How Long is Medical School?

How long is medical school? The answer to your question is four years. Medical school is unlike any other education you can possibly get. There are actually two distinct parts to medical school:

  • Basic Sciences
  • Clinical Rotations

Out of the four years of medical school you should expect to spend your first two years in the basic sciences followed by two more years doing your your clinical rotations.

Basic Sciences

You cannot become a doctor without first knowing the basics of medicine, hence the name. One of the corner stones of making the transition to medical school is your gross anatomy lab.

Anatomy is the foundational course in all of medicine because it is absolutely necessary to know the structures, cells and functions that make up the human body. Typically you will spend all of fall semester learning anatomy along with biochemistry.

Additionally, you'll be exposed to courses such as doctor/patient relationship, medical communications, ethics, etc. to give you a solid foundation to begin your journey towards becoming a full fledged doctor at the end of four years.

Now by no means is medical school going to be easy or a cake walk there is a tremendous about of information that you are expected to learn and know.

In addressing how long is medical school the first year is devoted to learning about anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, histology, etc. Basically, all of the normal body functions and how to interact with patients.

The second year of medical school is  all about everything that can go wrong with the body. This means courses in pharmacology, pathology/pathophysiology, microbiology and an introduction to clinical medicine.

As you can tell there is not a whole bunch of patient contact in the first two years of medical school. The goal is to give you a basic foundation of knowledge and skills that you can take with you into third year.

Clinical Clerkships

Some medical students would argue this is where the fun actually begins. You see now a majority of your time is actually spent in the hospital learning and seeing patients. You will work a tremendous amount of hours almost like the actual doctors on the clinical service you are working under.

For instance, I stayed with a friend of mine who was third year medical student and this is how his schedule went during his clinical rotations.

He was expected to be at the hospital at 7:00am to round on patients and take part in their care throughout his 12 hour shift. And since he was a student the work did not stop once he got home at about 7:00pm each night.

At home he was expected to study the clinical medicine that was relevant to the specialty he was rotating on. So this meant a good 4 hours of additional study each night after working a very long day or night at the hospital.

Studying and doing well is very important because medical students are graded based on their performance during clinical years they will take "shelf" exams which are standardized tests for the specialty they are on.

Also the medical student will be evaluated based on their knowledge an interaction with other members of the clinical team. As you can tell, it is very important to not only know your science but also to have good people skills too.

4th Year Is Awesome

This is where you can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. At this point in your career you are practically drained from all the studying and rotations and if asked about how long is medical school you'd reply that it is too long.

But the caveat is you have a lot of freedom during this final year of medical school. I think for a lot of medical students they would answer how long is medical school as actually being really only three years of hard work.

Fourth year is used to help you figure out which specialty you would like to pursue. To make this a reality you will have the opportunity to do rotations at different institutions aside from your "home" medical school. Also you will be spending a lot of time on the road interviewing.

Fourth year is when you need to choose your branch of medicine which means setting up interviews anywhere and everywhere with residency programs that you are interested in. 

And then in March you will find out the MATCH results which is were fourth year medical students learn what specialty and residency program they have matched into to begin their medical training as freshly minted doctors.

Yes, once you graduate from medical school you are officially a doctor but you cannot practice medicine on your own, you need to complete a residency and become licensed/certified.

This may all seem like a lot but it is the price to be paid to take on the priviledge of being responsible for the lives of your future patients. And when considering the amount of training you will be receiving, how long is medical school can make up a very small part of your total medical education as a doctor because medicine means becoming a lifelong learner.

Experimental Changes to Address How Long Is Medical School

Someone is always talking about the impending physician shortage.

They say the United States will not have enough doctors to adequately treat everyone who will require the services of a doctor in the upcoming years.

To address this problem there are more medical schools being built and other healthcare providers are being granted additional privileges in the scope of their work.

However, some have gone to great lengths to change how doctors are trained in medical school.

What they want to do is shorten medical school from four years to only three. This actually makes a lot of sense if you consider the shortage of doctors is going to be in primary care. Especially when you understand your fourth year of medical school is mainly a vacation or time for you to explore a medical specialty.

There are a few medical schools that have a shortened curriculum which means when someone asks "How long is medical school?" you cannot directly say only four years.

Here are the three year medical schools where they have component that shortens the curriculum:

  • Duke University
  • Medical College of Wisconsin - Greenbay Campus
  • New York University
  • Penn State College of Medicine
  • Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center SOM