The Path From High School to Medical School

Everyone takes a different path to medical school, but there is a general guideline to follow to meet medical school requirements. Here, I wish to give you an outline of how to go from high school to medical school and to explain common terms that will surely soon become part of your lingo if they aren’t already.

1. Get in to college. An undergraduate degree is a requirement for medical schools in the United States. Ideally, you should take the ACT or SAT by the end of your junior year or the beginning of your senior year of high school. These are tests that are required to get into undergraduate programs. Which one you need to take is dependent on the school. After taking this test, you will be able to apply in the fall of your senior year. Your high school advisor is a great resource for learning more about the process of applying to college.

2. Go to college. After you are accepted to a school and you graduate from high school, the real fun begins – college! As someone planning on going to medical school, you are defined as a pre-medical student. Pre-medical, or pre-med, refers to a particular track offered by colleges that prepares students for medical school including pre-med coursework, volunteer activities, clinical experience, research, and the application process. Most colleges do not have pre-med as an option for a major or minor. Instead you may pick a major in any field of study. There is no certain major more fitting than others as you can read about in my post: Undergraduate Curriculum.

3. Prepare to apply to Medical School: Once you’ve completed the undergraduate course requirements, volunteered/shadowed in a hospital, and maybe done medical research, you need to take the MCAT. MCAT stands for the Medical College Admission Test, which you should take before you apply; therefore, during or before the spring of your junior year of college if you intend to go straight from undergrad to medical school. It is a standardized test offered by the Association of American Medical Colleges. Over the next few years, this test is transforming from three sections pertaining to physical sciences, biological sciences, and verbal reasoning with a writing section to include a natural/behavioral sciences section including psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior, as well as the new Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills sections. The writing section is also disappearing.

4. Actually apply to medical school! When you feel that you will be a competitive applicant for medical school, you apply via the American Medical College Application System, AMCAS for short. The medical schools in Texas have their own system called the Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Service, TMDSAS for short. The application becomes available in May each year with submission first available in early June. The earlier you apply, the better. After submitting your primary application through either AMCAS or TMDSAS, you will likely receive secondary applications from each school to which you apply. After submitting these applications in a timely manner, you may begin to receive interview invitations, which are required for acceptance to a program.

5. If you don’t get in or don’t feel you’re competitive enough to apply to start right after undergrad, there are options to help you strengthen your application. One of these is a post-baccalaureate program, post bacc for short. If you would like to know more about these kinds of programs, there is a wonderful post on goingtomedschool.com which you can find here: http://www.goingtomedschool.com/2013/06/17/what-is-a-premed-postbac-program/.

Well, that’s the general sequence. I hope that I helped you understand a little bit more about the process of getting to medical school. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask me through my contact form, on my twitter at @MDPhDToBe, or in the comments below. Best of luck!

Undergraduate curriculum

Would schools like it more if I majored in X or Y? Is it true that medical schools favor people who major in X? What classes should I take as a pre-med to make me best fit for medical school? I see these questions all the time.

I wish I could answer these for you, but unfortunately for those asking, these questions have no answer. Just as each applicant is different, so is each medical school. Each admissions committee may be searching for different candidates based on their personal vision for medical students.

Even more, much more than just the classes you take will help you get in. Committees tend to look at students holistically, and acknowledge circumstances that, say, might make a lower GPA seem more competitive (like if the classes you take are harder).

So then how do you go about picking an undergraduate major/courses to take in undergrad? The best thing you can do is pick something that you’re legitimately interested in because it will make you most excited about what you’re learning and hopefully will help you get the best grades in the classes you take. For those going into medicine, these are usually science majors, but if you have a passion for something else as well and can make the argument for how it relates to a career as a doctor, it shouldn’t detriment your chances of getting in. In fact, it may set you apart from all of the biology majors who are applying. Plus, you will have to take plenty of science courses as pre-requisites so you’ll still get the science exposure. If you’re truly interested in biology enough to major in it, go for it, but don’t just do it because you want to go to medical school.

If you do have a lot of interests that may not fit into a certain major, you can also pick just one major and add on a minor or two, or you can just take courses that don’t necessarily apply to your degree just to further your education. Don’t worry, the admissions committee should notice. I started college as a chemistry major intending on adding a biochemistry major, but due to scheduling difficulties, I never added the second major. Instead, I minored in biochemistry and took as many other classes as I could that fit my interests of drug design and health. For example, I took nutrition to fit a liberal education requirement because it had a health application and a committee member pointed out that they liked that I took the course because nutrition does have a large effect on health. Looking at my major of chemistry alone wouldn’t have told the committee all that I learned in my undergraduate education, but at least one member noticed an extra class that I took.

My advice for you? Don’t pick your major right away. Decide on a general area of study (like biological sciences, physical sciences, or music therapy), but you may find in a semester or two that your interest lies more in genetics than biology or that you’re much more of a chemistry person. Everything can be related back to medicine in some way and taking different classes from other pre-meds may help set you apart. When you do pick a major, don’t let that define the classes you take in undergrad. Find some other courses that interest you and may compliment your major classes. It will make you a much more well rounded applicant and it will continue to pique your interest (I know you’re probably getting sick of learning the cell cycle over and over, a chemistry course might actually be a nice change from that.)

If you’re curious as to what classes I took in undergrad, you can find that below. Notice that in addition to emphasis on the physical sciences (as I was a chemistry major), I also took plenty biological sciences courses and pharmacology/health sciences classes because my primary interest lies with drug design. I didn’t let a major define my college education and neither should you!

PHYSICAL SCIENCES – CIS Physics I (algebra-based), AP Chemistry, Organic Chemistry I & II, Organic Chemistry Lab, Physics for Science and Engineering I & II, Introduction to Thermodynamics, Kinetics, and Statistical Mechanics (Physical Chemistry I), Introduction to Quantum Mechanics and Spectroscopy, Introduction to Analytical Chemistry, Introduction to Analytical Chemistry Lab, Directed Research in Chemistry, Advanced Organic Chemistry Lab, Advanced Organic Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, Advanced Inorganic Chemistry Lab 

BIOLOGICAL SCIENCESGeneral Biology, Biology Freshman Seminar (Genetics), Biochemistry – Structure/Catalysis/Metabolism, Physiology, Laboratory in Biochemistry, Genetics, Biochemistry – Signal Transduction/Gene Expression, Cell Biology

MATH – AP Calculus BC, IT Linear Algebra and Differential Equations, CSE Multivariable Calculus

PSYCHOLOGYAP Psychology, Health Psychology

PHARMACY/PHARMACOLOGY/HEALTH SCIENCES– Orientation to Pharmacy, Health Sciences Applied Terminology, Non-prescription Medicines and Self Care, Pre-med/Life Science Pharmacology, Drugs and the US Healthcare System, Mechanisms of Drug Action, Principles of Nutrition, Public Health – Sleep, Eat, and Exercise

ENGLISH/WRITINGAP Literature and Composition, Science Writing for Popular Audiences

HISTORY/POLITICAL SCIENCE – American Government and Politics, US History Since 1865

OTHER – Anthropology – Understanding Cultures, Principles of Microeconomics, Greek and Roman Mythology, Dynamics of Leadership


Featured image: Instagram | Hanna Erickson (@MDPhDToBe)

Cribs – MD/PhD Student Edition

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Sup y’all! Welcome to the MD/PhD student edition of cribs featuring yours truly! Thought I’d give you a tour of my new apartment here at UIUC so you can get a feel of the place where I will likely spend endless hours studying in the next year.

Cribs 1

The awesome thing about the building is that there are just three apartments on bottom and three on top with our own private entrances. It’s a nice transition between living in a large apartment building with a front desk and hundreds of other tenants and living in a house on my own. Plus, it’s located just a block from one of the hospitals on campus and just a mile from the medical science and associated buildings where I’ll be spending lots of my time.

Cribs 2

Well, let’s enter the apartment. Right away, you meet a staircase leading up to my living room. You can see my flower pictures hung along the stairs and my bike at the top. It’s a pretty fun ordeal to get the bike down the stairs, but even more to hold it up a few stairs while trying to open the door. I’m sure I’ll get better at it in time.

Cribs 4

Now here’s the living room. It has a vaulted ceiling with fan and light in the center. Since I’ve spent the past four years in Minneapolis, I’ve grown accustomed to having a skyline. Unfortunately that is something that Chambana is lacking, so if you notice above the bike, there is a puzzle picture of the New York skyline as my replacement. I also have brought nearly all of the text books that I own as well as many other books to fill my bookshelves. While I have maybe read half of them, they still make me look smart, which is clearly the most important thing. Also, being the mature adult that I am, my pictures mostly require picture frames, but that hasn’t stopped me from letting my obnoxious Minnesotan self be fully expressed on my walls. As my mother says, I will likely make enemies of Illinois fans if I ever have people over. I also have a swell view of some random house’s back yard through my window. Luckily they haven’t been annoying… yet.

Cribs 5

The living room transitions into the kitchen with a big peninsula, which is perfect for spreading out all of my study materials and is a good replacement for a desk. This is a very important area of the apartment since my paddle from marching band and my coffee maker are both located here. I even have a shelving unit dedicated to coffee-related items just below the peninsula. Oh and I have a pantry, which is pretty dang awesome!

Cribs 6

Every girl, even if they intend to spend most of their time in a lab, needs a quality bathroom area. While I was concerned about the lack of counter- and cabinet-space when I moved in, I made up for it with my super awesome shelf. Most importantly, there is a closet with a washer and dryer. Yes that’s right, a WASHER AND DRYER! As someone who has had to pay for laundry the past three years this is one of the glorious things about the whole apartment.

Cribs 7

And finally, the most important room, the room with all of my clothes and where I may be able to catch a few hours of the ever-so-elusive sleep every now and then, my bedroom. I nearly had a freak out when I saw all of the closets in this place. It was so messy when I toured it in May that I didn’t realize that there wasn’t just one closet in the back corner, but that there was another wide closet along the wall and a linen closet, which is SUPER MEGA AWESOME!!! I no longer have to climb to get into bed as I’ve had a loft/top bunk for the past four years and even better yet it’s a queen size bed! I don’t even know what to do with all of that space! In case you were curious, the super cool cow quilt was made by my grandmother so it is a highly sentimental piece rather than just there because I really like cows or something. And of course I must have an Aragorn poster near my bed as I have for… pretty much ever. Now that he’s framed, he shall be with me forever… Okay, ending the Lord of the Rings weirdness, I also put up a white board in the room for studying in case it would help me to write things out. I wasn’t going to put it on the wall, but then I figured having to stand to use it would help me stay awake and focused. 

Well that’s the place! I think it is set up pretty well to help me be a super productive student! After living in dorms and apartments that are just a step up from that for the past four years, I am so fortunate to have my own furniture again and my own space. Surely it would be much more sparse had I not received much of this from my grandparents and I am blessed to have such caring relatives. I am looking forward to spending at least the next year in this apartment and getting the rest of my life settled here in Chambana!


Featured image: Instagram | Hanna Erickson (@MDPhDToBe)

My next eight years

The closer I get to starting the next phase of my education, the more I am bombarded with questions about it. Usually when I’m asked what I’m doing for school, I will say either graduate school or medical school because it seems too overwhelming for people to even hear about such a program and it is just easier to say one or the other. Of course, if the conversation progresses to further into my future, I will have to reveal that I will be pursuing both MD and PhD degrees but the conversation does not always get that far. Nonetheless, I wish to set the story straight by answering some frequently asked questions so that those considering the medical field know what its like in an MD/PhD program and so that my friends and family will have a better idea of what exactly I’ve gotten myself into.

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Where are you going to school?

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I will be going to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The school is about 3 hours south of Chicago in an area of approximately 120,000 residents between the two cities of Urbana and Champaign. Some refer to the cities as “twin cities” but coming from the true twin cities area of St. Paul and Minneapolis, I don’t think I will ever be able to refer to them by that name. The school has around 40,000 students, which makes it similar in size to my alma mater of the University of Minnesota, and so I’m hoping it will feel a little bit like home.

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How long are you going to be in school?

The MD/PhD program is about 8 years long. This may seem like a long time, but actually it is shorter than if you were to get your MD and PhD separately. Medical school is four years and graduate school for a PhD usually takes five years, so this puts me a year ahead.

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How is the program structured?

Most schools with an MD/PhD program have a 2-4-2 structure. With this structure, you begin with 2 years of medical school during which you can also complete your lab rotations for graduate school as well as some graduate school courses. After your second year of medical school, you work strictly on your graduate schoolwork for the next four years. After receiving your PhD, you return to medical school for the last two years. Those schools funded by the Medical Scientist Training Program, a grant offered by the National Institutes of Health, are more regulated by this grant and follow this structure as well as some other MD/PhD programs.

Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, on the other hand, is not funded by the grant and so has the freedom to place more emphasis on the graduate work, leaving as much time as necessary to complete the PhD. You begin the program in the graduate school phase during which you take your first year medical school courses spread out over the 5 or so years it takes to complete the degree. Therefore, you essentially act as a regular graduate student for the first 5 years with some extra work. After receiving your PhD, you then complete the last 3 years of medical school. The MD/PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is more specifically called the Medical Scholars Program, MSP for short.

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How much does it cost?

The program actually PAYS YOU to be in school. The school covers tuition and you additionally get a stipend for living expenses. During the graduate school years, it is the stipend any graduate student would get, but during the medical school years, it is about half that amount. You do have to pay some student fees but that’s pretty much it.

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What are you getting your PhD in?

I am in the school of molecular and cellular biology graduate program, which is an umbrella program in that it contains more specific sub-plans that I will have to choose between. Based on which lab I choose as my thesis lab, I will be in the biochemistry, cellular and developmental biology, microbiology, or molecular and integrative physiology department. Most of the labs that I am interested in are in the biochemistry department, but we’ll just see how rotations work out.

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What are lab rotations?

Every graduate student will end up picking a research lab to spend the majority of their time in school to do research that they will write about in their thesis. To help decide which lab to pick, each student must do short stints in labs of their choosing (with the professor’s approval). At Illinois, our rotations are 5 weeks long and we will do 3 of them during fall semester of our first year. At the end of the semester we will then pick our thesis lab.

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How big is your class size?

In the Medical Scholars Program (MD/PhD) there are 10 in my incoming class. For the school of molecular and cellular biology graduate program, there are approximately 40 in my incoming class. The M1 class in medical school has about 125 students, 25 of which will remain at the Urbana-Champaign campus for M2-4 (this includes the MSP students), 50 will go to the Rockford campus for M2-4, and 50 will go to the Peoria campus for M2-4.

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What comes after all of this?

Following receiving my MD and PhD, I plan on doing residency for internal medicine followed by a fellowship for an oncology specialty, which are both 3 years in length. Eventually, I hope to become an academic oncologist so that I can lead a basic research lab focused on the design of anticancer therapies, teach courses related to such a subject, and treat patients with cancer. Having both degrees and being involved in both a clinical and basic research setting will hopefully help me bring basic ideas to clinical applications faster.

How did you get in?

I prepared for applying to such a program by taking a broad range of science courses with an emphasis in chemistry (as it was my major) and maintaining a 3.6 GPA. I additionally was quite involved in school by joining extracurriculars, holding leadership positions, and volunteering at a hospital. As research is the focus of such a program, I started working in research labs at the end of my freshman year of college so that I had over 2 years of experience as well as undergraduate research funding and a research fellowship before applying.

I took the GRE, chemistry GRE, and MCAT in the spring/summer of my junior year of college though the MCAT was the only required test – I had previously been planning on just grad school hence why I had taken the two GRE tests. For my application, I had to write three personal statements to explain why I wanted to pursue MD, MD/PhD, and research (check them out here, here, and here, respectively). I additionally wrote about the activities that I have been involved in and what three were most important to me – volunteering at a hospital for 6+ years, being a member and leader in a marching band, and doing research in a medicinal chemistry/carcinogenesis lab.

Following this general first application that was sent to 15 schools, I then received secondary applications from those schools with more specific questions. After spending nearly $1300 in application fees, I was done with applications and the rejections started rolling in (as kind of expected when applying to places like Harvard, Yale, and UCSF). Nonetheless, in middle January I was invited to an interview weekend at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They paid for my flights (including a first class flight from Minneapolis to Chicago), three nights in a hotel, and meals.

For the interview weekend, I had a 15-20 minute panel interview with the director and assistant director of the MSP, a doctor from the local hospital where we do our clinical work, and a professor in the school of molecular and cellular biology. The next day, I had four 30-minute talks with four professors in the school whose research I was interested in. The rest of the weekend was to get us familiar with the school and convince us to go there. It included dinner with faculty and students, a poster session, a fun activity (I went bowling), and a final outing to a local bar.

If we were interviewed for the MSP, we could be accepted to the graduate school or medical school individually if we did not get in to the full program, and a full acceptance required acceptances from these three areas. A couple weeks after the interview weekend, I received an e-mail notifying me of my acceptance to the graduate program. Two days after that, I was notified that I was accepted to the MSP pending anticipated acceptance by the college of medicine at the University of Illinois Chicago campus. A week after my MSP acceptance, I received a phone call from the MSP notifying me that I had been accepted to the medical school and I was in! For the MSP, there were around 100 applicants and 30 or so of us were invited to interview. They aimed for a class size of 15, which ended up being 10 of us.

Why the heck are you doing all of this?!

Since I was a young teenager, I have wanted to do medicine, pharmacy, and research at various times, one leading to the next. I knew I wanted to work toward bettering human health, but I kept an open mind and sought to find where I was best stimulated and where I could make the biggest difference. I first became actively interested in medicine in early high school, but switched to pharmacy after learning about the profession. In the beginning of college, when I first became exposed to research as a career, I determined that I could combine research with my interest in pharmacy to devote my life to working to develop novel drugs.

Nonetheless, I continued to feel a draw toward medicine. I did my best to deny it as my father had been a large influence in my initial interest in the area and because I figured that I would have to choose between research and medicine. Even still, I felt incomplete like there was more that I wanted to do without sacrificing what I was already pursuing. Since I was not pre-med, I was not exposed to the opportunities available to those in the medical field and had no idea that combined MD/PhD programs existed.

Near the end of my junior year of college as I was about to take my GRE to prepare for graduate school, I was researching schools that I was interested in applying to and came across the combined program path.  It swept me off my feet. While I had felt pulled in different directions before toward research, medicine, and pharmacy, I now had a single career path and educational opportunity to allow me to do everything that I had hoped for myself and to make the biggest difference in the world.

If you would like to know more about the MSP, check out the following article: http://www.uiaa.org/illinois/news/blog/index.asp?id=100

Also, if you have any more questions, feel free to ask in the comments below or in a tweet to @MDPhDToBe. Or of course in person, on facebook, via text, however else you’d normally contact me if you’re one of the awesome people I know in real life. 🙂


Featured image: Instagram | Hanna Erickson (@MDPhDToBe)