Choosing A Major for Med School

When it comes to choosing a college major, aspiring medical school students should follow their passion, not what they think will look good to an admissions committee.

“There’s no one right way to do it,” says Dr. LeeAnna Muzquiz, associate dean for admissions and a clinical professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “When people are trying to choose the path that’s best for getting into med school, I can’t emphasize enough, the question should be ‘what’s the best path for me,’ because it’s going to look different for everybody.”

For some, that means majoring in a science; for others, it may mean art history or philosophy. Whatever the field, Muzquiz advises prospective med school applicants that students typically succeed in fields that they are most excited about.

“If you’re slogging through a major that’s not interesting to you, that might not serve you all that well, and undergrad is a time to explore passions and figure out what’s right for you,” Muzquiz says.

[Read: How Medical School Applicants Can Stand Out Without a Premed Major.]

Remember Premed Prerequisites

While any major is acceptable to go to med school, aspiring doctors need to be aware that most medical schools have undergraduate prerequisites. Students should make sure they complete those courses, especially if they’ve decided not to be on a premed track.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, which administers the Medical College Admission Test — commonly known as the MCAT — nonscience majors should plan to complete at least a year of biology, organic chemistry, general chemistry and biochemistry. This is intended to give medical school admissions offices more data to predict how well an applicant with a nonscience major and only basic science courses may perform in med school compared with applicants who have a science major.

As long as a nonscience major understands how to meet those med school prerequisites, admissions experts say their major can be anything. Even students who decide late in college, or even post-graduation, that they want to attend medical school have the option of postbaccalaureate programs to catch up on needed science courses.

Undergrads who choose not to major in a traditional premed field will have their work cut out for them completing science prerequisites in addition to the requirements of their major. That can be a tall order and is one of the reasons Glenn Ratmeyer, a fourth-year medical student at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, chose to study biology as an undergrad.

“For me, I felt like to reach those benchmarks, it was going to be a lot more logical to do a degree in biology because in order to apply to med school, you have to have some basic measure of science courses, and with other majors, you’d be doing a lot of extra work,” he says.

Ratmeyer also appreciated the training he received in his undergraduate science courses, which he says prepared him well for the challenge of med school.

“Once you get into med school, it can be difficult because the scientific rigor can be difficult for people who haven’t had the background of studying hard sciences for the prior three or four years of undergrad,” Ratmeyer says.

Applying to Medical School as a Nonscience Major

While it might be harder, there are benefits for students applying to medical school with a nontraditional background.

“If you get interviews at a med school with a different major, they are going to ask you about that, and it can work to your advantage,” Ratmeyer says. “I know of people who are nontraditional majors, or took gap years, and that’s huge because it shows you’re not only capable of applying yourself in science and can get a good MCAT (score), but you’re really invested in other areas.”

[READ: How Premed Students Can Combine Passion for the Arts and Medicine.]

Lucas Maestas, also a fourth-year medical student at UNM, combined his interest in public policy with a major in political science alongside his premed studies. Maestas says his major helped him stand out during residency interviews and proved useful during his medical school studies.

“Delving into political science not only honed my writing skills but also cultivated a unique perspective on critical thinking,” Maestas wrote in an email. “While not directly related to medicine, these skills proved invaluable in navigating the complexities of medical school.”

Dr. Marianne Green, vice dean for education and professor of medical education at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says there is “no selection advantage for students who major in the sciences.”

“I think most medical schools are looking to recruit a diverse student body with a variety of perspectives,” Green wrote in an email. “We love it when students bring knowledge from the humanities and social sciences to the discussions in medical school.”

Another way applicants can demonstrate interest in medical school is through a clinical experience, such as shadowing a doctor in a hospital, volunteering in a community health clinic or working as an EMT. Such experiences are valuable and can help students understand if they really want to become a doctor, experts say.

“We want you to be aware of how health care works, what does the system do, what do other members of a health team do, how do doctors interact with patients, and does that resonate with you, or does that scare you or seem boring,” Muzquiz says. “Explore that before you invest all the time and money that goes into applying to med school.”

[Related:Choosing an Alternative Path to a Medical Education]

Crafting Your Story

Undergraduates should remember that their major is only one part of their medical school application. Besides major, GPA and MCAT scores, medical schools also look at characteristics like leadership, teamwork and compassion to see if students can be leaders in their chosen field and put the needs of their patients first.

It’s also important for medical school applicants to show how personal and academic experiences connect to their future goals in medicine.

Green cites a creative writing major who applied to medical school and said he wanted to use his writing to explore themes of immigration, intergenerational memory and multicultural identity — crucial themes when it comes to connecting with patients from different backgrounds.

Muzquiz sees med school applicants from a wide range of backgrounds, including engineering and business. These students often make an effort to show the connection between their major and their interest in medicine, and how their major connects to patient care.

“It should all weave into the story of you,” Muzquiz says. “It doesn’t serve you to just check boxes without being able to articulate how it impacted you and how it prepared you to be a good medical student and eventually a physician.”

More from U.S. News

5 Ways Medical School Is Different From College

How Hard Is Medical School and What Is the Med School Curriculum?

How to Become a Doctor: A Step-by Step Guide

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