Steps to Becoming a Doctor: Milestones of a Medical Career

What Are the Key Steps in Becoming a Doctor?

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Posted in: The Medical Profession

Table of Contents

Navigating the steps to becoming a doctor can feel less daunting when you break the steps up into key milestones. These include: 

  • Finishing high school with a strong academic performance.
  • Earning a bachelor’s degree and fulfilling pre-med requirements.
  • Taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
  • Applying to medical schools via AMCAS or AACOMAS.
  • Completing an MD or DO program.
  • Passing the first two steps of licensing exams.
  • Completing a residency training program and final licensing exams.

(Confused by the many terms used in this process? Check out our cheat sheet of medical school journey terms and definitions.)

If you’re a high school student with a passion for medicine, MedSchoolCoach can help you get into the pre-med program of your choice. 

Prepare During High School

What courses should I take in high school? Taking science courses like biology, chemistry, and physics can help you decide whether you can maintain an interest and aptitude in the sciences.

A full schedule that includes AP courses may help you to mentally prepare for the rigors of medical school. By junior year, you should have some research, volunteering, or shadowing experiences in the healthcare field to show on undergraduate applications.

Our free Virtual Clinical Education sessions offer immersion opportunities in a variety of different specialties. They allow pre-med students to interact with physicians, build clinical hours, and decide whether medicine is right for them.

Excel in Your Pre-Med Undergraduate Years

What undergraduate degree is best for medical school? Biochemistry and microbiology are the most popular undergraduate majors for pre-med students, but that doesn’t always mean they’re the right major for you.

Committing to majors in the sciences may help you tick off coursework that aligns with medical school prerequisites. That said, majors in non-traditional fields like the humanities or social sciences may help you stand out as a pre-med with a unique perspective on the medical field. 

Another option is a BS/MD program. These alternatives to pre-med programs are for high school students who know they want to commit to medicine by the time they apply for college. Students in these programs complete one application for both their bachelor’s degree and medical school, understanding that they’ll fulfill certain criteria to stay in that program.

If you’re not sure which option suits you best as you think about your medical education, take our Pre-Med vs. BS/MD Quiz for some guidance. 

Apply to Medical School

The med school application process takes over a year. Pre-med students not taking a gap year typically prepare to apply by the spring of their junior year, although taking a gap year between senior year and med school is more common every year. 

Timeline

The timeline for applying to medical school without a gap year looks something like the framework below. For those taking a gap year, the schedule is similar but can start in the spring of your junior year.

Sophomore Year (Spring)

Junior Year (Fall)

Junior Year (Spring)

  • Secure letters of recommendation from professors, advisors, or mentors.
  • Draft a personal statement that includes your motivations and unique qualities as they relate to medicine. Consider seeking feedback from mentors or advisors.
  • Take the MCAT. Register to take it again before junior year is out if you’re unhappy with your score.
  • Take the Casper or AAMC PREview exam (if required by the programs where you’re applying).

Summer Before Senior Year

  • Complete medical school applications by mid-June.
  • Retake the MCAT (if needed).
  • Complete secondary application requirements. Secondaries are usually sent in July.
  • Research financial aid options.

Senior Year

  • Finish any pre-med requirements.
  • Send thank you notes to anyone who wrote you a recommendation letter.
  • Prepare for and attend med school interviews. These typically occur between September and March.

For more details on the medical school application process, download The Guide to Becoming a Physician. Our free guidebook shares tips that could mean the difference between medical school acceptance and rejection.

Taking the MCAT

The MCAT is a standardized multiple-choice exam that medical schools use to screen applicants. It assesses your problem-solving and critical thinking skills on top of your knowledge of prerequisite coursework used in the field of medicine.

Preparation for the MCAT is important. We can help you earn your best score with one-on-one tutoring from instructors who scored in the 99th percentile. Our world-class MCAT tutors can identify your goals, strengths, and weaknesses ahead of exam day, helping you develop a study plan that fits your needs.

Preparing Your AMCAS and/or AACOMAS Applications

Pre-med students applying to MD, or allopathic, programs will use the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS) covers DO, or osteopathic, programs.

What are the requirements for medical school? The AMCAS and AACOMAS require post-secondary transcripts, your MCAT score, a personal statement, extracurricular history, and letters of recommendation with your primary application. 

If you meet the school’s initial requirements, you’ll likely be asked to provide additional essay responses as part of a secondary application process. Medical school interviews follow with either an individual or a group of admissions offers from the school.

Getting Accepted

Most schools accept students on a rolling basis, meaning that you may receive an acceptance shortly after an interview if the program thinks you’re a good fit. Some medical institutions wait until all interviews are complete, usually in February, to send acceptance letters.

If you are accepted to more than one school, you’ll need to make a final decision about where you will attend as early as possible. On occasion, if you’re on a waitlist (meaning a school hasn’t rejected you but hasn’t chosen to accept you, either) or have been accepted to multiple schools, you may write a letter of intent to your preferred program.

infographic detailing a 6-part timeline for how to become a doctor from high school through boards

Attend Medical School

Acceptances or rejections typically start arriving by the winter of your senior year in undergrad (if you’re not taking a gap year). Waitlisted students may wait until spring to hear about their status. Classes for first-year medical school students begin in August or September. 

Whether you pursue a doctor of medicine (MD) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) degree, you’ll need to complete four years of medical school. 

Are you a doctor after med school? You officially earn the title of “doctor” after you’ve completed medical school, but most medical students will need to complete a residency within a particular specialty to practice independently. 

There are some states in the U.S. where medical school graduates without completed residencies are able to practice as physicians due to doctor shortages, but those cases are rare.

Financials and Logistics 

The average cost of medical school varies by location, specialty, and whether you attend a public or private school, but in 2024, the average total cost exceeded $200,000. 

Financial aid that includes scholarships, grants, and loans can help cover some of those costs. Some medical students pursue forgiveness programs to reduce the burden.

The Preclinical Years

The first two years of medical school focus on classroom time, lab work, and learning foundational skills. By the end of their second year, students get early clinical exposure through patient interactions and simulations that develop their clinical skills. 

Clerkships

Clinical rotations, also called clerkships, occur during the third and fourth years of medical school. During these two years, students rotate through core disciplines to apply classroom medical knowledge to real patient care, support diagnoses, and develop clinical skills.

This period is more meaningful when students use it to refine their career interests, prepare for residency, and seek feedback. It is also important for building professional relationships and mentorship opportunities.

Board Exams (USMLE or COMLEX)

Medical students must pass a series of board exams for medical licensure in the U.S. 

The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) for MD students consists of three steps. Step 1, an assessment of basic science knowledge, is taken after the first two years of medical school. Step 2, a clinical knowledge exam, comes during the fourth year, and Step 3, which tests clinical management skills, is taken during residency. 

The COMLEX for DO students also has three levels in a similar sequence.

Once a medical student passes their licensing exams, they now have the right to practice medicine independently. In the vast majority of cases, a medical residency program follows before any patient care.

Choose a Residency Program

Some states like Missouri allow medical school graduates to practice medicine before completing a residency. These “assistant physicians” must still meet licensure requirements and typically commit to work in medically underserved areas. However, this is fairly uncommon — in most states, you’ll still be a doctor before residency but may not be able to practice.

The vast majority of med school students apply for residency training programs at the start of their fourth year. The National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) pairs applicants with programs based on applicant and program preferences, with results released in the spring. 

Residency match applications and interviews take around 10 months, starting with the ERAS program opening in early June and ending with Match Day in March.

The first year of residency is your intern year. The total length of your residency depends on the medical specialty. Pediatrics, internal medicine, and family medicine last three years. Obstetrics/gynecology and psychiatry residency training lasts four years. General surgery lasts five years.

According to the American Medical Association, the most popular medical specialties for 2023 were in plastic surgery, orthopedic surgery, and radiology. Emergency medicine had the most unfilled positions in rankings that same year. The most competitive residencies, for which you’ll need an impressive application, are plastic surgery, dermatology, and neurosurgery.

Consider a Fellowship

Many providers decide to complete fellowships in a subspecialty as part of their career path. Fellowships are optional, but may offer career advancement, hands-on research opportunities, leadership experience, exposure to advanced techniques, and a higher earning potential. 

Fellows may also benefit from additional mentorship and networking connections. Most fellowships take at least two years to complete. 

What to Know About Board Certification and Continuing Education

Board certification means that medical professionals have pursued additional training in a specialty area. While optional, it demonstrates a high level of expertise in that area. Board-certified pediatricians, for example, are certified by the American Board of Pediatrics when they meet a series of competency standards and pass certifying examinations.

Continuing education and recertification requirements vary by speciality. This includes Continuing Medical Education (CME) credits required to maintain medical licenses and remain credentialed as a medical doctor to see patients.

Is This Path Right for You?

Deciding whether medical school is right for you involves quite a bit of self-reflection. Consider whether you have a passion for science, public health, and helping others. Assess your resilience and perseverance, as the journey to become a doctor is long and challenging.

Evaluate your skills in communication, critical thinking, and empathy, all essential to effective patient care. Doctors must be willing to work in high-pressure situations.

If this sounds like something that you can both handle and excel in, medicine may be a good fit.

If you know medicine is right for you, schedule a free 15-minute consultation with MedSchoolCoach. Our goal is to help you get your medical degree, no matter where you are in your journey.
Picture of Sahil Mehta MD

Sahil Mehta MD

Dr. Mehta is the founder of MedSchoolCoach and has guided thousands of successful medical school applicants. He is also a practicing physician in Boston where he specializes in vascular and interventional radiology.

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