Interested in becoming a doctor? You’ve probably heard conflicting advice about what to do as an undergrad to boost the odds of making it to medical school. Naturally, some of that advice will be solid and some will be completely off-base -- and we’re here to help sort it out.
So how do you differentiate the good information from the bad? College Confidential sat down with Andrew Belasco, PhD, CEO of College Transitions and author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process, to help sort out the myths and realties around pre-med studies.
Myth 1: Medical schools only accept students who graduate in the top five percent of their classes, so go to the easiest college that will allow you to graduate with a high ranking.
Reality: Finishing in the top five percent of your class isn't a requirement for earning admission to medical school, but strong grades are critical – and represent the most important factor in the medical school admissions process, Belasco advises. “That said, institutional selectivity does matter, with many elite schools giving preference to students who have graduated from elite undergraduate institutions,” he adds.
So how can you reconcile the two — the need for good grades versus having to be at a selective college? “Aspiring medical doctors should prioritize an institution's selectivity in their college search process, to an extent,” Belasco says. “More specifically, a medical school admissions officer isn't likely to make fine distinctions between selective schools with only slightly different admission standards. For example, if UNC Chapel Hill provides a better (or more affordable) fit than Duke, feel free to choose UNC Chapel Hill, knowing that your med school admission chances will depend much more on what you do as an undergrad than where you ultimately choose to attend college, assuming you choose a college that is sufficiently selective.”
Myth 2: You must get your bachelor’s degree at an institution that also has a medical school.
Reality: This isn't the case, Belasco says. “In fact, many of our most successful med school applicants have attended smaller and medium-sized colleges without medical schools, where they have had more opportunities to collaborate with professors on research, assume leadership roles in extracurricular organizations, and partake in other activities that medical schools value (such as volunteering, clinical work, shadowing, etc.).”
Instead of choosing an undergraduate college on the basis of whether it has a medical school, you should instead evaluate whether a prospective college provides access to activities that can ultimately improve your medical school application. It’s important to realize that most medical schools operate independently from the colleges that share their campuses, so undergraduate opportunities within a medical school are often scarce, Belasco advises.
Myth 3: You must major in pre-med.
Reality: Although many colleges can prepare you for a career in medicine, there isn’t a major called “pre-med.” Instead, you can major in just about any subject you’d like, as long as you take the medical school prerequisites.
“Many of our students choose biology or another science-related field,” Belasco says. “However, many of our successful med school applicants have also pursued majors in business, engineering, and even the humanities. In fact, in recent years, humanities majors have achieved med school acceptance rates that are equal to or better than rates of students majoring in the biological sciences.”
This outcome may be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that medical schools value diversity and seek students who can contribute different perspectives. “So, yes, choose the major you want; however, be careful about choosing a major where earning strong grades may prove difficult for you,” he adds.
Myth 4: Sub-par science grades in high school mean a medical career is not in your future.
Reality: If you earned sub-optimal high school science grades, you may not actually be weak at science — sub-par grades in this subject could be due to myriad factors and may not indicate that medical school is out of reach for you.
“A number of students with whom we have worked proved to be late bloomers,” Belasco says. “Some are now enrolled and succeeding in medical school even though their science grades in high school were less than impressive. So, I hesitate to advise students against pursuing pre-med before they've had a chance to test the waters in college.”
Truth: There are colleges that offer medical school admission to high school students.
A small number of colleges offer BS-MD programs, which means that the school admits you to both the bachelor’s program and the medical school at the same time. As long as you maintain the program requirements, you are typically guaranteed a spot at that college’s medical school once you graduate from its undergrad program. If you’re confident that medicine is the career for you, it could be worth researching these combination programs to see if they could be a fit for you.