Back when I worked in admissions and spent a lot of time at college fairs and other events, I’d field all kinds of questions from students and families. And usually, lots of those questions were along the lines of “how is your pre-med major?” I don’t think most families expected that I would answer by explaining what is (and is not) a “pre-med major” to help them understand how to ask better questions around that topic.
I’m sure it was annoying (especially for other college reps within earshot) and truth be told I annoyed myself with it sometimes! But since there are fewer than 100 universities in the United States that offer an actual honest-to-goodness MAJOR in pre-medical studies or a similarly named major, being “pre-med” is one of the most frequently misunderstood parts of the college journey, and I just could not let it go. I want students to understand their options and what it’s going to take to achieve their goals. What students actually needed to ask was, “Does your college offer the courses I’ll need so I could apply to medical school?” And in most cases, the answer is, “Yes, we do.”
But if fewer than 100 places have “pre-med majors” and most colleges offer the classes you’d need to prepare for med school, where do you go from here? That’s where things start to get interesting.
There are a lot of different pieces involved in preparing for med school, and each med school will have their own requirements. But two of the biggest pieces are straightforward enough:
- Earn high grades in all your college classes as well as the classes required for med school prep (aka “pre-med courses”)
- Earn a high MCAT score
Let’s talk classes first. What classes do you need for med school? Pretty much every U.S. med school requires a year each of biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics (all with labs). Most also specifically require a year of English. Beyond that, if you look at the courses that each med school says they’re looking for, you’ll see that they say they’re looking for things like writing-intensive coursework in literature, or a year of social sciences coursework, or that having coursework in mathematics (especially statistics) is particularly helpful. But nobody is telling you they expect you to major in biology. The Boston University Med School website says, “Because schools and applicants differ from one another, our ‘requirements’ are flexible,” and the website for Northwestern explicitly says, “No preference is given to those who have majored in the sciences over those who have pursued the humanities.”
You can major in anything you want and go to med school. How liberating!
(By the way, if you haven’t read our recent blog posts on being undecided on your major and on myths about college majors, this would be a good time to do so. If you’re short on time, the TL;DR is that your major is not your destiny, and that being undecided on major is totally fine at this stage as long as you have things you are excited to learn about. Now back to our pre-med journey…)
So you’ve got the classes handled—what about the MCAT? I promise you there is no point in starting to study for it while you’re in high school. But what you CAN do is consider what kind of advising and support is offered for students who want to go to med school at the colleges you’re considering. Use search terms like “pre-med advising,” “pre-health advising,” and “pre-professional advising” (which usually covers pre-med, pre-vet, and pre-law) on a college’s website. What do you see?
Larger colleges will often have a pre-health advising office, possibly even a pre-med advisor in addition to your regular academic advisor. Are there a lot of people on that campus who pursue med school, and do you like having lots of others around you who share that goal? Sometimes students worry that a smaller college won’t prepare them for med school, but search for those same pre-med and pre-health terms at those colleges, and you’ll find many of them offer pre-med advising, statistics on which of their students get into med school, and both clinical and mentoring opportunities. Having pre-med support that feels supportive TO YOU will ultimately help you be ready to nail the MCAT while also helping you figure out your best path to med school. And that includes considering majors other than biology.
If you want to major in biology, by all means, go ahead and do it! But if that’s not your path, that’s okay too. Remember that comment above about having a high GPA? Pick something you love to study and are good at. That will make your college classes a lot more fun and interesting for you, and it’ll ALSO help you earn the highest grades you’re capable of, which is more likely to keep that med school door open for you. (Really, you can almost draw a line between MCAT scores and GPAs and who gets into med school, no matter the student’s major.) Plus, imagine you get to the end of college and you decide you want to take a year (or a few years) off before you go to med school and you’ll need to work during that time off—what kind of work would you like to do during that time? If you’ve picked a major you genuinely enjoy, you’re more likely to have options you’re excited about in those years.
So study psychology, or public policy, or music. Focus on urban planning, or engineering, or literature. As long as you choose a college that’s a good fit for you, where you can thrive and get to know your professors and have access to pre-med advising that you feel good about, you can study whatever you want and still prepare for med school. And you know what? One day, you’ll be a better doctor for it.
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