One of the best ways to learn about your future career is to read about it. That’s true for becoming a doctor, too! As a pre-med student, books about medicine can help you prepare for medical school, but they can also introduce you to what it really means to care for your patients.
That’s why we’ve compiled a list of the seven books every pre-med student must read before they go to medical school. This list includes everything from MCAT prep books to grisly--but educational!--books about the darker side of medical history. We’ve also included works that introduce you to some of the social and ethical complexities of medicine, too.
Not only will these books widen your perspective on the field of medicine, they’ll also help you become a better doctor.
Book #1: The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris
Winner of the 2018 PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing, Fitzharris’ book takes readers into the dark world of Victorian medical science. Up until the mid-Victorian period, surgery was often tantamount to a death sentence. Doctors didn’t wash their hands or their instruments, the surgical operating theatre was open to spectators, and post-operative infection was considered a good thing!
That all changed thanks to Joseph Lister, a British surgeon who pioneered the field of germ theory. Fitzharris gives readers a glimpse into the bloody history of medicine in Victorian England and traces Lister’s journey to change the field of surgical medicine. The Butchering Art is equal parts gruesome and fascinating, and we guarantee that you won’t be able to put it down.
Actually, if you can’t get enough of the morbid history of medicine after reading Lindsey Fitzharris’ book, don’t worry! We also recommend Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang--which explores the worst malpractices of medical history--and The Anatomy Murders by Lisa Rosner, which tells the story of medical body snatching and how it led to England’s first recorded serial killers. These books are guaranteed to help you understand the history of medicine better...and they might keep you up at night, too.
When a book wins a Pulitzer Prize, you know it’s a good read. That’s definitely the case for The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which provides a “biography” of cancer. Mukherjee traces the history of the disease all the way from its appearance thousands of years ago to today, and in doing so, helps readers better understand cancer as a disease. He also spends time looking at modern cancer treatment and talking about the future of cancer research, which will bring you up to speed on critical advancements in your future field.
No matter what type of medicine you want to practice, cancer is the specter that haunts them all. Having a better understanding of the history and future of the disease will not only better prepare you to face it in your own medical career, but it will help you understand how to best support your patients who face such a scary diagnosis. Mukherjee’s sharp writing style makes this book a page turner that you don’t want to miss! (And once you’re done, you can watch the documentary, which was directed by none other than Ken Burns.)
Now that we’ve given you two fascinating books about the history (and future!) of medicine, it’s time to turn to more traditional pre-med fare. That’s why we’ve chosen Med School Uncensored by Dr. Richard Beddingfield, which is an entertaining, pull-no-punches insider look at medical school. Advertised as a “good, bad, and ugly” guide to medical school, Beddingfield shares advice with readers that he wishes he knew before starting med school process himself. (He’s a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist, if you’re wondering.)
Beddingfield’s book is a comprehensive guide to medical school, and he makes sure to incorporate perspectives from other doctors to give readers a comprehensive and reliable look at what it’s like to become a doctor. His goal is to demystify the process and help people better understand what they’re getting into when they decide to become a doctor. Even more importantly, Beddingfield gives you practical guidance to help you navigate every step of your med school journey. Med School Uncensored is definitely required reading for every pre-med student!
If you’re looking for even more insider knowledge about the medical school experience after you finish Med School Uncensored, you can also check out Med School Confidential by Robert H. Miller and Daniel M. Bissell, MD. It also gives you a peek behind the proverbial curtain. Even though it was published more than ten years ago, Med School Confidential offers great time-tested advice about the med school process and covers everything from applying to medical schools to finding the perfect job after earning your white coat.
Ah, yes...the dreaded MCAT exam. The MCAT is the test all aspiring doctors have to take before they can apply to medical school. It’s designed to be a rigorous test of your medical knowledge, and your score on the MCAT can determine whether you get into your dream school...or not.
Basically, the MCAT is the medical school version of the SAT and ACT, and it’s just as important.
Here’s the deal: the MCAT exam can make or break an aspiring doctor. That’s why we’ve chosen the beefiest MCAT prep book series out there to get you on the right track. We can’t emphasize it enough: studying for the MCAT early and often is critical to your success. This study set gives you many of the tools you need to get ready for the MCAT, including hundreds of practice questions, illustrations to help you visualize key concepts, and practice tests to help you get to know the test format long before exam day. And since this series is published by Kaplan, you can rest assured that you’re getting the most up-to-date exam advice, too!
Book #5: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
If you haven’t heard of Atul Gawande, you’re missing out: he’s a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, teaches at Harvard Medical School, and is a New York Times best-selling author. Basically, he’s a rockstar.
All of his books about medicine--including The Checklist Manifesto and Complications--are worth reading, but for our money, Being Mortal is the book that no pre-med student should miss. And the critics agree: not only was Being Mortal voted one of the best books of 2017 by...well, basically everyone, it also spent a staggering 85 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
So like we said, it’s definitely a book that’s worth your time.
Being Mortal deals with one of the hardest aspects of medicine: end-of-life care. It can be hard for doctors, whose job it is to fight off death every day, to realize when it’s best to stop treating the illness and start giving palliative care. Gawande explores how the American medical system deals with aging and the inevitable illness that comes with it, and he argues that medical treatment should focus on how patients want to live rather than just extending life, especially in terminal circumstances.
As a pre-med student, you’re going to school to become a doctor and save lives. But Gawande’s book shows young, aspiring doctors that their job is about more than preserving life--it’s about giving quality of life, too. Being Mortal will transform the way you think about dying, and it will definitely change the way you practice medicine.
Abby Norman had her whole life ahead of her: as a bright young student, she had just started attending Sarah Lawrence College. But everything ground to a halt when she woke up one day in excruciating abdominal pain. Ask Me About My Uterus is Abby’s memoir about her eight-year journey from the onset of her illness to getting a firm diagnosis.
This book gives readers a patient’s perspective on the medical system, especially when it comes to treating women. Norman explains that doctors rarely take women’s pain seriously: in fact, when women report being in pain, they are more likely to be prescribed sedatives than pain killers than men who complain of similar symptoms. As she walks through her experience, she also researches the history of medicine and exposes how often it’s biased against women.
As a future doctor, it’s important for you to understand how medicine, even as it works to help and heal, isn’t immune from prejudice. The only way to combat this is for up-and-coming doctors (like you!) to understand how the current medical system falls short. And that’s why we picked Norman’s book for our list. Not only will Ask Me About My Uterus help you better understand what it’s like to be a patient with a chronic, undiagnosed illness, it will also open your eyes to the gender biases of the medical field.
Okay, okay. This book isn’t technically about medicine. Instead, Grit is a book about how passion and perseverance, rather than raw talent or achievement, is the key to long-term success. More importantly, Grit teaches readers how to push through challenges and setbacks to reach your goals.
So why have we decided to give Duckworth’s book a place on our list? It’s simple: medical school is hard. (And that’s an understatement!) There’s no coasting through classes, and most students will find themselves struggling at some point. This can be really hard for medical students, are often ambitious and high achieving. And that’s a good thing! But you also need to learn how to push through adversity and hardship if you’re going to make it in medical school.
In her book, Duckworth shows readers how to cultivate perseverance--what she calls “grit”--which is what allows people to handle adversity and learn from their mistakes. She also gives helpful tips for developing tenacity, and how to use failure as a springboard toward your goals. By developing a little more grit, you’ll be better prepared to tackle any obstacle med school throws your way!
Now that you’ve got these books under your belt, take some time learning more about what it means to be “pre-med,” and what that means for getting into medical school.
If you’re still in high school, there’s plenty you can do to get yourself ready for the road ahead. Here’s an article that breaks down the most important things you can do to prepare yourself for medical school before you ever start college!
Did you know that where you get your undergraduate degree can affect your chances at getting into the medical school of your dreams? If you’re applying to college, it’s important to consider which schools offer the best pre-med programs.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.