Orange Alert

Pre-Health FAQ and Myths

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Frequently Asked Questions

What should I major in?

Your choice of a major reflects your personal interests and professional orientation. Base your decision on what you want to learn, not how others will view you. The strength of the academic credentials, rather than the major, is the best predictor of who gains admission to professional schools. You are more likely to succeed at –– and benefit from –– subjects that interest and stimulate you. Professional schools do not require, recommend, or favor any particular undergraduate major course of study; you can complete the pre-professional requirements while at the same time exploring your own interests. In this way, you exercise the option of discovering an alternative career.

"Admission committee members know that medical students can develop the essential skills of acquiring, synthesizing, applying and communicating information through a wide variety of academic disciplines. Students who select a major area of study solely or primarily because of the perception that it will enhance the chance of acceptance to a school of medicine are not making a decision in their best interest."

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)

Despite statements like the above, many students believe that medical schools prefer certain major areas. AAMC’s national data, however, refute this. In 2019, 41% of biological sciences majors, 48% of physical sciences majors, 47% of mathematics and statistics majors, 46% of humanities majors, 40% of social sciences majors, and 37% of specialized health sciences majors that applied were accepted to medical school. The differences among percentages of acceptance by major are not significant, and major choice cannot be used to predict acceptance to medical school. Of the 53,371 applicants to medical schools in 2019 (for 2020 matriculation), 57.5% were biological sciences majors, 9.3% were social sciences majors, 9.3% were physical sciences majors, 3.1% were humanities majors, and 0.6% were mathematics and statistics majors (the remaining 20.2% was made up of specialized health sciences majors and "other" majors, as defined by the AAMC).

How does my major choice affect my course choices?

Those majoring in a science discipline may take one or two science and/or math courses each semester, depending upon the recommendations of academic advisors. However, humanities or social science majors may want to take only one mathematics or science course during the first year in order to be able to experiment with courses from several departments. Over four years, all the course prerequisites are available to all students needing them.

Can I take pre-requisite courses as summer courses?

Required courses may be taken during summer session at Syracuse University or at other universities whose educational standards and rigor are comparable. In general, it is preferable to take these courses during the regular school year in order to demonstrate that you can perform well even while carrying a full course load.

What is required for admission to Professional schools outside of academics?

You will develop important qualities during your college years. Most important is what one Dean of Admissions calls "a sustained commitment to excellence." Becoming a well-educated person with an understanding of human nature, developing the ability to think critically, imaginatively, and logically, and gaining personal competency in several areas outlined by the AAMC will make you a strong candidate. For more information on the core competencies, see the corresponding section in this Guide.

Your activities inside and outside the classroom should develop and strengthen interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, as well as your academic potential. You are not required to pursue activities in all areas, but service and clinical experience are the most important. It is also important to gain experience out of your “comfort zone” which, for many college students is their campus environment.

Can I (or should I) use my Advanced Placement (AP) credits to complete pre-requisites courses?

Some medical schools accept AP credit for pre-requisite coursework if the undergraduate institution granting the degree provided credit for the equivalent courses (i.e. AP Biology credit applied to BIO 121). Students who have AP credits available need to make a decision whether it is in their best interest to move past the introductory courses. Students are strongly encouraged to speak to the undergraduate department offering the introductory courses and to their first year pre-health advisor regarding AP credit. In some cases, it may be beneficial to forego AP credits, in order to include more college-level credits and grades in the science GPA. Also, students need to be aware that most medical schools require a full year of biology laboratory and chemistry laboratory – even if AP credits were used for the lecture portion of the course.

Myth busters

Myth: It will “look better” to medical schools if I double major or add another minor.

Truth: In fact, an applicant’s primary undergraduate major has little to no effect on acceptance rates to medical school. National data from AMCAS show that if anything, there is a slightly lower acceptance rate for health science majors (38% in 2017) versus other majors such as biology, chemistry, mathematics, or humanities. You should focus on demonstrating excellence in what you choose to do; the best way to do that is to undertake a course of study that is interesting and engaging, whether or not those courses amount to a double major or a minor. An applicant with one major and a 3.6 GPA is certainly more competitive than an applicant with a double major and a 3.2 GPA.

Myth: A high GPA will make up for a low MCAT score or vice versa.

Truth: While academic credentials are certainly an important piece of a student’s application, they are just that, pieces of a bigger picture. Many other factors, including letters of evaluation, letters of recommendation, experiences, personal statement, and personal characteristics, will be evaluated in addition to the academic factors. Admissions committees would, however, question a “mismatch” between GPA and MCAT score (i.e. lower GPA and higher MCAT score or higher GPA and lower MCAT score) as they value academic excellence in all arenas and value test taking skills. Remember, medical education is bookended by standardized exams, the MCAT and the USMLE, and admissions committees need to have the confidence that students will succeed in medical school and beyond.

Myth: I can take challenging courses over the summer or plan light semesters to maintain a high GPA.

Truth: Medical schools review an applicant’s academic performance as a whole and on a semester-by-semester basis. Students should not plan light semesters with the aim of maintaining a high GPA as schools will note the avoidance of taking challenging courses during the regular semesters or while taking other challenging courses. However, schools may allow some leeway or may be particularly impressed by high achievement during a particularly challenging semester. Students should plan to take pre-requisite courses during the regular semesters, if at all possible.

Myth: It doesn’t matter when I get clinical experience, I can do this right before I apply.

Truth: The motivation for requiring students to gain clinical experience prior to applying to medical school is to ensure that students are committed to the field of medicine and to the service of others. This commitment needs to be sustained and demonstrable through a student’s application. You should be able to answer the question, "Why do you want to be a doctor?" using concrete examples and experiences. It is not enough to have family members or close family friends that are in the medical field. Your experiences need to demonstrate your motivation for this career path; pressure from family or friends is not enough.

Myth: If I am driven enough, I will be admitted to medical school one day.

Truth: Admission to medical school is an extremely competitive process. In 2018, 52,777 students applied for the 21,622 available first-year seats in medical school, a 41% acceptance rate. Nationally, the average number of applications filed per applicant was almost 16, leading to large numbers of applications filed at each of the medical schools. For example, SUNY Upstate Medical University received 4290 verified applications for 2017 matriculation (for 168 first year seats, 3.9% acceptance rate). Some schools receive many more than that. A strong motivation is not enough to gain admittance to medical school. Because the process is so competitive, students should be prepared with an alternate career path, which may also be in the healthcare field. There are many other careers in healthcare that may be of interest.

Myth: applying to medical school is just like applying to undergraduate institutions.

Truth: The application process, including standardized examinations, common application platforms, personal statements, and letters of recommendation, make the two processes seem very similar. In reality, these processes could not be more different. In fact, more than 80% of all undergraduate institutions accept more than half of their applicants, and most applicants receive at least one offer of admission, usually more. In contrast, the acceptance rates to individual medical schools range from less than 1% for private institutions to approximately 3% for in-state applicants to public institutions – in contrast to 4.8% for the most selective undergraduate institution (Curtis School of Music, Philadelphia, PA). Receipt of multiple acceptances, while expected during the process of undergraduate admissions, is much less likely during the medical school application process. Highly competitive students may receive 3-4 offers for admission out of the 16+ schools to which they applied.

Myth: Admissions committees look unfavorably upon taking a “gap” or “bridge” year.

Truth: Medical schools prefer candidates apply when they are sure about their dedication to the field of medicine and can demonstrate readiness for medical school through academics, experience, and maturity. Many students use the year(s) after graduation to explore career options or to improve their credentials through academic work, clinical experiences, or service opportunities. Medical schools do not look unfavorably upon applying after taking a “gap” or “bridge” year. In fact, the average age of the 2017 entering medical school class was greater than 24 years of age, clearly reflecting that many students apply after a gap year or more.