Preparing for Medical School

Pre-med frequently asked questions


Medicine can be a career that is both challenging and highly rewarding, but figuring out med school requirements and navigating the application process can be a challenge into itself. The AMA has the answers to frequently asked questions about medical school, the application process, the MCAT and more.

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Medicine is a highly competitive field. Medical schools receive hundreds or thousands of applications every year for a limited number of openings. All candidates are considered for their academic performance, extracurricular experiences, medical career exposure and more.

Applicants must find a way to distinguish their accomplishments from those of their peers in order to make themselves an attractive candidate.

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The short answer is that it takes four years to graduate medical school. As medical education has evolved, however, the paths available for medical trainees have followed suit.

One option is a dual degree track. Medical students pursuing dual degrees can spend the better part of the decade in medical school. Dual degree tracks include MD/master’s of business administration (MBA); MD/doctor of philosophy (PhD); and MD/master’s in public health (MPH).

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, roughly 10% of medical school graduates pursued a dual degree in 2023. Master’s degree tracks usually add about one year to a medical students’ time in medical school. An MD/PhD can take upwards of eight years for medical students to advance to residency.

There are also avenues though which medical students can earn a degree in less than four years, though they are relatively uncommon. Programs such as the Accelerated Competency-based Education in Primary Care (ACE-PC)—a partnership between the University of California, Davis School of Medicine and  Kaiser Permanente Northern California—offer a streamlined path to graduation. The program combines medical school and residency. It allows students to earn their MD degree in three years.

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GPA is only one metric that medical schools consider during the admissions process.

Candidates with lower GPAs may be able to mitigate an uneven academic record with strong performance on the MCAT and relevant extracurricular activities or life experience.

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There is no particular major that will make a student a more competitive applicant in the eyes of admissions experts.

While many applicants with a strong foundation in the sciences feel better prepared for success in the MCAT and in the medical school curriculum, some medical schools find that students with humanities or other non-medical backgrounds are often more effective at communicating with patients.

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Applying to medical school is a multistep process: 

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Step 1. MCAT

The Medical College Application Test (MCAT) is a four-part exam that tests applicants’ problem solving and critical thinking skills and knowledge of scientific concepts and principles.

Step 2. Primary application

The AAMC’s American Medical College Application Service® (AMCAS®) and the Texas Medical and Dental School Application Service (TMDSAS) are the two main primary application services for MD-granting programs in the U.S. The AMCAS application has nine sections that include candidate’s background, coursework completed, extracurricular experiences, Letters of Evaluation references and personal essays.

Step 3. Secondary application

In addition to the primary application, candidates also complete a series of secondary applications for individual medical schools that explain why they are interested in each institution.

Step 4. Interview

Applicants that a medical school are considering for admission will be asked to come for an in-person interview that will allow the school to assess how suitable a candidate is for their institution and program. It also provides an opportunity for applicants to learn more about the school.

Step 5. Background check

Because medical students care for patients, each candidate will be subject to a broad-ranging background check that will investigate personal records like social media activity, criminal records and financial history.

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Medical schools who feel you are qualified for an interview will be reviewing your online presence. Expect that public groups you are part of, images without privacy settings and posts tied to any accounts under your name will be viewable by the school.

Look critically at these to see if your online presence matches what a medical school would expect from their future graduate. Consider applying privacy settings. If your images are tagged on multiple platforms, you may want to consider deleting these accounts entirely during the application process.

The standard for judging community college credits will vary with each medical school.

Some will accept prerequisite academic work from any accredited institution, including community colleges, as long as applicants meet other necessary requirements and have completed upper level coursework at a four-year institution.

However, it may be helpful to speak with the admissions office at a medical school you’re considering to find out how they interpret community college work.

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Every medical school has a unique list of required or recommended premedical coursework and most require that students have completed coursework and other prerequisites within a certain timeframe. Most medical schools, for example, require students to provide MCAT scores that are no more than three years old.

Above all, institutions look for students whose applications and interviews demonstrate their ability to handle challenging coursework and have the qualities needed to succeed in a medical career. Applicants who are able to demonstrate a range of competencies are more likely to find success, no matter how traditional their path toward medical school has been.

There are also many pre-med post-baccalaureate programs available if you don’t have the requisite coursework.

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Yes! Medical schools take a holistic look at candidates. As long as all prerequisite coursework has been completed, medical schools will consider applicants of any academic background.

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Though only one of several factors considered when applying to medical school, success on the exam shows that applicants have the problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine.

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The MCAT tests individuals on problem solving, critical thinking and knowledge of the concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine.

The test has four sections:

  • 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

The MCAT is graded on a curve where 500 is the average for all four sections of the exam with scores ranging from 472 to 528.

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Yes. The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is a required component of admission criteria for all candidates regardless of academic achievement.

  1. Be ready to express why you’re pursuing a career in medicine.
  2. Be aware of various formats used, such as the multiple mini-interview, situational judgment testing, behavioral based interviews and others.
  3. Share examples of how you’ve served others throughout your life.
  4. Ask at least a few thoughtful, creative questions to the interviewer.
  5. Convey some uniqueness about yourself to increase your memorability.
  6. Stick around after the interview to explore the facility and learn even more.
  7. Send a follow-up email to the interviewers, thanking them for their time and expressing your genuine interest in their program.

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While there’s no official right or wrong timing, many students start to prepare for medical school in their sophomore year of undergrad and apply to MCAT preparatory summer premed programs running between sophomore and junior year. That should give you plenty of time to take practice exams before taking the MCAT.

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  1. Use an academic advisor. Many universities even have pre-health advisors.
  2. Seek opportunities to shadow physicians to ensure medicine is the career for you.
  3. Find courses that offer opportunities to learn in teams, since that is how health care works.
  4. Join a few clubs or organizations and consider taking on a leadership role.
  5. Get laboratory experience, whether it’s research and/or shadowing.
  6. Seek letters of recommendation from mentors who can advocate for your work and character.
  7. Schedule your MCAT and devote at least several months to study for it.
  8. Don’t give up if you encounter academic or personal struggles along the way, as schools value evidence of resilience.

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Most medical school applicants have experience in both research and patient care. This shows the school that your interest in medicine is balanced.

Experiences during summers or gap years—such as teaching, project management or any other involvement in a team environment—that teach how to navigate challenges, personalities and negotiation will also be viewed as valuable skills for a life in medicine.

Every year, several publications release rankings of the top medical schools in the nation, based on varying criteria. But applicants should dive deeper to ensure schools of interest are a good personal fit. For example, look at where graduates are placed for residency, and consider the competitiveness of specific programs and specialties. Additionally, some schools offer specialized tracks based on specific career goals, such as accelerated primary care pathways.

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Applicants should look beyond the ‘name brand’ of a school and focus on qualities that hold personal appeal. A prospective student should look for a medical school that fits their needs for learning environment, geographical location, cost, match rates, hospital rankings and more.

Length of the education period is also worth bearing in mind. As three-year medical schools are becoming more mainstream, it’s worth considering whether you would thrive in a continuous educational experience.

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Applicants who are not accepted by a medical school should take some time to work through their feelings and put things into context. The national average acceptance rate the past few years has been around 40%, so each year, over half of all applicants do not end up being accepted.

It may also be helpful for prospective students to review their applications and identify areas for improvement, evaluating MCAT scores, experience and other achievements. Admissions committees want to see noticeable changes in re-applicants. It can’t hurt to reach out to a pre-health advisor, or a specific medical school representative, to explore how to enhance chances of acceptance the next time around.

Additionally, there are many master's programs in medical science that are affiliated with medical schools and offer the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency with a medical school curriculum. If you consider these programs, you should discuss the program’s success rate at achieving medical school admissions.

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The cost of medical school can seem overwhelming, but there are many options available that can help make payment feasible. Prospective students should start out by gathering advice from everyone they can: current medical students or residents, admissions or financial aid officers, pre-health advisors. Advisors should be able to offer plenty of insights and information about financial aid, loan repayment and loan forgiveness options that can be explored further.

Also, many schools offer scholarships based on need and/or merit. And while their number is limited, there are some tuition-free schools that are highly competitive.

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The USMLE consists of three separate exams that are taken throughout medical school and residency, so they’re not something that a candidate needs to worry about before medical school. The exams assess how well a student can apply their skills to real life medical scenarios, and individuals must pass all three in order to obtain a license to practice medicine. The USMLE also has secondary uses, such as graduation decisions for medical schools, and promotion or ranking of applicants in residency programs.

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