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Choosing Your Courses

Most professional schools require that you take specific courses during your college (preprofessional) career. These courses may vary greatly depending on the professional program or specific school to which you apply. Historically, there has been one set of courses that were required by most allopathic (MD) medical schools, and that set of courses will be used here as an illustration of how important it is to plan your schedule early and to take courses beginning your first year that will allow you to finish these courses (and hopefully learn the material!) before you take the MCAT. Similar courses are required by other health sciences (including dentistry, osteopathy, veterinary medicine, optometry, and podiatry), but there may be additional courses as well.

In the past decade or so, many medical schools have either relaxed some of their prerequisite course requirements (e.g., calculus or other math courses) or have added new ones (e.g., biochemistry). Recently the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has suggested that a specific list of required preprofessional courses should be replaced by demonstrated competency in the natural, behavioral, and social sciences. It is unclear if medical schools will abandon specific undergraduate prerequisite courses (actually a growing number already have!) in favor of the more nebulous notion of “competency,” but demonstrating competency in a wide range of medical disciplines has been and continues to be a powerful guiding principle in setting criteria for passing the US Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and medical school curricula. Competencies have also been adopted as the basis for foundational concepts that underlay design of the new (2015) MCAT. Accordingly, it is useful to begin to connect undergraduate courses with competencies as described in two reports from the AAMC: Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians (2009) and Behavioral and Social Science Foundations for Future Physicians (2011) – and with foundational concepts for the MCAT, as described on the AAMC website.

Courses currently required by most medical schools include: Introductory Chemistry (2 semesters), Introductory Biology (2 semesters), Introductory Physics (2 semesters), Organic Chemistry (2 semesters), and English (2 semesters). Some schools may also require Biochemistry (1 semester) or Statistics (1 semester). All natural science courses must have a laboratory component. Most schools also require a semester of a behavioral science such as psychology and 1-2 semesters of college mathematics/statistics. Although calculus is not required by many medical schools, it is useful in understanding important topics in chemistry, physics, biochemistry, and biophysics. Calculus is required by only a very few schools, so taking at least one semester helps to keep your options open. A number of schools will also accept other math courses, especially ones related to statistics, and many schools now have no specific math requirements.

With an eye to the future in which prerequisite courses may be replaced by demonstrating competency in selected disciplines, it is reasonable to approach selection of courses from a broader perspective. In doing so, it is important to balance the rigid set of currently required courses with a more flexible list, combined with ancillary resources. You should take care to develop your plan of study with Dr. Larochelle and to keep up with the current requirements of medical schools as described in the Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR), available on the AAMC website. To encourage premedical students whose intellectual passions lie outside the natural sciences, one can approach the task of demonstrating required competencies as follows:

  1. Enroll in a minimal core set of courses that provide foundations for acquiring competencies in the natural, behavioral, and social sciences: 3 semesters of biology (including physiology), 4 semesters of chemistry (including biochemistry), 2 semesters of physics, 1 semester of statistics (any department), 1 semester of psychology, and 1 semester of sociology.
  2. Consider enrolling (if time permits in your schedule) or auditing the following additional courses: a second semester of biochemistry (to enroll you will also need a second semester of organic chemistry), a second semester of psychology (e.g., developmental or abnormal), a second semester of sociology (e.g., sociology of medicine), and more biology courses (e.g., genetics, cell biology, microbiology).

Recommended courses for your first year that might be appropriate for you, depending on your choice of major. Note: these schedules are suggestions — they are not mandatory! Each of you may come up with a slightly different solution as to how you can keep options open for a future in medicine.

Biology or Biochemistry/Molecular Biology majors:
Biology 101/102
Chemistry 101/102
Math 120/121
English (preferably VE)

Chemistry or Physics major:
Chemistry 101/102
Physics 110/111 or Physics 120/121 (preferred for Physics majors)
Math 120/121
English (preferably VE)

Nonscience major:
Chemistry 101/102
2 courses in potential major
English (preferably VE)
2 perspectives

Note on math requirements: Math 124/125 (Honors Calculus I & II) may be substituted for Math 120/121, but it is designed primarily for math majors so it might be better to stick with 120/121. Students not eligible to enroll in Math 120 should enroll in whatever prerequisite course is recommended by the Mathematics Department based on their performance on the Mathematics Placement Test (e.g., precalculus).

If you want to attend medical school immediately following graduation from Clark, this will be referred to as the “fast track.” The fast track is not for everyone. In fact, the average age of a matriculating medical student is about 24, so most applicants do not follow this fast track. Taking one to two “bridge years” after graduating can frequently be essential for acquiring additional experience, focus, and commitment. Deferring your application will also allow you to spread out your undergraduate prerequisite courses over a longer period of time (especially important for nonscience majors) and even pursue other graduate degrees (e.g., a master’s).

However, if you want to keep the fast track open, plan to complete Introductory Chemistry, Introductory Biology, Introductory Physics, Organic, and Biochemistry by the end of your junior year. Also try to complete other courses helpful in preparing for the MCAT (e.g., Physiology) before the end of your junior year because your first shot at the MCAT will be in the spring of your junior year.

Typically all the science courses listed above can easily be taken in a timely manner by biology, chemistry, or biochemistry and molecular biology majors. However, you should be wondering if it is possible to complete all these courses and still choose a nonscience major. The answer is yes, but the key is early planning. The schedule above for nonscience majors assumes biology and organic chemistry in the second year, biochemistry and physiology in the junior year, and possibly a semester of calculus at some point if required by the target medical schools. Of course this timeline can easily be extended if you choose not to follow the fast track.

You can also move toward achieving competency in the sciences and prepare for the MCAT by using ancillary resources, instead of enrolling in the “helpful” courses listed above. Such additional resources include auditing courses, online (free) courses such as those available at MIT (or Academic EarthClass CentralCourseraedX, Elektev, FutureLearnKhan AcademyMOOC ListOpen CultureOpen Education DatabaseSaylor Academy, etc.).

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