Smarten Up About Medical School Success

Succeeding in medical school is as much about smart preparation and study as it is about grades.

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Being a successful medical school candidate doesn’t necessarily mean being smart – it also means being prepared.
Being a successful medical school candidate doesn’t necessarily mean being smart – it also means being prepared.

Most people who seriously consider the career path to becoming a physician definitely think of themselves as "smart" students. However, some may have been dissuaded or bumped into some unexpected obstacles along the way, both of which could have been avoided.

If you are wondering if you have what it takes to be successful in medical school and as a doctor, take a look at the following strategies. 

I have often seen students in premed advising be told they must take both biology and chemistry their freshman year. But given that the transition from high school to college can be a major adaptation, students may not want to register for two hard science courses with labs the first semester of college. 

[Learn what to do after a semester of bad premed grades.] 

Getting mediocre grades in two difficult courses can discourage students from applying to medical school. I have seen successful professionals regret giving up on their dream to become a physician. 

Physician assistants, nurses, lab technicians and others can certainly apply to medical school later in their careers, but attending medical school is much harder – physically and mentally – when you're older. 

Spacing out the challenging prerequisites in the beginning of college gives you a better chance of doing well in each of your important premed courses. If needed, you can double up on courses later, when you are more adept at handling the rigors of college, or choose to take a summer course. 

[Get tips on how to avoid procrastinating in medical school.] 

Premed students are also often told that they should practice for the MCAT by taking the MCAT. This is another piece of poor advice that can damage self-esteem regarding medical school readiness. 

Never take the real MCAT until you have had adequate time to prepare and take the recommended courses. Beginning in 2015, the MCAT will expand to include more subject areas including psychology, philosophy, social and behavioral sciences, general chemistry, biology, organic chemistry and physics

Reviewing the online MCAT suggestions from the Association of American Medical Colleges will allow students to begin building their premed schedule years in advance. Don't sign up for the MCAT until you are ready. 

If you have reached a scoring plateau, that is the score you should expect to reach without additional study techniques, such as those taught in a test prep class. Sometimes, intelligence is not the issue. Rather, there's a need for diverse test-taking strategies. 

Achieving success in medical school also means being smart enough to apply to schools within your grasp, as there are many allopathic and osteopathic schools to choose from, both in the U.S. and abroad. It's important to select a few that are an admissions stretch as well as some for which you are an excellent candidate. 

[Remember to highlight compassion in medical school applications.] 

Every year, premed students make the mistake of not applying broadly enough, only shooting for the highest tier. Many are disappointed in their results. You can be an exceptional physician if you work hard, no matter which medical school you initially attend. 

Remember that not getting accepted into medical school does not necessarily equate to an inadequate IQ, but either inadequate counseling or stubbornness in considering good schools in various tiers of competitiveness. 

Going to medical school is a big investment of time, money and commitment. You would not build a house without a foundation. Likewise, being "smart enough" for medical school requires having a background that includes solid performance as an undergraduate and being well-prepared during the application process. 

Kathleen Franco, M.D., is associate dean of admissions and student affairs at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. She previously served both as director of residency training and director of medical student training in psychiatry at Cleveland Clinic. She is board-certified in psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine and attended Medical College of Ohio – Toledo.