Becoming a doctor in the U.S. requires many years of education. If you’re serious about your career, you may be able to find a medical magnet program while you’re still in high school. If there is no magnet program, let your guidance counselor know that you want to study to be a doctor, and follow their course recommendations.
For a recent high school graduate, years of education and training lie ahead, including undergraduate education, medical school, residency and fellowship. The entire process can take fifteen years or more, depending on the number of years of training you choose to pursue.
After you graduate high school or earn your GED, you’ll start the process of becoming a doctor by working toward a 4-year Bachelor’s degree. While any subject can be your major, medical schools favor applicants with a well-rounded educational background and some experience in healthcare settings. Your premed coursework will include biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics.
Medical specialty residencies can be highly competitive and it’s never too early to start beefing up your CV. Prepare for medical school in college by volunteering at a hospital or clinic, or by working part-time in a doctor’s office. You’ll learn about the practical aspects of a medical career and find out if you’re suited to the medical field before you get too far down very a expensive road.
The Medical College Admissions TestÂ® (MCATÂ®)
Most medical schools require that you take the MCAT before you apply. It’s a standardized test in multiple-choice format that more than 75,000 students take each year. The test is divided into 3 sections, Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences. The Writing section was removed from the test in 2013, and a unscored voluntary Trial section was added.
The exam is designed to test your knowledge and skills in areas experts believe are good indicators of future success in med school and practice.
Most students take the MCAT a year before they graduate, in the spring or summer prior to their senior year. If you don’t do well, you can retake the test up to three times in one year.
Your score on the MCAT exam does not mean automatic acceptance or rejection to medical school. It’s only one factor considered by admissions committees. They want to see a well-rounded student with outside experiences and interests, community involvement, leadership, academic performance, and experience in healthcare and medical research settings.
Most medical school programs are four years long. You’ll spend the first two years attending lectures and doing lab work. The remaining two years will be more hands-on. You’ll get to practice what you’ve learned on real patients, carefully supervised by experienced doctors in a teaching environment.
Your coursework will include intense studies in anatomy, biochemistry, histology, pharmacology, pathology, plus medical ethics and legal issues, and patient relations.
In the third year of school, you’ll experience a variety of specialty practice areas such as neurology and radiology. Clinical experience in specialty areas will help you narrow down the specialty you want to pursue and prepare you for residency in that area.
U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1
At the end of your second year, before you can apply to a residency program, you must pass the USMLE Step 1. The test consists of seven sections with 46 multiple choice questions in each, a total of 322 questions.
You’ll have one hour to complete each section, and you can take a break between sections as necessary, up to 45 minutes of break time during the testing session. You’ll answer questions in the areas of:
- behavioral sciences
- molecular biology
- cell biology
Most of the questions will pose a clinical problem and present multiple choice answers for the best possible solution.
The next step is to apply for a residency program in a teaching environment - usually a hospital-where you’ll work in a team with doctors and other residents to treat patients. Typically, you’ll go through rotations in different specialty areas like surgery, pediatrics, emergency medicine, and psychiatry.
Residents care directly for the patients. You will gather information for medical histories, perform physical exams, and do routine medical tasks. Depending on the specialty you choose, your residency can last from two to eight years.
Some residency programs are highly competitive and hard to get into. You’ll need to do your homework. Find out what your first, second, and third choices are looking for in a candidate, and work hard to meet the criteria. Start early, because the closer you get to the end of your schooling, the less time you’ll have to build the experience that enhance your qualifications.
Before you can practice medicine in any state, you must pass the USMLE Step 2, and D.O.s must also pass the the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA).
The USMLE Step 2 consists of a series of 12 patient interactions with people who are hired and trained to give answers that simulate a specific disease or condition. Your task is to ask the right questions and do a cursory examination within 15 minutes.
In addition to physical examinations, there will be telephone patient encounters. You’ll have an information sheet about the patient and you’ll be expected to ask pertinent questions to gain as much information as possible about the patient without direct physical contact.
Following each patient encounter, you’ll have time to make notes, make a differential diagnosis, and recommend diagnostic tests.
Step 2 CK tests your clinical knowledge with multiple choice questions in four areas:
- Promoting Preventive Medicine and Health Maintenance
- Understanding Mechanisms of Disease
- Establishing a Diagnosis
- Applying Principles of Management
Once you’ve completed your education, testing, and residency, congratulations, you’re a doctor! From here, you may also choose to continue your training with a fellowship in a subspecialty.