Want to Be a Doctor? How to Choose a Pre-Med Major

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Leila Amiri
Leila Amiri

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Dr. Amiri joined the UICOM team in 2017. As assistant dean for admissions and recruitment she oversees admissions and recruitment for all three campuses of the college of medicine. She is a passionate advocate for holistic review in admissions and a strong supporter for students in helping them achieve their academic and professional goals.

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Majoring in biological science is the only path to medical school. That’s maybe the oldest and most common med school myth. It’s true that just over half of all matriculants, students enrolled in medical school, major in biological science. On the flip side, half of those enrolled majored in something else entirely. Since 2002, medical school enrollment has increased by 31%. Along with that growth has been a shift to make more room for humanities and social science majors. Some medical schools have even begun offering humanities as part of their graduate curriculum. The belief is that studying the arts and history and languages will improve doctors’ “observation, communication, empathy”.

The second most common med school myth is that an actual pre-med major exists that will guarantee your acceptance. Pre-med is not a major and life offers no guarantees. Pre-med tracks can be very useful for ticking off the boxes of courses and activities needed to apply to medical school. However, students can accomplish this by working closely with a pre-med advisor in any program.

So how do you prepare for medical school? How can you improve your chances of acceptance? Does it all hinge on the GPA? Should you take a gap year? Find out what really matters in medical school admissions.

Med Schools, Majors, and What Really Matters

Your Grades

Medical schools are looking for the best and brightest, the high achievers. Your GPA is an important reflection of that. According to data from the AAMC, the average GPA of medical school applicants was 3.56 in 2018. However, the average of matriculants, students actually enrolled in medical school, was 3.71. The threshold is even higher for non-science majors, 3.79. And, AAMC data indicates roughly that two-thirds of applicants with at least a 3.79 GPA get accepted.

That said, your GPA is more than a number and your transcripts tell a story. Admissions officers are savvy. They know which schools are more demanding and which schools inflate student grades. They will be able to see if you have challenged yourself in your coursework or if you opted for the easy A. They will also look to see if you have taken opportunities to pursue your interests and your passions.

How the Right Major Can Help:

Plenty of research has been done linking one’s happiness to their success. It follows that you are more likely to perform better when you enjoy what you are studying and you are making true, genuine connections with professors and peers. In this way, it matters much less what you study, than if you study something that is personally meaningful to you.  

On the other side of the application equation, medical schools aren’t looking for carbon copies. They want to build diverse and interesting classes. They are looking for students who add value to their program and enrich the lives of their peers.  

Your MCAT Score

Medical School Prerequisites

The Most Popular Pre-Med Majors

Each year, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) releases survey data on who applied and who got into medical school. The survey breaks down the numbers of applicants and matriculants, students who actually attend medical school, by major. It highlights mean GPA and MCAT scores by major as well.

The survey doesn’t drill down to specific majors like organic chemistry or English literature. Instead, it groups majors into 7 categories:

  • Biological sciences
  • Humanities
  • Math and statistics
  • Physical sciences
  • Social sciences
  • Specialized health sciences
  • Other

Here are the most popular categories for pre-med majors.

Biological Sciences

NUMBER OF APPLICANTS

30,693

NUMBER OF STUDENTS WHO MATRICULATED

12,484

Biology factors into every part of the MCAT. It is, after all, a test designed to determine your fitness and ability to care for people. The MCAT tests foundational knowledge, but also how that knowledge is applied to problem-solving and critical thinking. Even sections that may not appear to directly relate to biological science content will ask you to draw upon your understanding of living systems to inform your answers.

Foundational concepts you’ll be expected to know include:

  • Cellular biology: cell structure, cell development, cell division, cell interactions, transport across cells
  • Physiology: cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, hematologic, immune, lymphatic, muscular, renal, reproductive, and skeletal systems
  • Microbiology: bacteria, viruses
  • Genetics: DNA replication and repair, gene expression, mutation, and analysis

Physical Sciences

Social Sciences

Humanities

Math and Statistics

Up-and-Coming Pre-Med Majors

The AAMC survey shows over 3,000 of the 21,869 medical school matriculants fell into that category of “Other” majors. Specialized health sciences made up nearly 2,000 of overall applicants and 721 matriculants. While outside-the-box majors might not be poised to overtake biology for the top slot, they are gaining some real traction in medical school admission.

Public Health

The Covid crisis has significantly raised the profile of public health, with people across the country able to cite state and national public health figures by name. Schools like Oregon State University report rising numbers of public health undergraduates pursuing a pre-med track.
With a bachelor’s degree in public health, students can opt to pursue job opportunities immediately after college as well. This may help to focus their future path in medicine. It can also provide boots-on-the ground experience in global or community health, or working through issues around food systems and health equity.

Health Sciences

Health science degrees can help students answer one of the key questions they’ll be asked when applying for medical school, “do you know what it takes to work in medicine?”

While all pre-med students will need shadowing and volunteering on their resumes, health science majors at some schools can access additional patient-centered experiences and co-ops. The curriculum will cover natural, social, and behavioral sciences with courses such as microbiology, anatomy and physiology, organic chemistry, and psychology, as well as experiential learning in clinical settings.

Engineering

Modern medicine demands more technical understanding, especially as it relates to medical devices and interventions. Engineers are also geared towards identifying and solving problems, a key skill set that translates well into the world of medicine. Solution driven engineers are also used to working in teams, which is the nature of medicine as well.

In regard to the MCAT, an engineering background will prepare you to do well on the mathematical, reasoning, and logic aspects of the test. You will need courses in biology and chemistry to round out your science content.

Underappreciated Pre-Med Majors

Students convinced the only route to medical school is pursuing hard science may overlook the softer skills that translate well into a physician’s practice. A solid foundation in medical ethics or a firm grasp of a foreign language may not only make you an attractive candidate, they may put you in a position to address some of the key issues we face—health access and inequality.

Languages

The demographic makeup of America is shifting and that means language skills may be more sought after than ever. Having solid conversational skills in a foreign language, specifically Spanish, can be a real asset for aspiring and practicing physicians. The AMA Journal of Ethics highlights how “inadequate communication contributes to health disparities.” Some schools go as far as offering classes specifically designed for future physicians such as Medical Spanish. Students can also take advantage of opportunities to work or volunteer within Spanish-speaking communities to further their language skills and deepen their cultural understanding.

The key to this major, or any major for a student hoping to pursue a career in medicine, is to work with your pre-med advisor to ensure you are able to fit in your medical school prerequisites.

Philosophy

Ethics and reasoning, human nature and free will, aspiring physicians who study philosophy will tackle these existential questions as undergraduates. Philosophy can well prepare students to handle the ambiguity of practicing medicine. Philosophy students also hone their reasoning and logic, skills that can be quite useful when taking the MCAT.

Philosophy is an academically rigorous degree that often dovetails well into a pre-med track. Some schools, like Baylor University, even offer a philosophy and medicine concentration. It is imperative that students be sure to align their undergraduate major with the prerequisites for medical school admissions.

What Is a Pre-Med Track?

The Pre-Med track is just that, a track, not a major. It is a set of requirements to complete independent of your degree requirements, though there may be overlap. Each school will layer on undergraduate requirements that largely reflect the common medical school admissions requirements, both course work and additional activities.

Some undergraduate programs will have an official pre-med track. Other schools will have only a recommended course of study. In either case, you should be paired with an official pre-medical advisor. Medical schools requirements vary as well. Schools may have a detailed, specific list of courses and experiences, while others will ask you to demonstrate mastery of core competencies. Students who want to attend medical school directly out of their undergraduate experience should begin planning to cover acceptance criteria as early as their first year.

What Does the Pre-Med Track Include?

Students who officially enroll in a pre-med track will have to follow a specific plan. It is up to the individual student and their pre-med advisor to ensure that the plan covers the admissions requirements for schools they wish to apply to. The AAMC’s Medical School Admissions Requirements online tool and printed guide is a valuable resource.

Required Majors and Classes

The bare bones of the pre-med track are:

  • Biology
  • English
  • Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry

A more comprehensive program may look like:

  • 2 semesters of Biology (lab)
  • 4 semester of Chemistry, including Organic and Biochemistry (lab)
  • 2 semesters of Physics (lab)
  • 2 semesters of English
  • 2 semesters of Math

Extracurriculars

Your extracurriculars serve two distinct purposes. The first is to show that you are actually interested in becoming a doctor and working with patients. The second is to highlight your true interests, not simply to fulfill a perceived checklist of activities.  

  • Internships: Pursue paid and unpaid intern experiences that allow you to work with patients and populations that you would like to serve.
  • Shadowing: While it can be perceived as passive, it is still important for you to put in some hours walking the halls with a mentor physician to see if this is truly the path for you.
  • Clinical Hours: Find the way that makes the most sense for you to get clinical hours. Work as a scribe to become familiar with medical language. Volunteer at an outpatient clinic or health fair. Train as an EMT. Participate in an overseas medical mission.
  • Volunteering: Offering your time and growing expertise in an underserved setting benefits you and the people’s lives you enrich. Hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, camps, and schools all offer volunteer experiences. As long as you are interacting with patients and not just pushing paperwork, you will find value in the experience.

How Does the Pre-Med Track Help Students Who Want to Attend Medical School?

The pre-med track breaks down medical school requirements and offers a well-trodden path to completion. They are time-tested ways to help you:

  • Prepare to take the MCAT
  • Fulfill application requirements
  • Gain experience that will inform your future career path
  • Begin to think like a medical school student

Tips to Get the Most from a Pre-Med Track

1

Grades matter

There’s denying that your GPA plays a major role in your acceptance. Take your course work seriously. However, Dr. Amiri reminds students that there are multiple ways to prepare for medical school. “Students have to be okay with slipping and falling,” she says. “Maybe, sometimes, even breaking something that will be repaired. If you don’t go in the first round, you do post-bac or get a master’s. There are all these options. You don’t have to give up your dream to be a doctor just because you got a C in organic chemistry.”

2

Stay focused on “why”

Dr. Amiri’s past experience was medical advising. Medical students would say to her it just gets to the point, especially in the first year, that they are so sick and tired of memorizing glycolysis and all these little things all over again. They want to take care of people. All they need to do is walk out of the classroom and see that one patient walking down the hall with their IV bag and all of a sudden it comes back to them why they want to do this. If you are doing not because of the other, but because of yourself, this is not the right place for you.

“[To] the student who tells me ‘this is satisfying to me because I love science and I love solving problems and solving the problem of cancer is what excites me’, [I say] you don’t need to be a doctor to do that. Please go get a Ph.D. and become a rock star researcher. Find an MD to collaborate with. I don’t want your brain wasted writing prescriptions. When the motivation becomes not the other, even if it is an intellectual pursuit, your path doesn’t need to be medicine.”

3

Find reliable sources of information

Those sources aren’t necessarily blogs or peers, or even loved ones in the profession. “This is a Type A personality, high strung community. Sometimes, students will draw the wrong conclusions based on things they’ve seen and students get distracted based on these things,” Dr. Amiri warns. “They hear that if they take organic chemistry over the summer, no one will look at them, because [schools] won’t believe the A they got was deserved. Everything in the process is context dependent and the context is the individual student.”

4

Don’t take a gap year for the wrong reasons

You can gain a lot from a gap year by taking prerequisite courses, volunteering, or just taking time to explore other interests before you head to medical school. Dr. Amiri encourages students to make a smart choice. “If you are just thinking of doing a gap year to make your application look good, that is the worst reason to do it and it will come through in your writing or in your meetings with people on campus.”

5

Don’t lose faith in yourself

If this is the profession that [a student] wants, then this is their dream to pursue,” says Dr. Amiri. “It is their dream to realize and actualize. No one has the authority or permission to take it away from them. They just have to figure out what the right way to get there is.”

Making Your Major Choice

When it is time to declare your major, choose the major you want to choose, not the one you think you have to choose.

Follow your interests, play on your strengths

Slogging away for four years through courses you don’t enjoy taking classes you don’t like won’t make you a better doctor. You may even burn out before you hit medical school.

Build skills

It takes more than memorizing biology textbooks to be a good physician. Fulfill your course requirements for medical school, but attend courses that build your logic, reasoning, communication, and cultural competence.

Make it marketable

Not every journey will end in medical school. You may change your mind or you may need some time in the workforce before acceptance. Make sure your degree can lead to a career after four years.

Don’t get good at what you don’t want to do

Hate research? More interested in nursing? Carefully talk over your pre-med path and your post-degree options with your medical advisor.

Lastly, be sure that caring for others is really what you want to do. Dr. Amiri reminds us that the passion needed to be a good physician is not dependent on a particular major.

“We look for students to have an understanding of what it takes to be in the profession,” she says. “Help me understand why being involved in a profession that alleviates the suffering of others is important to you. I might have a rock star biomedical engineer or microbiology major who doesn’t make that connection. In speaking with them, I understand their passion wouldn’t be taking care of me when I’m coming into their office disheveled and unhappy.”

Insight from An Assistant Dean of Admissions

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Leila Amiri, PhD, Assistant Dean for Admissions & Recruitment
University of Illinois College of Medicine

Dr. Amiri joined the UICOM team in 2017. As assistant dean for admissions and recruitment she oversees admissions and recruitment for all three campuses of the college of medicine. She is a passionate advocate for holistic review in admissions and a strong supporter for students in helping them achieve their academic and professional goals.

If a student isn’t on a classic ‘pre-med’ track, what are you looking for in their background?

We tell students, go to what your passion is. That’s what we want to see in them. If they haven’t done a hard science major, that’s the least of our worries. We need them to do science classes only because we need them to speak the language of science. That’s what we do in medical school. We need to know they can handle basic biology, chemistry, and organic chemistry as the building blocks of our language, so that we can engage with them once they join us.

Are there red flags you look for in students who didn’t follow a traditional pre-med track?

To me, the biggest red flag is not having an understanding of what it means to be in health care. It’s not as glamorous as it’s shown on TV. It’s not even as glamorous as they see it in the life of family members or loved ones in the profession. They see the financial rewards of being in that profession, but they don’t see the work that goes into it. Sometimes when we ask students what was a challenge as an undergraduate, they will answer with something like “getting up early because I was on the golf team.” The time demand was a challenge, but we want more. We need a sense of genuinely caring for others.

Taking care of people is not fun. I always ask students, “how many of you are your best selves when you’re not feeling well?” A patient coming into the office is not going to be polished and polite and pleasant. Generally, they are hurting, something’s broken, they’re angry, they want answers. Students need to be able to look beyond that and make that human connection.

Is there a specific role that choosing a major plays in building a student’s cultural competence?

Cultural competence doesn’t come from pursuing a particular major. Cultural competence comes from having experiences and being open and willing to engage with those that are different from you. I always ask students to talk with me about their experiences with students who had different backgrounds. What was a favorite thing that you remember? What was the best thing you learned from them? How did that inform how you interacted with them? Individuals who truly care about this come back with really thoughtful responses. They’ll talk to me about the culture and how receiving and respecting the other is important. I want to separate that from the idea of a traditional major, because we have many traditional majors who are not culturally competent. Even in the academic sense, in that the culture they understand is the culture of science. Qualitative research is foreign to them. Anthropology is foreign to them. Understanding social science and respecting that viewpoint is foreign to them. It goes beyond the major. It comes from stepping out of their comfort zone, respecting the other, and feeling enhanced by having the privilege of learning how to look at the world from another person’s perspective.

What role can a gap year play for students applying to medical school?

My great friend Juliet Hill, Director of Admissions at the University of Florida College of Medicine, calls it a growth year instead of a gap year. I love that new name, because I think that embodies what we look for as admissions deans and directors.

The first question is “do you feel you need that extra year or not?” If they are a non-science major and all throughout their undergrad they were going to be a sociology major, they may have no other option but to take that growth year. They have to prove that they can handle science even if they are applying to a school that doesn’t have prerequisites and just has competencies. They have to give themselves time to build up the repertoire of things we are looking for, in addition to the shadowing and volunteering and community service and science coursework.

There isn’t a one size fits all model for the growth year, especially if a student feels they need additional time to prepare for this journey. It’s a journey that they can never separate from if they want to be a physician. It’s school, then residency, and then work. This could be the only time in their life that they can develop the cultural competency that they know they want to have. That could be traveling all fifty states and realizing that we still have places that don’t have access to running water or electricity. Who would think that in a first world country? And, what does it mean to live like that?  

What are medical schools looking for beyond the prerequisites?

Checking off prerequisite boxes is the easy part. There are courses that you take, there are experiences you must have, and everyone who is applying to medical school, who should be applying to medical school, will have those boxes checked.

What we’re looking for is the student who can show us who they are as a person and what they will be like when they join us on campus. Tell us what is propelling you and motivating you to spend so many years in training, when everyone is gainfully employed and you are still studying, and to be involved with individuals at the most vulnerable point in their lives. There’s such a big difference in a student who talks to me about working at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter and how they describe that experience and how they were moved by that. That’s who I want as a student on my campus, because that’s how they are going to take care of their classmates and of our patients, who are generous enough to let our students learn from them and with them. That’s the kind of doctor that they will be. It’s hard, because you have to be vulnerable, to show that side of you that we generally don’t show as a society.

Do you look for students with interests outside of the traditional pre-med track?

We do want students to be well rounded, because they will get burned out very quickly if they don’t have other things that are of interest to them. It can’t all be muscles and bones and disease, as exciting as that is. We see these documentaries of these brilliant physicians and scientists who live and breathe their profession, but what they don’t show is the other things they are doing. They don’t show that they play the piano or that they play golf or paint or cook. Do I look for anything in particular? No. But, I want to be sure there is something that they do. We see a lot of athletes and musicians. They do very well because they have an outlet when things get rough. There are also character traits that come with that. The first and most important one is that they can take feedback. These are all high performing students, the best students on their campuses. It’s hard for them to take feedback. And, when you are in the clinical rotations, it [can be very] subjective. Students can take feedback very personally. We already know you’ll have [the right] characteristics, because we know how much you got beat up as the quarterback on your football team or as the lead dancer in your school’s dance troupe. It’s not only helpful, it’s necessary.

Pre-Med Resources

Association of American Medical Colleges has a number of helpful tools to help students navigate the journey from undergraduate to medical resident.

MCAT registration and pre-test materials are available from AAMC.

The Liaison Committee on Medical Education is sponsored by the American Medical Association and the AAMC to accredit medical schools.

The Department of Health and Human Services has volunteer opportunities in disaster medicine and the Medical Reserve Corps.

Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education is “an independent, not-for-profit, physician-led organization that sets and monitors the professional educational standards essential in preparing physicians to deliver safe, high-quality medical care to all Americans”.

Accrediting Council for Continuing Medical Education accredits continuing education programs for physicians.

The American Medical Association has tools and information on how to finance medical school education.

The American Medical Women’s Association supports female students and physicians, as well as offering awards, fellowships, and scholarships.

FAFSA is the first step to unlocking financial aid for medical school.

The American Red Cross offers training such as CPR, basic first aid, and basic lifesaving for healthcare. It also has volunteer opportunities.