Dreaming of a career in medicine? Our blog provides a comprehensive guide to pre-med requirements for college students. From prerequisite courses to extracurricular activities, we cover all the essential steps to prepare for medical school. Gain insights into the academic benchmarks, research opportunities, and clinical experiences that will strengthen your application. Discover strategies to excel in the MCAT and navigate the competitive admissions process. Whether you’re a freshman exploring your options or a senior fine-tuning your application, our blog offers valuable advice to set you on the path to a successful medical career.
How to Excel in Pre-Med College Programs
If you dream of becoming a doctor, your employment future looks bright. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that the U.S. could see a shortage of 54,100 to 139,000 physicians by 2033. Not to mention, the biotech sector is consistently developing novel medical applications that are nothing short of miraculous. Health care – at almost 20% of the U.S. GNP – is a vast, diversified, and vital sector of the economy.
Being a doctor is one of the rare professions in which you can be highly successful and be of service to others. It is a noble profession. But there are no shortcuts to get there. The pre-Med professional track is the longest. The business school track takes 2 years, law school is 3 years, and a Ph.D. averages 6 years… But becoming a doctor takes at least a decade (10+ years):
- College/Undergraduate – 4 years
- Medical School – 4 years
- Residency – 3-7 years
If this all seems daunting, don’t worry: this is a well-traveled path that is structured at every step of the way.
Declaring Pre-Med and Your Undergraduate Degree
“Pre-med” is not actually a college major. It is a term used by undergraduate students to self-identify when they intend to apply to medical school. Pre-med means that the student will be taking a series of core courses that prepare them for the MCAT exam, medical school, and beyond.
High school students who are fully committed to becoming a doctor should check out our Complete List of BS/MD programs, which combine undergraduate and medical school into one degree. (Also, don’t miss “How I Cracked BS/MD Admissions” from one of the pros on our team.)
While a “classic” Pre-med degree is a B.S. in Biology, there are many Pre-med students with a B.A. in English, Philosophy, or Psychology. (In fact, Psychology is not only tested on the MCAT, but psychiatrists have to become an M.D. to practice.) As long as you complete a core of Pre-med courses, you can technically major in anything….but ideally, something that contributes to your overall medical career, as we’ll discuss below.
What Prerequisite Courses Do Pre-Med Students Take in College?
You can always spot the Pre-Med students in college because they are always complaining about how hard “Orgo” is. (Organic Chemistry is one of the core courses that Pre-med students take in college, and it is typically considered the most difficult.)
Here is a typical list of core Pre-med courses:
- Organic Chemistry – 2 semesters with lab work
- General Chemistry – 2 semesters with lab work
- Biology – 2 semesters with lab work
- Physics – 2 semesters with lab work
- Biochemistry – 1 semester
- English – 2 semesters
- Math – 2 semesters
These courses require a significant amount of time and effort. Trying to complete them and major in Russian Literature might not be so easy…or constructively add to your Pre-med qualifications. Perhaps even more sobering is the realization that once you complete all of these core courses, you have only succeeded in matching all the other pre-med students who will be applying to medical school.
This leads to an important takeaway from this article: you will impress medical school admissions officers with all of your accomplishments beyond the minimum requirements for admission to medical school. We’ll come back to this point.
Which Courses do I Absolutely Have to Take?
Every Pre-med student asks the question: Do I actually have to take all of those classes while I’m in college? The answer is usually “yes”.
First, you’ll need a strong foundation in all of these course areas to pass the MCAT.
Second, you’ll need to consider what each specific medical school is looking for. For this, you’ll need to do some research. While some medical schools list the number of credit hours in specific disciplines, many are surprisingly vague about course requirements.
Third – and most important – you’ll have to consider how other applicants will view “suggested” courses because ultimately you will be competing with them for spots in the incoming class.
Harvard Medical School provides a list of “suggested” courses spanning Behavioral Science, Biology, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Math, and Writing. Though Harvard says they will “consider alternative course formats or combinations that demonstrate equivalent preparation,” you can be sure that the majority of applicants to this ultra-competitive medical school will take all of these courses.
There are always some exceptions. If you’ve just spent three years in the Peace Corps, volunteered for the Red Cross in combat zones, or helped devise a new gene-editing tool at a tech startup, then you might be able to get away with only taking a few of the “suggested” courses. For the rest of us, these courses are really only a minimum of what you’ll need to successfully apply to medical school.
Any Pre-med student should be thinking about how they can impress admissions officers as a brilliant doctor in the making.
What will distinguish you will be your extracurricular activities, research projects, community service, related employment, undergraduate thesis, and other accomplishments that speak to your character and commitment to the field of medicine.
As you choose your courses, you will want to carefully select those that complement these other important activities. You’ll also want to consider what core competencies you want to develop in college to best support your longer-term goals in your medical specialization.
The majority of colleges have a pre-med advisor. Use them. You should meet with them as early as possible, and ask them to guide you through all of these considerations. Empowerly also has expert advisors that can provide invaluable help (sign up for a free, 30-minute video consultation.)
Choosing Pre-Med Courses and Activities that Will Get You Into Medical School
The University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine provides an excellent list of recommended competencies that provide specific insight into what medical school admissions officers are really looking for. Not surprisingly, these include coursework in Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Mathematics, Humanities & Analysis.
But pay special attention to the following suggested competencies:
- Interpersonal Skills – “The ability to function as part of a team is essential to the practice of medicine. The application should include evidence of a significant extracurricular, academic, or other experience requiring teamwork and leadership. Non-traditional backgrounds that bring a unique perspective and real-life work experience are also valued.”
- Clinical Exploration – “It is recommended that applicants explore their interest in medicine by taking advantage of clinical exposure opportunities in clinics and healthcare facilities. Long-term commitments that include direct patient contact are valued over short-term experiences. Although many applicants have international clinical or public health experiences, we equally value significant commitments to patient care in the applicant’s own community.”
The value of hands-on experience cannot be overstated. The very best thing you can do to support your application is to work in a hospital or clinic, shadow a physician, or contribute to medical research.
At the end of the day, admissions officers will notice you for everything other than fulfilling course prerequisites. On paper, courses are little more than grades to admissions officers. Your GPA is just a number. Being a good physician requires that you are a high-caliber person in all regards. Ticking off boxes is not enough to convey your depth of character. You want the admissions officers to see why you are uniquely qualified to be a great doctor.
Finding your Medical Specialization
Every time you meet a physician, tell them that you are interested in becoming a doctor. Most will be delighted to share their experience with a young person who is excited about medicine.
First, remember that any doctor you meet is a good opportunity to build a relationship. That means, above all else, respecting their privacy and being polite with any questions or requests you have! If comfortable, ask for their contact information and stay in touch with them. You should start today to build a network of individuals (not just doctors) that work in health care.
Second, ask doctors how they arrived at their specialization. Most will tell you to be open-minded, as a physician’s specialization often follows from their residency. It is also quite common for medical students to change their preferred specialization as they go along.
As such, you should consider more than one specialization that interests you, and ideally pursue extracurricular activities that relate to those possible areas of medicine. Your choice of coursework should naturally complement your long-term career goals. (For example, if you want to be a psychiatrist, it would be quite odd if you didn’t take courses in Psychology!)
There are numerous specializations in medicine. Here’s a partial list:
- Allergy and immunology
- Diagnostic radiology
- Emergency medicine
- Family medicine
- Internal medicine
- Medical genetics
- Nuclear medicine
- Obstetrics and gynecology
- Physical medicine and rehabilitation
- Preventive medicine
- Radiation oncology
Start Your Journey to Become a Physician Today
Becoming a doctor is a life-long journey. You have lots of research, thinking, and exploration ahead of you.
You can start working toward your goal of being a doctor while still in high school. Here’s an example of one Empowerly student’s Hands-on Experience in the Medical Field.
Start by reading our advice about How to Prepare to Pursue a Medical Career. You should also sign up for a free, 30-minute video consultation with Empowerly. Our expert staff can help you find the perfect extracurriculars to get you into your Pre-med college of choice and prepare you to excel as a Pre-Med student.
We wish you the best of luck in your pursuit!