The Future Physician’s Guide to Medical School Prerequisites
Aspiring physicians should focus on their undergraduate (or postbaccalaureate) education before even thinking about starting medical school applications. Each program has specific course requirements to ensure that students are prepared for a rigorous curriculum once they begin studying medicine—some of those courses are actually great preparation for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
While the specifics can vary from one institution to the next, there are a handful of standard medical school prerequisites as well as some potentially required courses you should know about.
Focus on courses that are usually required for medical school
Believe it or not, many medical schools have a pretty short list of prerequisites. The Ontario Medical School Application Services (OMASAS) program overview indicates that some Canadian schools don’t have any prerequisites at all. Additionally, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) only mentions four subjects as ones students will likely have to study.
The situation varies even more for medical schools that offer entrance paths for Canadian medical schoool candidates and international students who come from different education systems. St. George’s University (SGU), for instance, offers seven-year, six-year, and five-year degree options, in addition to the standard four-year program. This enables international medical students from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), India, Lebanon, Thailand, South Korea, and countless other countries to pursue a medical education. That said, it’s important to have a solid foundation in math and science.
With that in mind, every student should plan to complete coursework in the four subjects listed below either before they start a four-year program or before the medical portion of a lengthier program.
Biology: This subject helps students develop foundational knowledge of basic principles, such as cellular structure and function, energy storage and transformation, genetics, and evolution. A lab component is typically required.
General chemistry: Completing coursework (and labs) in general chemistry helps students to apply the scientific process as they learn about chemical bonding, gas laws, solution properties, and acid-base equilibria. “I think chemistry is helpful not necessarily in answering questions on a test but for understanding concepts,” says Amber Hughes, a second-year medical student at SGU.
Organic chemistry: By attending organic chemistry lectures and labs, students develop their knowledge of the structure and reactions of carbon-containing compounds.
English: While English may seem like an unusual requirement, medical schools look for students who are critical thinkers. Physicians also need to be able to convey information clearly, so good writing skills are essential. International students who attend SGU have the opportunity to further develop relevant oral and written communication skills as part of a structured language program as they work toward their medical degrees.
There are a few more requirements for students applying to schools through the Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Services (TMDSAS) and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), but each of those are included in most medical schools’ recommended courses, which you should complete if you’re able to fit them into your schedule.
Complete recommended prerequisite courses for medical school as needed
While most medical schools consider the below courses to be optional, you’ll soon see that it’s a good idea to consider incorporating them into your education if at all possible.
Biochemistry: This course helps students develop their knowledge of the structure and function of biological molecules. Keep in mind that 25 percent of the first MCAT section covers biochemistry concepts. “It’s a harder class, so you have to put in a lot of work, but it’s going to pay off for the MCAT,” Hughes says.
Genetics: Because it covers how traits are inherited and the ways in which DNA affects health, genetics is a useful subject for pre-med students.
Physics: Generally speaking, physics is the study of matter and how it moves. It’s an important subject for pre-med students because many of these concepts are relevant to the medical field.
Math: “It’s good to take math—you still use it in medical school,” Hughes explains. A few examples include converting measurements for a patient’s chart or leveraging ratios to determine a medication dosage. Be sure to look into whether schools require a specific course, such as calculus.
Microbiology: In this course, you can expect to learn about the characteristics of microorganisms and how they interact with their environments. It serves as a foundation for understanding how microbes can be both harmful and beneficial.
Physiology: Building off basic biological principles, physiology focuses on how organ systems function. It’s often referred to as “the basis of medicine.”
Social science: Learning about human behavior by studying psychology, sociology, or something similar is important for understanding how to work with patients—and it’s good exam practice. “There is a psychology and sociology section on the MCAT,” Hughes says. “Neuroscience was my major, so I already knew about the different psychology theories they tested.”
Plan an effective pre-med education strategy
Because pre-med isn’t a major in itself, undergraduate students should be thoughtful about deciding which degree path is best for them. For Hughes, the decision to pursue neuroscience was pretty logical.
“When I chose my major, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t having to do pre-med plus a major,” she says, adding that selecting a program with few science courses would mean she’d need to take additional classes to meet medical school requirements. What should you do if you’re having trouble deciding? Hughes has some advice.
“You want to choose a major that you know you can succeed in while prioritizing your pre-med classes,” she offers.
Timing your medical school prerequisites is also important if you’re currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree or a similar type of degree. While most programs allow students to complete the medical school application process before they’ve completed all required coursework, it’s still a good idea to complete those courses early. For example, Hughes started addressing prerequisites during her first year of college. Also remember that studying some of those subjects is great preparation for the MCAT, which is typically required by four-year medical schools.
If you’ve already graduated, take stock of which courses you may be missing, then work to complete them as you’re able to. Depending on how many course requirements you need to fulfill, completing a pre-med postbaccalaureate program may be a good option. Students considering an alternative entrance option, such as a six-year medical program, will likely be able to complete many of those courses once they begin their studies.
Move past med school prerequisites
Once you have a clearer understanding of the medical school prerequisites you’ll need to complete, you can start to focus on polishing off other application components and even preparing for interviews. In fact, taking the time to practice speaking about your accomplishments and experiences is essential for representing yourself well during interviews.
Learn more about how you can prepare for these all-important conversations by reading our article “How to Prepare for Medical School Interviews: Steps for Success.”