What Is Pre-Med? Understanding the Path to Medical School

Pre-med student in a lab wearing looking through a microscope
August 28, 2023


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 03/03/23

You can expect to dedicate over a decade of your life to pursuing a career in medicine, beginning with your pre-med journey. To learn more about the pre-med track, read on.

So, you’ve decided becoming a physician is the best career path for you. You’d like to combine your passion for science and discovery with your passion for people. While this career is highly rewarding, it’ll require diligence, patience, and hard work.

You can expect to join a pre-med major, go to medical school, complete a residency, and write several licensing exams along the way. 

To avoid getting ahead of ourselves, let’s start at the beginning; what is pre-med?

What Is Pre-Med?

The term pre-med itself simply means you are planning on joining medical school. As such, a pre-med distinction suggests you are completing an undergrad that will eventually be used to apply to medical school.

This term can be useful when discussing your career goals or talking to academic counselors who can assist you in your medical school applications.

Pre-Med Course Requirements

Regardless of the pre-med major you decide to pursue, there will be several prerequisites you will either be required or strongly recommended to complete prior to enrollment in medical school.

While these courses may differ depending on your school, the majority of pre-med prerequisites are:

  • One year of Biology with a lab component
  • Two years of Chemistry including lab components (organic, general, and biochemistry)
  • One year of Physics with a lab component
  • One year of English or writing-intensive courses
  • One year of Math (generally preferably Calculus or Statistics)
  • At least one course in Genetics
  • At least one course in Psychology
  • At least one course in Sociology

Aside from these course prerequisites, there are several core competencies medical schools look for in their applicants:

  • Social skills: self-awareness and understanding of others’ needs and feelings and how to respond to social and behavioral cues
  • Service orientation: a clear desire to help others and sense of responsibility towards society
  • Cultural competence: an appreciation and respect for everyone and an ability to interact with people of diverse backgrounds while recognizing and addressing any biases
  • Oral communication: being an effective listener and communicator
  • Written communication: the ability to convey messages in an articulate manner
  • Reliability and dependability: a determination to always fulfill obligations punctually and positively
  • Ethical responsibility: being mindful of personal and academic integrity with clear development and demonstration of ethical and moral reasoning
  • Resilience and adaptability: an ability to tolerate and work in stressful environments and recover from setbacks
  • Capacity for improvement: a dedication to continuous growth and improvement and ability to reflect and respond appropriately to feedback
  • Critical thinking: using reasoning to identify issues and finding solutions to these problems
  • Scientific inquiry: an understanding of how to apply the scientific process, formulate research hypotheses, and participate in scientific discourse
  • Qualitative reasoning: an understanding of mathematics 
  • Human behavior: an ability to apply knowledge of the social system to solve problems related to intersecting factors involved in health and wellbeing
  • Living systems: applying knowledge of the natural science to problems related to systems involving the organs, cells, molecules, and biomolecules

While some of these competencies can be demonstrated through coursework, others will have to be developed and portrayed through your extracurriculars. Not all medical schools will list these competencies in their admission requirements, but having them will strengthen your application.

What Are the Best Majors for Pre-Med?

A common misconception is that pre-med is a major. Pre-med is in fact only a declaration. Regardless of your major, you can be considered a pre-med student if your ultimate plan is to go to medical school.

Accordingly, you can essentially choose any major during your pre-med track, so long as you complete the necessary course requirements. It’s also recommended you choose a challenging major, as this will give the admissions committee better insight into your ability to handle the academic rigors of medical school.

With that said, there are certain pre-med majors that students tend to opt for. These majors allow students to easily incorporate their science prerequisites into their studies and better prepare them for both the MCAT and medical school:

  • Biological Sciences
  • Social Sciences
  • Physical Sciences
  • Specialized health sciences
  • Math and Statistics

Although it is less common, several successful medical applicants have majors in the humanities as well! 

While the majority of medical students have science-focused pre-med majors, it’s important to note these majors do not provide any advantage in the selection process. Committees are largely concerned with your completion of prerequisites and ability to master whichever subject you’re passionate about. 

On the contrary, it has actually been found that students with humanities or social science majors tend to be more effective when communicating with patients! Admission committees recognize this trait and factor it into their decisions.

Understanding the Pre-Med Track

Simply obtaining an undergrad isn’t all that’s involved in the pre-med track. In answering the question, “what is pre-med?” it’s essential to discuss the steps involved in preparing your medical school application:

Gaining Clinical Experience

In order to demonstrate you’re ready for medical school, it’s essential you gain experience working with patients and other healthcare providers. Many students pursue jobs during their undergrad such as medical scribes, medical secretaries, or research assistants. 

Pre-med students should also pursue valuable volunteer opportunities where they can gain hands-on experience working with patients, especially from diverse populations. Popular choices to gain this experience are either volunteering at local hospitals or clinics or participating in medical brigades in developing countries. 

These types of experiences are necessary to demonstrate your passion for medicine and commitment to service!

Joining Extracurriculars

Aside from pursuing patient-focused volunteer and work experiences, you should also join other extracurriculars at your school.

Choose extracurriculars you’re genuinely interested in so that you can stick with them throughout your undergrad. Admissions committees appreciate depth more than breadth when they assess medical school resumes.

Ensure you also gain leadership experience in these extracurriculars, as this trait is essential to succeed in the medical field. 

Gain Research Experience

Having research experience can boost your application, especially for high-ranking medical schools that are extremely selective. Gaining research experience is especially beneficial for students interested in becoming physician scientists!

It’s essential you complete sincere and committed research for it to have a meaningful impact on the admissions committee. Research that you only conduct for the sake of putting it on your application will score you very few brownie points.

Dedicate several months or even years during your undergrad to a research project and explain your motivation to continue the research in medical school or afterward.

Shadow a Physician

Near the end of your undergrad, you should gain experience shadowing a physician.

It’s difficult to ascertain if the medical field is right for you. But, by shadowing a physician and learning what their daily duties involve, you can gain a better understanding of the challenges physicians face.

Pursuing medicine after gaining shadowing experience tells the admissions committee you have a realistic understanding of what you’re signing up for, which proves you have clear intent and direction.

Finding opportunities to shadow physicians can be difficult, so it’s important you persevere and remain persistent.

Make use of your college network and ask your pre-medical advisors for assistance. Create a list of candidates and begin contacting them. Take the time to create specific and thoughtful emails for each of the physicians you shadow, so your request is more personal and sincere. 

Write the MCAT

Students typically find the hardest part of their medical school application to be preparing for and writing the Medical College Admission Test. This comprehensive seven-and-a-half hour test is one of the biggest factors that admissions committees consider when assessing students’ applications.

This test is perceived as a strong indicator of students’ ability to succeed in medical school and the medical field. As such, it’s essential you give yourself adequate time to prepare for and ace this exam.

Students typically write this exam during the summers after their sophomore or junior year, so they have enough time to retake the exam if necessary. 

Depending on your target score, you should dedicate at least three months to your MCAT study prep. Build a comprehensive study schedule that you can commit to and use reliable resources to improve your score.

Secure Strong Letters of Recommendation

You should maintain strong connections with your professors and other mentors throughout your undergrad. However, creating these connections will be even more important in your junior and senior year. 

Ask at least three of your favorite professors for letters of recommendation. These letters must be personal and attest to your academic potential. Ensure each letter shares unique traits about you so the admissions committee can learn more about your vast skill set.

Consider Pursuing Post-Baccalaureate Programs

If you aren’t quite ready to join medical school right after your undergrad, you may want to consider pursuing a post-baccalaureate program that can help you transition to med school better.

The most common post-baccalaureate degree pre-med students pursue are certificates in premedical studies. These one-year programs are typically meant for students who have not completed the necessary prerequisites to apply to medical school. 

Some of these certifications also offer students clinical experience, so they can hone their medical skills and become more competitive med school applicants. 

Other popular post-baccalaureate programs include:

  • Master of Science in Biomedicine
  • Master of Science in Medical Nutrition
  • Master of Science in Medical Physiology 
  • Master of Science in Pathology
  • Master of Science in Applied Anatomy
  • Master of Science in Nutrition
  • Master of Science in Clinical Research
  • Master of Arts in Bioethics
  • Master of Public Health
  • Readiness Instruction for Medical Education Program
  • Certificate of Completion in Biomedical Sciences and Health Equity
  • Pre-Professional Health Academic Certification

These graduate programs and certifications can help strengthen weak academic aspects of your application and give you a better chance of getting into your top medical schools!

Choosing the Best Schools for Pre-Med

Now that we’ve answered the questions, “what is pre-med?” and “what is the best major for pre-med?” you might be wondering which school to choose to pursue a pre-med major. 

Here are some questions to consider when choosing your pre-med college:

What Environment Will You Thrive In?

You know your learning style best. If you require small class sizes where you can easily interact with your professors and form close bonds with them, you may want to consider joining a smaller college. 

Enrolling in a smaller college is likely to help boost your GPA as well, as there will be less competition. You may also have an easier time obtaining research and shadowing opportunities. 

On the other hand, larger colleges generally hold more prestige and can better prepare you for medical school, where you’ll be up against the best and brightest students. 

How Good Are Their Programs?

Research the specific programs you’re planning on joining to see which ones offer the most resources and support to meet your specific goals. For instance, if you’re planning on pursuing a major in Biology, you may want to go through the course offerings at each school to ensure they align with your interests. 

Choose a school that has unique courses that can provide you with experiences that other schools wouldn’t! For instance, some universities, such as Heidelberg University, offer very selective courses to undergraduate science students that involve working with real cadavers. 

These university-specific programs will help you stand out as an applicant!

Do They Have a Medical School?

While the verdict is still uncertain about whether medical schools prefer accepting their own students, choosing an undergraduate school with a medical school can be beneficial.

Applying to the same school you completed your undergrad with proves to the admissions committee that you already have a strong interest in their school and have started making contributions to it, especially if you’re at the top of your class or have engaged in meaningful research projects.

You can also begin building connections with important professors and mentors that can help you succeed in medical school!

What’s Your Budget?

The final factor to consider when choosing the perfect pre-med college is your budget. It’s no secret that medical school is a huge investment. 

Take your budget into consideration when choosing your undergrad college. If you want to avoid drowning in debt after medical school, consider joining a lower-ranking, cheaper undergraduate university.

FAQs: What Is Pre-Med?

For any remaining questions about the pre-med track, read on to find your answers.

1. How Many Years Is Pre-Med?

Your pre-med journey will take at least four years to complete. These four years will involve you completing a major of your choice at an accredited university, completing the necessary prerequisites, and strengthening your medical school application.

For students that require more preparation before medical school, this timeline can increase by one to two years, depending on the post-baccalaureate programs they pursue. 

2. What Major Is Best for Pre-Med?

Each pre-med major has its own advantages for medical school. Science-focused majors tend to better prepare students for the MCAT and medical school, but humanities-focused majors help students communicate with patients more effectively. 

To ensure you choose the best major, pick a subject you’re passionate about! Ensure you complete all the necessary prerequisites to apply to medical school and take diverse electives to build your competencies and skills.

3. Can You Go to Medical School Without Pre-Med?

You can go to medical school without declaring yourself as a pre-med student. Plans change, and you may decide medicine is right for you well into your undergrad.

If this is the case, and you haven’t completed the MCAT, don’t have the prerequisites needed for enrollment, or have limited clinical experience, consider taking a gap year to strengthen your application and complete a pre-medical post-baccalaureate certification. 

4. How Hard Is Pre-Med?

The pre-med track will be lengthy and challenging! Not only will you have to maintain high grades during your undergrad, but you’ll also have to stay busy throughout! 

You’ll have to continue building your resume each year of your undergrad, participate in meaningful extracurriculars, and secure competitive research and shadowing positions. 

You’ll also have to complete the MCAT, a standardized exam that is notorious for being difficult.

5. What Majors Are Considered Pre-Med?

Any major can be considered pre-med. Pre-med students are simply those interested in pursuing medicine as a career and are taking the necessary steps to apply to medical school.

Final Thoughts

This guide has answered the overarching question, “what is pre-med?” and several related inquiries. The main points to take away from this guide are that the pre-med track involves multiple steps that are all essential to your journey towards becoming a physician! 

Ensure you give this stage of your education 100% of your effort to be rewarded with acceptances into your top med schools!

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