10 Lessons for Undergrads: #1 – How to Pick Your Premed Major

How many times have you thought to yourself, “I wish I could go back in time and tell myself X?”? Sadly, I think about this a lot, perhaps far too much. The cons of wishful thinking like this is that you become full of regrets, and you might spend more time fantasizing about “what ifs” instead of focusing on what you can actually change in the present. The pros of reflection are that it means you are capable of recognizing mistakes and hopefully will learn from them for the future.

Knowing what I know now, there are lots of things I wish I did differently in undergrad. In this article series, I will share with you key things I would tell myself if I could go magically back in time. This won’t really help me now (obviously), but hopefully it will get you to stop and think about where you are right now in your educational career, and whether or not you are on the path you really want.

I admit some of these thoughts will be quite radical and go against lots of traditional thinking. Perhaps you will vehemently disagree with me. But that’s good – because the only way we learn is by challenging the ideas out there and really thinking for ourselves. Far too often young people get well-intentioned misguidance because of old or unproven ideas constantly perpetuated by generations before us. But I digress. With that said, let’s get to Lesson 1: How to Pick Your Premed Major.

Biology, eh?

Like many premed students, I took biology because I thought it would best help me get into medical school. Truth be told, I was probably right. I was able take the prerequisites for the MCAT and medical school, and get a really good GPA. It was a means to an end: medical school.

Looking back on it, I remember very little from my classes in undergrad. How much biochemistry or organic chemistry do you think I use in medical school? It’s a rhetorical question, but if it’s not obvious, the answer is pretty much next to none. Then there is the MCAT, also with material that is mostly irrelevant to medicine (spoiler alert: you will never have to calculate physics equations ever again).

So why must we jump through all the hoops?

Well, material wise, your undergrad program and the MCAT are relatively irrelevant to medicine. However, to be fair, you’re not going to learn “medicine material” unless you are in medical school anyways, so they can’t really test you on that. Really, your GPA and MCAT are just there so medical schools can answer the question: “is the applicant good enough academically to handle the academic rigour of medical school?” That’s one of the reasons why medical schools accept students from any undergrad program, whether it’s biology or engineering or music. The MCAT is used more so to standardize the selection process and compare student’s academic potential. I actually think these are reasonable admissions strategies because as much as people like to tell you a good doctor is all about interpersonal skills, at the heart of it, a good doctor must be a damn, hard working student who can handle all of the studying of medical training.

Despite all that, I regret having taken biology in undergrad

Yes, biology got me into medical school, but I still think it was a suboptimal use of my undergrad studies. Because theoretically any program would have gotten me into medical school (yes, I realize one could argue biology may have been optimal for me personally for getting into medical school, but I think you get the point).

Unless you go into a career that involves biology, the learning you do will not be useful for you. I don’t just say that about biology, I say it about any program. I had no intention to pursue a career in academic biology, and I’m sure this is true for many premeds. Honestly, in some ways that makes it a waste of everyone’s time, both yours and the professors spending their time teaching you. Sadly, I have no good solution for this problem. What should we do, create a premed program? Well if we do that, what about the people who graduate with a premed degree but don’t get into medical school? That would be an awkward situation. Sorry, I digress. Let’s get back to actually learning something useful.

The 3 questions premeds should ask themselves when picking a major

I believe there are 3 questions that most premeds must ask themselves when selecting their undergrad major:

  • What major will help me get the best GPA and maximize my chances of getting into medical school?
  • What major will help me in my career should I not get into medical school?
  • What major will help me in my career should I actually get into medical school?

I believe most premeds at some point or another ask question 1 or 2 or both. I believe almost no premeds ask question 3, probably because questions 1 and 2 seem so much more important before you do get in.

I honestly believe you should try your best to ask all 3.

As a case example, let’s look at myself when I selected my premed major.

Q1: Will Biology help me get the best GPA and maximize my chances of getting into medical school?

I would say it did. I don’t think there are too many programs where I would be able to get as high a GPA as I did in Biology. Given all the multiple choice tests, getting a high GPA is much more feasible in Biology compared to say Arts courses where you have subjective essays/assignments.

Also, Biology makes it easy to complete the basic prerequisite courses for medical school. It’s also easier to explain to admissions committees the relevance of undergrad courses in biology and genetics to medicine than say music.

Q2: Will Biology help me in my career should I not get into medical school?

However, for me personally, Biology cannot answer this question well. If I had not gotten into medical school, I don’t think I would’ve pursued anything further in Biology. I’m just not passionate about it.

If I didn’t get into medical school, I’d imagine I’d end up doing some sort of entrepreneurship. I’ve always loved starting projects since I was small (e.g. MedHopeful). So perhaps a program like University of Western Ontario’s Ivey program where I could’ve done 2 years of something premed and then 2 years of business would’ve been more ideal.

Q3: Will Biology help me in my career should I actually get into medical school?

Now that I’m actually in medical school, I have become even more aware that most of the courses I took in undergrad has had limited value for me. Perhaps one could argue that the purpose of undergrad is to “learn how to learn” or to “think”, but even if that’s true, I wish I had spend more time developing these skills using material that would actually have had more future use. Basically, part of me wishes I took more “practical” courses, e.g. basics of financial management or health policy.

So would I have picked a different major?

Honestly, I think I would. I would probably have done the Ivey program at UWO. Maybe I still would have done 2 years of Biology, I’m still not sure. But the 2 years of Ivey business after I think would add a very useful and practical component to my learning. Especially since I am really interested in entrepreneurship and starting projects.

So whether you are about to start Grade 12 this fall or at the beginning of your undergraduate career, I urge you to stop and think about what undergrad major or program makes the most sense for you. Ask yourself all 3 questions and spend the time finding the major that best fits your goals in life.

  • Rochelle

    Do you think Nursing will be a good Pre-Med? Because I heard that some Med schools question your motive in going into a Med school if you graduated in BSN.

    • medhopeful

      I think Nursing is a fine pre-med, you just need to be able to explain why you want to move from Nursing to Med. Don’t think med schools care. In fact, your clinical experience in nursing will be more than what most premeds have.

  • ash

    hey! I am about to apply for universities… and I am very confused! :S what are the basic prerequisites for medical school?

  • faris

    Which major do you think will offer you the best outcome if you didnt get into med school? I mean like if iam more interested in having a specific job rather than entrepreneur or a teacher. Like now am studying computer science at york u and i regret it and want to switch to premed to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor. so do you think its better to switch to like bio or chemistry or graduate as a computer science and then apply to med school? would i have any chances?

  • elle

    currently in high school (grade 10) right now but i’m looking into getting in medical school and i’m thinking of taking Nursing as a premed, do you have any advice for me? Really wanna get into a good university, will taking Nursing first slow me down or anything? Do I need get in a different pre-med course? What would be the best course that helps you prepare for the MCAT?

    • Mel (the med student)

      This is a late response, but the problem with nursing, is that it is hard to get a high GPA with nursing. GPA is one of the biggest factors when applying to medical school. It doesn’t matter whether you took creative writing, biochemistry, or anthropology, if your GPA is high and your MCAT score is on fleek, you’re likely to be accepted.

  • harry

    Sorry for the extremely late question, but after reading this I’m in a dilemma.
    I was going to apply(today) to health and life science programs but now I’m not sure anymore.
    My favorite subject throughout highschool has been biology, that’s one of the reason I wanna be a doctor.

    My parents don’t approve of such programs as they think ‘what if he doesn’t make it to med school’, I’ll be stuck with a almost useless degree.
    But I know that I’m a hardworking kid and that I’ll do whatever it takes to get into med school.

    But after reading your 3 questions, out of which to 1 I never paid any special attention. And that was, which one will help me score an excellent GPA.

    After reading that biology has all MCQs, to which I’m very used to, I’ve started thinking of biology. But I read somewhere that biology majors do the worst in MCAT.
    Although not every med school asks for MCAT but I don’t wanna limit my options.

    Kindly help, I have till Jan ’17