Many folks find it beneficial to double dip and get your pre-reqs knocked out along with your major requirements. Others have a passion for the humanities and want to dive deeper into literature or philosophy (looking at you, Jace Mullen). Both paths have pros and cons. Whatever you choose, make sure your GPA (both your overall AND your science GPA) stay competitive. Don’t be discouraged by a bad grade, but do work your booty off to make up for it. Below is a chart of solid pre-reqs and some suggested pre-reqs. Ultimately, it is school specific, so if you are interested in a few schools in particular, it will behoove you to look at their admissions website. Some schools are even moving towards no specific pre-reqs, but I wouldn’t bank on that. Don’t worry how long undergrad takes you; just get that degree. Build a strong relationship with your Pre-med advising department at your school.
3. Letters of Recommendation
Another reason to get down and dirty in your schoolwork is to build relationships with your professors. Typically, you will need two letters of rec from professors (they really prefer professors to assistants/grad student instructors/etc), and of those, often they want two science professors. It would be great to have a letter that says more than “Natalie came to class and got this grade”. Go to office hours. Ask to grab a coffee with a professor. Talk about life. You have an advantage in undergrad because you will already stand out. You’ll be the one with gray hair in the front and center 😉. Ok, maybe not….but you may feel like that. You have so much more life experience than your 18-year-old counterparts. Use this as an advantage to relate to your instructors; don’t be shy! This is your education and your future!
Remember that pre-med advising department I mentioned earlier? You may need them to write you a committee letter! Ask about this early to see if they do that and what you need to do to get that.
If you keep working on the road when you’re in school, build a relationship with physicians you bring patients to or your medical director. Tell them you are planning on applying to medical school. Ask them for a letter of recommendation to flaunt your clinical side.
THIS IS IMPORTANT. Letters of recommendation must be confidential and written on official letterhead. There are services that help you manage these to take the stress off of the authors so they only have to submit it once. I used this one. Ask your references early, so they have ample time (shoot for Christmas time). You will want those letters as close to May as possible.
4. The dreaded MCAT
Ok. This is when things get spooky. There’s this test; it’s about $300 and 8 hours long. You can schedule it whenever you think you’re ready for it; I would advise you to wait until you have completed most of those pre-reqs so you have the most exposure to the material. You will want to have it done before or early during your application cycle (around June 1 of that given year); consider the score to be good for around 3 years.
The AAMC publishes an annual MCAT Essentials that walks you through what to expect. I recommend taking a prep course if you can swing it, but otherwise there are free resources and practice tests available. (If that last link takes you to a place where you need a log-in, you should be able to make a free account.)
The test is divided into 4 sections:
Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills
And is scored as follows…
50th percentile is a 500, and again with increasingly competitive admissions, you’ll likely want to shoot for around 80th percentile which typically comes out to around 510. Here is a table from AAMC showing the acceptance rates of MD-applicants based on their GPA and MCAT to give you an idea of what you’re up against. Here is a link showing the stats of successful DO-applicants from AACOM; you’ll find the results are fairly similar. Try not to let this intimidate you; just know what to strive towards! Much like pre-requisites, always be sure to check your target schools to see how competitive you are.
5. Oh, The Places You’ll Go…
Now, how exactly do you even come up with a list of schools to apply to?? First, look locally. Your state of residence is your best bet if there is a public institution there (also, that will typically be your cheapest option for tuition). If you have strong roots where you are, there is nothing wrong with keeping your list small and focused, and I would make that abundantly clear in your application. If you are a wild child ready for an adventure or have ties elsewhere or are just generally curious, I recommend starting here; it’s a catchall database of MD-granting (allopathic) medical schools that costs $30 a year. You can see each school’s stats and a good bit of information about what sets them apart. Also, here is a list of DO-granting (osteopathic) medical schools with links to each program and a link to sign up for access to the DO school database.
Let’s take a moment to discuss the distinction between an M.D. and D.O. They are effectively the same. Period. They take the same board exams-in fact, DOs take additional exams! They match at the same residencies. Their scope of practice is identical. It is simply another route to the same destination. Osteopathic schools are often better at evaluating past clinical experience than their allopathic counterparts, so be sure to consider if these schools are right for you.
Next, consider what is important to you in your education. Do you want a school with significant funding for research? Do you want a school that prioritizes serving the underrepresented populations? Do you want a smaller class size? Start comparing and contrasting.
6. Apply yourself
Once you decide where you want to apply, get crackin’! Most allopathic schools can be accessed through AMCAS. The application will be available around May 1, and you’ll be able to submit it around June 1. GET IT IN AS CLOSE TO JUNE 1 AS POSSIBLE. If there is anything you take away from this blog, let it be this. They review applications on a rolling basis; you want to be at the top of that pile. Osteopathic schools have AACOMAS. Same idea. Naturally, Texas has their own system because of course y’all do- TMDSAS. Each comes with application fees.
You will need to submit your letters of recommendation to AMCAS (or your respective application site-I’m going to simplify by saying AMCAS for the rest of this section). If you used a site like I mentioned before, you should have no problem directly sending it without confidentiality concerns. Again, do this soon so your schools won’t be held up on evaluating your application.
You will need to contact each of the schools where you took courses and request an official transcript to be sent to AMCAS (this could cost you ~$10; yes, it’s absurd to be charged for your own records). Additionally, you will need to manually input your coursework-yes, this is also absurd. Let it happen. Get used to the hoops.
You will need to write and enter a Personal Statement of around 1000 words. Be yourself; let them get to know you. I was told once that my “personal statement was too personal”, so….I guess watch out for that. Show your resilience, your clinical prowess, your collaborative skills, and desire to further your education. I strongly recommend specifically finding a way to lay out your clinical scope as a paramedic or EMT. Unfortunately, many physicians just don’t understand prehospital care; help them see why it’s a damn good idea for you to be in their class. I managed to mention intubation, cardiac rhythms, formulating treatment plans, managing complex scenes with multidisciplinary teams, coming face to face with social determinants of health, and constantly learning and improving. Make it easy for them to see that you’re the obvious choice; hush that impostor syndrome.
You must enter your extracurricular activities including conferences, awards, service work. You will have to write a blurb about each. Make those few words count. Hit the highlights of the description and then spend more words showing what skills/experience it gave you.
Hit submit. Have a drink. And get ready to WAIT. and WAIT. and WAIT. Remember you are applying a full year and a half before you matriculate; it will take a good bit of patience. You will make it.
7. Next steps…
You will receive secondary applications from each school. Each will come with specific essay questions with various wordcounts. Be sure you proofread your essays; there is always a horror story of applying to X school and leaving Y school’s name in the essay. That’s a YIKES. A good rule of thumb is to turn around these applications within 2 weeks, but again, the sooner the better. Stay at the top of their stack! Yes, this is a lot of work. Yes, you will get through it.
Some schools require you to take the CASPer test. It does indeed also cost money. CASPer is meant to evaluate you more holistically, examine your ethics and your critical thinking. Do not stress about this. Their website has some example questions, so you’re not completely going in blind.
THEN, if they like you, you will get an interview invitation!!!! You get to show yourself off! Go get a suit. Get a haircut. Get ready to rock. Prepare, but don’t panic. They already like you. Honestly, my biggest fear was that I was going to accidentally slip a curse word out 😉. Some schools are still doing more traditional interviews, but many are switching to the MMI format (multiple mini interviews). These will be ethical dilemmas or general medical culture questions. Many have no correct answer. They want to see how you communicate. These were MADE for paramedics, I swear. I loved these. Look at some example questions online, but again, don’t stress too much. A faculty member, current student, or even members of the community will be evaluating you at each station. You will have limited time to look at the question and limited time to respond. Be yourself. Let your passion shine through. Let your experience carry you.
8. YOU DID IT.
I don’t just mean you got in. I mean you finished the application process. That is a huge accomplishment regardless of the outcome. You put yourself out there.
Full disclosure: I applied to medical school THREE TIMES. And you know what? The timing was right for me. Despite feeling stressed and frustrated and confused, I welcomed rich experiences and opportunities I didn’t know were possible. I have spoken at conferences and written blogs and educated. I have built connections with mentors that empower me. I have challenged myself clinically and explored many facets of healthcare that have fueled my passion and curiosity. I am now at an institution I absolutely adore. We are the class that is christening our new curriculum that just so happens to be more clinically focused (AKA more paramedic-friendly). It’s funny how things work themselves out. Be clear with yourself about your goals, and stay persistent. Welcome detours into your path. You will make it.
I am so excited for you to pursue this professional development. There are a number of us who will embroider “NRP” or “EMT-P” on their white coat (before promptly never wearing it again). Reach out to those who have gone before you, who have similar experience to you. We all are ready to welcome you with open arms. It is challenging. It is expensive. It is worth it.
Your favorite medic/future doctor/Wonder Woman wannabe
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