Frequently Asked Questions

Below is a series of commonly asked questions, segmented by key topic areas. Simply click on the question to read the answer, or scan down to review the full Q&A.

General Questions

Grades

Study Abroad

Taking Required Courses at Another Institution

MCAT Exam

Experience

Transcript Submissions

 

Complete Q&A

 

General Questions

My mother is a doctor and she says I have to be a Biology major. My roommate says medical schools prefer science majors. My brother says it’s better to do English or History. My academic advisor says I should choose what I am most passionate about. Who's right?

Medical schools in general expect you to major in what you are most interested in, regardless of the field. They state it clearly in the introductory chapters of the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR): “The medical profession needs individuals from diverse educational backgrounds who will bring to the profession a variety of talents and interests.” So you should develop your own unique skills and talents. If you look at the acceptance rate of Duke students in previous years, you will find that choice of major had no effect. What is important is to engage rigorously in all that you do.

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Surely medical schools will be impressed with me if I double-major? If I triple-major?

No. Double majoring often means that you need to enroll in courses you have little interest in, and you lose the opportunity to take other courses that would be more meaningful. Double majors may also require you to take courses in summer school, which limits your opportunities for jobs, research, clinical experience, service, and out-of-the-classroom experience. The important question to ask is, “Have I excelled in an academically rigorous program, including my science courses?”

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Tell me what courses I need to take and what GPA I need to have to get in to medical school, and I’ll do it. Or, to put it another way, what do medical schools really look for?

Health professions schools look at AND beyond coursework. There is no guaranteed path. They will look at your overall application in various ways: demonstrated skills in the sciences (GPA, MCAT scores), intellectual curiosity and ability to focus, evidence of altruism and demonstrated service, awareness of the medical profession as it is today, and confidence that you can deal with the changes as they come, motivation, integrity, flexibility, and responsibility. Students will demonstrate these traits in different ways. You should do whatever is best for you. 

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What if I do all these things and don’t get into medical school?

Talk with a prehealth advisor and the deans/directors of admissions at the schools where you were interviewed or perhaps wait-listed to see if there was something that was viewed as a weakness. If so, correct it. If you’re serious about medicine, reapply. But be sure that your reapplication is different from your original application, i.e., make sure that you have addressed whatever might have been perceived as a weakness in your first application. This might require that you wait a year before reapplying.

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How do I find out what changes have occurred in the health professions and what it might mean for my career goals?

Watch for seminars and discussions throughout the year. Read healthcare blogs on the internet and journals like the New England Journal of Medicine. Talk to MDs, nurses, hospital staff, relatives, anyone working in or with contact in the health professions -- the more views the better. See also the section on Reading and Sources of Information.  

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I’m interested in physical therapy. Do the same requirements apply as for medical schools?

No. Each physical therapy school requires slightly different preparation and you need to check each school that you are interested in. Use the Physical Therapy Association web site. Note also that you will need extensive experience in physical therapy and that this needs to be documented on your application. Physical therapy is a great career -- you just need to check out requirements early (as in your freshman year or as soon as is practical).

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How do I find out what medical schools are in my state?

Refer to the Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) available here. Or do an internet search.

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I think I might be interested in a health professions career, but not as a doctor. How do I find out?

Talk to a prehealth advisor, or go to the Career Center. Get information on volunteer opportunities during the semester or summer so you can try out a few activities. See the Explore section of this website.

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I am interested in Harvard/Johns Hopkins/Duke/Stanford, etc. Are there special qualifications?

There are many published rankings of medical schools, based on a variety of criteria -- sometimes very superficial ones. You should avoid choosing a medical school based solely on where that medical school ranks in one (or more) lists of medical schools. Medical schools can be quite different and each applicant should try to determine where s/he will be most comfortable during a very stressful time of his/her life. You should also avoid having your heart set on a particular school. It just might not work out. If you are interested in admission to one of the more competitive schools, your credentials will have to be exceedingly strong. Not only will you have to have a very strong GPA and MCAT scores, but you will be expected to have challenged yourself in your course selection (e.g., course overloads, graduate level courses, research) and your choice of extracurricular activities.

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I can graduate in three years. Won’t medical schools be impressed and be more likely to accept me?

No. They usually feel that these are your four years to explore, learn, grow and mature. Squeezing in the basic courses in three years is not advisable, and you’re not taking advantage of the opportunities that are here for you. Moreover, if you apply after two years of classes, your application will simply not be as rich as a student who has had 3 or more years. The average age of applicants accepted to Duke Medical School and similar schools last year was 24. Health profession schools are looking for older, more mature, more experienced applicants. If you are that far ahead because of AP credits, you might take advantage of research opportunities, take advanced level course work, spend time abroad, get involved in activities. You might decide to graduate in three years if finances are a concern, but plan to take some time off before applying. Talk with your prehealth advisor about options. 

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I’m a BME student and I love science. Do I have to take humanities courses, and where would I fit them in?

Engineers should realize that currently many medical schools place a great deal of emphasis on the breadth of education that a future health care professional has. This may be particularly challenging to students studying more technical fields such as engineering. You will need to find some time in the summer or during the academic year to fit in some humanities and social science courses. Don’t use the few electives you have to take more science courses and leave yourself without humanities and social science courses.

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I don’t know what to do with my life. What if I graduate and work two years and then decide to go to medical school?

That would be just fine. If you are fairly convinced that you will eventually (within 3 or so years) apply to medical school and you want to go ahead and complete your science courses and take the MCAT, that may be a good plan for you. If, however, you are still thinking of medical school as only a possibility you might want to use your course work at Duke to take courses outside of the sciences that you have an interest in or courses that might help you to decide what other career path you might follow. Should you decide at a later date that you would like to become a physician, you can always take the core required courses for medical school as a continuing education student at Duke or at another college or university or in a special structured post-baccalaureate program and then prepare for and take the MCAT. Students who graduate and work for a time before applying often demonstrate desired skills in terms of maturity, achievement, capability, far better than an undergraduate.

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Grades

Will health professions schools think poorly of me if I have a C in a course like General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Math, Physics, etc.?

A solitary C isn’t the end of the world and if all your other science grades are A’s and B’s, you may be fine. However, consistent C grades in the sciences will result in a GPA of 2.0, which is not competitive for medical schools. If the C grade occurs earlier in your program but later science courses show improvement, this upward trend will be helpful.

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I really want to be a doctor, but I’ve gotten C’s in General Chemistry and now Biology 201L. I study in the library for hours at a time. What am I doing wrong?

Visit the Academic Resource Center, talk with your professors and try to identify where the problem is. Get a tutor, and/or join a study group. It is possible that the study skills that served you well in high school are outdated and inappropriate and not sufficiently rigorous for Duke classes. If you are very serious about a health professions career and feel that you are going to have to really work on improving your study skills, then you might take only a single science course for the next semester or two and concentrate on that one course and your study skills, and then add additional courses as you become more capable and confident. You should also consider the amount of time you are spending on extracurricular activities, as you may be over-committed. 

If you become discouraged with your performance in science courses and/or lose your self confidence due to several poor grades in the sciences, a good idea might be to take a semester with no science courses at all.  If you find yourself enjoying your other courses and not missing the science, you might want to reevaluate your choices. If you find that you miss the sciences and want to take more, then add them back slowly.

You should realize that if you have a long history of C’s in the sciences at Duke, then you will appear to medical school admissions committees to be someone who doesn’t know how to study well, someone who doesn’t choose to study well, or someone with insufficient skills in the sciences. Be honest with yourself. It may be an indication that you are better suited for another career. Talk with a prehealth advisor about this.

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I’m getting B’s and C’s in the sciences. Medical school is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do but I just don’t like the science classes here. Can’t I tell medical schools that I’ll do better in medical school? If I do lots of extracurricular volunteering, will that help?

Medical school courses are primarily science courses. If science classes and labs are not appealing, you might consider this is a sign that you should consider other careers. You may be attracted to medicine because of the challenges, lifestyle, prestige, power, etc. but these are found in other careers as well. Visit the Career Center if you haven’t already done so, arrange to take a “career inventory”, and/or work/volunteer in the medical center where you can see what a doctor’s life really is these days, and whether you enjoy working with sick people. Sometimes experience will help you appreciate the classes. Also, look at your overall grades. If you’re getting C’s in the sciences and A’s in History or English or some non-science area, it may be that your real interests and talents lie elsewhere.

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I got a D in Chem 201DL. Should I retake it or go on to Chem 202L?

You will have to repeat the course. Most medical schools require grades of  C or better in all prerequisite courses. In addition, experience shows that most students who make a D in the first semester of Organic Chemistry are not prepared for the second semester.

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I have a C- in Chem 201DL. Can I repeat the course at Duke?

No. You can only repeat a course at Duke if your grade was a D or an F.  Plan to repeat the first semester of Organic Chemistry at a college or university at home.  

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I spent my freshman year having fun, only now I realize I really want to go to medical school. What can I do about those C’s and D’s?

You need to show proficiency and skills in the sciences. Continue on in your science courses. Repeat any with D grades. Put in the effort to get your grades up, and wait to apply until you can show competency and achievement. Usually this means at least 4 semesters of A and B grades before you can apply. You will need to continue taking upper level science courses because you can’t stop until you demonstrate proficiency.

Remember, all medical schools stress that applicants should submit the strongest application they can the first time they apply. It is a sign of poor judgment to submit a seriously weak application with the intent of submitting an improved application in the event the first is not successful.

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I got A’s in General Chemistry, but C’s in Organic Chemistry. Should I retake these at another institution during the summer?

If your overall knowledge of organic is satisfactory, a better idea would be to go on and take Biochemistry 301 at Duke and work at it, earning a grade of A or B. You could also add Biochemistry 302 and 401. That will show that you are capable of doing upper level Chemistry. Your MCAT scores will also be important. If you had a really terrible time in Organic Chemistry and don’t feel that you understand the subject, then that is a problem. Talk with your prehealth advisor.

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Should I transfer to a state school where I can get better grades easily and it would be cheaper?

Medical schools recognize that Duke courses are rigorous and that students who do well here are more likely to be excellent medical students. Currently 80-90% of Duke students who apply will get into at least one medical school. That’s about twice the national average. Moreover, there are excellent opportunities here for students to do undergraduate research, to volunteer in a clinical setting, and to be involved in community service, activities that may not be as accessible at other institutions. It’s really a question of whether you want a rigorous and challenging education and whether you are interested in taking advantage of the opportunities that are here.

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Study Abroad

I want to spend my entire junior year abroad, but then I won’t be able to fit in the required courses before the end of my junior year.

That's OK. The majority of Duke students complete the required courses over four years. Go abroad, finish your courses in your senior year, and then apply.   

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Will medical schools think badly of me if I study abroad in Spain and take literature and history courses there? (This question goes along with: my roommate told me I can’t be premed and spend a semester abroad; or, my father told me spending a semester abroad is a waste of time if I want to go to medical school.)

Medical schools consider these four years to be YOUR four years, time to read and study and explore whatever you find fascinating. It is most likely the last time you will have to explore non-science areas. It is also a time to develop confidence, maturity, an ability to relate to people of different cultures, and a knowledge of the world we live in. These will help you succeed as a physician. Sometimes your outside interests will be of use in your career later (like speaking a foreign language or being computer-proficient or using good writing skills). Study abroad fits in well with these skills and it is encouraged if you want to do it. But be aware that as with all “broadening experiences”, medical schools will place more value on a study abroad experience if you immerse yourself in the foreign culture and language. They will probably not view your travel to an English-speaking country, where you live with other Americans and take the same courses that you might have taken if you remained on the Duke campus, as a "broadening experience".  Visit the Study Abroad website for suggestions for scheduling a study abroad.

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Taking Required Courses at Another Institution

I took physics at another institution during the summer and got two C’s. Do I have to submit a transcript and report the grades when I apply to medical schools?

Yes. You have to submit transcripts of all college work you have attempted or completed, even if it was at multiple colleges.

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Can I take Physics at my state school this summer instead of taking it here at Duke?

Probably. Compare it with Duke’s physics courses. If you have questions, check with the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Physics. If you want to transfer the credit to Duke, the forms and approval have to be completed in advance. Remember that you will be tested on Physics for the MCAT. Therefore, you should make sure the course is a rigorous one.

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Will medical schools think poorly of me if I take a required class at another institution?

The answer to this will depend to some extent upon your record at Duke and your reasons for doing so. If you have chosen to take the bare minimum of science courses required to make application to medical school and then have taken some of those at a less demanding institution, the medical schools might question either your self-confidence, your abilities, or both. However, if you take most of your required courses as  part of a challenging curriculum at Duke, but choose to take a required course at another solid institution for financial or scheduling reasons, they are not likely to be too concerned. If the course is one that is tested on the MCAT, they may look to your MCAT score to be sure you were well prepared.

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MCAT Exam

Can I take the MCAT twice?

The MCAT is not like the SAT, which you may have taken cold (or nearly so) the first time and then prepared for and taken again. If at all possible you will want to take the MCAT only once. So you should prepare as best you can for it the first time you take it. And you should not take it until you have completed the required courses.

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How do I find out information on where and when the MCAT is given?

Go to their link at http://www.aamc.org

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Do I have to have completed the second semester of physics before taking the MCAT? (A similar question is whether one needs to complete a course in physiology, or Chem 210DL before the MCAT.)

We recommend that all prehealth students complete the required science courses before taking a standardized exam. There is no reason to rush. Should you take the MCAT not well prepared and score low, health professions schools will see it as an error of judgment and will wonder why you didn't consider the exam seriously enough to prepare for it.

Having said that, there are occasionally students who have strong backgrounds and who will self-study or have experience and will take take the MCAT without having had a physiology or other course. But it is a risk.  

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I have a 29 on the MCAT and an 8 on verbal reasoning?  Do I need to retake it?  

The question of retaking the MCAT should always be discussed with your prehealth advisor.   

The Verbal Reasoning score tends to be the one most likely to lend itself to determining who will be successful in medical school. This is because it gets at problem solving in a different way than the more science-based sections. Some schools see a score below an 8 as a predictor of significant risk for failure in the medical school curriculum.

There are several possible explanations for a low verbal reasoning score and otherwise good biology and physical sciences subscores. In many cases, the person may have grown up in a family where English was not the primary language. If the academic record is otherwise strong, and the admission committee can become confident in the applicant’s ability to communicate in writing and in spoken language, the low VR score may be discounted. If there is no such explanation, schools may tend to be a little harder on the applicant.

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Experience

I’m sure I want to be a doctor, but I won’t have time to volunteer with patients or shadow until after I apply to med schools. Is that ok?  

No, that is not ok. Medical schools want to be assured that you know what is involved in the practice of medicine. If they have two equal candidates, one with no clinical and shadowing experience and the other with a lot of experience, the one with no experience will obviously be at a disadvantage. Besides, if practicing medicine is what you want to spend the rest of your life doing, it is surprising that you haven’t found time to work in the area. Clearly, your class work is the most important thing while you are here at Duke, but you can probably find a few hours a week to volunteer, and additionally, summers are a good time for look for extended volunteering and shadowing  opportunities at home. If you cannot fit in these experiences while you're at Duke, you should plan to delay your application until you can. Remember, you should work with patients to help you make decisions about your career – not to "look good" on an application.  

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I don’t have time for clinical volunteering while I’m here at Duke, but I did a lot in high school. My experiences were moving and profound and left me totally committed to medicine. Is this OK?

Everyone matures a great deal between the ages of 14 and 20. Your response to an experience at age 20 might be completely different from that which you had at 14. And your appreciation of and reflections on your experiences will change as a result of the coursework you do at Duke. Your recent experiences may also contribute significantly to how you write your personal statement, and answer questions during interviews. Thus, while you might have had good experiences at an earlier age, you should continue and expand them during college. Use your summers if you need to. 

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I don’t have time to volunteer in the medical center, but my sister has been chronically ill for years and I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals with her, enough so that I know what goes on and what it will take to be a good physician. I’m sure of myself. Is that OK?

Possibly. But remember that caring for those we don’t know can sometimes be a different kind of challenge than caring for those we know and love.

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I am very grateful to the orthopedic surgeon who set my leg when I broke it playing soccer. I want to be like him/her and do the same for other athletes. Is this enough to tell medical schools why I want to be a physician?

No. An emotional response is not sufficient. You must go beyond that to actually experience health care in different settings. Only after multiple exposures and experiences will you be confident enough to determine if medicine is for you.

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I’ve worked in a pediatric research lab for three years and volunteer in the summers in a camp for seriously ill children, but I’ve never worked in a hospital. Is this OK?

Yes, it’s fine. The work in the lab is showing you a side of medicine not all students see. And you’ve already found out how committed you are to working with sick children.

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Do I have to do research at Duke? I don’t think I will like it.

Not necessarily. However, in our experience highly competitive schools value research as a sign of intellectual curiosity. Of course, if you are interested in M.D./Ph.D. programs or in a medical school that stresses research, or if you are interested in going into academic medicine (being on the faculty of a medical school), then research experience at Duke (or at other schools in the summers) will be very important.

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I love research. Will that look good on my application?

Research can demonstrate independence, motivation, stamina and skills in the lab, as well as clear and logical thought and deductive reasoning. It is an excellent way to find out how research discoveries make their way from the bench to the bedside. But you should engage in research only if you find it appealing. Doing things that “look good” may backfire.  If you’re not really interested in research, you may not be very engaged in your lab, and it will take time away from things that you really enjoy doing. And if you are asked about your research during a medical school interview and  you are only able to give a half-hearted, blah response (because you were only doing it to be able to list "research" on your application), then it will be to your disadvantage.

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Transcript Submissions

Does the HPA office send my transcripts to AMCAS (or other application service)?

No. For AMCAS you need to “Print Transcript Request Form” from the Main Menu page of the 2015 AMCAS. Other application services have similar processes.

Sign the “Transcript Request Form” and email or fax (or deliver in person) the form to the Office of the Registrar, Duke University. Repeat this process if you have transcripts from other colleges or universities attended.

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How do I identify the type of letter I wish to enter in AMCAS? AMCAS gives me three choices: 1) Committee Letter; 2) Letter Packet; 3) Individual Letter.

You can check “Letter Packet” if HPA is bundling your letters. You can also check “Individual Letter” if you are having your letter writers submit their letters directly to the AMCAS Letter Writer Application.

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