If you’ve dreamed of becoming a doctor and adding MD to the end of your name, you’ve likely spent a lot of time thinking about how to get there. You’ve heard about the many years of schooling, clinicals and residencies and watched TV shows where doctors are exhausted from long shifts and tough cases.
Earning a medical degree is a long process with big rewards. There are many steps to getting there, and the first is determining what courses to take in college to prepare you for medical school.
We often use the term “pre-med” to define the college courses leading to medical school. But is pre-med a major? Is it something you can select when you declare your major on your college applications or early in your college career?
Is Pre-Med a Major?
At most schools, pre-med is not a declared major. Instead, it is a schedule of courses designed to cover all the science and laboratory requirements needed for continued education in medicine or healthcare.
Nonetheless, most students tell their academic counselors that they are pre-med, and for good reason. This is your declaration that you intend to apply to medical school or enter the healthcare field after graduation. If you know that going in, it certainly doesn’t hurt to share that with your counselor, who can advise you on courses that will help you prepare for the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT. MCAT scores play a significant role in whether you are accepted to medical school, as well as which school accepts you.
Do Pre-Med Students Need to Be Science Majors?
If you know you want to go into medicine or health care, you will likely lean towards majors within the science field. Your academic counselor will help you choose the proper progression of these courses so they build on one another.
But many students aren’t sure if they will want to continue on to medical school, and you might be one of them. For instance, maybe you’ve always dreamed of being a doctor, but you also really enjoy writing and other creative pursuits. Does that mean you have to forget about those passions and concentrate on science?
No, it doesn’t. There are actually many paths to medical school, and they don’t all follow a straight, obvious line. That’s because there are a variety of sciences and more skills than you can imagine that can lead to medical school. That includes liberal arts studies – something most students don’t think about when they’re thinking about medical school.
However, there are many students who choose a science major (makes sense, since wanting to be a doctor usually stems from an interest or strength in the sciences). The majority earn degrees in biological sciences or chemistry, for example. Counselors point out that it’s important to round out these courses with others that develop soft skills, such as cultural sensitivity, teamwork, critical thinking, and written communication.
What Majors Are Best for Pre-Med Students?
Let’s take a look at majors that can lead to medical school. You’ll notice that more than half are science-related and the rest fall under the liberal arts category. According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, 36% of students admitted to medical school have undergraduate degrees in majors outside of the science field. The majority focus on various areas of interest within the science realm.
Biological sciences – This is the most common choice of major for pre-med students. The courses required for this degree are almost always relevant for medical school. They include molecular medicine, genetics, physiology, cell dynamics – everything related to the study of life, from single cell to complex humans.
- Chemistry – Medical studies require a deep knowledge of chemistry, so this is another solid choice. This major delves into chemical therapies for the human body, molecular disorders and how to treat them, and research opportunities in special fields of interest.
- Physics - For students who want to go into the technical side of medicine, such as neuroscience or medical imaging, this is a great science field to choose. Physics is said to embody all sciences and to strengthen skills in logical deduction and problem solving – perfect for diagnosing a patient and coming up with a plan.
- Health – A major in health can include nursing, public health, health administration, and any number of other more specific majors. It is also a natural path to medicine. This major oftentimes provides undergraduate clinical experiences to supplement classroom studies, and this can really strengthen your application to medical school.
- Engineering – While most engineers do indeed end up going into an engineering field, you may want to consider this major for pre-med. The advantage is that it gives you flexibility – become an engineer or enter medical school – and you can wait to make this decision when you know more about each field. Engineering degrees train you in analyzing complex systems and finding solutions when those systems fail. That’s not just true of equipment – it translates to the body as well.
- Creative Arts – You might never have considered the option of earning a creative arts degree as part of a pre-med plan, but as we said above, one-third of medical school applicants do just that. The arts include literature, painting, photography, music, dance, and theater, to name a few. Research shows that medical students and doctors who are also passionate about the arts deliver improved clinical care. That’s because they have a creative outlet that uses qualities and skills to balance out the science perspective.
- Social Sciences – Fields like psychology, sociology, and philosophy are just three areas of study that explore the human condition. This study can be incredibly helpful when you’re looking forward to a career caring for people. Sometimes falling under the Humanities umbrella, these courses will help you better understand and communicate with diverse people. The highly-ranked program at Mount Sinai in NYC has even launched a program to attract more students from the humanities specifically. They offer a HuMed program (Humanities Pre-Med) that targets students who take humanities courses in their first , two years of college and science courses during the summers.
- Liberal Arts - This is a broader term that can encompass the social sciences, humanities, the arts, and natural sciences, and this varies from school to school. Whether you attend a Liberal Arts school or enroll in a Liberal Arts program within a large university, you may find everything from the courses mentioned above to religion and foreign languages. While these might not be the traditional courses you think of when you think of pre-med, some colleges actually seek out these students. That’s because students who approach their studies from a Liberal Arts perspective tend to develop a broader worldview, strong communication skills (in more than one language), and help contribute to a well-rounded body of students and future doctors.
How Do I Choose a Major for Pre-Med?
With all of these options, how do you know which major is right for you? Most pre-med students major in one of the sciences. If you plan to be one of them, college counselors agree that it helps to determine which area holds the most appeal to you. You might start by considering the key requirements for medical school, then searching for a major that meets many of those requirements.
If that feels overwhelming, there are many online sites that allow you to take a self-assessment inventory to identify your areas of interest. This will help you determine not only if science is your best choice, but where to focus within the field of science. Rice University’s list of questions is one example of the types of questions you should ask yourself to pinpoint what type of science is of greatest interest to you.
You should also research each science area and take a look at the courses in each. For instance, do the courses under a chemistry major interest you more or less than those under a biology major? If you’re not sure, it’s okay. There are plenty of critical courses you can take your freshman and sophomore years that will provide a solid foundation for the requirements for admission to medical school. They will also help you narrow down your areas of interest relating to medicine, and this will guide you toward your major.
Which Schools are Best for Pre-Med Studies?
As with many majors, some schools are known for being exemplary when it comes to preparing students for medical school. They may have a high rate of success, meaning more of their students are accepted to med school than those from other schools. Or their students do particularly well on the MCAT, scoring higher than average. They might have a reputation for turning out top students in certain fields, and graduating from those schools can carry a certain prestige.
Prep Scholar ranked the best pre-med schools based on these factors and other considerations. You should ask any school you’re considering about their success rates – what percentage of their students are admitted to med school and what percentage pass (or get a certain score) on the MCAT each year. You should also research what resources are available to students, what type of advising is available for pre-med students, and what the access is to quality medical facilities for research and training. Do most students secure internships, and if so, where? These are all important factors to consider when choosing a college.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), these schools produced the largest number of medical school applicants during 2022.
Keep in mind that these are competitive universities that generally attract top students who have better odds of being accepted to medical school. Also keep in mind each school’s size – every large university will naturally have more applicants than a smaller school, so their numbers alone work in their favor.
Do Medical Schools Favor Their Undergrads for Admission?
It’s a fair question! We know that medical school admission is highly competitive, so anything that will give you an edge deserves consideration. And if you can attend a university that has its own medical school, there may be a benefit, right?
As it turns out, most medical schools don’t care if you completed your undergrad with them. However, “most” does not mean all. Some schools do value an applicant coming from their own school. After all, they know what they are getting with their own students, the courses they took and their level of difficulty, for example.
It does appear that many medical schools favor prestigious schools when selecting their students. Let’s explore a couple universities to determine what that looks like.
In 2020, 104 students were admitted to Yale Medical School . Of those 104 students, 30 percent got their undergraduate degree from an Ivy League School. The next 13 percent came from selective public and private schools: University of California–Berkeley, University of Southern California, City University of New York, Hunter College, Johns Hopkins University, Vanderbilt University, Stanford University, University of Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis, and Duke University. The remaining 57 percent graduated from a wide variety of colleges, including Kalamazoo College, Skidmore College, and Bowdoin College.
This suggests that while Ivy League schools are highly valued, they are not necessary. In Yale’s case, 43% of their students came from prestigious colleges and the rest came from a wide range of other schools. This is because medical schools are looking for a diversity of students who represent the greater population. They are also looking to avoid a cookie-cutter population of students who all look and think the same. Accepting students from all over the world and from all types of colleges helps to ensure that the future medical community is well-rounded.
Now for a second example, where the medical school pulls from its undergraduate school. Let’s look at the #11-ranked (according to U.S. News & World Report) Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. This school reports that most of its students between 2011 and 2020 came from their own Washington University in St. Louis, along with Harvard University, University of California–Berkeley, Yale University, Duke University, University of California–Los Angeles, University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, and Rice University.
In this case, qualified students within the Washington program are considered just as strongly as those coming from Ivy League and highly selective schools. The takeaway is this: Be sure to check a school’s statistics or speak to an admissions officer about acceptance rates and percentages – and ask if being an undergraduate student at the same school will increase your chances for acceptance in medical school.
Other Than Pre-Med Courses, What Can I Do to Prep for Medical School?
Pre-med courses are important, and taking the time to research potential schools, majors, and courses is crucial to making your way to medical school. But like everything in life, there’s more at play here than what courses you take in the classroom.
Here are the steps you should take when thinking about pre-med options and opportunities.
#1: Talk to an Advisor
Make sure you know what courses to take and what GPA you need to earn in order to be competitive. Find a academic advisor, professor, department admin, or med school admissions counselor to help you determine the major, courses, and GPA that will set you on the path to medical school.
#2: Get Prepared for the MCAT
Make sure you are enrolled in a program that prepares you for the medical school entrance exam, or MCAT. If you choose to study outside of the sciences, you will also need to prepare for the exam outside of your classwork. It is sometimes helpful to work with a tutor or a graduate student who has experience with the MCAT. And practice, practice, practice! It is advised you start studying and practicing in your junior year.
#3: Seek Out Research Opportunities
Research is an important component of medicine, and the opportunity to learn how to conduct research, participate in a research group, and write up research reports is a huge selling point. Medical schools value this type of experiences, and it will help when your application is being considered against thousands of others.
#4: Round Out Science with Communication
Take communication courses that will make you a strong speaker and writer. The medical field is about much more than diagnosing and treating. Patient care relies on your ability to listen, understand, make deductions, ask the right questions, and respond in ways that are productive. You’ve heard about a physician’s “bedside manner,” and there’s a reason it’s talked about so much. Communication is key to good relationships with patients.
#6: Get Real-Life Experience
Ask potential schools about internships and physician shadowing opportunities attached to your school program. Do their students volunteer or work at a nearby hospital? Are they given chances for hands-on learning in a hospital or clinic setting? Real-life instruction will give you the full picture of the profession, teach you valuable lessons, and beef up your resume for medical school.
#7: Look for Leadership Opportunities
Medical professionals are leaders – their job requires it. They must think independently and sometimes out of the box. They must be self-starters who work independently. They must work with a team and collaborate on cases. You must demonstrate that you can do all these things, and a background in leadership will provide some context for medical skills. If you’ve seized opportunities to lead, you will likely do the same when you become a doctor.
#8: Be as Well-Rounded as Possible
As easy as it is to lose yourself in courses and grades, it’s important to remind yourself that medical school is about so much more. For instance, show commitment to community service, where the focus is on helping someone outside of your normal social circle. Build relationships with professors and advisers – they will eventually provide letters of evaluation and recommendation that are important to medical school. And pursue creative outlets that give your brain a break from analysis and science.
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Rebecca has a doctorate in Educational Leadership and taught high school English for over 20 years. Her students consistently earned top scores on the SAT and ACT, AP Language and AP Literature exams. She worked one-on-one with students through her own tutoring and educational coaching business and believes that individualized attention and personal connection are the keys to success. Rebecca is the author of the parenting book Teenagers 101: What a Top Teacher Wishes You Knew About Helping Your Kids Succeed, which provides tips for parents on how to help their kids reach their full potential. As a content writer for Prep Scholar, she hopes to help guide students and parents through high school and make the transition into adulthood as stress-free – and informed – as possible.