“I want to become a doctor! What do I need to do?”

This is one of the most common questions I hear from students and their families. There is a lot of information and myths about the pre-med path, and it can be challenging to figure out what is important to consider when researching colleges.

When I get this question, I always ask students to take a step back. For high school students, medical school is four, five, six, or more years away. That is a lot of time—and experiences—before you even start writing your first essay for medical school. It can feel like students are leap-frogging their college experience to focus on their goal of medical school.

The truth is that most pre-med students do not end up applying to medical school. Therefore, it is important to focus first on a list of colleges that provide you opportunities to grow and learn regardless of your ultimate path. Once you have identified those colleges, you will want dive into what they offer the pre-med student. Here are some questions to consider as you start to explore pre-med programs at your colleges of interest:

What do you want to major in?

For most colleges, pre-med is an advising track and not a major. Pre-med students tend to major in biology or chemistry due to interest, but you can major in any subject—as long as you are also taking courses required by medical schools, like Organic Chemistry. Students with different academic backgrounds bring different perspectives and ways of approaching problems to the medical school class. If you love Classics, that can be your major!

What opportunities do you want to explore?

Notice that this question is not about pre-med opportunities. College is a time of personal development. Medical schools expect that you will have explored medicine. But think about it: All other applicants will meet that bar as well. What makes you stand out? What will make you a good doctor? For me, a good doctor is one who connects with me and makes me feel comfortable. Those are what are called “soft skills” and are often developed through life experiences. Do you enjoy working with kids? Teach in your community! Do you love playing the violin? Join your college’s orchestra! Don’t underestimate the importance of exploring interests and passions outside of medicine.

What advising is available to help you plan your curriculum?

This is really important. As a pre-med student, you will have a number of pressures on your course selection. You need to take courses that provide the foundational knowledge for the MCAT and medical school, but you will also need to take into account your college’s general education requirements, quirks around pre-requisites, and major requirements. Your academic advisor is instrumental in helping you navigate and plan your curriculum, so research what types of support you’ll get at your prospective colleges.

Where do you want to live?

Let’s focus on pre-med opportunities here. Location can dictate the opportunities you have access to—and when you have those opportunities. Consider the typical pre-med activities like research, shadowing, and medical volunteering. Do you want to do these during the school year or summer? Are you interested in research at your college, a hospital, or a company? Would you prefer to volunteer in a free clinic in an urban, suburban, or rural area? Think deeply about what you want to be exposed to in college. This will not dictate the type of medicine you pursue, but it will help you engage thoughtfully as you start to explore the medical profession.

Ultimately, the key is to find a school where you feel the right amount of support, whether you are a self-starter or want more hands-on guidance. The good news is that vast majority of colleges will provide support and opportunities that will prepare you for medical school.

Written by Lauren DiProspero
Lauren DiProspero is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Prior to joining College Coach, Lauren worked as an admissions officer at Stanford Medicine and Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.