Pre-Med? Consider Choosing a Social Science Major

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A native of Indianapolis, Stephanie Asdell is pursuing her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology, with minors in Biology and Global Health, from Duke University. During her college career, Stephanie has had the opportunity to expand her perspective through study abroad and to apply her knowledge by teaching a seminar on the anthropology of HIV and AIDS. She plans to attend medical school in fall 2018 and later pursue a Masters in Public Health to further her interests in community and women's health. In the post below, Stephanie encourages pre-med students to pursue academic interests that explore humanity macroscopically, believing this to be an invaluable asset in the medical profession.


Let’s take a quick poll to assess your pre-med knowledge: what is the most common major for a pre-med?

If your answer didn’t start with a B or a C, you must not actually be pre-med ... right? Or is picking something completely different a wise choice? 

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In a sea of biology and chemistry majors, differentiating your medical school application from the thousands of others is crucial. This begs the question: if not biology or chemistry, what major should a pre-med choose? 

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In a sea of biology and chemistry majors, differentiating your medical school application from the thousands of others is crucial. This begs the question: if not biology or chemistry, what major should a pre-med choose? As a senior cultural anthropology major at Duke, I once faced a similar question.

If you’re headed to medical school like I am, college will likely be the only time to pursue academic interests outside of the hard sciences. Such pursuits can offer valuable insight about humanity that physics or chemistry cannot. The social sciences in particular, with their emphasis on the workings of humanity from a macroscopic perspective, provide real-world knowledge applicable to the medical profession.

Before we jump in, we should note that the AAMC (American Association of Medical Colleges) arguably endorsed the study of the social sciences in 2015 by deciding to incorporate a new Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section into the MCAT. The AAMC stresses that the new section “emphasizes concepts that tomorrow’s doctors need to know in order to serve an increasingly diverse population and have a clear understanding of the impact of behavior on health.”

If you are intrigued by the possibility of extending your studies beyond the natural sciences, I will present two benefits and one drawback of majoring in the social sciences as a pre-med. I will also debunk one common myth. After reading, you will be better equipped to make the best major decision for yourself.


Benefit #1: A social science major explores human interactions that directly affect health and wellness.

In my experience as a current senior and medical school applicant, my major in cultural anthropology provided me with perspective that I would not have gained in a hard science discipline.

 A mural I saw during my study abroad in Brazil.

A mural I saw during my study abroad in Brazil.

For example, I have been challenged to think critically about many medically-related topics such as the power of illness narratives, the role of gender in medical students’ attitudes about reproductive health, and the value of alternative medicine approaches. I also have a deeper understanding of how socioeconomic status and social capital have power to affect health outcomes. This information will not only be useful in my medical career, but is also represented as a sub-topic in the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section of the current MCAT.

I venture to say that I would not have been exposed to these ideas if I had majored in a hard science. Studying anthropology offered me the chance to juxtapose the value of personal, lived experiences, including those that relate to health and healing, to the somewhat colder generalizations of biology, chemistry and the like.

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Studying anthropology offered me the chance to juxtapose the value of personal, lived experiences, including those that relate to health and healing, to the somewhat colder generalizations of biology, chemistry and the like.

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In my immunology course, I learned how HIV antibodies bind and report presence of the virus via enzyme mechanism in an ELISA test. However, an anthropology course prompted me to consider the possible emotional consequences a socioeconomically disadvantaged patient might feel upon learning that this same ELISA test was positive.

Both approaches bring value to the medical field, but learning to integrate them will assist in solving medical problems in which social considerations are just as important as the science behind them.

In a more practical sense, taking pre-medical coursework alongside my social science courses kept me engaged as I switched between different modes of inquiry throughout the school day and in study sessions. Studying organic chemistry for an entire weekend was not as daunting or exhausting for my brain if I could break up my time with engaging anthropology readings that were more likely to prompt self-reflection.


Benefit #2: Pursuing a social science major as a pre-med provides a chance to stand out in the medical school application process.

 In my final project after my semester abroad, I applied the anthropological concept of rites of passage to the childbearing processes I witnessed in the US, India, South Africa, and Brazil.

In my final project after my semester abroad, I applied the anthropological concept of rites of passage to the childbearing processes I witnessed in the US, India, South Africa, and Brazil.

In 2017, the AAMC reported that 63.8% of all medical school applicants majored in the biological and physical sciences. Grooming one’s med school application should not be the primary reason for choosing a major. However, if you are genuinely interested in a non-science field, consider the richness that a social science major could bring to personal statements and interviews.

In my own medical school interviews, I have impressed interviewers with how my major augmented my pre-medical preparation. For example, studying anthropology allowed me to teach a seminar on the anthropology of HIV and AIDS and influenced my decision to study medical anthropology for a semester in India, South Africa, and Brazil.

These experiences not only provided me with expanded health-related insight for my own benefit, but gave me a broad base of experience that I could share with interviewers. Thus, interest in a field that can lead to health-related volunteering or clinical experience can be a surefire way to show dimension and diversity in one’s application.


Myth: Majoring in a social science will lead to a lower MCAT Score.

Many pre-meds believe that devoting considerable time and coursework to the social sciences will negatively affect their performance in the natural sciences. This misconception is simple, yet flawed.

Data from the AAMC (American Association of Medical Colleges) indicate that both applicants and matriculants majoring in social sciences boasted comparable, even slightly higher, mean MCAT scores than biological science majors did in 2017. Biological science major applicants averaged 504.5 on the exam while social science applicants averaged 505.0. Among matriculants, biological science majors averaged 510.1 compared to a social science average of 510.8 (see Table A-17 below).

  Table A-17:  Mean and standard deviation MCAT and GPA broken down by undergraduate major, as reported by the AAMC for the 2017-2018 application cycle.

Table A-17: Mean and standard deviation MCAT and GPA broken down by undergraduate major, as reported by the AAMC for the 2017-2018 application cycle.

While numerical differences are slight, these statistics suggest that pursuing a non-science major does not necessarily equate to worse performance in the critical scientific thinking required by the MCAT exam. Rather, the integration of social science and natural science could even aid in one’s development of problem solving skills that apply to both standardized testing and to later medical training.

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Many pre-meds believe that devoting considerable time and coursework to the social sciences will negatively affect their performance in the natural sciences. This misconception is simple, yet flawed.

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The possibility of earning high grades may also be greater in social science courses than in natural science classes, as the curves on the former exams are generally less harsh than those on the latter. Additionally, social science grades frequently focus more heavily on class participation and writing. While a GPA boost should not be one’s primary motivator in choosing a major, the chance to earn grades that do not depend on other classmates’ performance should be attractive to many pre-meds.

What about admissions statistics? Data from Table A-17 show that 41.6% of natural science major applicants were accepted to medical school in the 2017-2018 cycle compared to 41.3% of social science major applicants. Such data further debunk the common myth that devoting time to study outside the natural sciences detracts from one’s application.


Drawback: Majoring in a social science adds extra requirements to your coursework.

Although my cultural anthropology major has positively shaped my pre-med journey, one downside is that pre-meds can expect to be delayed in finishing their required coursework. In fact, I am still completing major-related coursework in my last semester of college, since I focused on finishing my pre-med requirements first.

Furthermore, if you choose a non-natural science major and plan to pursue a research job after graduation, consider this: some post-graduate laboratory research labs stipulate that applicants major in the biological sciences. However, even if you do not engage in laboratory work as part of a major related course, you can still gain experience through your pre-med prerequisites. Personally, I believe that this lab experience would suffice to some employers.


Conclusion

To close, let’s revisit the three main benefits of majoring in a social science:

  1. Gaining a broader human perspective on medicine
  2. Standing out in the application process
  3. Learning to integrate different fields of knowledge in order to solve problems

As an added bonus, you could actually be better off when it comes time to take the MCAT. But, as I mentioned, be prepared to add extra required courses to your schedule.

If this set of pros and cons appeals to you as a pre-med, get started by trying an introductory course in the field. A lower-level lecture or seminar course will introduce you, in a low-stress environment, to the benefits of the social science mode of inquiry.

Additionally, I recommend reaching out to social science majors from your university who are applying to medical school. They will be able to provide you with school-specific insight and tips. 

As a senior, an anthropology major and a medical school applicant reflecting on my college career, I would not have structured my education any other way. So give my words some thought and see if a major like mine (maybe starting with an A) might prove more helpful in the long run than one starting with a B or C.


About Stephanie

IMG_0863 - Stephanie Asdell.jpg

A native of Indianapolis, Stephanie Asdell is currently pursuing her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology, with minors in Biology and Global Health, from Duke University. She plans to attend medical school in fall 2018 and later pursue a Masters in Public Health to further her interests in community and women's health. In her free time, she enjoys being a foodie, dancing, and working on fashion photo shoots for a campus publication.

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