College as a pre-medical student can be challenging; unlike many other programs, pre-medical programs are begun with the intent not to get a job, but to continue schooling beyond college. Central to the many decisions pre-meds must make is the academic coursework; it is the crux of the college degree and foundational to the medical school application. Obviously, academic success in whatever classes or degree programs a student takes is vital, but many students struggle to decide what classes to take in the first place. For this reason, I have created a list of ten of the most valuable classes pre-med college students should take.
This list is certainly not a guarantee of preparation for medical school or magic formula for success; neither is it based on rigorous research, besides the personal evidence I have amassed from observation and discussion with other students. In general, any class that introduces topics covered in medical school will likely be helpful (since medical school is fast-paced, being familiar with these topics ahead of time will help you later). Certainly, the classes each individual student should take depends on many factors, including their own interest and their program’s flexibility and freedom of scheduling. Perhaps most importantly, I want to note that my list is not a list of classes required by any medical school. All medical schools have coursework that they require for matriculation (usually one year of biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics), and there is considerable variation between schools as to extra requirements beyond these core classes. For all schools to which you are considering applying, I suggest finding out what classes they require and recommend and making every effort to meet these requirements first. Once you are sure that your schedule still has some flexibility, then consider supplementing with one or more of the classes below.
My list of ten is divided in half: the first five are upper level science classes, and the second five are non-science classes.
Upper-Level Science Classes Pre-Meds Should Take
Pre-med students should take these classes in undergrad to help prepare for medical school coursework.
1. Human Physiology
This is a class I took in college, and it has proven to be one of the most useful classes for me in medical school. Although an undergraduate course will almost certainly not be as detailed as a medical school physiology class, learning physiology in medical school will be made much easier if there is a strong foundation on which to build. Human Physiology provides the foundational information for much of medicine; it explores the function of the human body. While many medical schools do not “require” this course, I would highly recommend it to all pre-meds; success in this course should be highly indicative of success – and indeed, enjoyment – in medical school.
This class is already required by many pre-med curricula and is likely to become a standard requirement soon. Understanding biochemistry is essential to understanding much of pathology, inherited diseases, and how many medications work. Similar to physiology, pre-meds should consider taking this class as it will make learning the extra detail in medical school much easier. Biochemistry was a major component of the Molecular Basis of Medicine course that I took in my first year of medical school.
3. Molecular Genetics
Other names for this class might be Molecular Biology, Molecular & Cell Biology, Advanced Genetics, or something similar. This is a field of biology and medicine that has grown considerably in recent years, and trends suggest that it will continue to grow. This is due mainly to the large amount of research being done and growing opportunities for research into this area. Usually, college courses in molecular genetics will explore the details of subjects like DNA, transcription, and translation, as well as exploring prevalent diseases like cancer and advances in technology such as genetic engineering. Having a working knowledge of this field before medical school will demonstrate proficiency in current science, and again, much of this information will then be covered in medical school. Further, this field is a great area of focus for many MDs and MD/PhDs, and approaching medical school with an awareness of this field might be a great way to determine if it is a good fit for you.
Many colleges offer histology as part of a broader course, such as anatomy or physiology. Any exposure to histology in college, though, will be advantageous in medical school. At some medical schools, histology is its own course; at the very least, it will be incorporated into each organ system block. Besides this, histology is fundamental for much of pathology, and histological images commonly appear on Step 1 of the USMLE, the “board exam” that every medical student has to pass after his or her second year
This is a class I did not take in college, but I wish that I would have. Besides strengthening your understanding of normal human physiology (see #1), having exposure to what can go wrong in the human body will be very helpful in medical school. After all, medical school is fundamentally about learning the normal human body (anatomy and physiology), what can go wrong with it (disease), and how to fix these problems (treatment). An undergraduate course in pathophysiology, even just a survey course, would offer a good starting point for learning about the disease process.
Non-Science Classes Pre-Meds Should Take
These are the non-science classes pre-meds should take to round out their education.
6. Research writing
At many schools, this is required as part of the general education writing sequence. If your program doesn’t require it, I highly recommend pre-meds take this class, and also recommend supplementing it with a “technical writing” course. (At my college, we had a class titled “Technical Writing in Biology.”) The purpose of courses like this is twofold. First, the obvious, is that these classes will strengthen your ability to write professionally. This will be important throughout a career in medicine, especially if you pursue research in any capacity (most medical students will end up completing some form of research project during their medical training). Second, this type of class will increase your exposure to scientific literature. This will be very valuable in medicine, as the foundation of “evidence-based medicine” is scientific literature. Demonstrating to medical schools that you are capable of reading and understanding scientific research papers, and synthesizing these ideas into papers of your own, will possibly aid your chances of admission, but more importantly, will be of great benefit to you for a career in the medical sciences.
As a character trait, leadership is one of the most valuable qualities a medical school applicant can demonstrate, along with compassion, altruism and propensity for hard work. Leadership will likely manifest itself differently for each applicant, but college courses in leadership could certainly be beneficial for understanding what leadership is, why it is important, and how every individual can develop traits that make them stronger leaders. These courses are commonly found in the context of the business curriculum, but the content is usually relevant for future medical professionals, who are seen as leaders by society and especially by their patients.
8. General Business/Finance
“The business of medicine” is not just a popular media term; it is a nominal description of how healthcare and business have become intertwined over the last fifty years. Complex insurance plans, costs of healthcare, and legislation such as the Affordable Care Act all play major roles in how healthcare is delivered, but many of these topics are only taught tangentially in medical school, due largely to the fact that medical school curricula are already filled and overfilled. Despite this, doctors are increasingly expected to have some knowledge of business practices and basic business principles in order to knowledgeably work with patients, insurance companies, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and so on. Having a business background when entering medical school will be extremely helpful, especially if an applicant is even marginally interested in a joint MD/MBA degree (the growing popularity of these degrees is likely due to the aforementioned reasons doctors are being asked to know about business). At the very least, taking a class or two in personal finance or financial management could go a long way towards helping you keep your own finances together – not to mention managing student debt.
9. Public Speaking
While nearly any communications class would be beneficial for a future physician, public speaking tends to be the class and activity that many individuals inherently fear. Although not everyone and certainly not every doctor will need to be a proficient public speaker, communication skills are vital for acceptance into and success in medical school, as in most medical careers. Although much of this communication will be in small group or one-on-one settings, the keys to effective communication are the same as public speaking. A class in public speaking will help all pre-meds sharpen their skills at speaking in front of people, which will be required at some point, as well as strengthen their ability to communicate with confidence in any situation.
This is not a specific “course” but rather a recommendation to take at least one (ideally several) courses in the humanities. Many medical schools require a certain number of hours of humanities courses anyway; additionally, many colleges require this as part of their general education requirement. Although many “science-minded” medical school applicants will find these classes challenging, they are a great way to nurture a different side of yourself – one that will be no less important than the science side of medicine. Medicine is unique in that it employs scientific principles and is based on the study of the human body, but also requires the ability to work with other people and demonstrate skills such as kindness, gentleness, and humility. While no college class can wholly teach these things, many courses will help with practicing them. Some good examples of useful humanities classes (I recommend taking what sounds interesting to you) could be: anthropology, creative writing, literature, history of medicine, and religion.
It is important to remember that these ten classes pre-meds should take are only one person’s suggestion. Every individual will have to learn for themselves what classes they need so they can be as prepared for medical school as possible. Perhaps most importantly, I would reiterate that you should take whatever classes interest you. Not only will you be maximizing your college experience, but you will be able to focus on the individual reasons that you have for wanting to study medicine. You will likely be a better candidate for medical school, too, if you are able to articulate why you took the classes you did and what you can offer the field of medicine. Every pre-medical student will take the required courses; the courses you take beyond these can be a great step to setting yourself apart as an applicant. Finally, remember that no matter what classes you decide to take, they are all opportunities to learn something new, and interest in learning new things is an essential asset for a career in medicine.
Updated May 26, 2021 to correct minor grammatical errors.