Few fields offer a wider variety of opportunities. Most doctors’ professional lives are filled with caring for people and continuously learning more about the human body. Every day, in communities around the country, doctors work in neighborhood clinics, hospitals, offices, schools, and even homeless shelters to care for people in need.

But physicians also do many other things. Physician researchers are at work today developing exciting new treatments for cancer, genetic disorders, and infectious diseases like AIDS. Academic physicians share their skills and wisdom by teaching medical students and residents. Others work with health maintenance organizations, pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, health insurance companies, or in corporations directing health and safety programs. People with medical skills are in demand everywhere.

– Ted Johnson, Preparation for a Career in Medicine: A Guide for Students

Getting started

How do you decide if a career in medicine is right for you?

Think about what kind of future appeals to you:

  • Do you like challenges?
  • Are you interested in science and how the body works?
  • Do you care deeply about other people, their problems, and their pain?
  • Are you a good listener?
  • Do you enjoy learning?
  • Are you intrigued by the ways medicine can be used to improve life?

If you answered “Yes” to most of these questions, chances are you have the right personality for a medical career.

What is a doctor’s job like?

Physicians diagnose and care for people of all ages who are ill or have been injured. They take medical histories, perform physical examinations, conduct diagnostic tests, recommend and provide treatment, and advise patients on their overall health and well-being. While there are several different types of physicians, they can usually be divided into three broad categories:

  • Primary care physicians are the doctors patients usually visit most frequently. They treat a wide range of illnesses and regularly provide preventive care, and they also enjoy long-term relationships with their patients. Pediatricians, family practitioners, and general internists are primary care physicians.
  • Surgeons perform operations to treat diseases and repair injuries.
  • Specialists have expertise related to specific diseases, age groups, and bodily organs. Cardiologists, psychiatrists, geriatricians, and ophthalmologists are examples of specialists.

Visit Careers in Medicine for detailed information on medical specialties.

How much education does it take to become a doctor?

Becoming a doctor requires a serious educational commitment. It typically takes from 11 to 16 years to complete your education, including four years of college (undergraduate school), four years of medical school, and three to eight years of training in a specialty area (residency training), depending on which specialty you choose to pursue.

In order to maintain a medical license, doctors are also required to continue taking courses and learning about advancements in their field throughout their career.

How much do doctors make?

Salaries vary depending on where physicians live and the type of medical specialty they practice. The Starting Salaries for Physicians page provides an overview of a sample of specialties.

What is a doctor’s schedule like?

While salaries for physicians are among the highest for all occupations, the work hours can be long and unpredictable.

Many doctors work more than 60 hours a week. They may also have to respond to emergencies and be on call for their patients. Work hours vary depending on the type, size and location of practice.


  • First year: 
    • Carefully consider career options with your advisor.
    • Email Katie Hughes to register your interest in pre-med so that you receive the appropriate emails and notices.
    • Initiate the sequence of courses required by medical schools of interest.
    • Get to know your professors; remember, some of them will be writing letters of recommendation for you.
    • Contact the Piper Center to acquire advice and guidance as you begin this important journey.
    • Plan any off-campus semester programs and internships.
  • Second year: 
    • Consider research opportunities or an internship in an area of medicine during Interim or summer.
    • Informational interviews with physicians or other healthcare professionals can be very insightful.
    • Acquaint yourself with members of the HPC. Get to know your professors.
    • Decide on a major by the end of your sophomore year.
    • Seek out opportunities to work with patients in a healthcare setting such as a nursing home. Volunteer or work through acquiring your CNA.
    • Develop your talents. Get involved in campus activities. Balance your life!
    • Look through sample MCAT tests to develop awareness.
    • Participate in appropriate service projects.
    • At the end of your sophomore year, review your academic progress and revisit other career options. Are you meeting your goals?
  • Third year (or fourth year if gap year is planned): 
    • Complete all pre-medical requirements. Many successful applicants plan on a gap year, which allows flexibility.
    • Consider an internship or the ID 155 Interim course.
    • Prepare for and take the MCAT. Register early in the spring. You may need a lighter load during the spring semester.
    • Request an interview with the HPC early in the spring.
    • Determine which schools you are interested in, taking into account residency, GPA, etc.
    • Initiate the AMCAS or AACOMAS web-based application in late May or early June.
    • Complete the AMCAS or AACOMAS application as early as possible and request the appropriate transcripts be sent to AMCAS or AACOMAS.
    • Complete secondary applications in a timely manner.
  • Fourth year:
    • Complete secondary applications and the application process. Confirm that the schools have a complete application.
    • If invited in the fall, complete interviews at medical schools.
    • Be patient! Carefully consider other career options to maintain as many opportunities as possible. Consider a plan of action if you are not accepted the first time.
    • Enjoy your senior year! Celebrate a successful undergraduate experience.

– Ted Johnson, Preparing for a Career in Medicine: A Guide for Students


The official guide for admission requirements for medical school is the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) published yearly by the American Association of Medical Colleges. Medical schools seek applicants from diverse educational backgrounds. There is no “one way to go” in completing the undergraduate degree. All medical schools recognize the importance of a strong base in the natural sciences as well as a solid background in the social sciences and humanities.

Choosing a major

Students can major in any area of interest. An undergraduate course of study should not be focused exclusively on a future career in medicine but a springboard to examine a variety of careers related to medicine or outside of the medical arena. Students interested in medicine do not need to major in biology or chemistry.

Course requirements

The courses required for application to medical school vary some from school to school. Preparation for the 2015 version of the MCAT includes the following courses:

 Biology (2 courses)  BIO 150, and BIO 227 or BIO 233
 Chemistry (2 courses)  CHEM 125, CHEM 126*
 Organic Chemistry (2 courses)  CHEM 247/253 and CHEM 248/254
 Biochemistry (1 course)  CHEM 379
 Physics (2 courses)  PHYS 124, PHYS 125
 Behavioral Science (1 course)  PSYCH 125
 Social Science (1 course)  SOAN 121 or SOAN 128
 Critical Reasoning (1 course)  STAT 212

Some schools also require calculus (MATH 120) and/or English courses.

*St. Olaf General Chemistry options:
  1. CHEM 125 (Fall), CHEM 126 (Spring)
  2. CHEM 121 (Fall), CHEM 123 (Interim), CHEM 126 (Spring)
  3. CH/BI 125 (Fall), CH/BI 126 (Interim), CH/BI 127 (Spring, also counts as a semester of General Biology)

Be sure to check the admission requirements for the specific programs you will be applying to!


What is the MCAT exam?

The Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®) is a standardized, multiple-choice examination designed to assess your problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine. The AAMC launched a new MCAT exam in April 2015 after seven years in development. Last revised in 1991, the exam has been updated to reflect the changes in medicine and science and to test examinees on not only what they know but how well they use what they know. The new MCAT exam includes the concepts and skills that medical educators, medical students, and residents rated as the most important for pre-meds to know so they are prepared on day one of medical school.

In April 2015, the AAMC launched an updated version of the MCAT exam. Scores are reported in four sections:

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

Almost all U.S. medical schools and many Canadian schools require you to submit MCAT exam scores. Many schools do not accept MCAT exam scores that are more than three years old. The MCAT is offered in a computerized format and is given on at least 20 test dates from January to September each year. Scores are released 30 days after taking the test and can be obtained online.

Why a new MCAT in 2015?

Today’s medical students are entering a health care system that has undergone enormous change since the MCAT exam was last revised. There has been an explosion of medical research and scientific knowledge, an increase in the diversity and life span of patients, and ongoing delivery system reforms. Medical education is continually being updated to keep better pace with these changes. Medical school curricula includes earlier exposure to clinical settings, more competency-based learning, and coursework that focuses on important knowledge and skills, such as inter-professional training, communication, and the social determinants of health.

How is the MCAT exam scored?

You will receive five scores from your MCAT exam: one for each of the four sections and one combined total score. Individual section scores range from 118-132 and total scores range from 472-528. The exam is not scored on a curve. Scores are scaled and equated. Although all test forms of the exam measure the same basic skills and concepts, each form contains different questions. Since one form may be slightly more difficult or slightly easier than another, we convert the raw scores to a scale that takes into consideration the difficulty of test questions. Regardless of the particular test form used, equal scaled scores will represent the same level of skill mastery.

How are scores used?

There are many factors considered in the medical school admissions process to gain a holistic view of an applicant’s likelihood of succeeding in medical school. MCAT scores are one of the factors considered. When admissions officers look at MCAT scores in conjunction with undergraduate GPA, rather than grades alone, they are better able to predict who will be successful in medical school.

How important is the MCAT exam?

Taking the MCAT exam is an important step in the application process, but the exam alone does not make or break your chances of getting into medical school. Admissions committees consider many other factors when you apply, such as: academic strengths, exposure to health care and medical research environments, personal experiences and interests, potential contributions to the campus and community, and personal attributes such as maturity and drive to help others.

When should I take the MCAT exam?

In most cases, you should take the MCAT exam in the calendar year prior to the year in which you plan to enter medical school. For example, if you are applying in 2015 for entrance to medical school in 2016, you should take the exam in 2015).

If you can’t decide whether to take the exam early in the year or later, ask yourself two questions:

  • Will I take the exam just once, or is there a possibility I might want to take it again?
  • Have I mastered the material or do I need additional coursework or study?

If you think that you will take the MCAT exam more than once in a given calendar year, you might want to make your first attempt early in the year. This should allow you sufficient time to receive your scores, make a decision about your second attempt, and find an available seat later in the testing year. If you have coursework to complete, additional studying to do, or if you have a major conflict that won’t allow you to be in the right frame of mind for the exam, we suggest that you wait until you are better prepared. This may mean you make your first attempt later in the year. That’s okay, too. You’re the best judge of your preparedness.

What if I can’t afford the registration fee?

If you have concerns about the cost of the MCAT exam, consider applying for the Fee Assistance Program (FAP). This program reduces the registration fee from $305 to $100 for potential medical school applicants who meet eligibility requirements, and who would be unable to take the exam without financial assistance.

What if I don’t score well?

If you aren’t satisfied with your MCAT score, your academic advisor, HPC members, and the Piper Center Pre-Health coach can help you decide if you should re-take the exam. You can take the MCAT exam up to three times per calendar year.

If I took the MCAT exam prior to April 2015, how long can I submit my scores?

The AAMC will continue to report MCAT test scores from the 1991 version through the 2019 AMCAS application cycle. However, whether medical schools will continue to accept these scores through the 2019 AMCAS application cycle will depend on the individual medical school.

Read more about the MCAT2015 and get additional resources at the MCAT2015 site.

– Association of American Medical Colleges

Beyond the classroom

Medical schools are looking for well-rounded individuals who are interested in a variety of areas and who have demonstrated their interest in medicine and serving others. Students should take advantage of the many opportunities to obtain patient contact and observe the practice of medicine.

  • It is relatively easy to arrange an internship with physicians in students’ hometown, with alumni, or with physicians in the Twin Cities.
  • Students may also shadow physicians and formal registration for credit is not required.
  • Informational interviews with physicians or healthcare professionals can also be very useful in determining your goals and motivation.
  • Medical schools want evidence of one-on-one patient contact working or volunteering in a clinic, nursing home, or related area.
  • The Rockswold Health Scholars Program provides clinical and research opportunities at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) over a 10-week period in the summer. Apply in February through Ole Career Central.
  • Many successful St. Olaf medical students have found study abroad programs very helpful and, in some instances, a critical component in their acceptance to medical school. The American Medical Student Association features an International Health Opportunities Directory which may be helpful for students interested in pursuing a health-related opportunity abroad.
  • Research experience, although not required for admission to medical school, may be very beneficial to a student.

In summary, medical schools prefer students with extracurricular experiences, hospital or clinical experiences, service, study abroad, and research. Students need breadth and relevant experiences. A passion for working with people in need should be obvious. 

– Ted Johnson, Preparation for a Career in Medicine: A Guide for Students

The application process

How do I start the application process?

To apply to most medical schools in the United States, you’ll use the Association of American Medical Colleges’ (AAMC) centralized application service, the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS).

AMCAS collects, verifies, and delivers application information and Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) exam scores to each school you choose. AMCAS does not make admissions decisions; each participating school is responsible for making its own individual admissions decisions.

When should I start looking into where to apply?

If you’re in high school and considering medical school, you typically want to do your research during your junior year. If you’re in college, or post-college, you will want to start researching medical schools at least several months before you begin your AMCAS application, which opens in early May each year for entrance into medical school the following year.

Are there any tools or resources to help me decide where to apply?

The MSAR Online is a database-driven guide that provides a comprehensive listing of U.S. and Canadian medical schools and B.S./M.D. programs. The medical school profiles show specific admissions requirements along with all of the applicant and acceptance statistics. You can use the site to perform advanced searches, sort data, browse schools at a glance, save favorites, compare schools, save notes, and access more data and information available elsewhere. The website is revised completely each year through a collaboration of the AAMC and each medical school and B.S./M.D. program.

What is a secondary application?

Schools often request additional information from applicants in the form of a supplemental, secondary application. This may include a request for letters of recommendation, an essay, and additional forms. A secondary application will likely have an associated application fee. Fees and required forms vary from school to school.

How much does it cost?

For the 2012 application cycle, the AMCAS processing fee was $160, which includes one medical school. Additional medical schools may be added at a cost of $34 each. AMCAS fees are subject to change.

Applicants with financial need may apply to the Fee Assistance Program (FAP) offered by the AAMC. FAP awardees receive a waiver for AMCAS fees (for up to 14 medical schools), reduced registration fees for the MCAT, and more. Visit the FAP Web site for application requirements and additional benefit information.

Will I need to interview?

Most medical schools require an interview, though the process varies by school. Interviews can take place on or off campus. They can be conducted by one admissions committee member, by multiple members of the committee, or by off-campus interviewers, such as practicing physicians. Generally, the interviewers complete evaluations that are added to the rest of your application materials.

– Association of American Medical Colleges

What is important in being a successful applicant?

Medical schools evaluate applicants utilizing several aspects of the applicant’s academic record and activities. Five general areas will be considered:

  1. GPA. Grades are important as is course selection. The academic record should indicate rigor as well as breadth in course selection. Most successful applicants have above a 3.60 GPA.
  2. MCAT. Scores on the MCAT are very important in the evaluation of applicants. Medical schools want scores which indicate balance in subject areas.
  3. AMCAS application. Three major areas are evaluated with different weight given to each area depending on the medical school. Medical schools want evidence of significant long-term service activities, exposure to patients in a healthcare setting, and involvement in a research project (for most medical schools, research enhances the application but is not a requirement). Medical school admissions committees will also look for evidence of leadership, good time management skills, ability to multitask, and a record of involvement in campus organizations ranging from music to student government.
  4. Recommendations. Applicants use a HPC letter and some medical schools require applicants to submit two to five additional letters of recommendation.
  5. Interviews. After review of the applicant’s application and recommendations, applicants may be invited for an on-campus interview. Successful applicants are able to articulate why they are interested in becoming a physician and can clearly describe their “journey” on their path to a career as a physician.

Application timeline

  • January/February: Start the Health Professions Committee (HPC) process. Fill out the information form and distribute faculty evaluation forms. Start researching medical schools. Use books, the Internet, and consult with HPC members. Select an MCAT test date and prepare in earnest for the MCAT. Schedule a mock interview with the Piper Center.
  • March: Submit your HPC interview request materials. Schedule a mock interview with the Piper Center (if you haven’t already!).
  • April: Interview with the HPC (all forms must be in your file by April 1 to secure an interview). Meet your interviewers and ask for feedback. Take the MCAT in April or May if possible.
  • May: Web-based application available. Start working on your personal statements and contract potential recommenders. Many schools will require at least two recommendations in addition to the HPC evaluation.
  • June: Applications start being accepted June 1. Submit as early as possible. Keep track of deadlines. A final deadline for the AMCAS application is November 15.
  • July: Earliest secondaries arrive
  • August: Early decision application deadline (August 1) for AMCAS application.
  • September/October: Early decision applicants are notified of acceptance or non-acceptance (October 1). Interviews begin.
  • October to December: Final and secondary application deadlines vary from October 15 to December 15 depending on the medical school.
  • March: Target for final acceptance of applicants.
  • May: Accepted students must accept one medical school by April 30.

Acceptance or non-acceptance

After the interview an applicant may not hear from the medical school for weeks, or in most cases, months. Many students will interview in October and hear from the school in March or April. Students will be accepted, not accepted, or put on a “wait” list. A student may initially hold multiple acceptances but must select one medical school by May 15 and submit a substantial deposit. A financial aid application may be submitted to the medical schools before final acceptance is received. Once accepted, the student should contact the medical school’s financial aid office.

Some schools allow students to defer entrance for one year but the reasons for deferment must be significant.

If students are not accepted it is beneficial for them to contact the school in May or June to set up an appointment to discuss why their application was unsuccessful. Reapplication is encouraged at most schools, and, in some cases, a necessity to gain admittance. Students must demonstrate that they are different and have made the recommended changes. Medical schools may review the old applications and the current application.

Osteopathic medicine

Osteopathic practitioners approach medicine based on the musculoskeletal system. Doctors of Osteopathy (DO) incorporate osteopathic manipulations and structural diagnoses in addition to the techniques used by allopathic physicians. DOs are fully licensed to diagnose, prescribe, and conduct surgery. DOs and MDs exist as equals and, with the increasing emphasis on primary care, DOs are a “hot” area. Currently, there are 26 schools of osteopathy at 34 locations with a total enrollment of 20,663 students in 2012. Shadowing a DO physician is an excellent approach to determining if osteopathy fits you. Fast facts:

  • The undergraduate course requirements are the same as those for allopathic medical schools.
  • The MCAT is required.
  • All osteopathic schools use a centralized application service called AACOMAS, which costs $175 with $32 for each additional school. The application opens May 5 and can be submitted beginning June 1.

– Ted Johnson, Preparation for a Career in Medicine: A Guide for Students

For an overview about Osteopathic medicine, check out this excellent well-researched resource prepared by a St. Olaf student.


St. Olaf Organizations:

Application information:


Professional organizations:

Osteopathic medicine:

Recommended reading:

  • Many of these titles are featured on health professions advising websites and some are considered “must-reads” for premedical students.

List of medical schools: