Medical Education Glossary

From Student to Practicing Physician

Before Medical School

Premedical Education

This term refers to the 4 years of undergraduate study required to get a bachelor’s degree, held by essentially all applicants to medical school.

Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)

A standardized multiple-choice test of problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine. MCAT scores are submitted as part of the application to medical school.

As a Medical Student

Undergraduate Medical Education

This term refers to the four years of training in medical school. Despite being a college graduate, the medical student is an “undergraduate” in terms of completing the work needed for a medical degree.

Basic Medical Education (Foundational Medical Sciences)

This first phase of medical education takes up the first two years of medical school. During this time, students study the foundational sciences of medicine, learn and practice basic clinical skills—such as taking patient histories and performing physical examinations—and learn about professionalism, leadership and ethics. Faculty teaching courses may be clinicians with MDs or researchers with PhDs, depending upon the subject matter.

United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE)

A three-part national test that tests fundamental knowledge in the medical sciences. The first part of the test is taken at the middle of the third year of medical school. Students take the second part of the test near the end of their third year of medical school. The final part is taken at the end of the first year of residency training. Passage of all three parts of the test is one of the requirements for obtaining a state license to practice medicine.

Clinical Clerkships

An experiential learning process that lets third- and fourth-year medical students experience all the core fields of medicine. During this time, students, also called clinical clerks, work in in- and out-patient care settings as junior members of the medical team, closely supervised by practicing physicians and residents.
They begin to diagnose and treat patients, expanding the foundational science knowledge and clinical skills learned during the first two years. They improve their history and physical examination skills, write orders on charts, advance their diagnostic skills, write progress notes, present patients verbally to their medical team and faculty, discuss cases with patient’s families, and do procedures.


An elective rotation medical students may do in their fourth year of study (although all students must do at least one sub-internship). The sub-internship involves students acting as interns. They work with in-patients, as they did in their third year, but with added responsibilities. Students work more directly under the supervision of a more senior-level physician than before, and are given more leeway in decision-making and medical record keeping.

Selective Course

A course that a medical student chooses from a subset of courses predefined by the College.

Elective Course

A course that a medical student chooses from the full menu of courses offered by the College, not from a predefined subset.

After Earning a Medical Degree

Graduate Medical Education

The training completed after obtaining a medical degree. This may refer to residency training or fellowship training.

National Residency Matching Program (NRMP)

Made up of key academic medical oversight agencies and medical student associations, this organization handles the residency application process. Students apply during the first part of their fourth year through a process that is similar to that of applying to medical school. They send in an application form, a personal statement, letters of recommendation, and USMLE test scores to their preferred residency programs and go through a round of interviews. Both students and residency programs submit a ranking list, and students are matched with the highest-ranked residency program that has also listed them as desirable and acceptable.

Residency Training

To be completed after obtaining a medical degree, residency training provides medical school graduates with the additional hands-on experience they need to become a more-seasoned doctor. It lasts three to seven years depending on the chosen field of medicine. As residents proceed through training, they assume more independence and more supervisory responsibility in the training of more junior residents and medical students. Completion of the adequate time in residency training is one of the requirements to obtain a license to practice medicine. For most states, the minimum required residency training is two years, but a few require completion of just one year of residency training.


A term used to describe the first year of residency training. Similarly, first-year residents are sometimes referred to as interns. A resident in the first year of training may also be identified as either a PGY-1 (postgraduate year one) or an R-1 (Resident-1).

Fellowship Training

Additional subspecialty training that is required for some fields of medicine and is completed after residency training. Fellowship training adds another two to three years to the process. It is similar to residency training, but with an added emphasis on conducting research.

As a Practicing Physician

Board-Certified Physician

A physician who has passed a national examination administered by a specialty board, allowing him or her to become certified in a particular field or subspecialty. Most branches of medicine require board-certified physicians to undergo a recertification every 10 years.

Continuing Medical Education

Required education physicians must complete after their residency and/or fellowship to maintain their licenses. These education requirements ensure that physicians remain up to date in their fields.