Best Major for Medical School: Is There A Perfect Degree?

Padya Paramita

Best Major for Medical School: Is There A Perfect Degree?

If you’ve taken pre-med courses and are wondering what concentration would be the most strategic selection for you, an interest in medicine often comes with the question of whether there is such a thing as the best major for medical school. Your love for medicine could automatically indicate that you’re interested in majoring in biology or chemistry, but it’s definitely not unheard of for pre-med students to be curious about English, math, or economics. 

While it’s true that medical schools have no strict restrictions when it comes to undergraduate majors for applicants, you need to make sure you meet all the prerequisites. To guide you through selecting the best major for medical school, I’ve outlined data from current medical students, how humanities majors fare in the admissions process, and gone over the question of whether there is a perfect degree when it comes to applying to medical school.

Best Major for Medical School: What the Data Looks Like

When considering the best major for medical school, you might assume that you need to stick to an area within the biological sciences, such as human biology, neuroscience, or physiology in order to be a strong applicant. Even though 55% of matriculated students in 2018-19 were biological sciences majors, there was also a significant proportion of students who had explored other disciplines. While it makes sense that many students who are interested in medicine primary want to concentrate in STEM fields, students who applied (and matriculated) into medical school also had majored in the humanities, math and statistics, physical, social sciences, specialized sciences, and more. 

According to the AAMC, the field distribution for students who applied to medical school in 2018-2019 and the candidates who matriculated looks like this:

Major Category Number of Applicants Number of Matriculants
Biological Sciences 29,443 11,843
Humanities 1,689 797
Math and Sciences 353 168
Other 9,546 3,843
Physical Sciences 4,807 2,214
Social Sciences 5,143 2,107
Specialized Health Sciences 1,796 650

Unsurprisingly, more than half of the applicants were biology majors. However, there is a significant portion of students who had other majors as well. If you have another interest, you should not feel any less hopeful about your future in the field. Plus, if you really cannot choose between courses in biology or biochemistry alongside another field such as history or English, you can always opt for a double major, or a major and a minor.

Having seen that, if you’re interested in majoring in history, philosophy, or economics, you now know that you don’t have to drop all your plans. You can still major in a non-science course, as long as you make sure you’ve planned out your pre-med courses. Make a checklist so that you can tick off biology, biochemistry, inorganic and organic chemistry, physics, math and whichever humanities and English classes you should be taking. Check out these MD schools which had a significant proportion of humanities and social science majors in their first-year class this year.

Medical School Total Number of Matriculants Percentage of Humanities and Social Science Majors
University of California - Irvine School of Medicine 104 36%
Brown University (Warren Alpert Medical School) 144 34%
University of Pennsylvania (Perelman School of Medicine) 150 29%
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 134 29%
University of Vermont (Larner College of Medicine) 119 25%
University of Rochester School of Medicine 104 21%
Columbia University (Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons) 140 21%
Hofstra University (Zucker School of Medicine) 100 20%
Emory School of Medicine 140 24%
Wake Forest School of Medicine 145 19%
East Carolina University (Brody School of Medicine) 86 19%

I’ve provided the class size to exemplify exactly how competitive the medical school admissions process is along with the percentage of non-science majors for perspective. When you look at the two numbers side-by-side, 19% of 86 students be non-science majors indicates that they still make up a significant part of the cohort.

Prioritize Finishing Your Prerequisites

The most important factor when it comes to thinking about the best major for medical school lies in making sure that you have space to take the necessary pre-med classes alongside your major requirements. Take a look at prerequisites at the top MD schools, and plan a tentative schedule for the next four years with your pre-med advisor. Yes, medical schools take the prereqs very seriously! You cannot be considered for admission if you haven’t fulfilled them. You’ve probably noted that these prerequisites do also include at least one humanities course and at least one English class for most schools - so no matter what you major in, your required classes are bound to overlap with pre-med requirements.

In case you decide towards the end of your undergrad or when you’re in the working world that you wish to attend medical school and you weren’t pre-med in college, it’s not the end. You still have time to take a gap year and take post-bac classes! If you take a gap year to complete these, they could interfere with other ways you can spend your time such as studying for the MCAT, finding jobs that allow you to get patient exposure, and actually working on your application. It’s typically ideal to get these courses under your belt during undergrad, so you might want to plan early so that you can make sure you’re checking the courses off. That way, you’ll save yourself time down the line.

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Is There a Best Major for Medical School?

An easy answer might be that biology-related subjects help you the most, but determining the best major for medical school is more nuanced than that. While concentrating in biology, neuroscience, or biochemistry might better prepare you for the MCAT, the data shows that there is no direct correlation that provides biology students more of an advantage in the MD admissions process. Out of the 29,443 students with majors in the biological sciences applied to medical schools in 2018–2019, the matriculation rate for that group was roughly 40%, which is slightly lower than the rate for students who majored in the humanities, physical sciences, and math and statistics. But keep in mind, it is also a larger pool of applicants coming from STEM fields - studying the humanities or something more dynamic can make you more unique! Just studying biology makes you more “typical.” From an application strategy perspective, it can make students more distinguishable!

A study conducted in December 2018 by the US National Library of Medicine within the National Institute of Health found that medical students with backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences have been more effective when it comes to communicating with patients. So, the answer is, no, there is not a single perfect degree. When you apply to college, as long as you make sure you’ve met all your pre-med distributions, you should choose any major that resonates with you. You need to keep up science GPA though, so make sure your schedule allows you to find the time to study for and ace your organic chemistry exams. 

The following table summarizes the pros and cons of studying STEM as a pre-med and humanities before medical school:

Pros of Studying STEM Pros of Studying Humanities
Taking a majority of STEM classes better prepares you for the MCAT. You’ll stand out more when compared to a “typical” applicant.
You don’t have to go out of your way to take pre-med courses. More likely to effectively communicate with patients.
Biology is the most common major among medical students. Humanities students make up a large portion of a medical school class, so you won't be alone.

When the time comes to choose what you want to study in college and you’re wondering about the best major for medical school, don’t worry too much. If you carefully plan out how you’ll take classes within your major that don’t count for your pre-med requirements early, you can essentially major in anything that interests you. If you’re a biology, chemistry, neuroscience, or biochemistry major, you might find the MCAT study process easier than humanities majors. On the other hand, medical school admissions committees appreciate seeing candidates who bring a different perspective, so a senior thesis on a niche topic in sociology or European history could definitely work in your favor. Draw a pros and cons list to decide which route works the best for you and keep your requirements in mind. Good luck!

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