It's no secret why young people everywhere aspire to become doctors. Society holds doctors in high esteem thanks to their lifesaving and life-prolonging services, their compassion, their scientific proficiency, and last but not least, their substantial earning potential. 

But it's also widely known that a career as a doctor isn't for everyone. Between an outrageously competitive admissions process for medical school to a years-long slog through residencies and specialist education after graduation, becoming a doctor is an extremely long and difficult ordeal under the best of conditions. Only 41% of medical school applicants matriculated in 2019, and many medical schools have admissions rates as low as 7%. 

So, how can students figure out if they have what it takes to be a doctor? While there's no single answer to such a broad question, anyone interested in trying to become a doctor should undertake the following three steps to ensure that their chances are as good as possible. 

A group of medical students walking down a hallway.

Image source: Getty Images

Step 1: Shadow a doctor

The first thing you should do if you think you want to become a doctor is to shadow several doctors. Shadowing a doctor simply means following a doctor around during a day of their work, so that you can observe what they do and how they do it without directly participating. Shadowing a doctor will show you what doctors spend most of their time on when they're at work, and it will also help you understand the expectations of patients. You'll also learn about how doctors interact with other members of the care team and how the responsibilities are divided. There's no single trick to finding a doctor to shadow. Reach out to a local clinic or hospital to see if they have any doctors who would be willing to have you follow them around for a day or a week.

By the time you're done shadowing, you should have a good idea about whether being a physician is a career you might enjoy, or if you'd rather try something different. Perhaps you learn that you're more interested in pursuing nursing, medical administrative work, scientific research, or lab technology.

If you still want to learn more about what it's like to be a doctor, you can also ask a local doctor for an informational interview about their work. Conducting a brief interview with a doctor will educate you about the extensive training process for doctors, and it will also give you a few ideas about where you might want to learn more on your own with follow-up research, or what area you might want to specialize in as a doctor. 

Step 2: Get real about how serious you are

You will need to do some soul-searching to determine whether being a doctor is the right fit for you. If you aren't prepared to commit to doing what it takes to gain admission to medical school and working hard for many years before achieving doctor status, you won't be able to become a doctor. Thus, it's critical to have an honest conversation with yourself about your wants, needs, and capabilities, both presently and in the future when your initial enthusiasm may have waned.

People who are accepted into medical school typically have a handful of exceptional traits and accomplishments. Most doctors performed very highly in their academics during college, meaning that they were very studious and disciplined. Undergraduate GPAs in excess of 3.5 are the norm, even for students who attended highly competitive schools. Likewise, people who get into medical school tend to have formidable resumes that are packed with experiences gleaned from internships, shadowing doctors, volunteer work, running a club or nonprofit, working in a research laboratory, and other impressive activities. Finally, having a strong score on the 7.5-hour long Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is not optional to get into medical school.

If the above list seems intimidating, don't worry. You don't need to do everything at once. But you do need to understand that the process of getting into medical school leaves very little room for error and even less room for laziness. If you cherish your free time, doing everything that you need to do to get into medical school will probably leave you with little leisure time, and it won't be any easier when you actually attend medical school or when you graduate. This means that you need to take some time and deeply consider whether you are willing to make these sacrifices to pursue becoming a doctor. Don't feel bad about deciding not to proceed -- being a doctor isn't for everyone and there are many health and medical careers available to you that require less education and stringent studying.

Step 3: Make a plan for taking the MCAT and getting into medical school

Once you've completed these first two steps, the most difficult step is up next. You need to design and then execute a plan for getting into medical school. This blueprint should include everything from the courses you take in college to the time you will set aside to study for the MCAT and work on your medical school applications. Speak with an academic advisor to determine when you should sign up for the test and apply to schools.

The guiding principle of your plan should be to make yourself into the most competitive applicant for medical school that you can possibly be. This means that you'll need to identify potential resume items that would make you a better candidate, then do what it takes to credibly list those items on your resume. Be sure to have a mix of volunteering experiences in healthcare and club memberships; leadership positions in nonprofits and student societies; internships; shadowing experiences; research jobs; and scholarships. You should also identify prestigious individuals whom you could work for in order to get their recommendation letter when it's time to apply to medical school.

Of course, your plan should also have realistic frameworks for how long you should study each day for your courses as well as for your MCAT preparation. The average medical student spends around 240 hours studying for the MCAT, but you may opt for a longer or shorter period. Thus, cultivating an intensely strong time-management capability is something you should strive for when you're developing your plan.

Once you know what you're getting into and you have a plan for how to make it through to the other side, you're ready to start the process of becoming a doctor. Start to execute your plan, and don't give up when things get tough. Good luck!