What Exactly is Pre-Med, and Which Colleges Offer It?

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What exactly is pre-med? My daughter (currently finishing 11th grade) wants to major in pre-med and I don't see that program at any of the schools in my state, and we can only afford state schools, so I prefer she doesn't leave Pennsylvania to study.

Even aspiring doctors (and their parents) don't always realize that "pre-med" is rarely a major. Instead, most colleges and universities offer students the opportunity to take "pre-med" classes in preparation for applying to medical school. These classes, drawn from several different majors, will allow students to meet the entry requirements at all medical schools. A typical pre-med program looks like this (although there can be some variations):

  • One to two years of Biology, including labs
  • One year of Physics, including labs
  • One year of English
  • Two years of Chemistry, including one year of Organic Chemistry, and labs
  • One year of Calculus

Even when not required, it will strengthen a med-school application to also take classes in psychology, sociology, biochemistry, zoology, anatomy, physiology, immunology, genetics and other related areas. Work or volunteer experiences in the medical field and, especially, science research projects (perhaps assisting a professor) will be a big plus, too.

Many pre-med students choose to major in one of the sciences because they enjoy science and also because it makes it easier to complete their major requirements and the pre-med requirements at the same time. BUT ... as a pre-med student, your daughter can major in almost anything ... anthropology, history, studio art ... and still take all the pre-med classes. In fact, sometimes med school admission committees like to see atypical majors on applications rather than the predictable bio and chem.

Other than art schools, music schools, business colleges and those other institutions that focus on one or two specialized areas, your daughter can pursue a pre-med curriculum wherever she enrolls, and most colleges have advisors who specialize in guiding prospective physicians through the med school preparation and application process. For instance, if you were to do a search for "Pre-health advising+Penn State University" you would find this information here. You can see that this advising is available to all interested University Park students, regardless of major.

Although your daughter will find plenty of opportunities to pursue her goals at public universities within the Keystone State, you should keep in mind that — when cost is a concern — if she is a strong student and if your family's financial need is high, there are also many private colleges in Pennsylvania and beyond that offer excellent "need based" aid that can bring the price tag of an out-of-state school into the same range of an in-state public school (or perhaps below it). Merit scholarships, too, which colleges commonly award, are not based on family income and can be as high as full tuition or even full cost of attendance.

There are lots of suggestions — and resources — for pre-med students and their parents on the College Confidential discussion forum. Best wishes to your daughter as she follows her dream. Pre-med can be a demanding road, but the current international medical crisis shows us all how much we are in need of doctors.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please email us at