Residency & Beyond

How to Become a Doctor

The road to becoming a medical doctor is a long and arduous one. There will surely be long and stressful nights during the process, but one could stay motivated knowing that the life of a doctor is as fulfilling as a career can be. Doctors have the incredible responsibility of relieving pain, treating diseases, and saving lives.

The journey to be a doctor often seems intimidating because the process can appear complicated. To help understand the process, ProspectiveDoctor has outlined and described the typical path an aspiring doctor in the US must take to be a doctor. You can also view a medical school general timeline on how to become a doctor; this timeline will explain what you can do to better your chances of getting into medical school.

1. Graduate from High School (~4 years)

What courses should I take?
During high school, be sure to challenge yourself academically. Take as many honors and AP classes as you can possibly take. Be especially sure to take the most challenging science and math classes. The road to becoming a doctor is intellectually demanding and mentally draining and high school is a great time to develop study habits that will help you for the future years to come.

What extracurricular activities should I be a part of?
It is wise to be part of organizations that will help develop you into a solid leader. For example, run for president of your student body or a school club. As doctors, you will need to demonstrate excellent leadership skills so practice this skill as early as you can.
Furthermore, it is recommended that you expose yourself to working in a healthcare setting to make sure this is a profession you want to truly pursue. Consider volunteering at a local hospital or interning for your family doctor. If you want to be a doctor, you have to know what they do.

2. Graduate from an Undergraduate College (~4 years)

What college should I attend?
Many believe that you must enroll in the ‘best’ undergraduate college or the ‘highest ranked’ undergraduate program to have the best chance at entering the medical field. While this may be the case for many professions, it is not necessarily the case for the medical profession. What is important is that you earn high grades and score well on the standardized test that medical schools require called the MCAT. So whether you go to a large public university or a small private liberal arts college, you have the opportunity to fulfill your dreams as long as you stay disciplined in your studies.

What should I major in?
Another myth that many college students believe is that to become a doctor, your undergraduate college major must be in biology, or a similar science field. This is definitely not the case. To apply to medical school, you must take a certain amount of required science courses. Generally, the courses you must take are one year of general chemistry, one year of organic chemistry, one year of general biology, one year of general physics, one year of English, and a semester of calculus. As long as you complete the required pre-requisite courses, you can apply to medical school. Medical schools do not give preference to your major and how many science classes you have taken. However, what medical schools do care about is how you performed in the classes you have taken, both science and non-science. So whether you are a sociology major, economics major, or biology major, you can get accepted into medical school and be a doctor as long as you are doing well academically. In fact, most medical schools like the idea of having non-science majors in their schools because it adds to the diversity of the student body population. In addition, a student who majors in a subject other than a science major can seem better-rounded which is a great characteristic for a doctor to have.

Is there a standardized test I should take?
To apply to medical school, you need to have taken the standardized test for medical school which is called the MCAT. There is no set rule on when to take this test, but be sure to plan ahead and plan wisely. You want to have enough time to adequately prepare for this important test, but you also want to make sure your grades do not suffer because of it. Finishing the MCAT is a big milestone in the process of becoming a doctor.

Do I need to work, volunteer, or intern in a healthcare setting?
Exposing yourself to medicine is crucial during your undergraduate career. Although GPA and MCAT scores are the two most important factors that medical school considers, it will be a huge red flag if you have no experience working in a healthcare setting. Medical schools want to know that you know what kind of profession you are entering and that knowledge only comes with experience. Furthermore, the most competitive applicants to medical school have an extensive resume that goes well beyond a good GPA and a good MCAT score. To stay competitive, you should volunteer in a hospital, conduct research with a professor, or work in a healthcare setting. You can consult your counselor on opportunities available at your respective school.

What extracurricular activities should I join?
There is no set rule on what kind of clubs or activities you should be a part of. However, medical schools do like to see leadership experience in their applicants. Therefore, try becoming a leader of an organization. Also keep in mind that medical school favors a well-rounded student.

3. Graduate Medical School (~4 years)

When should I apply to medical school?
There is no set rule on when you should apply to medical school, but most students apply the summer after their junior year or the summer after their senior year. Medical school applications usually open in June, and it is recommended that you apply as early as possible. It is important to note that the entire process of applying to medical school takes approximately one year. In other words, if you apply to medical schools in June of 2013, you most likely will start attending medical school in the fall of 2014. This plays a huge factor in whether students want to apply after their junior or senior year. If you apply after your junior year, you can potentially jump into medical school soon after you graduate from undergrad. In contrast, you can take a year break from school if you apply after your senior year. What year you decide to apply has no effect on medical school admissions.

What is medical school like?
Medical school is typically a four-year program and is usually split into two parts. The first two years of medical school are mainly devoted to classroom lectures and instruction. The last two years mainly consists of clinical rotations where students learn the clinical knowledge and skills needed to become a doctor.

Am I a licensed doctor after I graduate medical school?
Not quite. After graduating medical school, students need to take “board” tests to prove their knowledge. There are three steps to these board tests and they are all taken at different stages in the process of becoming a doctor. The first step is usually completed after your second year in medical school. You cannot be a doctor if you do not pass these tests. Furthermore, graduates of medical school need to enter residency programs to become fully board certified (see below).

Is medical school hard to get into?
Statistically speaking, medical school is one of the hardest programs to get into in the United States. Most medical schools have less than a 10% overall acceptance rate. Therefore, it is not uncommon for pre-medical students to apply to twenty or thirty schools to maximize their chances at matriculating in a medical school. There are three main parts in the application to medical school: the primary application, the secondary application, and the interview. In the primary application you must provide general information about yourself and your academic achievements as well as answer essay prompts. After medical schools have received your primary application, they will start sending out secondary applications for you to submit. After finishing the secondary application, medical schools will decide if they want to interview you. Getting an interview is a huge step in obtaining admissions into medical school. Medical schools only interview students they really can picture in their schools. After the interview, the school will make their decisions on whether they will accept you, reject you, or put you on a waitlist.

What medical school should I go to?
If you have been accepted to medical school(s), it is now time to decide where you want to matriculate into. You should carefully research each school to determine its pros and cons. Once you officially matriculate, take a deep sigh and congratulate yourself! You have passed what many believe to be the most difficult hurdle in becoming a doctor.

4. Graduate from a Residency Program (~3-7 years)

What is residency?
After graduating from medical school, you will need to enter a training program called residency. In residency, you practice medicine under the supervision of fully board certified doctors. This educational stage is where you will learn how to practice as a doctor in the specialty of your choice.

How important is the residency you enter?
Most doctors believe that gaining admissions into medical school is the most difficult stage in becoming a doctor. However, most doctors also believe that where you enter residency is the most important factor in your future career as a doctor. Where and what type of residency you enter will have a large influence on your career as a medical doctor.

What types of residencies are there and how long are they?
The length of residency depends on the type of specialty one chooses. Residency programs typically last between three to seven years. Below is a list of sample residency lengths:
Internal Medicine – 3 years
Emergency Medicine – 3 years
Pediatrics – 3 years
Dermatology – 4 years
Anesthesiology – 4 years
Radiology – 4 years
Psychiatry – 4 years
Dermatology – 4 years
Orthopedic Surgery – 5 years
Urology – 5 years
Neurosurgery – 7 years

Are you fully licensed to practice medicine independently after residency?
After you graduate from your residency program, you can become fully board certified in your specialty field.

5. Graduate from a Fellowship Program (Optional, ~1-3 years)

What is a fellowship?
By definition, a fellowship is medical training that doctors partake in after completing their residency. This step is optional and is only necessary when doctors want to sub-specialize. There are certain sub-specialties that require fellowships. For example, to practice cardiology, one must finish an internal medicine residency followed by three years of a cardiology fellowship.
The following is a sample list of sub-specialties that can involve fellowships:


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Frequently Asked Questions || Why Medicine? || Should I Be a Doctor? || Reasons to Be a Doctor || Reasons to Not Be a Doctor ||


Edward Chang

Edward Chang is the Co-founder and Director of Operations of He graduated from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and is currently a urology resident at the University of Washington. He also attended UCLA as an undergraduate, graduating with a major in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology. If you are interested in contributing to, please contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @EdwardChangMD and Prospective Doctor @ProspectiveDr.

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