Becoming a doctor is a long and challenging journey that requires years of preparation and hard work. For students interested in pursuing a career in medicine, the pre-med timeline can be particularly daunting. From selecting the right courses to preparing for the MCAT and navigating the medical school application process, there are many steps to take and decisions to make along the way.
In this tutorial, we will provide an overview of the pre-med timeline and the steps that aspiring doctors typically take before applying to medical school. We will cover each stage of the process, from the early years of college to medical school graduation and beyond. Whether you are just starting out on your pre-med journey or are already well on your way, this post will provide valuable insights and advice to help you navigate the path ahead.
The Big Picture
The overall picture to keep in mind is that you have four years (or perhaps five, with a gap year) to get your application as ready as possible for medical school. The last year is typically not included in the application, since you will submit over a year before your intended start date, so that should be factored into your planning. In the beginning, you should focus on figuring out if a career in medicine is right for you. Use your classes, activities, experiences, mentors, etc to really explore and decide. After that, the next two years should be spent building up the components of your application. Traditionally, these components are thought of as (1) good grades and scores (2) research (3) clinical activities and volunteering to show exposure to and interest in medicine (4) a clear interest in something within or beyond medicine that a number of your activities, classes, and experiences relate to (5) evidence of leadership and commitment throughout the above. The last year will be spent on the application process, which starts in May of your junior year (for people going straight through) or May of your senior year (for people taking one gap year).
Year By Year
Disclaimer: There are, of course, deviations to this timeline and many different paths to medicine. Perhaps you take multiple gap years, or perhaps you decide in your last year of college and do a post-bac. Either way, if you've decided medicine is for you, don't be discouraged. However, this specific tutorial focuses on a traditional timeline.
Focus on exploring at first. Join clubs and activities that allow exposure to healthcare or other interests.
Identify and speak to potential advisors. Discuss course selection and specific experiences or opportunities that exist at your school that may be relevant to your interests within or outside medicine.
Attend campus pre-med meetings and make sure you are on email lists to get relevant updates and information
Figure out what you might be interested in studying and what kind of research you may be interested in pursuing. Through your classes, research, and volunteering, start to develop relations with faculty, advisors, and mentors.
Seek opportunities to volunteer, shadow a doctor, and, if interested, identify research opportunities on campus.
Start taking the required portions of the premed core curriculum at your school, geared for freshmen.
Towards the end of the year, line up a plan for the summer, ideally focusing on some combination of volunteering and research.
During the summer, get involved in medicine-related activities - consider internships, volunteering, research, and leadership opportunities. Take summer courses through a university if desired or necessary. However, we would not recommend this unless you absolutely need to. Otherwise, it is better to spend the time investing in an experience or opportunity that you can meaningfully gain from.
Check in with your pre-health advising office about your progress during first year
Continue to develop relationships with faculty, advisors, and mentors.
Apply for summer research, internship, or enrichment programs. Ideally, continue or expand on your activities of the previous summer. However, if it wasn't a good fit, this is a good time to switch and invest in something new.
We would recommend a depth of activities over quantity - i.e., if you had a good experience, invest in that experience rather than bouncing around and trying new things because that will allow you to develop long-term relationships and experiences.
During the summer, Continue your summer research, internship, and enrichment plans developed during the year. By this summer, if you are planning to apply straight through, you should have been able to identify which activities you really want to invest in. Use this summer and the beginning of your third year to really develop those relationships, push forward publications, gain leadership positions, etc. to bolster the upcoming application.
Identify and pursue leadership opportunities within organizations you have been deeply involved with through college
Consider which faculty, advisors, and mentors on your campus you have close relationships with, and whom you can approach to write letters of recommendation for your applications.
Continue your participation in meaningful clinical experiences, other medically related activities, volunteer work, research, and/or leadership roles on campus; if possible, consider taking on a more substantial role.
Meet with your pre-health advisor to strategize about your application timeline, whether it be for immediately following graduation or after one or more gap years. Discuss your schedule for completing the remaining premedical coursework and other school-specific degree requirements.
Identify the best time for you to take the MCAT® exam; visit the MCAT website to find the best options for test dates and locations. Take the exam by the end of this year if you plan to apply straight through.
If you are considering a gap year, investigate a meaningful paid or volunteer medically-related experience to complete during that time.
Research medical school curricula and joint, dual, and combined-degree programs and start templating a list about where you will apply towards the end of this academic year.
Request letters of recommendation and committee letters and start preparing your personal statement and the rest of your application materials.
During the summer, continue your involvement with your selected summer activities - paid, volunteer, internship, medically related, research, and leadership experiences.
If you are applying to medical school going straight through, this summer is the time to complete and submit AMCAS and secondaries. Admissions are rolling so the earlier you do this the better.
In the fall through early spring, if you are going straight through, you should be interviewing with schools and doing campus visits this year
Continue investing in your activities
Toward the end of the year, send letters of interest (with key updates) as needed
Say yes to the school of your choice and plan to start medical school in the fall!
Enjoy this summer if you are going straight through. Remember, it will be one of your last real vacations for a long time. Travel, relax, and do something you are really excited about.
If you are taking gap years, move all application-related components in the timeline above (AMCAS, essays, recommendations, etc.) the appropriate number of years out. Use your gap years to deepen your application - pursue meaningful research, work in a hospital, gain medical exposure by being an EMT or a scribe, or do a post-bac if you need to complete pre-med requirements. Talk regularly with advisors at your school or mentors you have identified throughout the process to determine when you are ready to apply.
Undergraduate research is often a key component of your medical school application. If you want to go to academic medicine-focused programs, having a strong research background is one of the things that is closely examined in the process. It's useful to spend your first year exploring so you can choose a lab that focuses on something you're excited about. Ideally, you would to stay in this lab for the next four years and develop a strong relationship with the PI and develop a publication record. If you do switch labs, switch early, find a good fit, and then work to develop that longevity. Finally, if you are doing basic science in a lab that doesn't publish as often, it may be good to supplement with additional faster-moving clinical projects to develop relationships with additional mentors and be able to show publications when you apply.
This website is devoted to helping you develop your research skills and walk into the lab prepared so take advantage of all the tutorials out there. We also have additional tutorials on choosing mentors, identifying projects, etc. so keep an eye out for those.