Finding the Right Pre-med Program for You
Lauren Winsor is currently studying at Wellesley College through the Killam Fellowships Program. Prior to her semester in the States, she studied psychology at Newfoundland's Memorial University, where she has contributed to multiple research studies. A Rhodes Scholarship Finalist, Lauren aspires to become a practicing physician and research scientist, focusing on mental health and health promotion. In the short article below, Lauren provides five tips for finding a pre-med program that fits your interests and needs.
As a pre-med student, choosing your major can be extremely stressful. From biochemistry to music, there seem to be endless possibilities. Plus, your choices are complicated by the myth that every pre-med has to complete a biochemistry degree (spoiler alert: that’s not true!). Fears of making the wrong decision, or hindering your medical school aspirations, are very real. I can commiserate; I experienced them when deciding between a biology or psychology major four years ago. However, since entering college, I have learned a thing or two about pre-med programs. To pass on what I’ve learned, I would like to share five of these tips with you to help make choosing your major as stress-free as possible.
“From biochemistry to music, there seem to be endless possibilities. Plus, your choices are complicated by the myth that every pre-med has to complete a biochemistry degree…”
1. Understand medical school academic prerequisites
Medical school academic prerequisites may help inform the undergraduate major that you choose to pursue. These prerequisites vary widely, so it is a good idea to check the requirements for the medical schools that you hope to apply to in the future in order to ensure that you are eligible for admission. I was fortunate in that many Canadian medical schools do not have exhaustive academic prerequisite requirements, and my psychology degree met the course requirements for all three schools to which I applied (Memorial University of Newfoundland, Dalhousie University, and the University of Toronto).
“These prerequisites vary widely, so it is a good idea to check the requirements for the medical schools that you hope to apply to in the future in order to ensure that you are eligible for admission.”
However, eligibility requirements at many U.S. institutions and other Canadian universities, such as the University of Ottawa, are somewhat stricter. In order to ensure that you meet the requirements for your desired schools, and are not scrambling to complete these requirements in your already-hectic senior year, consult medical schools’ “Eligibility” or “Admissions Requirements” pages and become familiar with their academic prerequisites as early as possible. This may also help you decide on a major, by considering which programs will allow you to complete all of the courses required to become a medical student at your choice schools.
2. Know the pre-med options available at your university
At Memorial University of Newfoundland, where I completed all but one semester of my undergraduate degree, there is no dedicated “pre-med” program. Students who are interested in attending Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine are free to choose any degree program that they want – so long as they complete the two required English prerequisite courses. However, some universities in Canada, such as the University of Western Ontario, offer undergraduate health sciences programs that provide students with a strong background in health and rehabilitative sciences while preparing them for entry into a number of rewarding healthcare professions.
If you are attending an institution in Canada that offers a health sciences program, check it out; however, if it’s not your style, do not feel compelled to follow this track. Remember that there are so many programs out there that could serve as an amazing segue into medicine and other healthcare professions. Speaking from experience, a psychology major served me well. I was accepted to medical school on my first try!
“In many cases, “pre-med” programs are not degrees in and of themselves. Rather, declaring yourself as a pre-med student will allow your academic and pre-med advisors to help you integrate prerequisite courses into your four-year course plan.”
If you are living in the United States, you will have more options when it comes to finding an official “pre-med” program. Wellesley College, where I completed the final semester of my degree through the Killam Fellowships Program, offers pre-med students a wealth of advice and resources, which can also be found through other American universities. In many cases, “pre-med” programs are not degrees in and of themselves.
Rather, declaring yourself as a pre-med student will allow your academic and pre-med advisors to help you integrate prerequisite courses into your four-year course plan. This allows pre-med students to choose enjoyable majors that interest them, without sacrificing eligibility to their chosen medical schools. During my time at Wellesley, I met pre-med students whose majors ranged from public health to psychology to Latin American studies. This is just further evidence that you do not need to major in the physical or natural sciences to be a pre-med student!
3. Consider the MCAT
“Keep in mind that you will need at least moderate knowledge of physics, general and organic chemistry, English, biology, biochemistry, psychology, and sociology in order to do well on the MCAT.”
While there are seemingly endless pre-med program options, keep in mind that you will need at least moderate knowledge of physics, general and organic chemistry, English, biology, biochemistry, psychology, and sociology in order to do well on the MCAT. I have rarely felt regret about my decision to study psychology as a pre-med. However, if I were to do one thing differently, I would have taken an organic chemistry course during my undergraduate degree – organic chemistry is not required for psychology majors, so I opted not to take it. While this was a fine decision at the time, I struggled with organic chemistry on the MCAT, and spent most of my MCAT preparation learning organic chemistry with the help of the angels who created Khan Academy MCAT YouTube videos. I certainly would not advise choosing your whole major based on MCAT subject material. However, taking an extra course or two, or selecting a major that covers some of the MCAT subject areas, can only help you on your journey to mastering the MCAT.
4. Start with the basic courses, and work your way into a major
Are you a first year student? Are you panicky about choosing a major? Do you have no idea what to look for in a pre-med program? My advice to you is this: Please take a deep breath and calm your frazzled brain. Arguably, the first year of any new degree program is the most difficult, as it is an enormous transition from high school to university and all of the wild and wonderful things that entails.
I cannot tell you the number of tears that I shed while trying to convince myself that pursuing a psychology degree was not going to ruin my chances at medical school (spoiler alert: it didn’t). Ultimately, taking all of the intro-level science courses at Memorial helped me to make my decision. These courses enabled me to better understand what pursuing a science degree would be like, and whether I would enjoy each major.
If you are unsure about which major you want to pursue, take the introductory courses. If you love them, maybe you’ve found your major. If you don’t love them, great – you’ve gained new knowledge. When looking for the pre-med program that will best suit you, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that having a wealth of knowledge on different topics is always helpful, and it is never a waste of time to take introductory courses to see whether you would like to pursue a full degree in the subject area.
5. Choose a program that you enjoy
I have mentioned this in passing throughout this post, but this tip is so important that it deserves its own section. You will be immersed in your undergraduate degree for at least four years, and it is extremely important that you look for a pre-med program that you will enjoy. When I took my first psychology class, I absolutely loved it, and it completely derailed my well-planned out biology degree.
Instead of sticking to my plans, I decided to major in psychology, and I had an amazing undergraduate experience. I was able to expand my knowledge in a fascinating field, and it was absolutely the right choice for me. Above and beyond considering the MCAT, pre-med pathways, and prerequisite courses, it is important to ensure that you will be happy with your undergraduate major. After all, you are the only one who will have to complete your degree! If you choose a pre-med program that you find interesting and enjoyable, your undergraduate degree will be finished in the blink of an eye, and before you know it, you’ll be on your way to medical school.
“Above and beyond considering the MCAT, pre-med pathways, and prerequisite courses, it is important to ensure that you will be happy with your undergraduate major.”
There are many factors to consider when selecting your undergraduate major, especially if you have medical school dreams. In order to make your search for your pre-med program easier, follow these five steps:
Keep medical school eligibility requirements and prerequisite courses in mind;
Familiarize yourself with the pre-med program options at your university;
Consider how your degree program will help prepare you for the MCAT;
Take introductory courses in subject areas that interest you and try new things;
Choose a pre-med program that you will enjoy.
Lauren grew up in St. John’s, the most easterly city in Canada, and studied psychology at Memorial University. Currently based out of Wellesley, Massachusetts, she is completing the final semester of her Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree at Wellesley College through the Killam Fellowships Program. In her spare time, Lauren enjoys volunteering, playing music, and spending time with her friends, family, and wonderful dog. In the future, she hopes to become a practicing physician and research scientist, with a focus on mental health and health promotion.