How to Prepare for a Healthcare Career in High School

Learn how to begin preparing for a career in healthcare while still in high school and equip yourself with the tools you need to set yourself up for future success.

Last Updated: 11/11/2020
——

MEET THE EXPERT

Rene Roberts

View Bio

Dr. Rene Roberts is a board-certified Family Medicine physician in the Chicago area with expertise in mentoring and coaching high school and college students interested in pursuing careers in medicine. She was a competitive figure skater in high school before pursuing her career in medicine. She graduated from Indiana University School of Medicine in 2011 and completed her residency in Family Medicine at St. Josephs’ Hospital in Chicago.

You may be young, but you know you want a career helping others. You admire our healthcare professionals, and feel ready to start preparing to join their ranks. If this sounds like you, high school can be a great place to begin building your foundation in healthcare. With the right classes, some extracurriculars, and a deep motivation to achieve your aspirations, your healthcare future could be closer than you think. Keep reading to learn what you can do to set yourself up for success in the medical field and take away expert advice on aligning your high school education with your career goals in healthcare.

Building Your Foundation: Courses to Take in High School 

Even while still in high school, you can take classes that will help prepare you for healthcare-related college studies. Here are just some of the high school courses that can lay the foundation for healthcare majors in college, or help you jump straight into a career opportunity.

Algebra

While it may not be the first topic you think of, algebra can be an essential part of numerous healthcare careers. Clinicians and administrators alike use algebra to solve problems and find solutions to questions around prescriptions, patient data, funding, and research planning. You can take both regular and AP algebra classes while still in high school, though you may need additional college-level courses.

Great for careers as a pharmacist, pharmacy tech, or physician assistant.

Continue in college with a campus-based or online algebra courses, a nurse practitioner (NP) program, pharmacist program, or pharmacy tech program.

Anatomy

Anatomy courses provide you with an understanding of how the human body functions and how different structures form relationships within the body to keep us running smoothly. Countless degrees in the healthcare sphere require an in-depth understanding of human anatomy, making this course a great option if you plan to work in any position that involves interacting with patients in clinical and/or research settings.

Great for careers as a paramedic or physician.   

Continue in college with a campus-based or online anatomy degree, physical therapy assistant program, or license practical nurse (LPN) program.

Biology 

Biology courses also serve as required studies for countless healthcare careers, covering topics such as cell structure and function, development of living organisms, ecological effects on the human body, and homeostasis. You can take this either as a regular high school course or as an AP class and potentially gain college credits while still in high school. If considering any of the following careers, you’ll need a biology class on your transcript.

Great for careers as a physician assistant or genetic counselor.

Continue in college with a campus-based or online biology degree, nurse practitioner (NP) program, registered nurse (RN) program, or license practical nurse (LPN) program.

English

Even if you don’t plan to work as a medical transcriptionist or research writer, possessing a firm grasp of the English language will help you get ahead in healthcare. Many jobs require candidates who can communicate clearly and effectively while also demonstrating professionalism in their tone. English classes can be taken as regular high school or AP courses and are part of almost all general education requirements at the college level.

Great for careers as a medical assistant or certified nursing assistant (CNA)

Continue in college with a campus-based or online English degree, psychology program, health science program, or healthcare management program.

Spanish 

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that people of Hispanic origin will make up nearly 30% of America’s population by 2060, making Spanish classes a great high school option. When working in healthcare settings, you will encounter people from all walks of life. While it’s impossible to speak the native language of every patient you serve, learning Spanish will likely offer the broadest possible opportunity for conversing with those who don’t speak English in the United States.

Great for careers as a sonographer or medical assistant.

Continue in college with a campus-based or online Spanish course, registered nurse (RN) program, social work program, or child development program.

Statistics  

Statistics play a massive role in many different healthcare jobs, ranging from mostly patient-facing to those focused on hospital governance. Statistics help researchers understand the efficacy of experimental treatments, help administrators create budgets, and help nurses deliver better patient care. Regardless of your intended path, a statistics class can put you in good stead for college and beyond.

Great for careers as a nurse practitioner or medical statistician

Continue in college with a campus-based or online statistics program, medical statistician program, healthcare administration program, or public health program.

Healthcare Skills to Cultivate in High School 

You’ll need to master many technical and nontechnical skills to excel in the field of healthcare; thankfully, you can start building many of them while still in high school. Below are some of the skills you’ll most want in your toolbox as a healthcare professional.

Communication

Communication is a vital skill to possess in countless healthcare careers. Whether giving a colleague a patient update, teaching a patient how to take their medication, or conveying information to their family, you must be able to communicate clearly and effectively. You can hone this skill in high school by taking English classes, joining a debate team, or finding volunteer roles that call for excellent written and/or verbal communication.

Computer Skills 

As the healthcare industry becomes more reliant on technology, knowing how to use computers, applications, and various software will get you far in this field. While you likely already possess some computer skills gained through regular studies, you may also want to consider taking a computer science class, joining a student technology club, or asking the technology teacher to review some computer science skills with you.

Empathy

Working on the frontlines of healthcare means being with patients as they confront stressful, sometimes difficult medical news or long recoveries. Putting yourself in their shoes and understanding what they must be feeling is an essential skill in any healthcare setting and can help set you apart from other practitioners. Empathy can’t really be learned from a class, but you can practice being a supportive, kind, and thoughtful student and individual.

Flexibility

While some healthcare jobs offer standard work hours, others require flexibility, especially if you plan to set up your own practice someday. Being able to roll with the punches and deal with the unexpected will set you up for success in healthcare. You can build these skills by taking part in high school theatre productions, joining a sports team, or working a part-time job/starting a side business while still in school.

Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills can cover a wide array of traits and behaviors, ranging from communicating effectively and demonstrating self-confidence to taking feedback well or demonstrating professional body language. You can’t necessarily learn these skills in a class, but you can build them by interacting with a wide range of personalities and studying how others engage with people around them.

Leadership

Many opportunities exist within healthcare to use your leadership skills, take on managerial positions, and earn higher salaries. Leadership takes time and dedication to develop, making it important that you start early. Taking on leadership roles in student clubs, sports teams, and even roles outside school can help you identify your leadership style and honing your abilities before reaching high school.

Patience

Working within a healthcare system can sometimes mean encountering a lot of bureaucracy. Similarly, working with patients as they rehabilitate can mean they move and do things slower than the average person. Showing patience in these situations can help calm the problem and ensure you don’t elevate your stress levels. You can build patience by working with other students on group projects and in leadership roles where you need to get everyone to work as a team to accomplish a goal.

Problem-solving

In healthcare, you rarely encounter black and white situations. Whether trying to diagnose a patient with symptoms that don’t fit textbook descriptions or trying to develop an effective treatment plan, problem-solving goes a long way in the healthcare field. Taking math classes can help you build problem-solving skills, as can playing on a sports team, joining the debate club, or engaging in creative pursuits that require you to think outside the box.

Teamwork 

Numerous roles in healthcare require you to work within teams to accomplish a common goal. As a nurse, you will work with other medical providers to help ensure patients receive the best care. As a nutritionist, you may work with internists to create dietary guidelines that address allergies or deficiencies. Many opportunities exist for developing teamwork in high school, ranging from playing on a sports team to participating in a science group competition.

Time Management  

Time is often critical in healthcare and can even mean the difference between life and death. Even on a typical day, you must be able to manage your time well to get through tasks such as doing rounds, filling prescriptions, or keeping client appointments on track. You can build time management by maintaining a full schedule, engaging in volunteer efforts outside of school, making sure you pace yourself well.

Extracurriculars That Will Add Value to Your Healthcare Career

Besides classes, many schools offer tons of extracurricular activities that will look good on your resume and help you build some of the skills listed in the previous section. If you’re dreaming of a career in healthcare, these extracurriculars can help set you up for success.

Competitions

Participating in a healthcare-related competition can help you hone your skills in science topics and build some of the required competencies for healthcare programs. They can also expose you to judges who work in the industry and could be helpful in your college journey. Options such as the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad, American Academy of Neurology Competition, and International Science and Engineering Fair can all put you at a good pace to impress an admissions committee.

HOSA Programs 

Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA) programs, developed by the U.S. Department of Education, operates as an international group dedicated to helping students learn about healthcare career opportunities in innovative ways. The program focuses on building leadership skills and offers mentorship, scholarships, competitions, conferences, and local chapters. As of 2020, more than 245,000 members have gone through the HOSA program.

Interest-Based Clubs 

Joining an interest-based club can help you learn more about future career paths, meet professionals in the industry, and gain extracurricular titles for your college application that will look impressive to admissions panels. Club availability varies by school, but also, don’t be afraid to start a club if your high school doesn’t currently have one. Potential clubs to join or start include:

  • Pre-Med Club
  • HOSA
  • Doctors Without Borders
  • Anatomy Club
  • Biology Club
  • Sports Medicine Club

Internships & Shadowing 

Besides building up your resume, participating in an internship or job shadowing a healthcare professional can also give you a better sense of which path you might want to pursue in college and beyond. In addition to local opportunities in hospitals and clinics near you, check out the Summer Internship Program in Biomedical Research offered by the National Institute of Health. 

Team Sports 

Joining your high school soccer or baseball team may not seem like the most direct path to a career in healthcare but taking this step can have direct benefits. Being part of a sport requires you to learn teamwork, demonstrate leadership skills, show patience, and build interpersonal and problem-solving skills. Sports can also help you build a drive to keep going when times are tough.

Expert Advice on Preparing for a Healthcare Career in High School

Dr. Rene Roberts is a board-certified Family Medicine physician in the Chicago area with expertise in mentoring and coaching high school and college students interested in pursuing careers in medicine. She was a competitive figure skater in high school before pursuing her career in medicine. She graduated from Indiana University School of Medicine in 2011 and completed her residency in Family Medicine at St. Josephs’ Hospital in Chicago.

1. Why might a student want to start thinking about preparing for their healthcare career while still in high school?

The journey to a successful career in healthcare is a long-distance race. It is not a sprint. Whether a high school student is interested in becoming a doctor, dentist, nurse, physical therapist, ultrasound technician, or another healthcare professional, they must prepare themselves mentally, emotionally, and physically. I repeatedly tell my high school and premedical college students I mentor that they must be willing to be stretched, challenged, and exit their comfort zone regularly to achieve that acceptance letter to the professional school of their choice. High school is the perfect time for students to start the process of self-discovery to determine if a healthcare career is truly for them. Students should ask themselves the following questions:

  • What excites me the most? 
  • What am I passionate about?  
  • What is my life purpose? 
  • What does a fulfilled life look like to me? 
  • What do I like most about scientific discovery? 
  • How can I best serve other people using the skills and talents that I have? 

Hopefully their answers will shed some insight on their strengths and how these align with a career in healthcare.  

2. Outside of taking STEM classes, what else can they do to prepare at the high school? 

When I mentor my premedical students as they are preparing their AMCAS (American Medical College Admission Service) applications, I ask them to take an inventory of their best skills and personality traits. In this case, becoming a great doctor takes more than book smarts. It takes empathy, integrity, compassion, dedication, accountability, resilience, and strong leadership and problem-solving skills, to name a few. I would encourage all high school students to spend quality time participating in extracurricular activities that will cultivate these personality traits. Prior to starting medical school, I was a competitive figure skater with the United States Figure Skating Association. Juggling 5 AM practices before school and off-ice training after school all while studying for my classes taught me effective time management skills. Losing a competition taught me to be resilient in the face of challenges/setbacks. I am thankful for every experience figure skating taught me, as I use these same skills today when I practice medicine. 

Likewise, it is imperative that students strive to become the most well-rounded student possible. I cannot stress this enough. A career in healthcare is going to take more than just book smarts. A career in healthcare means you must be confident as well as comfortable working with patients who do not look like you, think like you, or even grew up like you did. Students must be able to relate to different life experiences. To prepare students for this, I encourage them to seek life experiences that will force them to exit their comfort zone, challenge their thinking and life perspective. Volunteering with organizations, with children, the elderly or with people who speak a different language or have different ethnic background is a great way to accomplish this.

Participation in sports, the arts or humanities also provides for the development of a wide range of knowledge and skills that can help enrich the human experience.  

3. What’s something high school students may not think about that could boost their resume?

Students should not shy away from sharing something about themselves that makes them unique and stand out from the rest of a crowded field of applicants. Often students will downplay their unique talents and think it won’t’ be relevant to their application because their talent doesn’t directly relate to the type of profession they are seeking to go into. This couldn’t be farther from the truth! A student might play the ukulele, teach children Irish step dancing or deliver home-cooked meals to senior citizens. Whatever it is that sets you apart, make sure you showcase that in your resume.  

4. How can school administrators, guidance counselors, etc. help high school students reach this goal? 

Please do not downplay a student’s career aspirations or talk a student out of pursuing their dreams even if they may not be the strongest student academically in high school. High school academic performance is not the sole predictor of overall future career success. Students mature at different rates and will undoubtedly need ongoing support from school counselors and administrators to support them on their journey. I remember the shock and horror I felt being told by one of my junior high school teachers that my dream of becoming a physician was a “lofty goal.” Had I taken that to heart and listened to him, chances are I may not be a doctor today. Thankfully, I had the gumption at that age to tell myself that I refused to let anyone dictate who or what I became. I earnestly implore anyone working with high school students to help feed their students’ faith and confidence in their abilities to succeed at all that they do in life.

Resources to Ready You for a Career in Healthcare