The journey to working in the medical field is challenging and time-consuming, but it’s also extremely worthwhile. Before attending medical school, you’ll spend four years as a “pre-med” student pursuing your bachelor’s degree.
Because medical school is highly competitive, it’s important to set yourself up for success by picking an excellent pre-med school. In this guide, we’ll give you the information and advice you need to choose the right pre-med school for you!
What is pre-med?
You need a bachelor’s degree to attend medical school, but there is no major called “Pre-Med.” When students call themselves pre-med, they mean that they intend to enroll in medical school. They take a series of prerequisite courses required for medical school in preparation. Most schools refer to these courses as a “pre-med track.”
These courses generally include:
- Biology with labs (2 semesters)
- Chemistry, both organic and inorganic with labs (2-4 semesters)
- Physics with labs (2 semesters)
- English (2 semesters)
- Mathematics, preferably calculus and statistics (2 semesters)
Requirements for medical school vary slightly by school. Check the prerequisites for each of the medical schools you’re most interested in applying to for specifics.
Technically, pre-med prerequisites don’t need to be part of your major. You can major in anything you want and take your pre-med requirements as elective courses. However, most aspiring doctors major in sciences such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Neuroscience, and Biochemistry. If you take this approach, your required pre-med courses will also count toward your major.
Ultimately, completing the pre-med track will prepare you for medical school and for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).
What should I do BEFORE applying to pre-med school?
Even before applying to pre-med school, you can begin preparing for your medical career as a high school student. Build your resume by taking challenging classes, earning a high GPA, and performing well on the SAT and/or ACT.
Take AP or IB math and science classes like Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Calculus, and Statistics. In addition to performing well in these subjects, pay attention and make sure you’re fully absorbing the material. Building a firm foundation in these areas will give you a big boost when it comes to taking pre-med courses and studying for the MCAT.
Participate in science and mathematics electives to round out your experience as well. If your school has programs or electives for students interested in the medical field, sign up. When possible, aim for leadership roles within these electives and organizations. Contribute as much as you can, and strive to be a strong communicator and team player.
Finally, try to gain meaningful experiences like job shadowing or volunteering in a hospital. Immersing yourself in the field as much as possible now will also help you determine whether entering the medical field is something you truly want to do. Other excellent experiences include participating in research opportunities, typically through a summer program designed for high school students interested in medical careers.
By building a strong foundation of knowledge and experience in high school, you’ll get a head start in the highly competitive field of medicine. You’ll also impress college admissions officers, learn a lot about your future career, and feel more comfortable and prepared as you begin your pre-med journey.
What academics and programs should I look for at a pre-med school?
Ideally, the college you attend will have a designated pre-med track. It should prepare you well for the MCAT with strong programs in science, mathematics, and even English, sociology, and psychology. Look for information about schools’ pre-med tracks on their official websites, on message boards and online forums, or by talking to current or former students.
You also want to attend a college where you can succeed academically. While it’s impressive to go to Princeton or Harvard, it won’t help you get into medical school if the classes are too challenging and your GPA is low. Find a school with a solid reputation and a level of rigor that you can comfortably manage. Medical school admissions are extremely competitive, and you’ll need a strong GPA.
Lastly, look for schools with relevant programs and opportunities. Medical schools want you to volunteer in the community, gain research experience, and ideally have an internship that involves patient care under your belt. Choose a school that provides access to the right opportunities for your med school resume, and you’ll increase your chances of landing at the medical school of your choice.
How much money should I spend on a pre-med school?
When considering the cost of pre-med school, remember that medical school carries a high price tag. Four years of medical school can cost you more than $200,000, often leading to years of paying off student loans. For this reason, many students and families look for affordable pre-med schools in an effort to save money and reduce debt.
The average student attending a public in-state college in the United States spends a total of $25,396 per academic year. While in-state tuition alone averages $9,308, out-of-state tuition costs closer to $26,427. Meanwhile, the average student at a private university spends a total of $53,102 per academic year, with tuition accounting for $35,801 annually.
However, most schools (including private universities) offer financial aid and/or scholarships. Apply to the pre-med schools you’re most interested in, including a few that you and your family consider more affordable. Then, see what financial aid or merit aid packages you qualify for, and make your decision accordingly.
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Should I go to a pre-med school near or far from home?
The proximity of your pre-med school to your home is ultimately up to you, but there are a few factors to consider.
If you’re attending a public college, a school in your home state will cost significantly less than an out-of-state school. Staying close to home is often a wise decision if cutting costs is a priority for you.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to attend a pre-med school located near an academic hospital or several area hospitals. Proximity to hospitals gives you a better chance of securing clinical experiences and internships, even if there’s a reasonable amount of competition. If you attend college in a rural area, you may struggle to find these opportunities.
So, consider cost and access to opportunities when choosing the best location for your pre-med school. You can also think about climate, how often you’d like to visit your family and hometown, and the amount of family support you think you’ll need during your pre-med studies.
What GPA will I need in undergrad to go to medical school?
Admissions officers advise aspiring medical school students to aim for a GPA of 3.5 or higher. If you want to compete for a spot at one of the most prestigious medical schools, however, you’ll need to earn an even stronger GPA.
When medical schools evaluate your GPA, they will look at your science GPA, your non-science GPA, and your total GPA. Your science GPA refers to the grades you earn in your medical school prerequisite courses, such as biology, math, physics, and chemistry. Your non-science GPA is your grade point average in all other classes, while your total or cumulative GPA is the standard GPA that appears on your college transcript.
Different medical schools weight these GPAs differently, but all of them should be a 3.5 or higher to be competitive. Many medical schools will not even consider applicants who have a GPA of 3.0 or lower.
According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the average science GPA for 2020-2021 medical school matriculants was 3.64. The average non-science GPA was 3.82, and the average total GPA was 3.73.
Meanwhile, the average GPA for entering students at the top 10 primary care medicine programs (per U.S. News) was 3.78. Among the top 10 research-focused medical schools, the average GPA was 3.87. At some top schools, the average GPA is even higher. For example, Harvard Medical School’s class of 2024 had an average GPA of 3.9.
So, what GPA do you need in undergrad to go to medical school? Aim for at least a 3.5. But if you want to attend a top tier medical school, you’ll need closer to a 3.8 to compete for one of the most coveted med school spots.
Of course, GPA is not the only factor medical schools consider, and some students do gain entrance to medical schools with lower GPAs. If your GPA is slightly less competitive than you’d like, you can try to balance it with a high MCAT score and impressive volunteer, internship, and research experiences in clinical settings and the medical field.
What MCAT score will I need in undergrad to go to medical school?
The MCAT is a 7.5-hour test required for admission to medical school. It consists of four sections, each scored from 118-132 points. You’ll also earn an overall score ranging from 472-578.
For each section, the median score for medical school applicants is 125, while the average overall score is a 500. Experts recommend aiming for a 509 or higher, which should place you around the 80th percentile of MCAT scores.
According to AAMC data, the average total MCAT score for 2020-2021 medical school matriculants was 511.5. In comparison, the average Harvard Medical School student earned a 519.82 on the MCAT, while their peers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine had an average MCAT score of 522.
Ultimately, the score you need depends on the medical school(s) you want to attend. Research the admissions statistics at your top choice medical schools. Then, aim for an MCAT score and GPA that fits their data. Scoring a 510 or higher on the MCAT will get you into many medical schools, but you’ll need 8-10 additional points if you have your sights set on Harvard or Johns Hopkins.
What major can I choose if I don’t want to do pre-med anymore?
If you decide pre-med is not for you, you can switch to any major you want. The drawback is that changing majors can extend your time in college, costing you more time and money.
Fortunately, deciding not to pursue medical school doesn’t necessarily mean you need to change majors. For instance, there are many other careers you can pursue with a degree in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, or Statistics. If you decide your abilities and interests don’t match up with these fields at all, however, changing majors is probably the right choice for you.
For these reasons, you should consider how committed you are to medical school when deciding on your undergraduate major. If you’re unsure about med school, focus on choosing a major that genuinely interests you. That way, if you change your mind about medical school, you’re already in a major you love headed toward a career that excites you.
Remember, you can always take medical school prerequisites as electives. Today, many med school students actually major in social sciences or humanities in undergrad. After all, great doctors need more skills than math and science. Communication, empathy, leadership, teamwork, and the ability to speak other languages all come in handy.
Final Thoughts: How to Pick a Pre-Med School
To choose the right pre-med school for you, consider factors such as:
- Location, including proximity to relevant opportunities
- Strength of math/science programs
- Your ability to succeed academically there
- Culture fit
Once you’re on the pre-med track, remember the importance of earning a high GPA and a solid MCAT score. In general, aim for at least a 3.5 and a 509. If you’re interested in attending a top tier medical school, aim higher, like a 3.8 and a 519.
It’s certainly challenging to attain these scores, but you can begin preparing now by taking relevant AP/IB courses, pursuing related opportunities and extracurriculars, and volunteering at a local hospital.
When it comes to choosing the right pre-med school, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Where you go to undergrad does not factor into your medical school chances as much as you might expect. Go somewhere you’ll perform well and get adequate preparation and opportunities, work hard, and the rest will fall into place.