The Best Pre-med Major Isn’t Biology. Here’s Why:
Justin Campbell is a first-year MD-PhD student at the University of Utah School of Medicine. As an undergraduate, he majored in philosophy and psychology and earned minors in biology and chemistry. During his senior year, he was awarded the Atlantis Leaders Scholarship and spent three weeks shadowing physicians in Lisbon, Portugal after graduation.
Why do we think biology is the best pre-med major?
Year after year, well over half of all U.S. medical school applicants major in biology or a related biological science like physiology or genetics. Although biology and its cousins have long been some of the most popular college majors for pre-med students, there is little evidence to correlate biology’s popularity with its preparatory aptness for medical school. In fact, according to a recent report published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), applicants who majored in the biological sciences were among the least likely to gain acceptance to medical school (AAMC 2018-2019 Data, Table A-17).
As an undergraduate, my peers recommended majoring in biology as a matter of pragmatics because many of the medical school class prerequisites were included in the major. And, after all, a quarter of the MCAT exam is dedicated to biology and biochemistry. Convenience, rather than true compatibility, seemed to be the primary motivation behind this common logic shared among pre-med students.
In the end, majoring in biology wasn’t the right path for me, and I suspect the same is true for many other pre-med students. Declaring your major in college is a choice with consequences, and one that should be made with careful reflection of your individual goals and interests. The purpose of this article is to dispel the common misconceptions about the definitive “best major” for pre-med students and instead provide a framework (and some tips) for thinking about what could be the best major for you.
But Isn’t Biology Required?
To be clear, medical schools do not require that applicants major in biology. Rather, there are a particular set of core prerequisite courses that need to be completed. These prerequisites include english, biology, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics, although the exact courses may vary slightly among schools (see the AAMC’s Medical School Admissions Requirements service for details). These courses may be fulfilled as part of a major in a scientific discipline or as elective courses in an entirely distinct field of study (e.g., music, literature). Students in medical school come from a range of academic backgrounds.
A good understanding of science is key for pre-med students. For this reason, advisors emphasize the importance of taking scientific coursework and dedicating the necessary amount of time to mastering its key concepts. That being said, medicine is much more than science; it is trans-disciplinary and operates at the intersection of many different fields of study. Accordingly, successful applicants are those who demonstrate a working understanding of ideas from other disciplines (e.g., ethics, management).
One of the best ways of developing this understanding is to take advantage of the freedom you have in designing your own path of study. Choose your elective courses purposefully, as you can learn a great deal from classes that do not have an obvious connection to medicine or even your specific major. When choosing your courses, make sure to include the required prerequisites for medical school (and for your major), but think less about “checking boxes” on an application and more about how to pick courses which provide an opportunity for you to learn something you find interesting or relevant.
The Value of Standing Out
Last year, over 52,000 pre-med students applied to U.S medical schools (A-17). Given the limited number of spots available for each incoming class, admissions committees must identify the best candidates within this veritable flood of qualified students. This task is further complicated by the fact that the vast majority of pre-med students have shared a similar set of experiences (e.g., same coursework, volunteering in a clinic). As a pre-med student, your goal should be to cultivate a set of experiences that make your application stand out among the crowd. Consider doing something unique that sets you apart, like shadowing physicians abroad with Atlantis.
One of the easiest ways to separate yourself from the crowd is to choose a different path of study, especially if it provides opportunities uniquely suited to your interests. Imagine you had just interviewed 10 medical school applicants who had majored in biology, and the next student on your interview list studied economics. This is a marked contrast, one that is sure to generate questions—this student deliberately chose to do something different. Wouldn’t you be interested in knowing why? Applications that stand out are more likely to be remembered, and from an admissions standpoint, students with unique experiences and perspectives are valuable in that they contribute a great deal of diversity to the incoming class. Simply put, medical schools don’t want a class purely composed of biology majors.
Choosing the Best Major (for you)
When I applied to college, I was asked to declare my intended major the summer before freshman year. I was unsure what I would actually enjoy, so I selected nutrition science, a major that sounded interesting at the time. By the middle of my sophomore year, I discovered that the only classes I really did not enjoy were the ones in my major! Fortunately, this is a common experience for undergraduates; few freshmen have the foresight to know exactly what they would enjoy doing several years down the road. College provides a great opportunity to explore your interests, so don’t be afraid to try out a few different majors until you find a good fit. If you are still undecided about what to declare as your major or are considering a change, I have three bits of advice:
Tip 1: Choose a major you actually enjoy
This should go without saying, but a surprising number of students continue trudging through majors they do not find fulfilling. This dissatisfaction may stem from a variety of different sources: they may not find the courses engaging (too difficult or too simple), there are limited opportunities to get involved within the department, or perhaps they’ve just signed on to a major that was popular among pre-meds without considering what would be best for them.
You are much more likely to be successful in the courses that you enjoy taking. If you haven’t yet found a major that satisfies you, pay attention to what courses you do enjoy. Does some material come more intuitively than others? Do you find yourself spending your free time pursuing interests in a different field? The majority of students change their major at least once, and many do so several more times. For most, the first few years of college offer the greatest flexibility for exploring different majors, although it is possible to switch things up later in your academic career as well.
Tip 2: Choose a major in which you can succeed
Some majors are more difficult than others. I don’t recommend picking a major just because it is easy, nor do I recommend picking a major just because it is difficult. That being said, it is worth considering how demanding the major’s courses will be; if you think that you’ll be stuck in the library studying most of the week, recognize that this places constraints on your free time to pursue extracurricular experiences and opportunities which may have tremendous impact on you both personally and professionally.
Although admissions committees may take into account how rigorous your major is, they are much more likely to rely on established metrics like your GPA and MCAT score when evaluating an application. For this reason, it better to have thrived in any major than to have performed mediocrely in a challenging major. In other words, though your friends may applaud you for taking on the “toughest major on campus,” admissions committees may not be so forgiving.
Tip 3: Choose a major that creates opportunities
When it comes time to apply for medical school, you will have the opportunity to detail your experiences that make you a strong candidate (e.g., contributing time to a research project, presiding over a club or committee). The American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), the centralized source for organizing and submitting medical school applications, affords each applicant room for 15 entries. Generally speaking, it is better to have too many experiences that you can include (i.e,. >15) than too few.
At some universities, finding these relevant opportunities may be difficult—for example, there may not be an established pre-med advisor who shares this sort of information with students. Also be aware that at each college campus, some departments are more active than others. As a result, choosing to major in one field may open doors that are otherwise closed to other students: scholarships/fellowships may be allocated only to students in the department, positions in research labs may be reserved for those within the major, etc. From this perspective, majors affiliated with scientific departments may have some advantage in that the posted opportunities could be geared towards attracting the pre-med students which make up the bulk of the major.
What about minors?
Minors are a great way to showcase your academic interests that aren’t part of your primary course of study (i.e., major). Further, earning a minor could help prepare you to work at the intersection of two related fields. For example, a minor in computer science could help you to understand complicated analyses or develop new software used in patient care. Adding a few classes in social work could help you develop interpersonal skills and come up with ways of optimizing transitions of care between inpatient and outpatient facilities.
Given that many of the prerequisite courses for medical school are science-based, earning a minor in a scientific field may not involve much additional coursework. In these cases, taking a few extra courses may prove worthwhile—especially if you are likely to do well in the additional classes, consequently raising your GPA. In other cases, however, pursuing a minor may not be a wise option. If you are struggling to perform well on your current coursework, then it is probably best to focus your energies on your major.
In sum, there is no general “best major” for pre-med students. Studying biology does not appear to translate into the highest across-the-board MCAT score, nor do admissions committees desire to fill their incoming classes purely with biology majors. That being said, biology will certainly be the best major for some. If you are confident in choosing biology, even after you have finished reading this article, you have probably found the major for you.
For those who still haven’t decided, or for those considering switching majors, I encourage you to reflect on your own interests. Be skeptical of those who claim one major is universally superior to others. In the end, choosing what best fits you, whatever that may be, will be the most valuable preparation for medical school.
Justin Campbell is a first-year MD-PhD student at the University of Utah School of Medicine. As an undergraduate, he majored in philosophy and psychology and earned minors in biology and chemistry. During his senior year, he was awarded the Atlantis Leaders Scholarship and formed part of the Atlantis Alumni Ambassador Program.