Patrick R. Saxe
Each year at Open House I am asked: “In what subject should I major if I plan to apply to medical school?” or “Is it better to major in Biology, or can I major in English, since I like English and do very well in that subject?” or “Why don’t you have a pre-med Major? The College of XYZ does.”
The old pre-med advising maxim is: “It doesn’t matter what your major is, as long as you take the prerequisite pre-med science courses.” To back that up (or rather to refute it somewhat), and hopefully not confuse the issue, I present some interesting statistics for entering class of 2001, compiled by the American Association of Medical Colleges (see Figure 1).
The average acceptance rate into US allopathic (M.D.) medical colleges, for all undergraduate majors is 50.1% (See Figure 1). When you consider the subcategory of majors we call the traditional humanities, then the acceptance rate is 50%. While that for the traditional science majors is 49%. The average acceptance rates for these two subcategories of majors are not significantly different from each other and neither is different from the average for all majors. This suggests that students majoring in one of the traditional sciences do not have an unfair advantage over non-science majors.
This supports the old advising maxim. But that is not all of the story: the devil is in the details. Note that the average GPA of all successful (i.e., accepted) candidates is 3.60 (see Figure 1). Also note that there are some majors that have higher than average acceptance rates but GPAs that are more than 0.02 points lower than the average. In other words, students in some majors compete better than expected based on their GPA (although the differences between most majors still are quite small). Specifically, these majors are:
English, History, Natural Science, and Political Science.
These results have several possible explanations. For example, medical school admissions committees might perceive these majors as a bit more challenging to the average pre-med so that a lower GPA is acceptable. Alternatively, and I believe this is more likely, these students bring to medical school a broader perspective. As a result they are slightly favored in the admissions process over the average applicant.
In contrast, some majors have lower than average acceptance rates, but GPAs more than 0.02 points higher than the average. Specifically, these majors are: Medicine, Zoology, Microbiology, Pre-med and Computer Science.
Once again, there are several possible explanations: One is that these majors are perceived as suffering from grade INFLATION (i.e., the majors are easier than others so grades are consequently higher). I don’t believe this is likely with these particular majors. Alternatively, it is possible that these students are better than average but are perceived as being too narrow in academic focus, and therefore less desirable when it comes to rounding out the medical school’s entering class. Moreover, the least successful majors (acceptance rates below 46%) include those that are very narrow or preprofessional in focus (e.g., Pre-med, Nursing, Education, Computer Science, Medical Technology) or simply non-focussed or too general (e.g., No Major, General Studies). On the other hand, the most successful majors include many of those in the traditional Liberal Arts and Sciences.
So, the general pre-med advising rule: “It doesn’t matter what your major is” may not be strictly true. However, these data support another pre-med advising maxim: “Medical schools want students to have a solid, well rounded Liberal Arts education.” Thus, specializing in a medical area for an undergraduate degree (e.g., Medical Technology) is too limiting to intellectual development (and that is why we don’t offer a pre-med major). The list of less successful majors implies even more about career choice and career preparedness: Medical schools want students to get a broad education but at the same time demonstrate an interest and knowledge about a career in medicine (that is why they expect to see some medically related extracurricular activities in the candidate’s curriculum vitae). Choosing a major with a specific, non-medical preprofessional career identity (such as Education) gives the perception that the student is not serious (or realistic) about medicine as their all consuming passion. Ironically, it does not help the candidate to give the impression that they have thought about what to do if they did not get in to medical school, even though they must plan for that possibility. A good solution to this conundrum is a Liberal Education.
So what do I tell my advisees now? As always, the best course is a middle one. “Choose any Liberal Arts and Sciences major we have here, just make sure it is something you enjoy and one in which you will excel. Double major if you so choose. Whatever your choice, make sure your program is rigorous and demanding -- you must prove you can manage a heavy load and still have a life. As contradictory as it seems, you must learn broadly about the world, learn how to write and express yourself, and learn how to learn, in order to prepare yourself for the inevitable specialization that is medicine. And you must be sure to have fun along the way.”
|Double Major (Sci+non)||62.4%||908||4.2%||3.62|
|Double Major (non Sci)||61.2%||142||0.7%||3.63|
|Double Major (Sci+Sci)||52.9%||450||2.4%||3.67|
|ALL Applicants (34862)||50.1%||17445||80.7%||3.60|