Elizabeth Losada, MD
SDN Staff Writer
Prospective professional school applicants are often advised to avoid taking prerequisite classes at community college. Conventional belief among many pre-health students is that prerequisite classes taken at community colleges will be disparaged by admissions committees and could lead to the rejection of the applicant.
Such fears are expressed routinely in threads on the forums at Student Doctor Network; e.g., “Will taking a year of community college hurt my chances?” in the High School Forum and “Retaking at a CC after graduation/Chances?” in the What Are My Chances Forum. But are these fears and assumptions founded on actual admissions practices? Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus on this issue.
One school of thought suggests that students avoid doing prerequisites at community college because admissions committees consider a strong academic background essential to success. Such admissions criteria are supported by the findings of a 2007 study of medical students by Kleshinki, et al.
Using a statistical model to examine the predictive ability of preadmission variables, including college selectivity as determined by the Peterson’s Four Year College selectivity index, on USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 performance, the researchers found that students from the most selective undergraduate institutions scored higher on Step 1 and Step 2 than students from minimally selective-nonselective institutions. College selectivity remained a predictor of USMLE scores even when undergraduate GPA and MCAT scores were included in the model.
Therefore, the stronger the academic institution an applicant attends, the better, says Judy Colwell, a medical school admissions consultant with more than 18 years experience as a premedical advisor and former Assistant Director of Medical Admissions at Stanford University. “Particularly when looking at science prerequisite classes, medical schools want to make sure that an applicant can perform at a rigorous level. Rigor of the courses is very important and reputation of the school is important too.”
Generally, community colleges classes are viewed as being less rigorous than those taken at a four-year institution. According to Colwell, if an admissions committee were hypothetically debating between two nearly identical applicants, one of whom had done prerequisites at a community college and the other at a four-year university, the acceptance would go to the student who fulfilled prerequisites at the university.
While it is true that some community colleges are known by the medical schools in their local region to be strong in particular science disciplines, this reputation may not be known in other parts of the country. “What happens when the applicant who took his or her general science courses at a well-known local community college applies to schools out of state that are not familiar with the program? If they have not taken upper division courses at a university it may well be an issue,” Colwell says. She advises that students at community college focus on general education requirements, fulfill prerequisites in English and mathematics, and plan to take their science courses at a four-year institution.
Of course, this is not always possible given the array of basic and school-specific prerequisites and the limited time of students who need to graduate in four years. For students whose schedules make it imperative that they do prerequisites at the community college, certain cautions are in order.
The Pre-Health Advising Office at Florida State University College of Medicine advises community college students taking their basic science prerequisites at their community college to finish two semester course sequences at the same institution. For example, students should not take first semester physics at a community college and second semester physics at a university after transferring.
The University of Kansas Premedical Advising Service advises community college premedical students to take actual medical school prerequisite courses, like general chemistry, and not biological sciences courses for nursing and allied health majors.
Perhaps the biggest caution of all is that once students transfer to a four-year university, they should take upper division science classes that are not offered at the community college level. This recommendation is seconded by Premedicine Advising at the University of Washington. They advise students transferring from community colleges to take some advanced science coursework at a four-year school to help medical schools evaluate an applicant’s performance in relation to that of other applicants. Their website states: “the level of the coursework at community colleges is certainly comparable… [to] the equivalent courses at the UW. However, grades tend to run higher at community colleges than in comparable courses at the UW.”
This brings us to a second school of thought, as explained by Dr. Amerish Bera, Clinical Professor of Medicine and former Associate Dean of Admissions at the UC Davis School of Medicine. Since medical schools are well aware that differences in grading practices have an effect on the GPAs of applicants, “in the end the MCAT becomes the great equalizer. Admissions committees will look for discrepancies between GPA and MCAT scores. For example, if an applicant has a 4.0 science GPA and 7s on the biological and physical science sections of the MCAT, it suggests that the coursework was not as rigorous as that taken by an applicant from another school with a 4.0 science GPA and 12s on the same MCAT sections.”
Bera advises that students take prerequisite coursework at the institution where they will feel most supported, can build their confidence, and have the best opportunity to learn the material. Whether this is a community college or a four-year institution matters less, in his opinion, than performing well in the classes and on the MCAT. Medical schools receive vast numbers of applications and develop thresholds to screen applications before sending out secondaries. “The initial screen is usually based on MCAT scores and GPA, which is calculated by AMCAS and includes community college classes. It is better to have an A in a class from a community college than a C from a class at a university,” he says. “If an applicant makes it past the initial screen, it is doubtful that committee members will scrutinize every course, given the sheer volume of information there is to review.” The composition of the student body at the UC Davis School of Medicine reflects these screening practices. According to Bera, an internal review of UC Davis’ admissions data in 2005-06 revealed that approximately 20% of current UC Davis medical students had completed one year or more of community college coursework at the time of matriculation.
Admissions practices can have more variation between schools once applicants reach the interview stage. Bera says some schools may assign extra points to applicants based on where their diploma was received or could re-calculate GPAs to put more weight on university classes. In the case of the latter, he agrees that there are benefits in community college students taking upper division science courses once they transfer to a university. “But keep in mind there is a growing recognition that with high tuition costs and cuts to direct university admissions due to state budget shortfalls, more and more students will need to get started at community colleges,” Bera said. “At the end of the day it is most important to have a good GPA that aligns with strong MCAT scores.”
Non-traditional premedical students, many of whom are working full-time in other careers, often ask if the same advice that is given to traditional students about prerequisite courses and MCAT scores applies to them as well. Bera would consider the low tuition and convenient schedule and recommend the nontraditional student choose the community college if the added comfort level will contribute to stronger academic performance in prerequisite classes and on the MCAT. Colwell, whose admissions consulting practice is focused on advising non-traditional applicants, has counseled many students who are considering taking medical school prerequisite classes at community college. The process, Colwell says, is the same for all applicants to both allopathic and osteopathic schools, and she encourages non-traditional students to “jump through as many of the traditional premed hoops as possible.” She advises all premedical students, whether traditional or non-traditional, to take their prerequisites “at the most rigorous four-year institution that time and money will allow,” and to do well on the MCAT in order to have the best chance of admission.
It is clear that among the advising sources noted above there is no clear agreement on the assessment of community college science prerequisites in medical school admissions. Having preparation in the basic sciences that leads to an applicant’s best possible performance on the MCAT is essential to gaining admission to medical school. At this point premedical students have to analyze their own situations and make their own choices. Much as we might wish it otherwise, even the experts are divided in their advice.
 Kleshinski, J, Khuder, SA, Shapiro, JI, and Gold, JP. (2007). Impact of preadmission variables on USMLE step 1 and step 2 perforamance. Adv in Health Sci Edu 14: 69-78.