Being a physician is one of the most exciting and challenging careers, but also requires some of the most extensive training of any profession. Medical school requires four years beyond your undergraduate degree. The first two years of medical school focus on coursework and the last two on clinical studies. During the first year students take basic-science coursework that is biology-intensive. First year courses typically include gross anatomy, histology, embryology, neuroanatomy, genetics, biochemistry, physiology, and behavioral science. During the second year coursework focuses more on understanding, diagnosing, and treating diseases. Coursework includes pathology, microbiology, pharmacology, and diagnostic examination and evaluation. During the third year students begin clinical rotations where they gain expertise in specialties within medicine, such as surgery, obstetrics, gynecology, and internal medicine. The last year involves clinical electives where individuals enter additional rotations in specialty areas of their choosing. After medical school you are a "doctor" (MD or DO), but you are required to spend at least three to four years in residency before you can practice medicine independently. Residency is performed at a hospital or clinic, usually different from where you went to medical school. However, the first step in becoming a physician is to gain admittance to medical school.
As an undergraduate, your primary focus should be on completing all requirements for applying to medical school, excelling at academics, and preparing to take the MCAT.
What are the minimum course requirements?
As a general rule, medical schools require:
- two years of chemistry (including one year of organic)
- two years of biology
- one year of physics
Some schools require calculus, so Math 191 (calculus I) is recommended. Please note that all these requirements are the minimum, the better your background in all of these areas, the more likely you are to succeed in the application process and in medical school.
Must pre-med students major in the natural sciences?
No. Pre-med students may major in any discipline that they want so long as they complete the minimal course requirements outlined above. Students often follow two strategies: (1) majoring in the subject that they enjoy the most, or (2) majoring in a subject that is less enjoyable but may give them a perceived edge in terms of acceptance. Medical advisors strongly recommend that you major in an area that you find the most interesting and intellectually stimulating. Why? Because you are more likely to become a life-long learner and excel at undergraduate coursework if you pursue what you are most passionate about. The official advice of the Association of American Medical Colleges (as stated in the most recent edition of the Medical School Admission Requirements) is that "Students should select a major area of study that is of interest and that will provide a foundation of knowledge necessary for the pursuit of several career alternatives. Students who select a major area of study solely or primarily because of the perception that it will enhance the chance of acceptance to a school of medicine are not making a decision in their best interest." Since medicine is the study of human biology, it is not surprising that most physicians select biology as their field of undergraduate study. In fact, first-year medical students are six times more likely to have a biology degree than any other degree.
What are the advantages of majoring in biology?
The reason most medical students major in biology is that a degree in biology offers excellent preparation for admission to and success in medical school. The Cell and Molecular Biology concentration at UNC Asheville provides these two major advantages. First, you will be exceptionally well prepared to take the MCAT. The MCAT contains both a biology section and physical science section (chemistry; physics). Biology is highly interdisciplinary, and the Cell and Molecular concentration provides a very strong grounding in both chemistry and biology. This track provides you with 5 semesters of chemistry, including biochemistry, and exposes you to additional biochemistry and molecular biology that are directly relevant to medicine in courses such as cell biology, microbiology, and genetics. A second advantage is that you will take an array of upper division biology courses such as physiology, cell biology, genetics, and microbiology that will prepare you for your first two years of medical school. The vast majority of the basic science coursework in medical schools is in biology, and it helps tremendously to be exposed to these subjects before you get to medical school. The pace at which new material must be mastered is phenomenal, so prepare yourself with a strong education, good study habits, and a strong grounding in biological sciences.
What is the MCAT?
The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is one of the most important exams that you will take. The MCAT is required for all medical schools, allopathic (MD degree) and osteopathic (DO degree). Your score will be a key factor in determining whether you are accepted to medical school. The test consists of four sections: physical sciences; biology; verbal reasoning; and a writing sample (essay). The test is intended to determine how well you understand basic concepts in biology, chemistry, and physics. It also assesses problem solving, critical thinking, and writing skills. Information about applying to medical schools is available at the American Colleges Centralized Application Service.
What is the best way to prepare for the MCAT?
Study a lot. The best strategies are using study guides, reviewing course material from your notes, and reading critical chapters from textbooks from the science courses that you completed. Most students spend a minimum of 1-2 months studying intensively for the MCAT. You should plan on doing at least this. If possible, keep the textbooks used in your biology, chemistry and physics courses so that you will have them to prepare for these sections of the test. Many private companies offer MCAT preparation courses, although these are generally quite expensive. Knowing a lot of facts is essential, but doing well on the test also requires answering questions quickly. Practice exams are very useful. Study guides with sample tests are helpful in exposing you to the types of questions that you will encounter. Being familiar with the types of questions to expect will increase your ability to derive answers quickly and reduce anxiety levels.
When should I take the MCAT?
Plan to take the MCAT after you have completed the minimum requirements for coursework (two years of chemistry, physics, calculus, etc.). You will need to take the MCAT during your junior year (April or August) for admission following your senior year. This may be a problem if you have heavy course loads or work obligations. Students can also take the MCAT and apply to medical school their senior year, which gives them a year off before they start medical school. We recommend talking to your pre-med advisor about the best strategy for you. Visit the MCAT website for a schedule of test dates.
How important is my grade point average?
Your grade point average is an important criterion for evaluation. You must demonstrate that you are able to achieve good grades under a challenging course load. It is critical that you do well from the onset, and that you learn to develop good study skills during your freshman year. Your advisor can provide helpful suggestions on developing good study habitats beyond the obvious of attending every lecture and taking copious notes.
How important are personal interviews?
Most medical schools require a personal interview as part of the admissions process. The importance of the interview with respect to your overall evaluation depends on the school, your application and how you do in the interview. Good interviewing skills are not innate, so you should work on developing your verbal skills. For example, you may want to take a speech class as an elective. You may also want to attend career days or other functions where you can gain experience in interviews. It is also a good idea to practice interviews with a friend or member of the pre-med club on campus. Most interviewers are less concerned with your opinions than with your ability to communicate effectively. They are also assessing your ability to interact with future patients and colleagues. For example, are you confident but not overbearing? Are you friendly and calm? Can you handle intimidating questions or stressful situations with confidence?
Any suggestions about letters of recommendation?
Most medical colleges require letters of recommendation from university professors or other individuals who are qualified to judge your abilities. At UNCA this is fulfilled by a single letter from the Pre-Health Professions Advisory Committee, with input from faculty members who know you. Ask your advisor or one of the premed committee members to begin this process. The better the faculty members know you, the better the letter of recommendation they can provide, so talk to your professors. Fortunately, small classes and close relationships between faculty and students at UNCA make it relatively easy to get to know professors. Before asking for a letter of recommendation, come prepared with a summary of your accomplishments, your coursework and grades, and any other relevant information that can facilitate writing the letter. If needed, have forms filled out and signed and envelopes preaddressed. Let individuals know that you are both organized and unique!
Should I engage in college and extracurricular activities?
Because so many med school applicants are exceptional, your chances of getting admitted will be enhanced by engaging in relevant college and extracurricular activities. Examples include volunteering or paid employment in health clinics or medical centers, shadowing physicians, engaging in undergraduate research, and being an active member of organizations or clubs, such as the Hippocrates Student Organization or Missing Links Biology Club.
What will I do if I do not get accepted to medical school?
Only about 35-45% of applicants are accepted to medical schools nationwide and many who are not admitted have excellent credentials. Competition is so keen that it is wise to consider other alternatives. Here is where you should give much thought to your major. If you are not accepted, then your future career pathways may be limited by your choice of major. By majoring in the subject you are most passionate about, you will be assured of having meaningful alternative career opportunities if you are not accepted to medical school.