By Elizabeth LaScala
Selecting a Premed Undergraduate ProgramUploaded: Jul 28, 2021
Like all educational opportunities, premed programs vary in terms of focus, quality, and the support they provide students. While some of these differences are reasonably intuitive (e.g., smaller class sizes give you a more personalized learning experience), other differences are counter intuitive. For example, attending an elite, highly selective school may not be in your best interest.
For medical admissions, earning a high GPA, especially in medical school prerequisite coursework, is much more important than attending a “brand-name” school. It is imperative that pre-med students get strong grades, preferably all A grades in the 5-6 prerequisite courses for medical school, including organic chemistry.
Achieving a high GPA is easier if a student is a “big fish in a small pond” so to speak. This concept applies to the academic rigor of the program but also to the physical size of the school. Generally, large public research universities do not have as many personalized resources, like professor office hours and a medical admissions committee available to students to help them to succeed. They also have larger class sizes and often a tougher grading scale. Regarding the latter, medical schools do not take the rigor of the college nor its reputation into account – they simply assess the prerequisite grades and MCAT scores.
The Role of MCAT Scores
Since the screening process for medical admissions does not take into consideration the rigor of the undergraduate program or how difficult it was to earn a high GPA, it can be said that MCAT scores are used to ‘validate’ a student’s GPA. For example, a high GPA from a lesser-known school is affirmed when a student scores well on their MCAT. It proves that the applicant knows the subject matter well and their academic success is not limited to the confines of undergraduate coursework. Contrarily, if a student is unable to score well on the MCAT, even with a high GPA, the low score is a red flag to medical schools. As such, medical school applicants must take the MCAT very seriously and aim to score well the first time. Unlike standardized tests for college admissions, it is not wise to plan to take the MCAT multiple times. My advice is to take the required coursework, set aside 16 weeks for focused study, and get your best score the first time. The only times I recommend retesting is a) if you are certain you can achieve a higher score, or b) if you have older scores that many schools you want to apply to will not accept. Read more about the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) here.
Access to other important pre-med requirements
High school students selecting a college must take into consideration the opportunities they will have access to through their premed track undergraduate program. If research opportunities are reserved for graduate students, as they often are in jumbo sized public research universities, then undergraduates may end up having a critical gap on their resume. Further, some medical admissions committees at the undergraduate level focus their support on applicants who excel in the early premed coursework at their institution. They may counsel (directly or sometimes less directly) lower achieving students to pursue a different health profession or aim for a research career. Be sure you have the support you need and the resources you require to assemble a strong profile. Ranked ordered, the main factors are grades in premed coursework, complimentary MCAT scores, clinical experience, volunteer experience (teaching in any capacity carries great weight), and research experience; the latter is absolutely critical for those who plan to apply to the highly competitive MD/PhD programs.
PREREQUISITES FOR MEDICAL SCHOOL:
Generally Required Courses
Biology – 2 semesters with lab
Chemistry – 2 semesters general chemistry with lab
Organic Chemistry – 2 semesters with lab
Biochemistry – 1 semester (increased in popularity since its inclusion on 2015 revised MCAT)
Physics – 2 semesters with lab
Mathematics – Schools require at least a semester of math; some calculus, others statistics
Less Commonly Required But Highly Recommended
English – an English class with a writing-intensive focus
Psychology and Sociology have increased in popularity since their inclusion on 2015 revised MCAT
For details regarding specifically which classes are required for each school, check the MSAR website.
Non-Required Courses You Should Consider Taking
Medical Anthropology/History – history of how medicine evolved, healthcare systems and how things may change in the future
Foreign Language – a useful skill that allows you to connect with more diverse groups
A graduate education is increasingly necessary to advance careers, increase income and enjoy employer-sponsored health coverage and retirement plans, and applying successfully for a graduate or professional degree requires careful planning. Elizabeth LaScala PhD, Founder of Doing College and Beyond provides personalized guidance throughout the graduate and professional degree admissions process, whether you are currently studying at the undergraduate level or are already working in your career. Call (925) 385-0562 or visit Elizabeth at her website to learn more.