The Road to Healing: The Best Majors for Medical School

08/08/202329 minute read
The Road to Healing: The Best Majors for Medical School

Studying medicine opens doors to a wide range of careers — for clinical and non-clinical roles — and with options for specialties too numerous to list here, but it’s also a pathway that requires exceptional dedication and thoughtful academic preparation. In this post we’ll explore medical school prerequisites, factors for choosing an undergraduate major, how to prepare for the MCAT, insights from medical professionals who have already traveled the road you’re on, and we’ll walk you through several college majors that could help you succeed in medical school. 

For most people the best majors for medical school will be the ones that satisfy your interests while helping you to begin mastering the scientific reasoning skills and foundational science concepts you need to get into medical school and succeed. 

As for the professional rewards after medical school, the day-to-day challenges can be demanding, but also varied and deeply satisfying, especially if you like a field where you’re helping others, or like making an impact through clinical research or advancing healthcare policy.

In most cases, the knowledge and skills you learn in medical school are likely to translate into a good salary too. And, there’s demand for new graduates to join the ranks of medical professionals, including people from underrepresented groups, and people with nontraditional backgrounds.

Prerequisite knowledge typically includes study in rigorous courses for biology, organic biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus. So, if you’re still making decisions about your undergraduate major, it’s good to plan ahead.

At Crimson Education we value the impact higher education has on individuals and society. Our passion is helping individuals like you choose a major, get into leading colleges, and reach their full educational potential. Whether you’re changing careers, you’re in college now and looking at medical schools, or you’re still choosing your undergraduate major, then this guide is for you! 

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Factors to Consider When Choosing a Major for Medical School

While your own personal interests can help you narrow the field when it comes to picking a college major, aspiring medical school students also need to consider starting early on the long road leading to the MCAT exam, med school admissions, and finally your MD degree, and a job you love!

One of the first steps in the journey is getting a bachelor’s degree, and this means picking an undergraduate major. Choosing a major can be a stumbling block for students headed to college, and if you’re aspiring to attend medical school, the decision can feel even more pressing. To help, we’ve put together a list of important factors you may want to consider, so you can be more confident about making a well informed decision!

1. Pre-med Academic Planning: Taking “pre-med” classes is probably the most traditional pathway for college students who plan to attend medical school after they finish their bachelor’s degree. A “pre-med” program is not a major, so you’ll still need to choose a major

But, after you declare your major and tell your college advisor that you’re “pre-med,” you can work with your advisor to ensure your coursework incorporates as many of the kinds of prerequisites you need to be prepared for medical school applications —  prerequisites that typically include designated courses in biology, chemistry, math, and physics.

2. To Bio or not to Bio?: That probably is a good question to ask yourself — do you major in biology by default, or consider other majors?

According to data from AAMC (American Association of Medical Colleges), biology is far and away the most popular major for students matriculating to medical schools, with physical sciences, social sciences, humanities, and so on further down the list.

So if you want to go the traditional route, choosing to major in biology or a related STEM subject, is probably the way to go. But, not so fast! Other majors are okay too. In fact, according to the AMA (American Medical Association), “the second largest group of matriculants (3,391) tracked by the AAMC fell into the ‘other’ category.” That means a good number of non-biology majors who went to med school studied diverse majors, including liberal arts subjects, humanities, and so forth. So, before you settle for biology, we recommend you start by reviewing all of the factors listed here, and then think about what major is best for you.

3. Interests and Passions: Becoming a medical professional will require a good amount of commitment and perseverance. The risks of early burn out, or the simple risk of losing the passion that piqued your interest in med school in the first place, is real. You don’t need to make it worse by spending four years in college studying a major you aren’t excited about. 

If you want to go to med school and choosing a biology or a chemistry major excites you, you have an easy decision. But for many people it won’t be so easy. They should probably take some time and be sure to make an informed decision, one that gives some weight to their most personal passions and interests. Studying a subject you enjoy that aligns with your unique strengths and passions can be very fulfilling, helping sustain and nurture the inner passion that will fuel the long medical school journey ahead of you.

4. Relevant Knowledge and Skills: If you do choose a non-science major, you’ll have a lot of options to choose from, so now how do you choose?

A factor to consider for sure is relevance. Given the majors you’re most interested in, ask yourself which ones make it easier to incorporate the prerequisite courses you need to prepare for the MCAT and medical school admissions down the road.

And, in addition, consider which majors are most relevant to your larger professional interests. Remember too, getting an MD doesn’t always mean you plan to work as a physician doing front-line care. And, even those who do become front-line physicians can work in many kinds of settings and specializations. What kinds of background knowledge aligns with your professional goals?...Do you want to care for patients, specialize in epidemiology, or work at the forefront of community health services or policy?

If you do choose a less traditional major, remember that you’ll still want to work with your undergraduate advisors to see how you can tailor your bachelor degree program to squeeze in as many pre-med courses as possible.

5. Course Rigor and GPA: Should GPA matter? It’s understandable that Admissions Officers at leading medical schools want to be confident that they’re admitting students who have the aptitudes needed to succeed academically, and many experts believe the data supports strong correlations between GPA and success in medical school.

According to the AMA, GPA does matter for admissions, like it or not. The top criteria most medical schools look at are MCAT scores and GPA. Data from the 2018-19 admissions cycle point to a GPA mean average of 3.72 for students entering medical school.

But, admissions officers want you to know that in addition to your overall GPA, the grades you earn in the most relevant and rigorous science courses may matter even more:

We tend to look at the science grade point average,’ says Christina Grabowski, associate dean for admissions and enrollment at the University of Alabama—Birmingham School of Medicine. ‘So, whether you're a psychology major or a business major or a biology major, we are going to look at how you did in science coursework specifically.

So as you consider what major to choose, keep in mind that you’ll want to take rigorous courses that showcase your academic strengths, while also maintaining the highest grades possible, in both your pre-med and non-science courses.

6. MCAT Relevance: You won’t take the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) until you’re finishing your undergraduate degree, but the classes you take in college should help you master the kinds of knowledge needed to ace the MCAT

While testing your general scientific inquiry and reasoning skill, the MCAT also covers the following core knowledge areas:

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior 
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

The MCAT also includes a reading comprehension and critical thinking section that evaluates your command of reading, analysis, and reasoning skills relevant for success in medical school and medical professions. There’s more on preparing for the MCAT below, but for now remember to think about how the major you choose might help you prepare early for the MCAT.

Here are the kinds of courses that cover some of the highly relevant topics and concepts tested with the MCAT:

  • Introduction to Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Psychology and Sociology
  • Biochemistry
  • Research Methods and Statistics (especially the ones typically covered in introductory science courses and labs, as well as introductory psychology and sociology courses)

You don’t have to take all these classes as an undergraduate, and even if you do, you’ll probably still need to do lots of additional prep for the MCAT, so remembering that the MCAT is very demanding should be on your list of factors to consider.

7. Career Goals: After medical school you may feel like…retiring already…? But you’ll just be getting started, believe it or not! And, just like med school, your career in medicine will bring new challenges and rewards. So it makes sense to consider what kind of career pathway and career specialization you have in mind.

Nursing and pharmacology are high on the list these days when it comes to top specializations and degrees and future demand…That said, there are many other roles and specializations in the medical field, such as physician, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, surgeon, anesthesiologist, psychiatrist, pharmacist, and healthcare manager. 

Since these pathways all have varied requirements in terms of academic qualifications, experience, licensing, and the aptitudes you’ll need for greater success, it makes sense to think about how different undergraduate degrees might align with your longer term career interests. In the end, it’s you who’s at bat when it comes to making an informed decision, but reading this guide is a good step in the right direction!

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Overview of Popular Majors for Medical School

When it comes to preparing for medical school, there are some obvious candidates in terms of popular majors, but as we’ve seen, there are lots of factors to consider when actually choosing a major that’s right for you. 

In addition, an increasing number of medical schools today are growing more vocal about the value of recruiting student cohorts with more diverse personal experiences and more varied academic backgrounds. 

However, some majors are more traditionally viewed as being aligned with a pre-med curriculum and are among popular college majors commonly pursued by students interested in going to medical school:

Biology

A biology major covers various topics such as cell biology, genetics, physiology, and anatomy, providing a strong foundation in the life sciences, with obvious relevance to medicine. Biology majors learn tons of discipline-specific terminology and concepts that give them a big headstart in medical school.

If you major in biology you’ll also learn essential facts and concepts about living organisms, many that apply to understanding health and disease, genetics, immune systems, cell function, and evolution. For all these reasons, biology is a popular major among students who go on to apply to medical school. Courses in a biology major program typically include: Ecology & Evolution, Physiology, Genetics, Biostatistics, and Human Anatomy, and will typically include lab components or classes.

Chemistry

Chemistry majors study the properties and reactions of matter. Chemistry and its subspeciality, organic chemistry, can be valuable for understanding drug interactions, pharmacology, and other ways various chemical compounds interact in living systems. 

Concepts, scientific principles, and experimental methods you learn in chemistry and organic chemistry are valuable for medical specialties such as toxicology, pharmacology, and various technical branches of biomedical research.

If you major in chemistry, your program will include courses such as Principles of Chemistry, Physics, Calculus, and Organic Chemistry, and may include general or specialized lab courses or requirements.

Biochemistry

Biochemistry combines elements of biology and chemistry, focusing on the chemical processes that occur within living organisms. Biochemistry provides an introduction to concepts and principles for careers or research activities in fields such as pharmacology, pathology, cell biology, and physiology

Doctors and medical researchers rely on biochemistry for specialized research into the causes of many diseases and harmful conditions, and for the discovery and study of effective medicines and treatments. It also provides a deeper understanding of molecular biology and metabolism, both useful for medical research and practice.

Common types of courses in this major include: Introduction to Biochemistry, Biology, Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Kinetics, Organic Chemistry, and related laboratory components or courses.

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Neuroscience

Neuroscience majors explore the complexities of brain function, including brain physiology, brain chemistry, brain diseases, and the functioning of the central nervous system. This subject is relevant to understanding neurological disorders, mental health, and the interface between the brain and behavior.

A major in neuroscience can be a great foundation for future medical careers related to pharmacology or surgery associated with treating neurological disorders and mental health disorders, and for any diseases related to brain function, including common ones such as dementia, amnesia, or Alzheimer’s, for example. 

Majoring in neuroscience would typically include taking classes such as Chemistry, Life Science, Biochemistry, Physiology, Psychology, Genetics, and advanced mathematics.

Psychology

Psychology majors study human behavior, cognition, and mental processes. Understanding psychological factors can be beneficial in patient care and communication, in understanding psychosomatic health and illness, and addressing mental health issues.

If you plan to specialize in psychiatry or similar medical or psychopharmaceutical treatment or research roles, or in medical practice related to moods and behavior, then psychology could be a particularly useful and relevant undergraduate major.

As a psychology major you’ll develop foundational knowledge in normal and abnormal psychology, developmental and behavioral psychology, and learn technical vocabulary and concepts, as well as the kinds of research methods and models used by psychologists, social psychologists, and psychiatrists, that relate to brain function, moods, and behavioral symptoms and conditions.

If you choose a major in psychology, you typically would take courses such as Introduction to Psychology, Social Psychology, Developmental Psychology, History of Psychology, and Behavioral Psychology.

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Health Sciences/Public Health

Majors in health sciences or public health focus on health and medicine topics specific to certain communities, environments, and demographic groups.

Doctors and researchers in this domain often become experts in epidemiology and disease control, healthcare policy, and community health. These fields offer insight into healthcare systems, public health challenges, and different kinds of public health risks and responses.

Whether or not your career pathway points you in the direction of clinical roles and patient services or not, a health sciences/public health major can be a good foundation if you’re interested in working as a general physician and have an interest in community health policy, research, or advocacy, or in a field related to epidemiology.

Pursuing a major in health sciences or public health typically involves the following kinds of courses: Environmental Health, Introduction to Epidemiology, Biology, Anatomy, Statistics and Probability, Introduction to Health Policy, and Health Management.

Other Majors 

There’s a host of other majors out there that students interested in going to medical school can choose as undergraduates. Some examples include:

  • Nutrition
  • Medical Anthropology
  • Sports Medicine
  • Environmental Medicine
  • Holistic & Alternative Medicine

Even among the more “traditional” majors for medical school, you have a lot to choose from. So don’t forget to factor in your interests and passions, and also your career directions as you chart your course to medical school and select the college major that’s best for your medical school journey. 

And if you start to feel stuck when choosing a major, remember that’s not uncommon. At Crimson Education we have an impressive track record when it comes to helping students find a path forward and get into excellent schools — learn more today about what our Advisors do.

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The Non-Traditional Path: Non-Science Majors and Medicine

We’ve covered many of the more traditional majors among students who go on to study medicine. But did you know that non-science majors, such as majors in liberal arts subjects, can also open doors to medical school?

The fact is many medical schools value opportunities to recruit students with diverse academic interests, different community and cultural backgrounds, and varied life experiences

If you’re a bit skeptical about non-science majors when it comes to success getting into medical school, it makes sense. We’ve already emphasized that the path into medical school and beyond can be exceptionally demanding.

But attitudes in the medical profession are shifting. There’s a growing recognition of the importance of promoting more diverse cohorts of medical students into health professions, in order to create a well-rounded workforce. 

As a result more schools are actively recruiting students from arts and humanities majors, alongside other students, because communication, empathy, cultural awareness and sensitivity all have a valuable role in medical settings — especially for frontline caregivers — and rigorous science classes may not do enough to foster these talents and aptitudes.

Focusing on students with strong humanities backgrounds adds diversity to our medical school class and brings humanistic qualities such as empathy and good communications skills to the student body as a whole

- Dr. Edward Abraham, professor and dean at Wake Forest School of Medicine

Also, some medical schools think it’s important for medical professionals to understand larger social policy issues and how they impact medical treatment.

For example, Tufts Medical School revamped its curriculum to address this gap in medical training. At Tufts “students begin their education with a three-week course on the social determinants of health, the U.S. health insurance system, and professionalism and ethics in medicine” before tackling the traditional science courses.

According to data collected by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges) more than half of all applicants were undergraduate biological science majors over the past five years. But what about the next tier of applicants?...Turns out they came from a wide variety of majors, including mathematics, statistics, social sciences, and the humanities.

Here’s the big picture perspective the AAMC recommends for aspiring med students who are choosing an undergraduate major:

There’s a misconception that students should major in biology or another science if they want to get into medical school. In fact, there’s no required or even preferred majors that medical schools are looking for…Medical schools want students who are authentic with genuine interests, so it’s best to major in what you want, not what you think they want. Just make sure you fulfill the prerequisite coursework for the schools you want to apply to.

That said, the AAMC also points out that it can be harder for admissions officers to evaluate your potential for success if you’re a non-science major, and you may not qualify as easily for admissions at some schools that still strongly prefer applicants with science majors. 

So it’s still a good idea to either “fulfill the prerequisite coursework for the schools you want to apply to,” or take at least some foundational science courses — at least enough science to demonstrate your readiness to take more science courses in medical school!

Finally, if focusing on your passions as an undergraduate doesn’t leave you room for all the stem courses you feel pressured to stuff into your college schedule, you might consider a post-baccalaureate degree, or a double major — both offer potential solutions for fulfilling important pre-med prerequisites while making space for other passions too!

WARNING: Some “non-traditional” approaches to medical school probably won’t harm your mental health but they may require some additional semesters of study! — But remember, your college journey is your stepping stone to your unique future, the extra semester or two may be well worth it…

Insights from Medical Professionals

If you’re feeling stuck trying to choose your major, you might want to chat with a real doctor, and get their advice. After all, they’ve already traveled the road you’re just starting on, and may have some helpful advice.

Let’s check out this thread from Student Doctor.Net and see the advice a real doctor is giving to a student struggling to choose a major:

A biophysics major is the most interesting thing to me, but what's deterring me from it is the fact that it's at a top 50 university and a very rigorous program. It might pull down my GPA for med school. So, what was/is YOUR major and how do you think it helped/is helping you for medical school? And which major do you think may help me the most?

- Student

I would pick your major based on 1) which you will do best in and 2) which you are most interested in. If you think you won't be able to perform well in biophysics, it might be a better idea to choose a different major and perhaps do a minor in biophysics if you're interested. I personally studied neurobiology and really enjoyed it!

- Doctor

A good prescription, don’t you think?...(No pun intended!)

During the global pandemic, lots of people began to worry about the toll the crisis was taking on health care workers. But if you’re someone who wants to really make a difference in others’ lives, working in healthcare and medicine could be just the right medicine.

For example, Sarah Trute, a Community Health Specialist in the UK who now works in a disability nursing role, worked in corporate desk jobs for years without any college degree. 

After eleven years she realized she wanted a career change and a job with more of a human touch. 

Sarah went back to school to study disability nursing, launching a brand new healthcare career for herself, and has no regrets: “Even after five years, my job is still fascinating as every case is unique. The role lets you manage your own caseload and you really get to know your clients.”

In addition to working with patients one-on-one, Sarah enjoys other “people-oriented” aspects of her new career, such as training other health professionals.

While Sarah finds her healthcare career invigorating, Yas Shah, a Medical student in the US at Sidney Kimmel Medical College in Philadelphia, warns aspiring med students that doubling down on intensive science coursework can lead to burnout sooner rather than later.

Mr. Shah says that the traditional learning model for med students emphasized years of intensive science study followed by years of intensive clinical practice. But this model was leading to early burnout and leaving many second- and third-year students seriously deficient in clinical skills too!

In response, says Shah, “more medical schools now prioritize earlier clinical exposure with the understanding that the vital humanistic skills of communication and empathy must be developed early on in one's career.” 

Shah said he’s grateful his school started emphasizing clinical experiencesearlier and interweaving them with classroom learning:

Although I absolutely love the science content we learn in lectures, nothing beats interactions with patients.

Sarah’s and Shah’s experiences are unique, but both might be reminders that your journey will be unique too.

It’s good to get objective information that will help you make an informed decision about the best major for your educational journey…But don’t forget to listen to your inner voice too, and ask others for their advice — real doctors, trained college advisors, friends, parents, and don’t forget your younger siblings, they know you the better than anyone! 

While rigorous courses and hard study may help you gain enough knowledge and skills to move mountains, if you lose your inner passion along the way, all your best aspirations may not be enough to get you to the top of the mountain!

The Importance of Extracurricular Activities and Clinical Experience

There’s no doubt that extracurriculars can help you demonstrate your readiness for the challenges of medical school, build a strong med school application, and help you develop important interpersonal skills — like teamwork, professional communication, and leadership skills. 

But, extracurricular activities, including volunteer roles, internships, and mentoring opportunities, can also be a valuable counterweight to hardcore book study and provide refreshing real-life learning experiences, while helping you see other parts of yourself and get fresh glimpses into possible future career paths.

Common forms of extracurricular activities in the pre-med arena include:

  • Volunteering — such as volunteering as a medical scribe, or assisting physicians in a community health or mental health clinic
  • Shadowing — a common way to get insights into the day-to-day experiences and challenges of medical practice is to shadow doctors during their clinical hours or hospital shifts
  • Research Experiences — volunteering or interning with a research team or pursuing your own research project are all ways to showcase your interest in medical science and gain hands-on learning in research methods, ethics, and protocols
  • Medical Clubs or Other Club Activities — offer great ways to socialize and learn from and with others on a pre-med pathway, and they can help you stay informed about other learning opportunities and new developments in your areas of interest
  • Leadership Roles — are often a good way to put some shine in your admissions profile and personal essay, and can help you develop really valuable interpersonal  and and communications, with possible options including student government activities, or leading or co-leading a service club or other civic initiative

Don’t underestimate the benefits of extracurricular activities — they can reward you with unique insights into your own career aptitudes and interests, help you network with others who share similar interests, or deliver unique mentorship experiences. So, when it comes to extracurriculars and worrying if you have enough time in your busy schedule…don’t waver, ***just DO it! ***

Preparing for the MCAT

According to the AAMC, the entity that administers the Medical College Admissions Test or MCAT, the score you get on the test is a principal criterion for admissions at most medical schools, along with your overall GPA, and relevant course grades.

The average MCAT score was 511.9 for students who matriculated to medical school in 2021–2022, according to the AAMC, based on 2019 data.

The typical score range for passing the test is between 472 and 528.

Most experts recommend not underestimating the importance of thoroughly preparing yourself, emphasizing the demanding nature of the exam.

Sitting for the MCAT is an ordeal that can last seven hours or more for many test takers. The MCAT tests your knowledge of major concepts from undergraduate science and social science courses: biology, chemistry, physics, biochemistry, psychology, and sociology, along with reading analysis skills, and the scientific inquiry and reasoning skills typically covered in foundational undergraduate science and social science courses. 

Even if you took all the most relevant courses in college, most authorities still highly recommend two to three months of prior preparation before sitting for the MCAT. And remember, the textbooks and notes from those college courses are good items to keep so you can review them when preparing for the MCAT.

If you didn’t take all of these courses or you took some designed for non-majors, you may want to fill some of those gaps ahead of time, and you can also allocate yourself some additional MCAT preparation and practice time. 

According to helpful MCAT prep tips from experts at Missouri State University,  “a general rule of thumb is: if the topic is covered in the introductory texts of the discipline, it is fair game for it to be addressed on the MCAT. This means that you should know the information in your general chemistry textbooks, your organic chemistry textbooks, your introductory biology textbooks, and your general physics textbooks.”

Here are some more practical steps that might help you prepare for the MCAT:

  • Learn about the MCAT Exam — the structure, types of questions and tasks involved, the subject knowledge and skills needed to succeed.
  • Leave yourself enough time to prepare — two to three months or more by many experts’ estimates, depending on your individual readiness.
  • Take the timed diagnostic test, provided by the AAMC, and make a list of the skills and topics you most need to review.
  • Take advantage of test prep resources from the AAMC or other test prep books or online or in-person MCAT prep courses. In addition to a no-cost Khan Academy course there are resources for purchase from the AAMC. And, some of the national test prep firms also market books, online courses, and in-person classes.
  • Set aside blocks of time to take additional practice tests provided by the AAMC, or use ones offered along with other MCAT study materials.
  • Use the results from your practice tests to identify areas for additional review and practice.

Finally, while some experts recommend a disciplined approach to your MCAT preparation, your journey to and through med school is a long one, and it’s important to set aside time for rest and rejuvenation too!

What Makes Crimson Different

Final Thoughts

So, what are your key takeaways from reading our guide to the best majors for medical school? We’ve covered lots of bases when it comes to all the factors to consider when choosing a major. 

But by keeping a focus on your own interests and passions and by looking at your top choices through the lens of other factors we’ve explored, perhaps you’ll be feeling more confident about your ability to make an informed decision.

And, if you ever feel stuck, remember you don't have to navigate these crossroads by yourself. At Crimson, our experienced counselors are standing by, ready to provide individualized support for choosing the best major, or other college decisions. **Crimson counselors are trained to help you figure out your best degree path and best majors…**They’re also ready to help you tackle other big decisions about college, getting you on the path that’s really right for you.

Ready to take your college planning to the next level and improve your odds of getting into great schools? Reach out to a Crimson Advisor today. Together we can explore your medical school aspirations, or any questions you have about college, and really kickstart your path to success!

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