Becoming a doctor is a long process and one that takes a lot of foresight and good choices. One of the earliest, most important choices you’ll make in your medical education is where to attend college as an undergraduate. You’ll need more than just a bachelor’s degree in biology to get into the med school of your dreams; you need to take rigorous courses, participate in hands-on research, prepare for the MCAT, and develop your area of scientific expertise.
The university you choose for your undergraduate years will make a big impact on these factors. Not only should it prepare you academically for medical school, but it should also provide you with pre-medical advising, prestigious opportunities, and application support. Indeed, your college will write you an institutional letter of recommendation for medical school!
Understanding the requirements for medical schools and the role undergraduate programs play in those requirements may be crucial to you ending up where you want to go. In this post, we’ll note the most important considerations for high school students considering med school, as well as some of the top colleges and universities for pre-med students.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that most schools don’t offer a pre-med major. Unlike biology, history, or ethnomusicology, most American universities don’t have a separate department for pre-medical undergrads. Instead, what they have is a pre-med program with certain requirements that don’t correspond to any one department.
What does this mean for you? For one thing, it means you can major in whatever you want! Of course, if you decide to major in English, it’s unlikely that any of those classes will meet the required pre-med courses, so you’ll need to keep a careful eye on your schedule to figure out how to fit in both the Harlem Renaissance and Organic Chemistry. Nevertheless, thousands of students take this approach, and there’s even some evidence that having a humanistic background can help undergraduates when they apply to top medical schools.
Second, it means that you need to think about how your whole college experience is going to shape your medical school application. This means classes, of course, but also your pre-med program advising, research opportunities, fellowships, and more. As you consider which college or university is right for you, keep the following factors in mind, too.
Of course, attending a university with a rigorous undergraduate curriculum is essential to preparing for med school. Medical school admissions offices will be evaluating you first and foremost on your overall academic preparation, which means carefully examining your coursework. Moreover, a strong curriculum will better prepare you for the MCAT.
While medical schools will focus primarily on your pre-med courses, they also care about your overall performance, too. Harvard Medical School says they look for applicants with “a well-balanced academic background that includes the humanities and social sciences.” So, don’t be afraid to take that philosophy class!
One of the best indicators of future success is past results. Have other students from the universities you’re considering for college been accepted at prestigious medical schools? What is the med school acceptance rate for pre-med students at these schools?
You can sometimes find medical school admissions data on universities’ pre-health advising web pages, but not always. When you visit schools, do what you can to talk to students, staff, and faculty to understand where past students went to medical school, and compare that information with your own goals for the future.
Another crucial aspect of the medical school admissions process will be the research you were able to undertake as an undergraduate. Medical students do an enormous amount of hands-on scientific work, so you need to show you’re as comfortable in the lab as you are in the classroom. Do the colleges you’re considering offer significant research opportunities for undergraduates in the health and biological sciences?
It’s also important to consider the most active labs at your potential schools, including trying to meet with the faculty in charge before you decide to attend. Will you be able to work directly with the professors you want? Or will you be competing with graduate students for their time and attention? Remember, you’ll need good letters of recommendation for the medical school admissions process.
Although pre-med majors are rare, many universities offer robust pre-med advising for students intending to apply for medical and health careers. This dedicated advising staff should help you through every part of your undergraduate years related to medical school, from choosing your courses to finding research and fellowship opportunities, to preparing for the MCAT, to applying to med school and related financial aid programs.
Note that many schools group pre-med advising into a larger advising umbrella for students looking to enter the health professions. This is not a bad thing; in fact, being exposed to a variety of health careers will help you decide if being a practicing physician is right for you, or if there are other health careers that might appeal more.
If you do decide that being a physician is indeed the path for you, there’s no better way to prepare to enter the medical field as an undergraduate than gaining direct clinical experience. Many large or urban universities have partnerships with one or more hospitals; the University of Washington, for example, lists more than 20 partner hospitals and affiliated health networks, and schools in large urban areas like New York and Chicago offer similarly expansive opportunities. Students who gain clinical experience at top-notch hospitals may enjoy more wide-ranging learning opportunities during medical school.
Shadowing doctors and nurses as an undergraduate shows med schools that you know what it takes to be a practicing physician. Plus, you’ll gain essential experience for your application, as well as some additional letters of recommendation.
Finally, a few schools offer degree programs that get students into med school early. There are two major types of these programs: combined bachelor’s and medical degree programs (often abbreviated as “BS/MD” programs) and early assurance programs. Some schools offer both programs, while others offer only one.
BS/MD programs are seven- or eight-year programs that combine both college and medical school, usually at the same or nearby institutions. For example, Brown University’s Program in Liberal and Medical Education (PLME) offers students four years at Brown’s College of Arts and Sciences followed by four years at the university’s Alpert School of Medicine. Students apply to BS/MD programs in high school, making such programs extremely competitive.
Early assurance programs, on the other hand, are for stellar students attending a university that has or partners with a strong medical school. For example, Tufts University offers sophomores on the pre-med track who meet certain academic requirements the opportunity to apply to Tufts Medical School without an MCAT score. Students at these universities are not guaranteed entry into the assurance program, but it’s nevertheless a good opportunity to have.
Both BS/MD and early assurance programs are designed to release students from the burden of the med school application process so that they can focus more on learning widely in college.
The best college for pre-med is the best college for you; there are dozens of colleges and universities that can offer all of the above factors. That said, there are some institutions that stand out among the pack for their depth and breadth of preparation for medical school. If you’re serious about getting into a top medical school, consider looking at these frequent contenders for the best pre-med schools in the country.
Harvard has everything a pre-med student could want: exceptional academics (particularly in biology and chemistry), vast research opportunities and resources, strong pre-med advising (students receive a designated pre-med advisor as sophomores), several affiliated teaching hospitals, and the number one medical school in the country. No wonder their strong students have in past years seen a medical school admission rate of more than double the national average!
That said, the Ivy League isn’t the only place you’ll find an excellent pre-med program. Johns Hopkins has some of the most extensive health and medical resources in the world, from its top-ranked hospital to its world-renowned faculty. The popularity of Hopkins’ pre-med program has enabled the university to build up one of the best pre-med advising offices around, which ensures their students achieve impressive medical school admission rates.
Smaller universities can also be excellent places for pre-med students. Washington University in St. Louis offers undergraduate students a strong pre-health advising community, as well as numerous volunteer and internship opportunities in medicine and health. Furthermore, the smaller population of graduate students at Wash U means that undergraduates frequently have more opportunities to participate in research alongside medical school faculty.
Like many of the other schools on this list, Northwestern is a prestigious university with a top-ranked medical school and an enormous range of opportunities in scientific research, medical internships, clinical experience, and pre-med advising. Northwestern’s Health Professions Advising office walks students through every step of the application process. They even work with alumni who have decided to apply to medical school after graduating!
The University of Pennsylvania’s strong medical school and research-oriented curriculum also makes it a great pre-med school. Access to nationally renowned hospitals in Philadelphia only increases undergraduate students’ ability to gain hands-on medical experience before applying to medical school. Between these opportunities and the university’s strong curriculum, Penn students enter medical school at significantly higher rates than the national average.
The West Coast has great opportunities for pre-med students, too! Stanford has an exceptional medical school, which in turn has created a very strong pre-med community among the undergraduate student body. In addition to taking advantage of impressive pre-health advising, Stanford students can join the student-run Stanford Pre-Medical Association, which helps students of all academic and personal backgrounds figure out their health career path by connecting them with internships, volunteer positions, application resources, and like-minded peers.
And don’t forget about the South! Duke University has an outstanding pre-med program, with very high historical rates of acceptances into medical school. Duke also offers specific study abroad programs for pre-med students, to ensure that the more intensive curricular requirements don’t prevent Duke students from engaging in the educational and personal benefits of spending a semester or year abroad.
Lastly, don’t assume private universities are the only places you can prepare for medical school. The University of Washington in Seattle has one of the best medical schools in the world, particularly in primary care, and undergraduates at UW benefit greatly. Just like the private schools on this list, the University of Washington offers strong pre-med advising, rigorous coursework, abundant research and internship opportunities, and involved student groups, all of which prepare UW students for successful medical careers.
Similarly, UNC also offers numerous advantages for its pre-med students and medical school applicants. Given the extent of its resources, both internally and within the larger “Research Triangle” of North Carolina, UNC offers its pre-med students ample opportunities to begin specializing in particular research or clinical fields.
Ultimately, your medical school application will not be determined by where you attend college or what you major in. You’ll need to do well in the required classes, have a strong GPA in your science and major coursework, develop a robust medical resume, attain good letters of recommendation, score well on the MCAT, and write strong essays. These goals can be achieved at nearly any major university or selective liberal arts college. Nevertheless, it’s also important to think about whether the universities to which you’re applying have the resources and opportunities to ensure you can develop a strong profile for medical school.
The schools on this list are a good start, but they’re not a complete list. Instead, as you look at colleges, be sure to learn as much as you can about the pre-med requirements, advising, research, internships, and med school admission rates. Learn to ask the right questions, and you’ll be sure to make the best choice to begin your medical journey!
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