How to Pick a Major for Med School

by
Associate Director of Admissions, University of Pittsburgh

If you are a high school student with your sights set on medical school, it can be hard to determine what you need to do to get there. There are a lot of myths about what major you should choose as an undergraduate. But the truth is that high-performing students gain entrance to med school no matter what they study. Your chosen major won’t determine your competitiveness; rather, the grades you earn in the prerequisite courses for medical school admission will demonstrate your academic preparedness.

Related: Find an undergraduate college with the pre-med program for you

Still, you might be wondering: how do you choose a major? While most students will apply to a college’s pre-medicine program, pre-med is not an actual major! Undergraduate students interested in medical school traditionally enroll in one of the sciences, in anything from bioengineering, neuroscience, pharmacy, and psychology to emergency medicine, athletic training, or exercise science. But you’re not limited to these traditional majors!

Although the sciences look and feel like appropriate paths to medical school, it’s important to follow your heart. Are you happy spending hours creating stories or poetry? Do you love to study other cultures? You can learn more about the humanities and what it means to be human by choosing a “non-traditional” academic route. Consider learning about people, technology, religions, history, or societies to deepen your commitment to the role you will play in medicine. 

What do you want to major in?

Take a minute to ask yourself what your interests are. Look at what you unconsciously choose to do or think about when you have free time. What websites are you drawn to, or what topics do you follow on social media? What extracurricular activities do you participate in and really enjoy? What is it that you can’t stop talking about with your friends? These interests can translate into the perfect major for you.

Many students feel that certain majors bestow status. After all, if you’re studying something “tough” like neuroscience, you must be very smart, right? While there may be some truth to that, you should ultimately choose a major where you will thrive and excel.

Or think of it this way: most majors have some sort of capstone project. Can you imagine yourself spending at least four terms working through a research project—after staying interested in the subject matter throughout your undergraduate career? If the answer is no, don’t force yourself into that major just for the prestige. You will risk burning out! Instead, choose a major you love and your curiosity will compel you to work harder and excel. The perfect major is one where you grapple with the content while looking forward to the challenge rather than dreading it. 

Of course, there are prerequisite courses you must take to apply for medical school. You can strike a balance by blending required med school prerequisites with your other interests. Consider adding a minor or certificate to your plan of study or even double-majoring. Ultimately, you want to aim for the satisfaction of striving and growing without the angst of overwhelm. Talk to your school counselor and current college students about your goals and concerns. Sample different lecture series online, volunteer, and read to find new paths to follow as you choose a major. Start with a “wish list” of activities you want or need to incorporate into your plan of study. Explore majors by identifying the activities or courses where you feel you are in the zone.

And don’t neglect your extracurricular options! Does studying abroad appeal to you? Spending a semester immersed in a foreign language and culture will enhance your ability to communicate with your patients and perhaps pique your interest in global health. Or if your passion for helping others inspires you to pursue a Fulbright Scholarship, you can combine majors to give back to an underserved community by teaching English. You might set a goal to pursue Phi Beta Kappa, or you could dive deep into a problem and work alongside faculty and graduate students by conducting undergraduate research. There are plenty of options, so you should study what matters to you.

Preparing for med school with any major

You may be worried: will non-traditional majors prepare you for the rigorous medical school application process and the MCAT? The answer is yes, they can! The medical field is in need of lifelong learners and flexible individuals with well-honed interpersonal skills. Schools look for the qualities of both Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer, so choose a major that inspires you to grow as a scientist and a humanitarian.

Majoring in studio arts can hone your fine motor skills and develop your aesthetic sensibilities. Studying philosophy can turn you into an expert critical thinker. A degree in communication can prepare you to work with colleagues and patients more effectively. Don’t write off your secondary interests as useless, as you may be able to turn them into a strong foundation for your future in medicine.

Related: How to Be a Competitive Med School Applicant 

When it’s time to apply to medical school, you’re going to need a high GPA, especially in your science classes, but you will also craft a dossier that showcases your strengths. You will want to demonstrate leadership skills, clinical exposure, research interests, and campus involvement. If you want to be a strong candidate, you should understand the timeline and work required with your college advisor to make a plan that includes both academic and experiential learning requirements along with MCAT prep.

Finally, make sure you are flexible and patient with yourself. College is the time to explore your interests and options. Remember that the path you choose when applying to college may change once you’re there. Your undergraduate research, study abroad experience, or course work may ignite a passion you never knew existed. Changing majors is an option, but a strong start in something that excites you will be an important foundation for your med school education.

Medical schools value passion and compassion in applicants. When asked, “Why did you choose that major?” you should be able to answer easily and with conviction. Choosing the major you really love can expand your world, build your skills and confidence, and make you a stronger candidate for medical school.

What major did you pick for pre-med? Let us know in the comments.

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