Megan Schwehr always knew she wanted to be a doctor, even though she didn't decide on her major until her sophomore year of college.
"I wanted to pick a major that helped me get there," says the 24-year-old, who initially thought a major in biology would serve that purpose. "I actually enjoyed chemistry more than I thought I would, and it seemed to be a better fit for what I needed to get into med school -- so I switched to biochemistry."
The Idaho native earned her bachelor's degree in biochemistry with a minor in mathematics at Linfield College in Oregon. She currently attends the University of Washington School of Medicine, which ranks No. 2 among the 2020 Best Medical Schools for Primary Care.
"The classes I took catered to the MCAT perfectly," she says. "One concept that was on the test I literally learned in my molecular biology class the day before the exam."
Schwehr says that certain aspects of her undergrad education, such as its emphasis on small group discussions and interactive learning, helped her in med school, and she also says that the study habits she developed during college came in handy as a med student.
During med school, she discovered that her classmates had a wide range of college majors. "After getting to know my classmates better, I was surprised to learn how many of them had received non-biological science undergraduate degrees, such as political science, philosophy, psychology, sociology, engineering and anthropology to name a few," she says. "Overall, once we were past the biochemistry block, I did not feel that having a biological science degree gave any particular advantage over other degrees."
Nevertheless, Schwehr isn't the only premed student who studied a biology-related discipline to be accepted at a competitive medical program.
In fact, more than 45 percent of premed students accepted at the top 11 Best Medical Schools for Primary Care and the top 11 Best Medical Schools for Research in 2018 studied a major with a biological science emphasis, according to data submitted to U.S. News by 115 ranked medical schools in an annual survey.
Premedical advisers say some top-ranked medical schools are more interested in applicants who not only have good metrics in science courses but have also taken non-science electives.
"Previously, medical schools were focused upon excellent preparation for biomedical sciences," says Dr. McGreggor Crowley, an admissions counselor at the IvyWise admissions consulting firm who previously served on the Harvard Medical School admissions committee. "Over the last 15 years or so, there has been more emphasis on balance, meaning that premedical students now need to focus on these foundational biological courses and on the humanities."
Crowley says the shift is also reflected in the new MCAT, which now has a new subsection: Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior.
Yvette Perry, assistant dean for admissions and strategic enrollment with the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences in Ohio, says the revision to the MCAT marked a significant shift in the med school admissions process.
"When the MCAT changed format a few years ago, there was much more emphasis placed on topics in psychology and social science, as well as an emphasis on quantitative reasoning and critical analysis," she wrote in an email. "As such, today's medical school applicant needs to be more well-rounded in terms of academic competencies than applicants prior to the MCAT revision."
Every med school hopeful, regardless of his or her college major, will need to demonstrate that they are academically prepared for a challenging medical school curriculum, Perry adds. "The focus on majors may not be as warranted as some might think," she says.
Perry says it's ideal for premeds to choose college majors in subjects they enjoy. "The advantage for applicants to choose a major that they are actually passionate about is that they are much more likely to be able to demonstrate and articulate that interest to admissions committees and interviewers," she says. "They are also more likely to demonstrate high academic achievement in a major that they are pursuing because of interest rather than merely a desire to check off a box on an application."
A significant proportion of students at prestigious medical schools have college degrees in physical science disciplines, such as physics, chemistry and engineering. Among the top 11 research-focused medical schools, 22.4% of students had a college major which focused on physical science. Meanwhile, at the top 11 primary care programs, 19.9% of students had a physical science major.
Degrees in the social sciences and humanities at both the top medical schools for primary care and research represent only a sliver of students.
At the top 11 medical schools for primary care, 11.1% of students had focused their undergraduate education on social sciences or humanities fields, while 18.6% had a miscellaneous college major. Among the top 11 research medical schools, 14.1% of students held a degree in social sciences compared with 16.6% who had a miscellaneous type of undergrad degree.
But more interdisciplinary majors that allow students to take a mix of health studies with the traditional medical sciences, such as organic chemistry and biochemistry, have emerged in recent years, experts say.
The University of Texas--Dallas, as an example, launched a bachelor's degree in health care studies nearly six years ago. The program allows students to take classes on the history, philosophy, sociology and psychology of health care alongside courses about the health care system and its norms, according to the school's website. It also includes the lab science courses that are typically required for health professions grad programs like dental schools and medical schools.
UT--Dallas alumna Aseel Dweik, 23, says she decided on this major for her premed studies because it allowed her to take electives that suited her interests. "You get a taste of everything, and it all revolves around one field."
Dweik also earned a master's degree in biotechnology from UT--Dallas. She is currently a medical student at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and she says her undergraduate education provided her with a solid academic foundation for medical school.
Dweik says her college major helped her grasp the complexity of the health care system and empathize with the challenges faced by medical patients, both of which are necessary in order to practice medicine effectively. "My health care studies degree offered a wide array of courses like Economics of Healthcare, (the) U.S. Healthcare System, Public Health, Issues in Patient Education and Gender in Healthcare, all of which helped orient me to this reality of medicine very early on. Not to mention, they combined these illustrative classes with the more traditional premedical courses that were needed for MCAT preparation."
Michelle Grundy, director of the health professions advising office for Vanderbilt University's undergraduates, says two of the school's most popular majors for premed students are interdisciplinary: Medicine, Health, and Society being one and Neuroscience being the other.
"Both include the typical medical school recommended courses, but also allow the student to understand a broader scope of health care in general," says Grundy, who helps students put together med school applications.
The health professions adviser says that about a quarter of the Vanderbilt undergraduate student body are interested in health professions. According to Grundy, undergraduate students benefit from having a well-known, top-tier research medical school nearby. More than 75% of Vanderbilt undergrads who apply to med school were admitted on their first try, she says.
Grundy's advice to undergraduates: "Proficiency in the sciences needs to be there, but a degree in something other than the basic sciences can make a student more well-rounded in the eyes of an admissions committee."
Premed advisers say liberal arts programs can even help boost a student's profile when applying to med school.
"I find my colleagues with non-science backgrounds bring a great deal to the table," Crowley says. "They are often attuned to the psychosocial etiology of diseases and may have a leg up on understanding the complexity of illness and its effects on a patient, her family and society."
Crowley says it's a shame if med school hopefuls feel boxed into a particular college major because of their desire to become a doctor. "Students should feel free to choose whatever majors they want, not have that major dictated to them by others," he says. "That's such an unfair position to be in, and any student that feels that pressure, I commiserate with. College is about academic exploration, learning advanced problem solving and communication skills, and finding one's way in life. How unfortunate it is if a student feels her autonomy is taken away by nameless grad schools!"
He suggests that med schools may need to more clearly emphasize their willingness to accept students from a variety of academic backgrounds if premeds feel pressured to choose specific college majors. Aspiring doctors should be aware of the option to pursue non-science undergraduate majors and simultaneously take premed undergraduate courses, Crowley says. Although it is difficult to complete premed requirements alongside a non-science major, it is feasible for a serious student who is committed to the medical profession, he adds.
Dr. Mark D. Rego, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, says he would discourage most premeds from majoring in science. "As a faculty member at a major medical school (and obviously a graduate of a medical school), it is my strong opinion that unless you are passionate about science you should stay as far from science as you can in your undergrad work," he wrote in an email. "Obviously, you must take the required science base for the MCATs and for med school. If science deeply interests you, then by all means pursue it. But in most cases undergrads are taking science majors only because they believe this is the best prep for med school."
Rego says med schools do not automatically view science majors as better qualified for med school than non-science majors. "They want students to have a large amount of life experience and knowledge about the world before they become focused on their medical studies," he says.
Dr. Deane Waldman, an emeritus professor of pediatrics, pathology and decision science at the University of New Mexico, says premeds should pursue an undergraduate curriculum that not only teaches them science but also helps them become better thinkers and communicators. Waldman says a great physician is someone who is both imaginative enough to come up with innovative strategies for addressing a patient's health care challenges and eloquent enough to clearly explain treatment options to a patient.
Crowley says he is concerned that premed students who feel obligated to focus on science in college may not have sufficient opportunity to develop their academic skills outside of science, technology, engineering and math before medical school, at which point it becomes harder to find the time to develop those skills.
"A student should be 100% able to major in whatever she wants to, and that's why premedical prerequisites were created in the first place, to allow students to do really whatever they want to do academically as an undergraduate, but with the knowledge that certain courses would be necessary," Crowley says.
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