If you’re planning on attending medical school after your undergraduate studies, the question “which major should I choose?” has probably been in your head more than once. Other questions that you may have asked yourself are “is pre-med a major?”, “Is there a specific major required for medical school?”. Pre-med is so widely talked about that it can give the false impression that it’s a degree by itself, but it’s not. The fact that there’s no required major to apply to medical school can be a pro since you have an opportunity to explore and enjoy other fields while taking your medical school course requirements. Still, it can also be a disadvantage since now you have the added difficulty of figuring out which is the best pre med major for you to choose. Today we’ll discuss pre med majors, learn about the different options and how to choose the best for you.
In the United States, unlike other countries, if you want to be a doctor, you’ll have to go to college and obtain a Bachelor’s degree before attending medical school. Being a pre-med means following a college track to meet all the prerequisites needed for medical school, regardless of the major you choose for your undergraduate studies. So, you’ll be happy to know that you don’t have to get a degree in biology or any natural or health science; you can major in humanities if that’s your genuine interest. As long as you meet the prerequisites for medical school and make your application stand out, what you decide to major in isn’t that significant. However, according to data from the AAMC, some majors enjoy a higher acceptance rate than others, and other factors come into play.
Now that you know that pre-med is not a major itself, but a track of college courses to meet medical school requirements, let’s see what exactly those are.
In general, candidates for medical school need to complete the following coursework beforehand to apply and potentially be accepted:
- Organic chemistry: 2 semesters with lab
- Inorganic chemistry: 2 semesters with lab
- Biology: 2 semesters with lab
- Physics: 2 semesters with lab
- English: 2 semesters
- Math: 2 semesters
- Biochemistry: 1 semester
While these are the most common prerequisites and you’ll need to take all of these classes to some extent, the coursework might vary slightly from school to school, so it’s essential to check the requirements for every medical school you’re applying to early on in college. That way, you’ll be on the right track to completing all the courses from the start.
Apart from this required coursework, students aiming to apply to medical school need a strong GPA and good MCAT scores. Data suggests that the higher both scores are, the more likely you will be to get accepted. However, it is possible to make it to medical school with one stronger than the other.
The required coursework can look very science loaded and a little bit overwhelming, but don’t fall into the trap of believing that the best major for you to choose is one that helps you satisfy all of the courses. While this is an option, the alternatives are broad, not only in the sciences but also in the humanities, arts, math and statistics, physical sciences, social sciences and others. Let’s take a look at the different fields and what they have to offer:
Due to the strong similarities between this area of study and the medicine field, it’s no surprise that the majority of medical school applicants major in biological sciences, which encompass biology, biochemistry, and neuroscience among the most popular disciplines. With the study of animals, the human body, the environment, and studies conducted at a cellular level, undergraduates majoring in these fields have the opportunity to learn about the evolving areas of medicine and gain a strong foundation in the sciences. Biological science majors represent 58 percent of all applicants, but have a slightly below average acceptance rate; nearly 42%.
Believe it or not, according to data from the AAMC, only 0.64% of applicants are Math and Statistics majors. With an acceptance rate of around 46%, four percentage points above the average rate, math and stats majors make for an excellent option to consider if you’re interested in this field. Math and Statistics majors develop excellent analytical and quantitative skills critical for your future success as a medical student.
Majors in the humanities are also an excellent option to consider. Because only 3.28% of applicants have an academic background in this field, humanities majors enjoy an above-average acceptance rate of 48%, which is six percentage points above average. Students with majors like music, writing, world languages, or philosophy are usually excellent communicators and critical thinkers. They are likely to develop a strong bond with the human side of being a doctor, which is an especially important aspect that will help them succeed in their careers.
Chemistry, genetics, and physics are the most common majors in the physical sciences area of study. These majors don’t have a clear advantage over others but because they are science heavy, they will certainly help you excel in the sciences and will help you prepare for the medical school level of difficulty. Applicants majoring in the physical sciences make up for 8.83% of all candidates and enjoy a higher than average acceptance rate of 47.8%. So, if you’re interested in the physical sciences, it’s a very good option to consider.
Other areas of study include specialized health sciences and social sciences. Social science majors such as psychology, history or sociology have a 41% acceptance rate, and health sciences have a 39% rate of acceptance, which is three percentage points below the average. These surprising statistics for the specialized health sciences prove, one more time, that choosing to focus on medicine and biological sciences in your undergraduate studies won’t give you an actual advantage over applicants from other areas of study.
Dr. McGregor, a former member of the Harvard Medical School admission committee, says that “over the last 15 years or so, there has been more emphasis on balance, meaning that premedical students now need to focus on these foundational biological courses and the humanities.” Now that the MCAT assesses not only the physical or biological sciences but also critical thinking skills and psychosocial foundations, having a broad and interdisciplinary academic background is more helpful than ever.
As discussed above, statistics suggest that there’s no clear advantage of any major over the others. While the humanities and math and statistics majors may enjoy a higher acceptance rate than biological sciences majors, the number of applicants in these fields is much lower than all the others. This might explain why more students out of the total number of applicants with a humanity or math major are accepted. Take a look at the following grid:
Students with an undergraduate major in the biological sciences make up over half of all medical school applicants, while math and statistics majors were only 342 out of over 53 thousand students, an astonishingly low 0.64%.
This explains why the acceptance rate of candidates with a degree in the biological sciences field is 41.54%, a slightly lower percentage than other areas of study. For math and statistics, the acceptance rate is precisely 45.6%, and for the humanities, the proportion goes up to 47.87%.
Medical schools don’t exclude any major, which can be an advantage for you.
To choose the best pre med major, you have to ask yourself some personal questions and not think exclusively about the coursework you’re required to complete. What you’re genuinely passionate about might or might not be the classic biology and chemistry; a lot of prospective doctors have a strong interest in the sciences, but you might be drawn into philosophy, gender studies, or psychology, and that’s totally fine! Keep in mind that being a physician involves much more than merely knowing about the human body; strong ethics, a sense of responsibility, humanity, empathy, and interpersonal communication skills are what makes a doctor a remarkable professional, so maybe studying the humanities might not be a bad idea after all. Also, remember that the vast majority of medical school applicants are science majors, which inevitably makes a major in humanities stand out from the crowd.
Another thing to consider apart from your passions is what your strengths are. This might involve a little bit more of self-reflection, but being aware of your strengths can make a significant difference in your decisions as well as in your confidence, both extremely important as you start taking some of the most crucial and delicate steps in your academic life. Taking a look back to high school can help you with that.
Ask yourself some of the following questions:
- What was the subject of the highest grade that you earned?
- What was your favorite subject and the one that you did best?
- Were those two the same?
- What subject was the least hard subject to study for an exam?
If that class was math, for example, you might want to consider a major in this field, since there’s a high chance your GPA will be in good standing throughout college.
On the other hand, let’s say that the subject you did the best in was biology and you know you’re exceptionally good at it. However, you’re really interested in literature and you would like to expand your knowledge and study this humanity major in-depth. This is a somewhat complicated situation, but keep in mind that medical school is your ultimate goal and thinking about the best pre med major that will get you there, you might want to consider choosing biology. That way you’ll make sure no unexpected obstacles stand in your way.
Recapping, the best pre-med major is one that you’re passionate about, or that at least you’re interested in, but that you’ll also be able to excel in and will help you maintain a strong GPA.
The answer to this question isn’t black or white. While choosing a biology major might seem the easiest way to satisfy all the prerequisites, it’s only a short-term solution. Having a broad academic background and a strong understanding and knowledge of several fields can give you an advantage in the long-term. If biology truly interests you and happens to help you meet most of the medical school requirements, then without a doubt, go for it. However, if you’re only doing it because it’s convenient, think about all the options you have before making a rushed decision. Also, remember that every medical school is different, and not always a biology major will be the “easiest” way to satisfy all the prerequisites.
The single most common major for medical school is biology, followed closely by psychology. However, these majors are a biological science and a social science, and like mentioned before, these areas of study have a slightly below average acceptance rate. Since the fact that they are the most common majors doesn’t affect their acceptance rate, you shouldn’t let this information interfere with your final decision.
Despite the slight differences in acceptance rates between humanities and biological sciences (around 48% and 42% respectively), data seems to indicate that there is no clear advantage. This is because there’s a significant difference in the number of applicants, too (3.28% for humanities and 58% for biological sciences out of all applicants).
No, medical schools don’t care what your undergraduate major is as long as you meet all the requirements; you must complete all the required coursework, and possess a strong GPA and MCAT score. Also, the holistic approach to admission has a benefit here. Dr. Fancher from the UC Davis admissions office, said that “most medical schools look for mastery in the area that a student is passionate about, and that could be in the study of art, history or science, in participation in college athletics or music or dance, or in making an impact in their community.” So, show the admission committees what you’re passionate about by choosing a major that aligns with your interests.
Some students have reported that a science-focused major has helped them build a strong foundation for the MCAT and later succeed in medical school. However, regardless of the major you decide to choose, you’ll have to satisfy all the required coursework, which will give you the science foundation you need. If you feel strongly about the fact that a science major will help you set the groundwork for medical school, go for it. Some students also consider a double major in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and humanity, such as a world language. While a double major doesn’t give you an admission advantage, it’ll help you acquire competitive interdisciplinary skills.
The main reason you should consider choosing a major in the humanities instead of the sciences is because that's what you really want to do. Are you interested in history? Do you have a talent such as playing an instrument, painting, or writing? Are you interested in the physiological as well as environmental explanations for human behavior? Maybe you have a strong sense of justice and would like to dig deep into the roots of ethics and society? These are only some of the questions to ask yourself when deciding which major is the best for you. Just because you’re aiming to be a doctor doesn’t mean that your interests begin and end in medicine and the biological sciences.
By showing expertise in your area of interest, whatever that is, you’ll make yourself a competitive candidate, and you’ll make your application stand out.
Choosing an undergraduate major as a pre-med student is an important decision. However, not everyone knows they have options besides the popular and traditional biology or biochemistry majors. There’s the belief that these are the most accepted majors in medical school and are the ones that will best prepare you for it. However, that’s far from reality. As we’ve seen, acceptance rates among the different study areas vary very slightly, meaning there’s no field with a clear advantage.
Prerequisites also vary from medical school to medical school, and while most of the coursework you’ll be required to take is science based, the MCAT also requires a foundation on humanities and written and communication skills.
So, the frequently asked question of “what is the best pre major for medical school?” doesn’t have an answer. The key is to apply to medical school with all the prerequisites satisfied, a strong GPA, and a good MCAT score. Being a doctor involves so much more than just medicine and biology. The truth is that all majors will provide you specific skills that will help you grow and succeed as a person, student, and professional.