If you want to become a doctor, you need to understand the medical school application timeline and create your own premed timeline. This includes planning your courses, strategizing your extracurriculars, and preparing your medical school application. In this blog post, we detail important tips every premed student should know in order to prepare themselves to successfully matriculate to a medical school and become a doctor.
If you are interested in pre-med advising, check out our individualized premed advising packages.
Premed Timeline Overview
Are you interested in becoming a doctor? The first step in getting your medical degree is figuring out the path to get there. It’s a long journey to get your M.D. or D.O. degree, but it’s well worth it!
Here is a typical timelines of how to become a doctor in the United States:
- Undergraduate schooling (3-4 years)
- Gap year(s)/post-bac (variable number of years and optional)
- Medical school (3-4 years)
- Residency/internship (2-6 years)
- Fellowship or additional specialty training (1-3 years)
- Practicing physician
This post will focus on the premed timeline during undergraduate schooling and gap year(s)/post-bac (if applicable).
Medical School Application Timeline: College and Pre-Med Course Planning
Most premeds will finish all their medical school pre-requisite courses during college. However, some students were not pre-meds during college, and if this is the case, there are now several post-bacc programs where you can take some or all your pre-med requirements. This is one of our favorite websites that has tons of useful information on post-bacc programs.
When planning their premed timeline, students often have questions choosing a major. In general, medical schools do not have any major requirements, so choose something that genuinely interests you! Ideally, your major will also help you develop relevant skills and inform your practice as a future physician. Some students may choose to double major or major in a non-science discipline. Be aware of your workload if you choose to do so, as you will still need to maintain a competitive GPA and complete necessary medical school pre-requisite courses.
In addition to your major requirements, medical schools often have their own set of pre-requisite courses you will need to complete.
While the specifics may vary between different medical schools, most medical schools will require the following courses:
- Math: 1 semester
- Some schools may require statistics as part of the math requirement.
- Chemistry with lab: 2 years (1 year general chemistry + 1 year organic chemistry)
- Physics with lab: 1 year
- Biology with lab: 1 year
- English/writing: 1 year
- Courses designated as writing-intensive may satisfy this requirement
- Some schools also recommend students take Psychology and Sociology courses in preparation for the MCAT.
- AP/IB credits may not satisfy medical school requirements at most medical schools.
- Some medical schools may have other additional requirements. Check each school’s website for its premed requirements.
- Some schools now use CBAs (Competency-Based Admissions), in which applicants are not required to take specific courses as preparation for medical school is evaluated more holistically on the basis of general competencies.
- 1 year = 3 quarters = 2 semesters.
- Check with your school’s premed advising office (if applicable) about specifics for your university.
Premed Timeline: Extracurricular Activities During College And Beyond
Extracurricular activities are EXTREMELY important for getting accepted into medical school. This is one part of the application where we (the Cracking Med School Admissions team) really stress and emphasize in order for students to stand out with their medical school applications. So, you will need to plan this out when you create a premed timeline.
You need to be involved with extracurricular activities during college and during your gap years. Extracurricular activities extend beyond school clubs and volunteering. They also include research projects, hobbies, jobs, and internships. We’ll outline each popular type of extracurricular activity more down below.
Extracurriculars help medical schools understand who you are outside of academics and are a great way for you to develop transferable skills that showcase your strengths and potential as a future physician. When choosing extracurriculars, be sure that they reflect your passion and interests—you need not limit yourself to only pre-med activities. In general, admission committee members want to see high quality activities over a sustained period of time, so keep track of your activities and regularly update your resume for when you need to apply!
#1. Clinical Experience
Clinical experience involves the care and treatment of patients (clinical volunteering) and observing the patient/doctor relationship (shadowing). These activities are important to show medical schools that you have a personal understanding of clinical medicine and the realities of medicine. Don’t see it as a “requirement”, but rather an opportunity to explore your intended career path.
Example activities that would be characterized as clinical experience include hospital volunteering, clinical research, or volunteering at a free clinic. Be sure to start these activities early and show longitudinal commitment; leadership in these activities can be especially attractive to medical schools!
#2. Volunteerism and Community Service
In addition to clinical experience, medical schools value students who are service-minded and people oriented as these qualities are important for physicians. Volunteerism/community service in a non-clinical setting is a great way to showcase your altruism and contribute to a cause that matters to you. If you are unsure where to start, contact your university’s volunteer center or look into student organizations that perform work you find fulfilling. Like clinical experience, longitudinal involvement and leadership while doing so are looked upon favorably by medical schools, so start early!
Many pre-med students will also become involved with research. Medicine is an ever-changing field and medicine can be seen as applied research, so many medical schools value research experience in applicants. Note that you should not do research to “check a box”—pursue research topics that genuinely interest you, whether that be in the sciences, humanities, or social sciences. Not doing research does not necessary mean you will not get into medical school!
There are a variety of different types of research labs. Wet-lab research is more basic-science focused and typically involves working with molecular techniques and/or animal models. In contrast, a dry-lab applies computational/bioinformatical approaches to answer hypotheses through models and statistics. Research can also be clinical (working directly with patients) and public health related (population data collection and analysis). To become involved with research, contact your school’s undergraduate research center and/or email professors you are interested in working with!
In planning your medical school application timeline, do not forget to explore interests outside of medicine and science! Hobbies help differentiate you from other applicants and keep you healthy/sane. For example, our students have listed hobbies such as dance, music/instruments, sports/exercise, cooking, art, photography, and programming on their applications!
Should I take a gap year or do a post-bac?
Gap years are an excellent opportunity to take some time off to reflect, rejuvenate, and re-energize before starting medical school. They may also make you a stronger applicant because of the additional experiences you gain. During a gap year, our students have been involved in a variety of activities including:
- Post-graduate Fellowships (i.e. Marshall Scholarships, Fulbright Scholarships, Rhodes Scholarships, Gates Cambridge Scholarships).
- Research positions
- Volunteering and community service
- Additional courses
If you have questions about your gap year, please contact us to explain your choices and questions. Our Cracking Med School Admissions team is happy to help!
A post-bac is designed for students who have already received an undergraduate degree. These programs are ideal for graduates who want to enhance their academic record (e.g. low undergraduate GPA), career-changers who have already graduated, or those who want to strengthen their science background before taking the MCAT. Be sure to consider cost, strength, and length of the post-bac program when deciding!
Preparing to Apply: Creating Your Premed Timeline
The MCAT: Up to 3 years before applying to medical school
In addition to your pre-requisite coursework (which must be completed by matriculation) and extracurriculars, you will need a MCAT score to apply. Be sure to register and study for a MCAT test-date before planning to apply! For more information, see our blog post about “How to study for the MCAT.”
The most common times students take the MCAT are:
- The summer before or after senior year of college
- During winter break of junior year or senior year of college
- During a gap year
Letters of Recommendations: Request at least 1 month prior to applying to medical school
When should you ask for medical school application letters of recommendation? Request letters of recommendations at least 1 months BEFORE June of the year you apply to medical school (when the AMCAS application opens). We recommend students to start asking their recommenders during January – March of the year they are applying to medical school.
Furthermore, medical schools require you to submit 3-5 letters of recommendation from professors (typically 2 science, 1 non-science) you have taken classes with. Your undergraduate institution may also offer a committee letter in lieu of individual letters. Be sure to give your letter writers at least 2 months to write your letters and/or follow deadlines to obtain a committee letter. For more information about letters of recommendation, see our blog post on “How to ask for a strong medical school letter of recommendation.”
AMCAS Application: Start Before April The Year You Apply To Medical School
Note for current applicants: For students planning to submit AMCAS for the 2020-2021 application cycle, see our post on medical school application timeline 2020. We give a detailed outline of when to start working on all parts of your medical school application.
Finally, you will need to submit an AMCAS application in order to apply to medical schools. The AMCAS application is the primary application for M.D. schools.
You will need to submit the following on your AMCAS application:
- Personal information
- MCAT scores
- Letters of recommendation
- Personal statements
- Work & Activities descriptions
- Short essays on most significant extracurricular activities
The Cracking Med School Admissions team recommends students to start thinking about their AMCAS applications March to April of the year they apply to medical school. Typically, applicants work hard throughout May and June to draft and finalize their AMCAS application.
Words of Encouragement
Pursuing medicine is laborious and you will be challenged in the process of doing so. With that in mind, always keep your goal/motivation in mind and follow your passions. If you can be creative and have fun while planning your premed timeline, you will have a much better time and be a stronger applicant for it! Finally, use your resources and rely on a healthy support network. There no reason to not rely on your peers for help. Good luck!
Blog post written by Kevin Li and the Cracking Med School Admissions Team