Biology, chemistry, physics, math and English are required for all pre-med students, a majority of whom will pursue a science major out of convenience or interest. But some doctors-to-be buck this trend. These undergrads say choosing the B.A. over the B.S. is a trying, yet deeply rewarding, experience.
Mixing pre-med studies with a non-science major is not at all uncommon, as 38 to 40 percent of the pre-med population over the past four years did not pursue B.S. degrees, said Edward Miller, director of the health professions advisory program at Undergraduate Career Services. That figure was even greater in the 1980s, and Miller said he attributes the decline in the 1990s to the addition of a number of new science major programs. Non-science majors, he said, are accepted to medical school at the same rate as those who major in the sciences, and students who matriculate to Yale often do so because they want something more than a purely science-based education.
“If they wanted primarily a science degree, they would probably go to an institution that would allow them to take fewer non-science courses,” Miller said. “I think our science majors want a much broader education.”
Stephen Kappa ’07, a political science major, is in the process of completing pre-med requirements. The aspect of medicine that appealed to him most, Kappa said, was the doctor-patient interaction, which he said requires well-developed communication skills.
Even though his academic trajectory may elicit responses such as “I’ve never heard of that before” and “You’re crazy, why would you want to torture yourself like that?” from people in his hometown of Kingsport, Tenn., Kappa said he could not pass up an opportunity to study in Yale’s Political Science Department. Kappa, who said he might consider a career in politics, said the experiences and ideas garnered from his unconventional academic background could provide a valuable dimension to any medical class he joins.
“Exploring your academic interests is fine as a pre-med applicant,” he said. “It’s just as important having the cool dinner-time conversations outside of med-school classes and clinical rotations. That’s something else you can bring to the table, talking about the brilliant poli sci professor you had at Yale.”
One of the most crucial elements for successfully balancing being a pre-med with a major’s academic requirements is planning, said Meredith Williams ’06, a history major. She said summer coursework is pretty common, but not essential, among non-science-major premeds she knows.
“There is a lot to gain from not being a pure biology or chemistry major,” Williams said. “One thing you have to do is plan ahead to make sure you have all the sciences in and in sequence. It just takes a little more planning.”
The pre-med curriculum requires that students complete a minimum of approximately 12 courses by the summer after junior year, the time when students apply to medical school. A segment of the Yale online academic regulations entitled “Information for Premedical Students” states one position regarding choice of major as a pre-med.
“Many premedical students major in science, although this is by no means necessary,” according to the site. “Students who major outside the sciences, and take the minimum number of science courses required, must do very well to ensure adequate preparation for — and favorable consideration by — medical schools.”
This does not mean that pre-med non-science majors are at an inherent disadvantage, Miller said. He said since there are only a finite number of courses for pre-meds, lower grades in key courses can be more easily made up for by science majors, who can offset those grades in other courses. He said he advises non-science majors to demonstrate ability via additional coursework.
“Even then if a student gets a C in organic chemistry or general chemistry, I generally say, ‘Let’s follow it if you can with your regular curriculum. Take a biochemistry course, take some advanced-level courses to show them that you can do this,'” Miller said.
Marta Herschkopf ’06, a religious studies major, said she made the decision to become pre-med after she came to Yale. But she said she knew when she left high school that even if she eventually became pre-med, she would be a non-science major in order to be exposed to a variety of fields in college.
“It was very important for me to pursue a wide range of different subjects while I was at school,” she said. “The Religious Studies Department offered me a lot of flexibility in choosing courses outside of the department to fulfill my major requirements.”
The main criterion for admission to Yale University School of Medicine is excelling in any field rather than a particular field, School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said.
“The medical school’s admissions committee doesn’t care what you majored in as long as you did very well in whatever subject it was,” he said.
The admissions process at other major medical schools does not favor applicants who are science majors either. In the final analysis, a science and non-science major applicant to Hopkins have comparable chances of admission, Dr. David Nichols ’73, vice dean for education at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, wrote in an e-mail.
“All things being equal, I would predict that for example a poet, who has published his or her work, won prizes in juried competitions and done well enough in the pre-requisite courses and MCATs that we think he or she will be able to master our curriculum, is more likely to get admitted than a biochemistry major whose only evidence of excellence is good grades in college courses and high MCAT science scores,” Nichols wrote.
The dedication that being a pre-med student requires is unmistakable at certain defining moments of your academic experience, Kappa said.
“1:30 a.m., cramming for that organic chemistry test. You damn well better be passionate about what you’re doing,” he said.