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How to Get into Medical School

By Bill Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #79, 2007.

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Bill Pride


For the past four years, our family has been learning all it can about what it takes to get into the various health professions.

These professions are typically the best paid, most secure, most powerful (MDs), and most service-oriented jobs available. They are also some of the hardest, if not the hardest, to get into.

We discovered there is lots more to getting into medical school, optometry school, dentistry school, etc., than most people realize.

First, realize the wide variety of medical professions available:

  • M.D. Medical doctor, trained in allopathic medicine. Right or wrong, this is the profession with the most prestige.

  • D.O. Doctor of osteopathic medicine. These can do anything an M.D. can do, plus they are trained in a form of musculoskeletal manipulation.

  • N.D. Naturopathic doctor. These primary care physicians are trained in conventional medical of diagnosis and treatment methods, as well as in a number of alternative medical therapies.

  • D.D.S. Dentist. Everything from checkups and tooth repair to cosmetic dentistry.

  • O.D. Doctor of optometry. Not to be confused with opticians, these professionals provide primary care for eyes and the visual system, diagnosis and treating eye injuries and diseases and problems relating to the use of vision - e.g., reading disorders.

  • Pharm.D. Pharmacist. These dispense and monitor allopathic prescriptions, as well as monitoring drug use and, in collaboration with doctors, prescribing medicine.

  • D.C. Doctor of chiropractic. Though most people still think their work is confined to spinal manipulation, today's chiropractor may also deal with sports therapy, pain relief, diagnosis of internal problems, and prescribe braces, orthotics, vitamins, and other supplements.

For your best chance at getting into any or all of these professions, preparation starts in high school.

What About Nursing?

While the professions I just listed all require years of professional schooling after college, these professions require only training in college:

  • Nursing. One year of training and you can work as an LPN, or Licensed Professional Nurse. Two years, and you can take the test to become an RN (Registered Nurse). The entire four-year program leads to a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing). You can even go further, with a Master's degree (the MSN) or even a PhD (primarily a research degree) or DNP (the latter stands for "Doctor of Nursing Practice). The LPN and RN can receive their entire training at a community college. Check first that there isn't a waiting list; for example, at our local community college, you have to apply to the nursing program and, if accepted, wait a year and a half before you can take your first nursing course. For higher levels of nursing training, you need to attend a four-year college with a nursing program.

  • EMT/Paramedic. According to Wikipedia, "In the United States, there are four levels of prehospital care defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation (which regulates prehospital education). In order of level of training, they are Certified First Responder, Emergency Medical Technician-Basic (EMT-B), Emergency Medical Technician-Intermediate (EMT-I), and Emergency Medical Technician-Paramedic (EMT-P)." Training for the lowest specialty requires about 100 hours; paramedic training requires 1,000 hours or more. These are not credit hours but actual time spent learning the job. Training is typically through independent for-profit colleges (the sort that also offer training for medical secretaries), community colleges, and hospitals.

The Physician Assistant

One option that needs especially careful preparation is that of physician assistant.

Not to be confused with "medical assistant," the physician assistant can diagnose and treat just like a doctor.

PAs work under a doctor's "supervision," although this supervision could be just over the phone. Basically, they can do anything the school or their supervising doctor is willing to train them to do. In practice, many work as lesser-paid primary care physicians in underserved communities.

Although this is a highly paid profession (current average income is over $80,000/year) that requires two years of post-college professional training, and many of the same academic prerequisites as the professions listed in the first column, it needs to be considered as part of the nursing/EMT/paramedic sequence.

Why? Because PA programs require applicants to first have some years of medical experience.

This makes sense, because otherwise tens of thousands of medical school applicants would waste PA programs' time applying as a "fallback" position. As it is, you have to aim your sights at this path directly and invest years in working as a nurse, EMT, or paramedic before applying.

Academics

For all the health professions listed in the first column, you need to first get a bachelors degree, then go on to professional school. It is how to get into these professional schools that I will deal with for the rest of this article.

Professional schools claim that you can major in anything as an undergraduate and still be considered as a candidate for admissions. According to what they say, you don't have to be a biology or chemistry major to get into medical school.

However, regardless of your major, you do have to take certain prerequisite courses. While individual schools of medicine, dentistry, etc., differ in their exact requirements, this is more or less what they all expect you to have taken by the end of junior year:

  • Chemistry I & II
  • Biology I & II
  • Physics I & II (non-calculus)
  • Organic Chemistry I & II
  • Calculus I & II
  • Two psychology courses
  • Some combination of Genetics, Microbiology, and Biochemistry
  • Two English courses
  • Two social studies courses

All science courses should be laboratory courses.

Most of these courses need to be completed in the first two years of college, since you will be applying to professional schools starting in your junior year and you want to be finished with enough of the coursework to appear credible.

Also, medical schools like to see that prospective students have done scientific research. Research opportunities are often available only to upper-level students, so, to get the research op-por-tunities in your junior and senior years, you have to get the basic coursework finished in your freshman and sophomore years.

If you want to finish your undergraduate degree in four years, this doesn't leave room for you to major in much else except science or mathematics. If you are willing to take longer then you can major in art, history, etc., and still become a health professional.

Note: You will need letter grades in all your required courses, so don't take any of them pass/fail.

High School Academics

What does this mean for homeschool?

First, you need to take a thorough college-prep track all the way through your high school years. In math you need to end triumphantly with either pre-calculus or calculus. This means starting your high school math in either eighth or ninth grade:

  • Grade 8 - Geometry
  • Grade 9 - Algebra I
  • Grade 10 - Algebra II
  • Grade 11 - Pre-calculus
  • Grade 12 - Calculus

In science you ought to take the big three: Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. These courses, along with the normal complement of English and social studies courses, should provide a good foundation for pre-med work in college.

What about AP courses? AP courses prepare you for AP exams. Many of the more prestigious colleges require that you take either AP exams or SAT subject tests in addition to the SAT or ACT. AP courses look good on your high-school transcript, especially if you do well on the corresponding AP test.

Using your AP scores (or CLEP scores) to place out of college courses will not contribute to getting into professional school. The medical school, dental school, or optometry school will want to see college-level grades in each of the subject areas. If you place out of Calculus I, you will have to take Calculus II and III to get college grades for two levels of calculus. So, in general, if you use AP scores to skip courses, you will still need to take the same number of courses in each area - just harder ones.

Standardized Testing

You will have to take standardized tests in high school. If you have been taking standardized tests every year throughout your school career, then you are probably already ready for the big ones in high school. If not, it is probably a good idea to take a practice shot or two at the SAT in grades 9 and 10. A substandard score may be just the incentive an overconfident homeschooler needs to get into a test-prep course or to start studying a test-prep manual.

A lot rides on the PSAT at the beginning of junior year. The PSAT is the gateway into the National Merit Scholarship program. Being a National Merit semi-finalist or finalist is an honor that colleges notice. It can also mean a substantial scholarship of thousands of dollars or even a full-tuition scholarship or, even better, full tuition and room and board.

Colleges also require SAT and/or ACT scores. It is a good idea to take the tests in the spring of your junior year. That way, you have the fall test dates from senior year to retake the tests if necessary.

In college, before professional school, the whole standardized test routine starts over again. First, the GRE, then the MCAT, the OAT, or the DAT. The GRE - Graduate Record Exam - is the college version of the SAT, a general math and language arts exam with an essay. The other three are professional exams for medical school, optometry school, and dentistry school respectively. All these exams are taken junior year of college, so you can apply to schools in the summer before your senior year for admittance the fall after your senior year.

Volunteering

Medical schools prize experience volunteering in a medical facility. They want to be sure you know what you are getting into and that you don't expect real life to resemble ER.

Starting at age 16, you can get this experience by volunteering at a local hospital. Try to "shadow" a practitioner of your desired specialty as well. Down the road, you'll need some recommendations from people in the field: why not start gathering some now?


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