Last Updated on January 24, 2024 by Lori Pace
Medicine is one of the most challenging yet rewarding fields a student can enter. But before you decide whether becoming a doctor is right for you, you should know the seven steps you’ll have to take along the way.
Being a doctor is a career not for everyone—it requires enormous investments of time, money, and effort. But if this path is right for you, this guide is what you need to prepare yourself early for a successful career as a doctor.
The Career Outlook for Medical Doctors
Healthcare is also a growing field, which means that the demand for doctors will continue to increase in the coming years. Furthermore, medicine is a rigorous field and doctors have a lot of responsibility. They also must spend tons of time and money on their training.
Let’s take a look at the career outlook for physicians and surgeons using data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- 2019 Median Pay: Minimum $208,000 per year
- Job Growth Rate (2019-29): 4% (average)
Pay and job outlook can vary depending on what type of doctor you want to be. So, if you have a particular speciality in mind (such as dermatology or rheumatology), you should research that field’s projected career outlook.
The table below presents the median salaries and job outlooks for various types of doctors (arranged in order of highest salary to lowest):
|Type of Doctor
|Median Salary (2019)
|Job Growth Rate (2019-2029)
|Obstetricians and gynecologists
|Family and general practitioners
|Physicians and surgeons, all other
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics
How to Become a Doctor: 7-Step Career Path
Becoming a doctor is a pretty complex, multi-step process. Here are the seven significant steps in more detail below:
Step 1: Do Well in High School
As mentioned, this is a pretty competitive field, so the earlier you start distinguishing yourself as a great student, the easier the process will be. So, if you’re serious about becoming a doctor, you should try your best since high school.
Here’s what you can do in high school:
Focus on Science and Math
By taking a science and math course every year, you will lay a solid foundation and make it a priority to take advanced and AP courses. You’ll also want to keep your GPA (as high as possible in these classes and all others).
This is a crucial step because if you don’t enjoy science and math courses in high school, it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy them later on. So, you can use this as an opportunity to think critically about whether you’d like to pursue this career.
One of the single most important parts of your college application is what classes you choose to take in high school (in conjunction with how well you do in those classes).
Volunteer for Community Service
Being a good doctor isn’t just about being a science and math whiz—it’s about showing how you care about helping others by volunteering consistently in high school.
It’s best if you can do volunteer work that’s at least somewhat related to healthcare. You might look for opportunities at a nearby hospital or clinic. These volunteer works can also help you observe early whether a career in medicine is something you’re passionate about.
Of course, you don’t have to volunteer exclusively in healthcare environments—any community service opportunity in which you’re helping other people is a good fit.
Get a Great Score on the ACT/SAT
Getting into a great medical school helps to go to a great college. And getting into a great college enables you to get a good score on the SAT/ACT.
Plan on taking your first test by the end of your junior year—this gives you time to retake your test of choice if you want to raise your scores.
Submit Stellar College Applications
Your senior fall will be all about researching and applying to colleges. You don’t necessarily need to go to a school with a dedicated pre-med program. Still, it’ll be better if your college or university has strong science and math programs.
If you want to go to a top-tier private school, you’ll have to submit applications with the following:
- A high GPA
- Impressive SAT/ACT scores
- Strong letters of recommendation
- Polished and thoughtful personal essays
Some excellent public schools might not require letters of rec or applications essays. Nevertheless, it’s wise to start preparing these materials early in the application process
Step 2: Get Into a Great College
College is where you start focusing your studies and preparing for a career in medicine. Here’s everything you should do as an undergraduate to prepare yourself for the next major step: medical school.
Meet All Pre-Med Requirements
Most medical schools require students to have taken a series of courses as undergraduates. This ensures that they have strong foundational knowledge in math and science and will be well prepared for the more advanced classes they’ll have as med students.
This comes to 12-course requirements at a minimum, which doesn’t give you a ton of wiggle room if you also have to meet requirements for a major without much pre-med overlap (e.g., foreign languages or studio art).
If you decide later in college that you’d like to apply to medical school but don’t have time to fit in all these requirements, don’t panic. It’s pretty common for people to wrap up pre-med requirements by taking an extra semester or two in college.
Keep Your Grades Up
Your transcript will be a vital part of your med school applications, so your academic performance should be your #1 priority.
Build Relationships With Professors and Mentors
You’ll need a few strong letters of recommendation from respected faculty members when you submit your med school applications—use this fact to motivate you to network with as many people as possible.
Get Some Research Experience
Having some research experience under your belt is a big plus for med school applications. Working in a biology or chemistry lab would probably be most helpful for medical school.
There are a couple ways you can get research experience as an undergraduate:
- Work as a research assistant (paid or unpaid) in an on-campus lab or at an off-campus research institute.
- Complete an undergraduate thesis, which involves research work.
Continue With Community Service
Medical schools will look at your community service record as essential for your application.
The good news is that it should be easier to find relevant advocacy and community service clubs and organisations in the college. Here are a few example activities:
- Volunteering at a homeless shelter
- Joining a public health advocacy society or organisation
- Volunteering at a nursing home or engaging in other forms of eldercare (e.g., Meals on Wheels)
- Joining a peer counselling organisation
It’s better to stick with a few clubs or activities over the long term instead of jumping around between activities year after year. This demonstrates that you’re consistent and reliable; it also opens up opportunities for leadership roles.
Step 3: Ace the MCAT!
The Medical College Admission Test or MCAT is weighted pretty heavily when compared to other parts of your application.
Most students take the MCAT their junior year—this is arguably the most optimal time to take the test. Because by this point, you will have gone through many of your pre-med courses, making studying for the MCAT a lot easier.
MCAT Scoring and Logistics
In total, it takes seven and a half hours to complete the MCAT. The sections on the test include the following:
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
Each section is scored from 118 to 132, with a median score of 125. You’ll receive an individual score for each section in addition to an overall score. Total scores range from 472 to 578, with the average score at about 500.
Studying for the MCAT
Plan on studying 200-300 hours if you want to do well on the test. Since it’s a seven-and-a-half-hour exam, you really don’t want to have to take it twice.
There are several different ways you can prep for the MCAT:
- Independent study:
- MCAT prep course: Unfortunately, they can be costly, with most costing several thousand dollars. Kaplan and The Princeton Review are a couple of the most popular options.
- Online prep: Khan Academy provides some free study material if you’re looking for a place to start, though it won’t suffice if you’re putting together a complete study plan. Dr Flowers Test Prep is another comprehensive resource for online prep.
- Private tutor: If you decide to hire a tutor, pick someone with glowing recommendations and years of tutoring experience.
You can also buy an official practice test for the MCAT through the Association of American Medical Colleges for $35, in addition to other official study guides and prep materials.
Step 4: Apply and Get Into Medical School
The medical school application process is extremely long.
Research Medical Schools
The average student applies to about 13 schools to optimize their chances of getting in.
The Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) website is one of the best tools for looking into important medical school information.
As with any school or program, there are med school ranking lists. Because US medical schools’ admissions criteria and curricula are stringent and rigorous, admission to any school in the country is considered an accomplishment.
Know the Different Types of Medical Schools
There are two types of physicians in the US: Allopathic physicians (MDs) and Osteopathic physicians (DOs)
Both types are fully licensed physicians and are often very similar in how they practice medicine—they receive degrees from slightly different programs.
DOs receive additional speciality training in certain areas, including using the hands to diagnose/treat illnesses and injuries. You can read more about osteopathic medicine on the American Osteopathic Association site.
Put Together Your Med School Application
Part 1: Primary Application
You send in your primary application by June, the year before your first year of med school. Most med schools use AMCAS, like a Common Application for med schools.
This application includes official transcripts, a personal statement, your resume/CV, and your MCAT scores. Start preparing these materials a few months before submission.
Part 2: Secondary Application
This usually happens in July-August on a typical application timeline. At this point, a school will either reject your primary application or ask you to complete its secondary application.
The secondary application will differ for each school you apply to. If the medical school is happy with your primary and secondary applications, you’ll move on to the next part.
Part 3: Interview
If a school does (or does not) want to interview you, you’ll quickly hear back from them. Some students are left in limbo for a while as schools deliberate over what to do with them.
Interviews are the final decision-making phase. Your interview will either make or break your application.
Overall, you want to come off (1) committed to the medical track, (2) confident in your abilities, (3) eager to learn, (4) warm and empathetic, and (5) grateful for the opportunity to be there.
Step 5: Attend Medical School and Pass Your Boards
After fulfilling all the pre-med requirements and submitting all those applications, you finally arrive here: medical school. You’ll spend four years here. More decisions are to be made, more opportunities for hands-on experiences, and more professional licensing requirements to worry about.
Here’s an overview of what these four years of med school will look like:
- Years 1-2: Primarily classroom-based courses
- Year 3: Training in each primary medical speciality (also known as rotations)
- Year 4: Primarily elective courses based on preferred speciality
Years 1-2: Classroom Work
You won’t have much say in what courses you’ll take during your first two years of medical school. Your education during this time will be an extension of your pre-med requirements.
At the end of your second year, you’ll take the United States Medical Licensing Examination, or the USMLE-1. This test assesses your medical competency to see whether you should continue with your education and medical licensure (another name for the USMLE exams is “Boards”).
Year 3: Rotations
In your third year, you’ll start working with patients in a medical setting (under a supervisor) within different medical specialities. This helps you gain hands-on experience as a physician, but, perhaps more importantly, you’ll learn more about what sort of speciality you may be interested in.
This will dictate what kinds of elective courses you’ll take in your fourth and final year of med school, as well as how long you’ll spend in your residency.
Year 4: Pursuing Your Specialty
As you now know, your fourth year of med school is dedicated mainly to taking elective courses to prepare you for your preferred speciality and continuing to gain hands-on experience. You’ll also take the USMLE Level 2 (similar to the first examination, except it simply tests more advanced knowledge); this exam includes clinical expertise and a clinical skills portion.
Step 6: Complete Your Residency
Residencies, also known as internships, are supervised positions at teaching hospitals. You will be matched to an available residency position through the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP).
Depending on your speciality, you will spend at least three years in your residency program but may spend more time there. You’ll be known as an intern in your first year and will be at the bottom of the totem pole—but not for long.
You’ll also need to pass your final licensing exam (USMLE-3). The third and final licensing exam is taken during the first year of your residency. It tests your ability to utilise your medical knowledge and provide care in an unsupervised setting, which you will have to do as a licensed physician.
The average resident earns about $48,000 a year.
Step 7: Take and Pass Your Final Boards
Once you’ve finished your residency and passed all your boards, you can officially practice independently as a licensed physician! You’ll have to keep up with Continuing Medical Education to practice as a physician, no matter your speciality.
Summary The 7 Steps to Becoming a Doctor
In short, here are the seven major steps you must take to become a doctor:
- Do well in high school
- Get into a great college
- Take the MCAT (and get a good score)
- Apply and get into medical school
- Attend medical school and pass your boards to become a licensed doctor
- Choose your speciality and complete your residency
- Take and pass your final boards to practice independently
You should also keep in mind two important takeaways:
- You don’t have to decide at the beginning of college that you want to become a doctor
- And, you don’t have to think about all these steps simultaneously.
Remember, becoming a doctor is not for everyone—getting into medical school is tough, and you still have a lot of training to complete even after graduating. But if you decide you want to enter the medical profession, you now have the info you need to start on the right foot!