Choosing to pursue a career in medicine is a big decision. Not only is it a challenging field, but it also requires a significant amount of time and dedication.
The first step in the process is doing what it takes to get into medical school.
To apply to medical school, you’ll need to complete pre-med requirements. These prepare you for the rigors of medical school and help you develop the skills and knowledge you’ll need to be successful in your career.
So what exactly are the pre-med requirements? Let’s take a look.
Pre-Med Course Requirements
The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) has compiled a working list of the 2023 pre-med course requirements for every medical school.
Nearly every medical school in the US and Canada requires students to complete the science courses listed below. In some instances, schools will list lab work in certain courses as “desirable but not required.”
One or more of the non-science courses listed below are usually included in medical school requirements.
By completing all of the following coursework, you’ll be able to meet the pre-med requirements of almost every medical school when it comes time to apply. Yes, requirements vary from school to school. But even when some of these courses aren’t required, completing all of them will leave you better prepared, more competitive, and able to apply to more schools.
- Biology – Two Semesters and Lab Work: Biology is a crucial foundation for understanding how the human body works.
- Physics – Two Semesters and Lab Work: Physics is important for how medical technology works, used by some specialties more than others. Lab work in physics is always desirable but sometimes not required.
- Chemistry – Five Semesters and Lab Work: This includes inorganic chemistry (two semesters), organic chemistry (two semesters), and biochemistry (one semester). Chemistry is essential for the production of medicine and understanding how the human body works at a molecular level.
- Writing – Two Semesters: English or other writing-intensive courses are almost always required by medical schools. They not only assess your writing ability but also whether you can handle complex material and present it clearly and concisely.
- Math – One to Two Semesters: Most schools require one to two semesters of math-intensive courses such as calculus, statistics, or other math classes. Mathematics plays a major role in the hard sciences relevant to medicine and the use of data in research.
- Behavioral Sciences – One Semester – A class in behavioral science is less likely to be a hard requirement than other courses listed here, although some programs list it as a prerequisite. Still, many schools strongly recommend classes in psychology, sociology, or related fields to provide a foundational perspective on the science of human behavior.
Pre-Med Clinical Experience
In addition to academic coursework, clinical experience is one of the essential pre-med requirements for anyone considering a career in medicine. Participation in clinical activities helps you develop important skills and knowledge related to patient care while also giving you the opportunity to explore various medical specialties.
How much clinical experience do you need to meet medical school requirements? Although only some medical schools list a set amount of required hours, generally at least 100-150 hours of clinical activities are recommended.
Pre-med clinical experience demonstrates your commitment to medicine and helps medical schools see that you’re making an informed decision about entering a career in medicine.
Ideally, your clinical experience is consistent, diverse, and meaningful.
Here are some common pre-med clinical experiences:
- Shadowing – Shadowing is spending time observing a physician or other medical professional in their place of work. This might be in a hospital, clinic, or private practice setting. Often, you’ll have the opportunity to ask questions and learn about the day-to-day responsibilities of the medical professional you’re shadowing. (See: How to Ask to Shadow a Doctor)
- Working as an EMT – Volunteers or paid employees of emergency medical services gain hands-on experience in emergency patient care, teamwork, and decision-making. (See: How to Become an EMT)
- Medical Scribing – The position of a scribe entails working alongside physicians to document patient visits. This experience provides an opportunity to develop strong writing skills while also gaining insight into the physician-patient relationship and medical decision-making. (See: How to Become a Medical Scribe)
- Research – Undertaking a research project, either in a lab or through clinical observation, gives you the chance to develop important skills such as data analysis and scientific writing. Research that includes patient interaction typically qualifies as clinical experience.
- Hospital, Hospice, and/or Clinic Volunteering – Volunteering at a hospital, hospice, or clinic allows you to gain exposure to clinical settings and the day-to-day operations of healthcare. Additionally, you actively provide help to healthcare staff, interact with medical professionals, and, in some cases, gain patient-facing experience.
- Service-Learning and Other Healthcare Related Volunteering – Volunteer work with patient populations, such as educational healthcare campaigns in underserved areas, assisting the elderly, or working with people with disabilities, provides valuable experience in dealing with patients from diverse backgrounds. These experiences also offer an opportunity to develop important communication skills.
To craft a competitive application, keep in mind that not all clinical hours are equally compelling. If you’re looking for powerful pre-med clinical experience, consider IMA’s Healthcare Internships Abroad. This not-for-profit program helps fulfill many pre-med requirements and includes a wide range of preclinical activities, such as physician shadowing, service-learning, and didactic sessions on multiple specialties. Most importantly, IMA’s global initiatives help underserved patient populations around the world, providing you with a rich and culturally competent understanding of global healthcare systems and the practice of medicine.
Pre-Med Research Experience
Desired but usually not required for most traditional MD programs, research is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to a future in medical research while also developing useful skills, such as data analysis and scientific writing.
Research experience can help set you apart from your peers who lack this experience. For programs with a large focus on medical research, having quality research experience could be the deciding factor in your admission to medical school.
For many students, the best way to find research opportunities is through their school’s pre-med office or by reaching out to professors. You can also look into summer internship programs. AAMC has compiled a list of Summer Undergraduate Research Programs for pre-meds.
Other Extracurricular Activities
While the focus of pre-med requirements is on academic and professional development, medical schools also want to see a well-rounded applicant. In addition to your coursework, clinical experience, and research, you should consider taking on leadership positions in campus organizations, volunteering for a cause you are passionate about, or participating in other activities that showcase your interpersonal skills and interests.
These experiences will not only help build a strong application, but they will also give you a chance to explore your interests, develop new skills, and make friends — all while enriching your pre-med experience.
Letters of Recommendation
Most medical schools require at least two letters of recommendation, with many requesting three. These letters should come from individuals who can attest to your academic abilities and personal qualities. Science professors, pre-med advisors, and supervisors from your clinical and research experiences are all good sources of letters of recommendation.
When requesting letters of recommendation, give your recommenders plenty of time to write a strong letter on your behalf. Provide them with an up-to-date resume, a list of your accomplishments, and any other information that will help them write a meaningful letter.
Most U.S. medical schools require applicants to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), a standardized exam that assesses your knowledge of the sciences and your ability to apply this knowledge to medicine.
Preparing for the MCAT is a lengthy and challenging process, so it’s important to start early. The AAMC recommends 300-350 hours of MCAT prep.
Curious about what’s on the MCAT exam? Check out our MCAT Sections Guide.
Primary and Secondary Applications
Applying to medical school is a multi-step process. After completing your primary application, you will likely be asked to complete secondary applications for each school to which you’ve applied.
The primary application, usually submitted through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), includes your personal statement, grades, work and extracurricular activities, MCAT scores, and letters of recommendation.
Your AMCAS personal statement is a particularly important aspect of your primary application. You will need to explain who you are beyond your grades, MCAT score, etc., and why you want to pursue medicine. With medicals reviewing thousands upon thousands of applications, your personal statement is one of your only chances to directly communicate your unique story and stand out from the rest of the applicants.
The secondary application is specific to each school and includes additional essay questions. The purpose of the secondary application is to get to know you better as an applicant and person, and, more precisely, to discover if you’re a good fit for their program.
The secondary application usually includes questions about your motivations for pursuing medicine, your experiences in the healthcare field, and your long-term goals. Additionally, questions related to cultural competency and personal experiences with adversity are common.
Most of all, the secondary application asks, “why our school?” Whether this is directly asked or not, it’s important to do your research and be prepared to explain why you want to attend each school to which you’ve applied. (See: IMA’s Ultimate Medical Schools Guides)
Medical School Counselors: Help with Pre-Med Requirements
There’s a lot to keep track of when it comes to planning your pre-med path.
A great way to get organized is to work with a medical school counselor. These professionals can help you select the right courses, recommend extracurricular activities, and provide other guidance throughout the pre-med process.
In addition to advising you on your academic and extracurricular pursuits, medical school counselors can also help you prepare for interviews, edit your applications, and craft powerful essays that showcase your unique strengths and ambitions.
If you’re looking for individualized guidance from experts in education and medicine, IMA is here to help. Our Medical School Admissions Consulting helps pre-med students just like you navigate the pre-med process and prepare strong, compelling applications.