Do You Have To Be Smart To Be A Doctor?

You don’t have to be smart to be a doctor. Studying to become one is more about hard work rather than raw intelligence. Studying efficiently, with discipline and commitment, is the name of the game. But there are certain intelligence criteria, depending on how and where you get into med school, that you’ll inevitably have to meet.

Perhaps the idea that doctors or med students are “smart” stems from most people’s high school experiences. Industrious, hard working or high achieving students, more often than not, are those that have the idea about going into med in the first place.

This was at least true in my case, growing up and going to school in the UK!

But whether these people are the most intelligent or not – as well as asking about your average doctors’ intellectual capabilities – remains open for debate. Based on what I’ve observed; med students vary in natural intelligence. I wouldn’t even consider myself, based on my high school grades, in the ‘smart’ category.

So while you have to be professional to be a doctor (and it takes some intelligence in doing so), you don’t have to be incredibly intellectually gifted.

Can An Average Student Get Into Medical School?

The short answer here is no. Gaining access to public medical schools is, for the most part, insanely competitive. You’ll have to score in the top percentiles of your state exams and then give a satisfactory admissions examination.

And that’s before performing well on a medical school admissions interview too.

Of course there are caveats here (as there is to everything). As I’ve discussed a few times on this site, various alternative routes into medicine exist whereby reasonably average students can gain access to med school.

I’m one of them by the way.

But then there are plenty of others; just as we’ve discussed with stories on studying medicine in Czech Republic, Bulgaria etc.

Related: Is Medical School Easier in Europe?

You can get C’s and still get into some of these medical schools. It all comes down to their individual requirements.

The same is true of other international med schools dotted around the world (Russia, China, the Caribbean etc). Average students, grade-wise at least, may get in to study medicine at these schools, but that doesn’t mean they can’t rise to the top in their careers.

It’s complicated to assert that high-scoring students outperform the average when it comes to the actual work of a doctor.

Is It Really Hard to Become a Doctor?

There are a lot of challenges involved in the journey of becoming a doctor that, for some at least, are reasons not to study medicine. Time and financial cost are the two biggest ones. And I’d say these far outweigh any intellectual challenge involved learning and applying the material.

How hard you might find it comes down to mindset more than anything. The resolve to take failures in your stride. Or the discipline and habit to get the work done.

Of course there is a lot of material to cover when it comes down to raw studying. Without certain backgrounds too (math for example) things might seem more difficult. But never insurmountable.

The main factors determining how “hard” you might perceive it being actually becoming a doctor, also comes down to both you and your med school’s expectations. I’ve argued before that grades shouldn’t really matter all that much. But to some med schools – particularly those in certain countries – they can be important. Often determining whether you are able to keep your place on a course or not.

Studying to be a doctor will be hard of course if you have no motivation to work. And while certain things might be out of your control during the course of your studies, a lot of other things will. So the answer to the question is really dependent on you, your outlook and the way you approach your studies.

Related: I’m a Lazy Medical Student. How Do I Improve?

What is the Average IQ of a Doctor?

According to, the IQ of the average American physician is between 120-130. This puts doctors in the superior intelligence bracket of most occupations according to this figure. A 2009 article in the Daily Mail, interestingly, claims that there has been a gradual decline in the average IQ of doctors over the past few decades.

Either way, the profession is held in higher regard, IQ-wise, than almost all other professions. Except maybe scientists and engineers.

The problem with judging doctors by IQ and then linking it back to the question; “do you have to be smart to be a doctor?” is whether IQ is a valid measurement or not.

Here you have to ask a broader philosophical question about the nature of intelligence in the first place. IQ is intended to measure reasoning ability and logical thinking. And although this is a large part of being a doctor, it doesn’t make up every complicated nuance of the job at hand.

Which Doctors Are the Smartest?

Again the answer here is subjective according your perception of the word “smart”. Most high scoring USMLE students aim for neurosurgery or plastics. But then there are many that, out of preference, opt for other specialisms also. Making it difficult to suggest that there’s any one type of doctor out there smarter than all the others.

A common barometer would be to look at the most competitive specialities. Meaning only the highest scoring applicants are granted residency on these programs. According to Bemo Academic Consulting these are as follows:

  • Dermatology
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Neurological Surgery
  • Plastic Surgery
  • ENT
  • Opthalmology
  • Orthopaedic Surgery (and most other surgical specialisms)

But again, competitiveness does not necessarily indicate intelligence. Or that any of the above specialist doctors are “smarter” than any other.

I Want to Be a Doctor But I’m Not Smart: Advice

If you want to be a doctor but don’t consider yourself “smart”, then I know how you feel. This whole site is authored by someone who spent most of his life feeling the same!

But here’s some practical advice you might want to take:

  • Remind yourself that intelligence is multi-faceted, it’s not all about grades
  • Look into alternative routes into med school – there are many options available for students with average grades
  • Learn how to study more effectively
  • Incorporate study techniques designed to overcome your lack of discipline or habit (like the Pomodoro method)
  • Recognise it’s never too late to turn things around/start over


You don’t have to be smart to become a doctor, you can still get into some med schools with average grades. A desire to learn and a commitment to the task is far more valuable in the long-run.

Don’t let your own perceived lack of intelligence stand in your way.

Image Credit; Volodymyr Hryshchenko at Unsplash.