What Courses Are Required for Pre-Med Students?

Academic Prerequisites to Apply to Medical School

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Traditionally, medical schools have required prospective students (pre-meds) to complete certain undergraduate courses to gain admission. The rationale behind these prerequisite courses is that students need a strong foundation in the lab sciences, humanities, and other disciplines to succeed in medical school and later as a physician.

While this is still the case for most U.S. medical schools, some schools are doing away with the requirement for prerequisite coursework. They choose instead to evaluate each student’s application holistically, deciding on a case-by-case basis whether a student has acquired the competencies necessary to be successful in medicine.

Pre-Med Course Requirements

Every medical school has its own set of courses required of applicants. However, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), pre-meds should have, as a minimum, the following classes:

  • One year of English 
  • Two years of chemistry (through organic chemistry)
  • One year of biology 

Regardless of what the required coursework is, students should know that mastery of certain subject matter is necessary for the MCAT. Concepts that you may encounter on the MCAT are usually taught in college biology, biochemistry, physics (with their corresponding laboratory courses), as well as psychology and sociology. Concepts from college math and English are also fair game for the test. Students should plan on taking these courses before taking the MCAT.

Required Pre-Med Courses

Prerequisite coursework is set by the admissions committee of each medical school and can vary from school to school. You can usually find specifics by consulting the medical school’s website. However, there is substantial overlap between most prerequisite lists. Also, by taking the courses you need to prepare for the MCAT, you will have already knocked out much of the basic list.

Schools usually require one year of each of the following:

  • General biology
  • General chemistry
  • Organic chemistry
  • Physics

The corresponding laboratory courses will typically also be required. Medical schools differ on whether AP, IB or online credits are accepted for these foundational sciences, and it is best to check their websites for full details.

Beyond these, the required coursework will vary. At least a semester of advanced biology such as biochemistry or genetics may be necessary. As physicians must be proficient in written communication, many admissions committees also require English or other writing intensive courses. 

Medical school requirements for humanities and mathematics also differ. Examples of relevant humanities courses include foreign languages, anthropology, ethics, philosophy, theology, literature, or art history. Mathematics courses may include calculus or other college mathematics. 

Additional Recommended Pre-Med Courses

Once you have completed the prerequisite courses, you may decide to take additional classes to help ready yourself for the medical school curriculum. For this reason, many medical schools have a list of recommended undergraduate classes. 

Advanced biology courses like biochemistry or genetics are included on many of these lists, and give you the basic knowledge you will need to confront difficult concepts in pathology, pharmacology, and immunology. Classes in the social or behavioral sciences, such as sociology or psychology, are directly relevant to the study of psychiatry, pediatrics, internal medicine, and many other disciplines within medicine.

Specific foreign language skills can be a huge asset while on your clinical rotations and in your later career. Concepts from calculus and other college math classes are pervasive in medicine, and can be applied to understanding things as varied as the performance of medical tests, to the mathematical modeling of the spread of infectious disease. An understanding of statistics is crucial when thinking critically about the scientific literature, so biostatistics often pops up on many lists of recommended courses.

Undergraduate classes in computer science will sometimes be recommended. If you are reading this, you already know that computers are ubiquitous in modern society, and health information technology has emerged as an important discipline within medicine. While you may not be required to create or maintain electronic medical records, you will be required to use these systems and, if necessary, improve them in order to optimize patient care.

Although business classes are rarely specifically recommended by medical schools, many doctors working in private practice lament the fact that they know little about the core activities necessary to running a business. Business administration and management classes may be helpful for aspiring doctors, especially those who plan a career in private practice.  

You should also keep in mind that your college years can be a formative experience, and not just a hurdle to clear on your way to medical school. This may be your last chance to devote yourself to the study of art, music, or poetry. It may be in your best interest to major in a field that keeps you interested and motivated during your college years. Remember that there has been a trend among medical schools to seek students from a variety of disciplines. You should not let anxiety about medical school acceptance prevent you from studying something you are passionate about. 

Your choice of undergraduate coursework is ultimately a very personal one, and consultation with a pre-medical or pre-health advisor can be invaluable. Healthcare advisors are often available at your university. If not, you can partner with an advisor through the National Association of Advisors to the Health Professions.