Studying Medicine in Global Destinations: Medical Education in the US and Canada

Studying Medicine in Global Destinations: Medical Education in the US and Canada | The Red Pen

1st in a 4-part series about global medical education

Recently, more Indian students have been interested in pursuing their medical education abroad. While some countries allow students to study medicine at the undergraduate level, you can only study medicine once you complete a four-year bachelor’s degree in the US and Canada. This might seem like a long process, but it can also be enriching and holistic as it allows you to experience the benefits of another degree before pursuing your interest in medicine.

Here’s everything you need to know about medical education in the US and Canada:

1) Medicine in the US:

Gaining admission into a US medical school is extremely competitive and there are only a few colleges that accept international students. Degrees here fall into two main categories in the US; Doctor of Medicine (MD), which is similar to an MBBS in India and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). Both types of doctors treat patients, but DOs also use preventive medicine and holistic care methods.

Undergraduate Degree followed by MD/DO:

This is the most common path that students follow for medicine in the US, as this enables them to make the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate easier. To be eligible to apply for medical school, you need to first apply and complete a bachelor’s degree at a US college with a major in any field, along with a pre-med track. Since the manner in which you structure your undergraduate years is crucial, you should seek advice from your academic advisor on what courses to take. Besides certain required subjects–including biology, general and organic chemistry, physics, calculus and English–you need to have a high GPA–3.7 to 4.0–and have enough credits in the pre-med track to be considered by a medical school. Apart from this, if you are interested in specialised fields such as psychiatry, you may need to take psychology and philosophy as well. Alongside academics, you will need strong, complementary extracurricular activities that showcase clinical experience, research, community service and leadership. The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is the last compulsory requirement. MCAT is an entrance test that measures your critical reading and problem-solving skills as well as tests your knowledge of natural, behavioural and social science concepts. The test is usually taken in year three of your undergraduate degree but can be taken later.

Applications to medical schools can be made in the final year of your undergraduate studies or six to eight months before the application deadline in case you plan on taking a gap year to gain relevant practical experience. International students can make their primary application through the AMCAS portal, while some colleges may also require a secondary application through their website. Each medical school has slightly different requirements for their MD programmes, along with some common ones such as essays and letters of recommendation. John Hopkins University, for example, requires you to demonstrate academic excellence, leadership skills, the ability to work in a team and service-oriented skills, along with other prerequisites. In terms of academics, you will need to submit MCAT scores, along with the above-mentioned subjects. In addition, you will be required to take one semester of organic chemistry, four semester hours of biochemistry, one year of calculus and twenty-four semester hours of humanities or social sciences as part of your undergraduate degree to reach the minimum qualifications. For some of these requirements, Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate credits which are acceptable to the student’s undergraduate college, may be used to satisfy some of the prerequisites. On the other hand, Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California only requires applicants to have completed a bachelor’s degree, or its equivalent, from an accredited college or university, with no specific course requirements other than general competency in the sciences.

After getting accepted into a medical school, your graduate-level course usually lasts four years. Most schools follow two years of classroom and lab-based education, followed by two years of clinical rotations in a teaching hospital where students interact with patients. Following this, you have to do your medical residency, which can span three to seven years. To qualify as a practising doctor in the US, you must take all three parts of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Two of these will be done during your medical school years and one at the end of your residency. Medical degrees from the US are usually globally accepted, but you would have to give individual licensing exams based on the country in which you would like to practice.

Combined BA/MD or BS/MD Programmes:

Some colleges have a single six or eight-year integrated BA/MD or BS/MD programmes, which consist of two to four years of an undergraduate curriculum and four years of the medical school curriculum, after which you get both a bachelor’s and an MD or a DO. These are focused programmes and you apply to medical school while you are still in high school. For example, Howard University in Washington offers a six-year programme where you can complete the requirements for both the BS and an MD degree in a shorter time period. Similarly, Boston University offers an accelerated seven-year programme.

Early Assurance Programmes:

Often, you might not do your pre-med and graduate school in the same college, but if you are a highly qualified student who is dedicated to a career in medicine, then you can take advantage of the Early Assurance Program (EAP). This programme allows you to apply in your second year of undergraduate college without appearing for the MCAT and offers of acceptance are conditional. If you meet the conditions, you will have a secure place earlier than other students who will have to apply during their final year of college. These programmes offer similar benefits to the BS/MD programmes. Students applying to the EAP must have consistently excelled academically during their first and second years in college. Although the requirements for applying to EAPs differ from school to school, on average, you should finish at least five pre-med courses by the end of your sophomore year.

For example, the Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM) requires its applicants to maintain a science GPA and a total GPA of 3.5 or above; a grade of B+ or greater in courses in biology, chemistry, and physics, including labs; and a grade of B or above in all other courses. Applicants who do not entirely meet these academic standards will not be assured admission to TUSM but may be admitted at the discretion of the admissions committee. Additionally, admissions committees are looking for a commitment to a career in medicine and that needs to be demonstrated in your personal statement, supplementary essays, extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation. Schools may even ask for your high school transcript and/or SAT or ACT scores. Some schools only offer the EAP to undergraduate students in their university or specific, linked programmes. Other medical schools accept applicants from any four-year university.

2) Medicine in Canada:

Medicine in Canada is also extremely competitive. Similar to the US, very few universities accept international students. Here as well, you are required to complete an undergraduate degree in a subject of your choice (preferably science), after which you can apply for an MD degree. The duration of the course varies based on the university and your background and can range from three to five years. For the five year programmes, the first year is a preparatory year for students who apply without a science degree. Students who have graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science can apply for the four-year graduate programmes, which are the most common. Additionally, most schools require you to take the MCAT test as part of your application. Different regions and universities might also have their own specific entry criteria for pursuing a medical degree. The graduate medical programme at the University of Toronto, for example, requires the equivalent of a four-year undergraduate degree and the MCAT as well as a demonstrated interest in medicine through extracurricular, voluntary and research activities. Applications are done through different portals depending on the region and college. For instance, to apply to McMaster University, you apply through Ontario Medical School Application Service (OMSAS), while for McGill University, you apply directly through the college website.

After completing their medical education in Canada, all students have to clear the Medical Council of Canada Qualifying Exam (MCCQE) to be eligible to practice as a doctor in Canada.


The Association of American Medical Colleges lists 52 colleges in the US and Canada that accept international students. However, as these requirements are consistently being updated, you should check each university’s websites before applying.

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