So You Want to be a Doctor? Part I: High School

So you want to be a doctorWritten by guest writer, Testmasters teacher, Rice University student, and future physician: Carmella D.

So you want to be a doctor?  As a high school student (and if you’re like me, much earlier than that), you probably have an inkling that you want to get involved in the healthcare field in some capacity.  For most people, this involves aspirations of becoming a physician.  Whether you come from a long line of physicians or are a first-generation student to attend university, here’s some questions and answers about the steps of that journey:

High School

So I’m just a little high schooler, is it too early for me to be worrying about the journey to medical school already?

Some aspects of this question may hold true—you certainly shouldn’t be killing yourself over MCAT prep and picking medical schools quite yet (take a breath, these are coming later).  But there are some aspects of the journey that you can start thinking about: high school coursework, standardized test preparation, extra-curriculars, picking universities and programs, and getting involved in the medical field.

What kind of classes should I be taking if I want to be a pre-med in university?

As will be repeated when we talk about picking a major in college, there isn’t a definitive correct answer for the exact course schedule that you should be taking, however depending on your interests and the requirements for the university programs you’re interested in applying to, there may be certain courses that will be better to take. For example, if you are interested in the natural sciences, as many students interested in medicine are, it might be best to take a course like AP Biology or Chemistry.  Universities will want to see that you pushed yourself and worked hard in high school, especially if you are planning on attending prestigious schools or early action programs. Consider Honors and AP/IB classes, especially if your desired university offers college credit for passing these exams.  Some universities also require courses in foreign language and the fine arts.  The fine arts, particularly music and theatre, can also open excellent opportunities for extra-curricular activities.  Getting involved in a balance of hard science, social science, and humanities coursework shows that you are a well-rounded student that can achieve success in most subjects.  In order to do well, it is important to pick subjects with material that engages and interests you.

taking standardized testsHow well do I need to score on my standardized tests and when should I prepare?

As a student interested in medicine, you might be looking into schools and programs that expect a high-caliber student. This level of elite student is represented by many things, one of which being scores on standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP exams. Benchmark scores will depend on the universities you are applying to, but for prestigious universities like the Ivy League schools and schools like Rice, Notre Dame, University of Chicago, Stanford, etc., their programs will expect the top percentile of students.  In order to achieve the scores you need, it is best to start prepping sooner rather than later—so when is that?

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For college admissions:

  • I want to compete to be a National Merit Semifinalist!

These designations are given after students complete the PSAT/NMSQT in 11th grade.  National Merit Semifinalists represent the top .05% of scores in their state.  In order to achieve this elite status, it is best to start studying for the SAT/PSAT starting the summer before your 10th grade year.

  • I want to apply to an Early Decision/Early Action program!

ED and EA programs ensure that the students will attend the schools and have a place in the matriculating class earlier than other students.  These are reserved for your absolute top choice, as acceptance is usually binding.  Their deadlines are typically mid-December of your 12th grade year, so standardized tests are best completed in the spring semester of your 11th grade year.  In order to be prepared, it is best to start studying for the SAT/ACT starting in the summer before your 11th grade year.

  • I’m applying Regular Decision, but I still want to achieve a high score!

Similar to ED/EA programs, many Regular Decision candidates take the SAT in the spring semester or June of their 11th grade year.  The absolute latest these candidates should take the ACT or SAT is the beginning of their 12th grade year, so prep is best started the summer before 11th grade year or during that fall semester.

For content-specific tests (SAT Subject and AP):

  • Certain colleges sometimes require supplementary tests in order for an applicant to show mastery in a certain topic area. For pre-med students, these are often in the hard sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physics).  These content-specific tests should be taken when the material is fresh, so preparation for the test should occur immediately after the corresponding high school course is taken and the test soon after to maximize scoring.

For more information about test preparation available, visit or call (281)-276-7777

What kind of extra-curriculars should I be involved in?

Like your coursework, your extra-curriculars should show that you are a well-rounded individual with specific passions.  You don’t have to be that kid that’s president of a billion different organizations so long as you find things that you really want to be a part of and that you feel you can be deeply involved in.  Showcasing leadership skills, innovation, and loyalty to an organization are things programs are looking for.  If you like science and math, things like Science Olympiad, Math Team, or Quiz Bowl might be up your alley.  If you like music and theatre, find leadership positions in your band, choir, or theatre program.  Many universities also like to see a dedication to service and community, so it is well-advised to consider volunteering and giving back to your community.  Perhaps one of the most overlooked opportunities for involvement, however is paid work experience.  Job choices for high schoolers can sometimes be slim, but getting involved in paid work gives you skills and perspective that other activities can’t—like interpersonal skills and communication—with a paycheck to boot!

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How on earth do I begin picking a university or a pre-med program?

Some kids grow up with one dream school their entire life.  But if you’re more like me, you just know some parameters that you’re looking for in a school.  As a kid that grew up in rural Midwestern US, I was looking to get out of dodge.  Urban, medium school, prestige, good opportunities for pre-med and Spanish, and excellent financial aid.  That’s what I was looking for, so Rice was a perfect fit for me.  I would highly recommend doing your research—visit college matching websites, put in your specs and see what comes up.  Do some digging into combined undergraduate/medical school programs and see if they interest you (more on these later in the “College” section!).  Then visit the university’s website and see if there’s any way to talk to students there or contact admissions for an interview.  Don’t just apply to a university because you think it’s a good school—you’ll likely be spending four very important years of your life there, so make sure it’s the right fit.

I may only be in high school, but there’s got to be a way for me to get involved in medicine during my time here!

You would be more than right.  As a high schooler, your only option isn’t just as a patient.  From shadowing, to volunteering, to paid work, to research, there are many options to get involved in the field—and if you live in a large urban area or have family members in medicine, you have an edge on opportunities available.

You could have this much fun if you shadow a doctor.
You could have this much fun if you shadow a doctor.

Shadowing:  Shadowing involves being side-by-side with a physician as he or she attends to patients.  You act as the doctor’s “shadow,” seeing everything they see in a clinical setting without actually touching the patient.  This in an amazing opportunity to see what a doctor sees every day and witness effective patient-doctor interactions.  In order to get involved, you should contact doctors in your area and see if they have openings for a student to shadow them.  The best opportunities will be at small, private clinics.  Large private or public clinics will likely require lots of paperwork and training that your local doctor might not need.

Volunteering:  Volunteering can take many forms, both medically and non-medically related.  Depending on your interests, it may be wise to get involved in both spheres.  Medical opportunities can range from emergency room attendants to hospice or nursing home companionship.  Most volunteering comes either through third-party companies or through the hospitals, clinics, or nursing homes themselves, so do some research into these opportunities.  The nice thing about volunteering, also, is that you can typically do as little or as much as your schedule allows.

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Paid Work:  As I mentioned, paid work is often overlooked but can sometimes provide an amazing opportunity to look into the underserved areas of medicine, a topic that many medical schools want students to have experience in.  For example, during high school it is relatively easy to take a course to receive licensing as a Certified Nursing Assistant.  After licensing, you can work in hospitals, clinics, or nursing homes dealing with actual patients on a collaborative healthcare team.  Without licensing, opportunities are still abundant and checking out the job postings on local clinics, nursing homes, hospice centers, and hospitals is an excellent first step.

Research:  As a high schooler, it may be difficult to find research opportunities specifically in medicine, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.  Talking to your high school teachers and counselors or getting in contact with medical facilities with research teams to see if there are any positions available shows immense initiative and can be a perfect fit for someone interested in the hard sciences aspect of medicine, perhaps even inspiring an interest in pursuing M.D./Ph.D. programs.  Even if you have to take a menial position in a research lab, staying with them (provided it be a project you find interesting and care about) means you can have upward mobility in the lab and provides excellent references to other research opportunities.

It seems like everyone I talk to is planning on pre-med—how do I make myself stand out from the crowd when applying to schools?

Maybe it’s just the Rice kid in me speaking, but your best friend in the application process is to be a little “unconventional.”  Talk fondly of the experiences you’ve had that make you unique, and if you’ve ever prevailed over adversity or are a minority student of some sort (race, gender, sexual orientation, low socioeconomic status, etc.) use those experiences to differentiate yourself and show how you’ve grown as an individual in your admissions essays.  Colleges will see your stats, scores, and extra-curriculars in a big, impersonal jumble of material on your applications—but it’s your personal essays that will really make you stand out.  If applying to a program that specifically deals with medicine (see Medical Scholars section below), talk about those specific experiences.  If a question prompt asks you about adversity or diversity, really hit on why you’re different from other people and what you contribute to a new matriculating class.  Perfect test scores aren’t enough anymore—they do get your foot in the door, but if you’re looking to apply to prestigious schools, it takes a little something special.

This sums up a pretty extensive list of what you can do to start your journey to medicine in high school, but the journey has only just begun…

Come back next week for the second installment, “So You Want to be a Doctor? Part II: College.”

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