How to Navigate Pre-Med Courses as a Non-Science Major
Updated: Mar 22
Welcome to part 2 of our blog series about choosing college majors. If you've already read part 1, feel free to skip to the new material focusing on declaring a non-science major, while still on the pre-med track. If you haven't read part 1, I highly recommend reading that post first, as I tackle some foundational ideas about how students should determine their intended major.
As college counselors, we are frequently asked by students how they should choose a college major. Many are terrified to say they're undecided, typically because they feel that not knowing will reflect poorly in the college admissions process. Others have yet to discover an area of study that feels meaningful, or they haven't quite figured out where there academic strengths and interests lie. For what it's worth, most high schools don't offer courses in the majority of areas of study students can major in. It's rare for high schools to offer courses in neuroscience, anthropology, finance, etc., and those that do typically only offer one introductory course that often doesn't explore the majority of what each of those fields has to offer.
On the other hand, we oftentimes work with students who have "known", seemingly for their entire young lives, what they want to study and how that degree might translate to a future career goal. Most of these discussions revolve around a pre-med track, engineering, computer science, or business, likely because careers in these fields seemingly yield financial stability and a wide-open job market. But the majority of students who feel strongly that they have their path already planned are surprised by what they discover in college about job prospects/opportunities and requirements for graduate school in their chosen field.
For example, nine out of ten students who claim to want to attend medical school in the future believe they must acquire a degree in a hard science, such as biology or chemistry. I was this student (pre-med track, biology major--I had every intention of being an Oncologist). The reasoning isn’t entirely unfounded, to be clear. There are certain coursework pre-requisites to qualify as an applicant to medical school (specifically in the USA), mostly in the hard sciences and mathematics. But what most high school students don’t understand quite yet is that the degree they obtain in college only amounts to about half the coursework credit required to graduate and receive said degree. And it should be noted that most medical schools are more interested in students who study subjects outside of the sciences and take a more interdisciplinary approach to their educations. After all, medicine is an incredibly interdisciplinary field.
The remainder of part 2 in this blog series will highlight how to navigate staying on a pre-med track while majoring in a subject outside of the hard sciences.
Pre-Med Non-Science Major
One school that comes up often for students who are interested in studying a pre-medical track is the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Below I will share their pre-health course and general education requirements for undergraduates, as well as the requirements for admission to UCLA's medical school:
Please note that UCLA is on a quarter schedule, and full-time undergraduate students take 3-4 courses each quarter (12 units--some colleges call them credits or credit hours-- are required for full-time student status) for a minimum of three quarters each year. As an undergraduate student on a pre-health track in any major, UCLA requires the following coursework:
1 year (3 quarters) of biology with a lab component
1 year (3 quarters) of general chemistry with a lab component
1 year (3 quarters) of organic chemistry with a lab component
1 course (1 quarter) in biochemistry
1 year (3 quarters) of mathematics (some medical schools require statistics, but calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, or biostatistics will suffice at most)
1 year (3 quarters) of physics with a lab component
1 year (3 quarters) of college level English/writing
For medical school specifically, they also recommend 1 year (3 quarters) of psychology and/or sociology.
Most colleges also have general education (GE) requirements that every student must complete to graduate. Generally, each major makes up only about half of the required credits for graduation. Below is UCLA's GE requirements by college:
*This graphic is from UCLA's website and you can find more information about GE requirements here.*
Continuing with the UCLA example, students are required to complete a minimum 180 units to graduate. Depending on their major, a certain portion of those credits are the GE requirements (see chart above), but that leaves around 60-80 credits (depending on major) to be completed outside of one's major to fulfill graduation requirements.
I'll use a psychology major at UCLA as an example:
47 units minimum of GE requirements (10 courses)
65 units minimum of psychology major requirements (17 courses)
That means that the psychology and GE portions of a students degree only amount to 112 of the 180 units required to graduate, which leaves space for at least 68 more units of coursework. Many of the pre-health course requirements overlap with both the GE and major requirements. More specifically, the pre-health track requires about 84 units, but 21 of those units also meet the GE requirements for that department (Letters and Science), and another 20 or so units of the psychology major overlap with pre-health coursework. All this to say, there is plenty of room to complete a major outside of the hard sciences, in addition to a pre-health track, and still graduate on time!
I also want to share UCLA's medical school requirements. And while not all medical schools operate in the same way, many share similar values and expectations of their applicants.
To quote their medical school admissions page:
"We adhere to the principle that college years not only prepare students for professional schools, but also provide opportunities for creative intellectual engagement, promote enthusiasm for lifelong learning, and engender psychosocial maturity. The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA does not evaluate specific prerequisite coursework. Instead, applicants are given the flexibility to demonstrate mastery of competency areas throughout their unique academic history. To lay the foundation of success in medical school, we recommend applicants demonstrate the following key competencies through the successful completion of college-level coursework."
Instead of requiring specific coursework, they go on to explain that competency in various subject areas is far more important and informative in the admissions process. They look for applicants who have foundational knowledge, skills, and awareness in the following categories:
Biological Sciences and Physiology: Cellular and Molecular Biology and Genetics
Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Physical Sciences: Inorganic and Organic chemistry, Biochemistry of intermediary metabolism, and associated laboratory activities
Humanities: This might include literature and/or art, history, philosophy, religion, ethics, economics, social behavior, psychology
Mathematics and Statistics: This might include biomathematics, computer science, matrix algebra
Writing and communication skills
Clinical Experiences: We value a sustained interest and commitment to medicine
Health care delivery: This could include courses and/or experiences that deal with the ethical, legal, political, public health, scientific and moral challenges facing health care and health care delivery
If it's not yet clear, the point I am making is that you can major in anything of particular interest or intrigue and still be a qualified (or perhaps even more qualified) candidate for medical school applications at top-tier programs.
Advice for navigating the pre-med route in college:
Get hands-on experience outside of the classroom in some medical capacity. This can be an internship, physician shadowing, research, or anything else that shows engagement in the field. Medical school admission committees want to see that you've explored the field and have determined it is a good fit.
Plan ahead. Map out your courses for the entirety of your college education, and have at least two or three variants of this map. There's no guarantee you'll get the elective you want in the semester you want it, so make sure to be flexible and leave space for these subtle changes while still ensuring your graduation in four years.
Good luck (but I know you won't need it),
Jessica Chermak, LPC, CEP
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors