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What to Know About Three-Year Medical School Programs

It’s a daunting path to become a doctor: four years of college, four years of medical school, and three to seven years of residency (or more, if you complete a fellowship) before you are a full-fledged physician. There’s no way around it — it takes a lot of time, hard work, and sacrifice to earn the privilege of practicing medicine. There are, however, a few ways to expedite the process. You can attend a three-year M.D. program or D.O. program, saving you a year’s worth of time and tuition on your path to “physician-hood.” Though, these programs are not right for everyone, see if a three-year M.D. or D.O. program may be a good fit for you.

Three-Year M.D. and D.O. Programs: Factors to Consider

While the idea of completing med school a year early can entice you, consider these factors before applying. 

Most three-year M.D. or D.O. programs come with certain conditions and expectations. Three-year medical school programs may include one or more of the following requirements:

  1. 1. You are committing to specialize in a certain area of medicine following graduation (e.g., family practice, psychiatry, general surgery, etc.).
  2. 2. You are committing to serve in a specific geographic area following graduation (e.g., in local urban or rural communities that are medically underserved).
  3. 3. You are committing to train at a residency program associated with that med school.


These programs appeal to students who know exactly what they want: they may have lots of experience in a specific field of medicine and can’t see themselves doing anything else; they may have strong ties to their home state and want to work with underserved communities there; or they may know that they want to stick with a certain university for the foreseeable future. 

Typically, students in these programs pair with a faculty mentor, and from the start of their medical education, they begin garnering research and clinical experience relevant to their field. This fast-tracks their development and helps build their expertise in their chosen specialty. Or they gain early and extensive experience with the communities and patient populations they hope to eventually work with. Alongside reduced costs and a shorter timeline, this focused curriculum is a major benefit of three-year M.D. or D.O. programs. 

There are a few three-year programs that offer greater flexibility following graduation — they may allow students to go into any specialty they want and complete their residency training anywhere they want. However, these programs are few.

How Do Three-Year Programs Compare to Four-Year Programs? 

Three-year programs are not watered-down versions of four-year programs. Students still gain the necessary knowledge and meet the same requirements as four-year students. This means that three-year programs may have longer academic years, shorter vacations, and less time for students to participate in extracurricular activities. Most three-year programs have fewer elective rotations than four-year programs, relieving some of the time pressure, but the increased pace of three-year medical school programs is an important consideration.

Also, consider whether the three-year program is offered within a four-year medical school or at a “three-year only” medical school. If the three-year program is offered at a four-year medical school, you can typically transition back to the four-year pathway if needed (e.g., if they want to pursue another specialty or the three-year pace is too fast). At “three-year only” medical schools, where all students are enrolled in a three-year curriculum, there may be less flexibility to make these changes.

Regardless of which 3-year M.D. degree or D.O. program(s) you’re interested in, you should thoroughly research the programs that interest you to ensure you know all the details, requirements, and conditions involved.

The Two Main Types of 3-Year Medical School Programs

Accelerated, Three-Year Primary Care Programs

A common type of three-year M.D. or D.O. program is a “primary care focus” program, which prepares you for a career in one of the five primary care specialties: family practice, internal medicine, pediatrics, OB/GYN, or internal medicine-pediatrics (med-peds). These programs aim to help meet the growing need for primary care physicians around the United States and are great for those who are sure they want to become primary care physicians. Generally, these programs have direct links to the medical school’s primary care residency program(s).

Some of these programs also require a commitment to serve in a specific geographic area following graduation — for example, in local urban or rural communities that are medically underserved. 

If you are 100% sure that you want to pursue a career in primary care, one of the following may be a great fit for you:

* Medical(s) school with a three-year curriculum for all students

Accelerated, Three-Year Programs Across Multiple Specialties

Other three-year medical school programs allow you to choose from a greater variety of specialties (not just primary care) and have direct links to residency programs associated with that medical school. For example, participants in the Fully Integrated Readiness for Service Training (FIRST) program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill can complete their residency in family practice, psychiatry, pediatrics, or general surgery. Though program participants can interview with and rank other residency programs, they will “be ranked favorably to match into the [North Carolina] Residency Program.” After residency, FIRST participants are expected to work in an underserved community in North Carolina for at least three years. 

Some of these programs offer a broad spectrum of specialty options — for example, at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, three-year M.D. students “receive conditional acceptance into their RSOM @ SBU residency program of choice.” Other programs, like the Accelerated Pathway in Orthopaedics (APO) at Duke University, only offer one specialty option for three-year students. 

Again, you should conduct thorough research to ensure you know what specialties are offered, what requirements you must meet, and what the advantages and disadvantages of the program(s) are. 

Three-year M.D. and D.O. programs that are NOT exclusive to primary care include:

* Medical school(s) with a three-year curriculum for all students

In Summary

Three-year, accelerated programs have some major upsides — a shortened timeline, reduced costs, and (depending on the program) a focus on your specialty of interest. However, these programs are not right for everyone. Many three-year M.D. and D.O. programs have specific requirements and conditions that may not appeal to everyone (committing to a certain specialty, committing to a certain part of the country, committing to a certain residency program, etc.). There are a few three-year programs that don’t have any of these requirements, but they are in the minority. 

Before applying to a three-year M.D. or D.O. program, you should thoroughly research the program’s requirements, expectations, potential benefits, and potential drawbacks. 


Whether you choose to apply to a three-year program or go the traditional, four-year route, you’ll have to take the MCAT, apply to medical school, and stand out in medical school interviews to get there. We’re here to help you navigate those hurdles and achieve your long-term goals. You can start by customizing our free MCAT study schedule to your time frame and study resources. 

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