Do No Harm: Your Guide to Being a Premed, Pt. II

As mentioned earlier, there is no set path to becoming a pre-med; medical schools accept a wide range of students. However, there is a “core curriculum” that pre-meds are expected to have completed, which we’ll be covering in this post.


There are a few courses every premed is expected to complete, but otherwise, there is no "premed degree" you need to worry about.
There are a few courses every premed is expected to complete, but otherwise, there is no “premed degree” you need to worry about.

Quite possibly the most important part of being a pre-med is keeping your grades up. GPA is one of the most important factors that admissions committees consider when you submit your application, and it’s for good reason too—you don’t want someone who’s lazy and inept to be in charge of saving your life, after all. While medical schools don’t necessarily expect you to maintain a perfect 4.0 GPA, the median GPA of a med school matriculant is still pretty high (around a 3.7 for Texas medical schools). One or two B’s won’t sink your application, but always try and do your best and limit how much of a hit your GPA will take.

In addition to your GPA, medical schools require certain basic courses to be completed. Make sure to check the schools you want to attend to see which particular courses they require, but, generally speaking, schools require the following list:

  • General (inorganic) chemistry : 1 full year, including labs

  • Biology: 2 full years, including 1 year of labs

  • Physics: 1 full year, including 1 year of labs

  • Biochemistry: 1 semester

  • Statistics: 1 semester

  • Calculus: 1 semester

  • English: 1 full year

Again, you don’t need to be a biology major to go to medical school, but you will need to have completed these fundamentals of science and humanities in order to attend medical school, as these subjects form the foundation of what you’ll be learning later. It’s important to note that some schools accept AP credit in lieu of these requirements, while some do not. Check with each individual school to see if they take AP credits, and if they don’t make sure to either re-take the course or take a higher-level equivalent of them (i.e. Inorganic Chemistry with Inorganic lab in lieu of General chemistry).


This cat is cute. The MCAT is not.
This cat is cute. The MCAT is not.

This is the dreaded boogeyman of medical school admissions, the all-powerful, all-consuming MCAT. MCAT stands for Medical College Admission Test, and it’s the standardized test you’ll be taking to get into med school (think SAT, but for pre-meds). The MCAT covers multiple topics, from the natural sciences (general chemistry and physics), the life sciences (organic chemistry, biochemistry, and biology), the humanities (critical reading and comprehension), and the social sciences (psychology and sociology). This test is the second big factor in your admissions process and is as important, if not more so, than your GPA. As with all standardized tests, it’s important to give yourself plenty of time to study and prepare for it, and many recommend you spend at least three months preparing for it.

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Clinical Volunteering

In addition to the academic requirements, there are two major extracurriculars medical schools expect you to complete at a bare minimum. The first of these is clinical volunteering. At its simplest, clinical volunteering is any sort of volunteering experience you gain with a medical provider. This volunteering is usually completed at clinics or hospitals, and the only true metric of “does this constitute clinical volunteering” is simply “can you smell the patients?” If you’re in close enough proximity to interact with patients on any level, you can count it as clinical volunteering. Most hospitals and clinics have formal volunteering programs, so you can simply contact that hospital’s volunteering office to set up training and schedule your volunteer hours.

That being said, I would advocate trying to find volunteer positions within smaller clinics rather than in large hospitals. In my experience, large hospitals are so inundated with staff and volunteers that there is often very little for a pre-med volunteer to actually do besides giving directions to the occasional patient. In clinics, on the other hand, there is often a shortage of volunteers and staff members, which means there are more opportunities for meaningful clinical interactions.

Physician Shadowing

The second major extracurricular expected of premeds is physician shadowing. “Shadowing” means to follow a physician while he’s working, observing the interaction she has with patients and with the staff in general. Most medical schools expect some level of shadowing to be completed, primarily because this is the most accurate way for a premed to gain a true understanding of what being a physician is like. The path to becoming a physician is a long one, so medical schools want to ensure that those applying are fully aware of the trials that a medical education entails.

Remember, shadows are seen and not heard. Observe, don't talk!
Remember, shadows are seen and not heard. Observe, don’t talk!

Because shadowing involves following a practicing physician who is interacting with actual patients, it is often difficult to find physicians or hospitals who are willing to allow it. In my experience, cold calling physicians asking to shadow is a pretty fruitless task, so your best bet is to ask friends, family, or professors of any physician contacts they might have. With these individuals willing to vouch for you, doctors are often less apprehensive about shadowing since they’re assured of your moral character.

When actually shadowing, it’s important to follow the physician’s lead and to truly act like his or her shadow. Do not talk to patients unless instructed to, and do not make comments to the physician while in the presence of patients. Shadows should be seen and not heard, and it’s incredibly important to remember this. The purpose of shadowing is to gain a first-person perspective of what it’s like to be a physician, so it’s important to watch and learn without affecting the interaction between the patient and the physician.

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This post is part of a series. Part I of this series can be found here:

 Do No Harm: Your Guide to Being a Pre-med, Pt. I

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