Getting Started (the Freshman and Sophomore years)

Tell me the Basics

Right then. Now that we’ve scared off the weak, let’s get into the foundational stuff. This part is for Freshman and Sophomore pre-meds; if you’re a non-traditional student (e.g. military veteran, second-career, have ever said “get off my lawn”) then bugger off to the section entitled Non-Trads. You’ve got your own set of problems I’ll discuss, but this bit is for the people who are only now just discovering the joys of waking up drunk next to strangers.

If there’s going to be a time in their life that pre-meds repent (assuming they remember them), it’s almost without exception going to be their early undergrad years. Plunged into a new academic environment in which no one apparently cares if you show up to class, and everyone is drunk, naked, and dancing on a regular basis, it’s fall-on-your-face easy to have a good time and let the grades fall where they may. While this is doubtless a sound plan if you’re say, a philosophy major, it’s absolute murder on a pre-med’s prospects.

If you’re reading this late in your Freshman year or sometime during your Sophomore year and you already have a few party-fueled “C” grades on your transcript, don’t despair. Despite such grades causing frowny faces for some AdComs, most will understand that the first year of college is one of experimentation and will tend to look more leniently on poor grades in your Freshman year than they will on such grades in your Junior and Senior years. So, if you’re going to be a screw-up, earlier is better than later.

Should you have poor grades early on, it’s absolutely vital that you demonstrate improvement. Pulling a few “C” grades early on, followed by “B” and “A” grades as you progress onward is a sign of growing maturity, and will be viewed as such by AdComs. Of course, ideally you want to have good grades all the way through, but a “C” here and there won’t kill you (and shouldn’t make you want to kill yourself).

Does GPA matter?

Of course it does. Your GPA is second only to the many-headed beast called MCAT in the eyes of most medical schools. Medical schools (via AMCAS and AACOMAS, which are application services I’ll talk about later) see your GPA broken down into two numbers: your overall undergraduate GPA (uGPA), which includes everything, and your BCPM GPA, which is your GPA for your Math, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics classes. They do this because they want to make sure that your high uGPA isn’t full of touchy-feely easy-“A” classes masking an abysmal performance in science and math. If touchy-feely classes do it for you, that’s cool, but you need to do well in your science classes too.

Okay, so what classes do I take?

Well, mostly you can take whatever you like, as long as you get a Bachelor’s degree. There are some universally mandatory courses though, which I’ll get to in a moment. We should be very clear here: you can take whatever classes you want. There is no magical degree for medical school, and lunging toward a Biology, Chemistry, or Bio/Chem double-major isn’t going to impress anyone. Now that you’ve read this, don’t act all shocked if you decide to do it anyway and find yourself one of a teeming mass of Bio/Chem double-majors applying for medical school. It certainly won’t hurt you to have such a degree (except that you won’t stand out very much) but it won’t be as earth-shatteringly awesome as you hope, either.

The best advice is for you to take, in addition to the required courses, something that interests you. Me, I like aircraft, so I got a degree in Aeronautics. It was a talking point at interviews and definitely didn’t hurt my application. So if you’re fascinated by Politics, consumed by Philosophy, or delight in the creative arts, then by all means earn a degree in what you enjoy. Medical schools are increasingly looking for well-rounded individuals (i.e. not the pre-med zombie of yore) and more schools are doing the happy dance for non-science majors than ever before. The MCAT and BCPM will prove your scientific chops, so no worries there, and you’ll be an attractive candidate with a proven range of interests. Also consider the idea of mixing it up, such as getting a Chemistry degree with a minor in Philosophy.

What if I’m at a Community College?

The blunt answer is that you need to get into a four-year institution at the first possible opportunity. Sure, you can definitely have some courses from a community college, or even an Associate’s Degree from one, but medical school AdComs tend to get sad faces when prerequisite courses are taken at a two-year school. Don’t freak out, little friends, it’s not the end of the world if you went to Community College for a while (I did) but you’ll need to earn a four-year degree anyway and four-year schools usually have more rigorous science courses (hence the preference by AdComs).

What if I attended a bunch of different schools?

Meh, no worries. It’ll be annoying when you apply, as you’ll have to send a transcript in from every school, but as long as you get a Bachelor’s Degree from some accredited four-year institution, you’ll be fine.

So what are the required courses?

The prerequisite courses for medical schools are identical for a core group of courses, with some schools requiring additional courses. The gold standard for finding out what schools require what courses is a book entitled Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR). The MSAR is available at most bookstores (including the online ones) and libraries, and is an awesome resource. Browsing a copy during your early undergrad career is a good idea for planning out your academic schedule, especially if you’re already prancing around telling people you’re going to Hopkins or Stanford (incidentally, stop that). These schools have additional requirements you’ll need to plan for in order to apply.

The basic courses are:

General Chemistry with Lab – Two Semesters
Organic Chemistry with Lab – Two Semesters
General Biology with Lab – Two Semesters
Physics (Algebra- or Calculus-based) – Two Semesters
English – Two Semesters
Mathematics (College Algebra or higher) – Two Semesters

Lots of schools have additional requirements and most recommend (not require!) additional courses. Hopkins, for example, requires two semesters of Calculus, while the University of Colorado requires three semesters of English. Many schools require or recommend Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Information Technology, Genetics, and other such courses. The MSAR is the go-to resource for this information, and you should stick your nose in it anytime you’re planning your courses.

Can I leave all those courses until last?

Yes, but only if you’re an idiot, or if you have absolutely no choice in the matter. Ideally, get right into the sciences your Freshman year, taking General Chemistry and Biology. This will get you nicely prepared to take Organic Chemistry in your Sophomore year. Many science courses, especially Organic Chemistry, are extremely time-consuming and require a lot of effort to ensure an “A”. If you try to cram all of your difficult courses in at the end of your degree, you’ll screw up studying for the MCAT and find yourself exhausted.

If you’re already in your Sophomore year and you’ve avoided taking any science courses so far, jump right in immediately, especially on the Chemistry courses. Don’t dress in sackcloth and smear ashes on your face just yet, but realize that you really need to stay on top of your science courses, because they can bite you if you neglect them. By taking care of your science prerequisites at a steady pace, you’ll put yourself on a nice trajectory to finish everything and be well prepared for your MCAT and Application without burning out in the process.

Nice. So, do you have any other advice for Freshmen/Sophomores?

Of course I do, I’m not just a pretty face here.

The first and most important bit of advice here is to stay healthy. I’m not just talking about physically (although hitting the gym once in a while is definitely a good idea), but also mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually healthy. Undergrad is a challenging time in many ways, and it’s going to be harder on you because of your medical aspirations. Studying is important, but make sure you maintain friendships and family ties, keep up on hobbies and sports, and take some time for quiet reflection once in a while. You’ll be healthier for it, and your performance will be better. This stuff is the key to avoiding burnout, so neglect this advice at your peril.

Consider finding a mentor, preferably a pre-med in their senior year or a professor familiar with the pre-med process. Never underestimate the value of having someone who knows what lies ahead on your path, and what pitfalls are along the way. You don’t have time to make every mistake yourself, so learn from the experiences of others! In time, you’ll serve this role for someone else, perhaps.

Look into joining the campus Pre-Med group. Sure, some of the people will so self-absorbed that if they were any more self-centered they’d implode and turn into a black hole, but there will also be some awesome people in there too. It’s likely you’ll find some folks who are at the same point in their education that you are, and perhaps you’ll make some friends to share your undergrad pre-med journey. Such groups are also great places to find mentors, and the meetings will often have speakers or subjects of interest to you.

Develop good academic habits. If you’re struggling in a subject, ask for help. Don’t flail about expecting someone to run to your rescue; you’re a college student now and responsibility for your grades rests entirely on your shoulders. If your school has a tutoring center, use it. If your current study habits aren’t working, examine ways of changing them. Adaptability is vital for academic success.

Finally, keep your eyes on your goal. You’re going to have some rough times ahead, but try to keep it in perspective. Sure, that Chemistry exam is scary, but it beats the crap out of struggling to stay alive in some third-world hellhole.