If you’re planning to attend medical school after college, then you are probably wondering which major will best prepare you. It’s a common misconception that there are “right” and “wrong” majors you might choose when you want to go to medical school. While some college majors are certainly more popular among medical school applicants than others, you could conceivably go to medical school with a bachelor’s degree in any subject.

Here’s what a prospective medical major needs to know about pre-medicine tracks and choosing a major in preparation for medical school.

What to Know About Undergraduate “Medical Majors” in College

Pre-medical studies is a popular course of undergraduate preparation for medical school, but it’s also widely misunderstood. Many prospective doctors go into their undergraduate studies with the intention of being medicine majors by earning a pre-medical or -pre-medicine degree. In fact, there aren’t bachelor’s degrees awarded in pre-medicine, generally speaking. Rather, pre-medicine is an educational track that students from any major can choose to pursue.

What Coursework Is Involved in an Undergraduate Pre-Medicine Track?

Even though pre-medical studies may not be a degree-granting program, this academic track still establishes certain required courses. These courses typically align with typical medical school prerequisites, the classes that medical schools require applicants to have completed as undergraduates and upon which the doctoral curriculum builds.

Precise course requirements for pre-medical tracks can vary across institutions. At colleges and universities that are affiliated with medical schools, students should expect the pre-medical track coursework to mirror the related medical school’s prerequisites. Otherwise, schools that offer pre-med tracks may strive to meet a more general set of medical school prerequisites. Students in a pre-med track can typically expect to take laboratory classes in the principles of biology, biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, vertebrate physiology, organic chemistry, general chemistry and physics. Classes in psychology, sociology, ethics and statistics may also be required or encouraged for pre-medical students.

Do You Have to be a Pre-Medical Major to Go to Medical School?

Meeting the course requirements for a pre-medical program can help you get into – and through – medical school. Formally declaring a pre-med track may offer some benefits.

Official pre-med students may have a more thorough plan to follow to ensure that they complete all pre-med courses on schedule and more support from advisors. Being part of a formal pre-medical studies track may help you identify peers and alumni to connect with who are also going to medical school, allowing you to share experience and advice with them. While you could take all of the same pre-medical courses without declaring the track in a formal or official sense, some students may find that they take the requirements for pre-medicine more seriously when they are held accountable through enrollment in an official academic track.

Still, since there is no medical major, technically speaking, what’s most important about pre-medicine studies isn’t your formal enrollment in the track. The phrase “pre-medicine” won’t even appear on your degree. Taking the right courses to match common medical school prerequisites is what matters most for medical school applicants, and you can accomplish this with or without a formal pre-medical track.

Since professors are likely to assume that pre-med students are preparing for medical school, one difference you may face if you don’t major in pre-med is the need to make your medical school ambitions known, especially to science professors from whom you might later request a letter of recommendation for medical school. 

What Kind of Undergraduate Degree for Medical School? 

Generally speaking, medical schools will consider admitting applicants with a bachelor’s degree in any subject. It doesn’t even matter whether the degree is a Bachelor of Science (BS) or a Bachelor of Arts (BA) – or even a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA), Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) or another more specialized type of bachelor’s degree.

More so than looking for particular majors, medical school admissions teams look at whether the applicant’s undergraduate transcript includes the program’s prerequisites and at many other factors. Does the applicant have a high GPA that suggests that they will be able to handle the intense and challenging work of a medical school curriculum? Do their letters of recommendation speak to their capability for excelling in medical school and, later, in the clinical practice of medicine? Did they perform well on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) exam? Outside of grades and test scores, do they have the experience that will help them be a better doctor, including involvement in extracurricular activities, volunteerism, laboratory research and work experience in the healthcare industry or experience shadowing a physician?

Ultimately, the combination of these admissions factors is what matters the most when you’re applying to medical school, as long as you can meet the course prerequisites necessary for enrollment.

Technically, you can major in anything and still be a doctor. However, some majors are far more popular among medical school applicants than others. Some of the reasons students may choose these majors include:

  • Degree program curricula that cover medical school prerequisites, so students don’t have to work these courses into their schedule on top of their major coursework
  • Topics of study that are (or at least, are perceived to be) better able to prepare students for the MCAT and for medical school
  • The belief that an aspiring doctor “should” pursue a certain major

In general, it’s true that choosing a degree program that will incorporate plenty of the prerequisite courses into the curriculum already can make both scheduling and coursework easier on a student. This path will also allow you to have more freedom when choosing electives that will be beneficial in your career as a doctor, since you won’t have to divert your free elective opportunities to go toward meeting medical school prerequisites. However, if you’re committed to both being a non-traditional major and meeting your prerequisites, preparing for medical school while majoring in another subject is certainly doable.

One of the most important aspects of your medical school application will be your GPA, and your grades in your medical school prerequisite courses and other science classes are particularly important. No matter what major you choose, make sure you maintain a great GPA – 3.5 or better – to optimize your chances of getting accepted.

Doctor Majors List

Here are the top majors to consider for the aspiring medical student:

1. Biology

According to the American Medical Association, biological sciences is the single most popular major for matriculated medical school students. More than half of the students who enrolled in medical school in 2020 – 12,845 out of 22,239 total admitted students – reported majoring in biological sciences.

One reason studying biology is widely viewed as being helpful when you’re on your way to medical school is because an undergraduate biology degree program will incorporate most, if not all, of the prerequisites medical schools are looking for from applicants. The biology coursework that will help you excel in medical school includes cell biology, molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry and human anatomy and physiology. Biology majors will also take coursework in plant biology, ecology, evolution and organization and classification in biology.

Based on the popularity of majoring in biology among medical school students, you might think that students with this background would have an advantage when it comes to acceptance into med school. That’s actually not the case, according to the American Medical Association. Although 12,845 medical school applicants with a background in biological sciences were matriculated to med school in 2020, that number represents only about 40 percent of 30,921 biological sciences majors who actually applied, the American Medical Association reported. When comparing the percentages of applicants matriculated from different majors, as well as average MCAT performance, biology students aren’t necessarily better off than applicants who pursued other majors.

2. Chemistry

majors in medicineIMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

Chemistry can also be a great major for the future medical student. While the American Medical Association doesn’t have data for chemistry majors specifically, it did report that matriculated medical school students who majored in the physical sciences – which include chemistry, along with physics and other branches of science – accounted for the second-largest group of students matriculated in 2020 by major.

There are all different types of chemistry courses, including general chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry, analytical chemistry and research in chemistry. Undergraduate chemistry majors are usually required to take courses in each of these areas, as well as in biology, physics and calculus. They are also usually required to take classes like biochemistry, which will also be beneficial in medical school classes.

3. Environmental Science

Environmental science may not have a ton to do with the healthcare industry at first glance. However, because it is a branch of science and is closely related to biology, majoring in environmental science often allows you to take pretty much all of your prerequisite courses as part of your major’s curriculum. Environmental exposures and conditions can certainly have an impact on health, after all, and even the courses you take as an environmental science major that are not directly related to medical school can help you develop the skills necessary for courses with extensive laboratory requirements.

4. Medical Technology

Not every role in healthcare requires a degree as advanced as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). A degree in medical technology, which often prepares students for non-physician careers in the healthcare industry, can also be great for admission to medical school. In most medical technology classes, you will be able to take the prerequisite courses you would need for medical school as part of the degree requirements for the major and take some coursework that focuses on medicine and healthcare. In addition, this degree will prepare you for a career as a medical technologist, an option that may be good to have in case it takes a little longer to get accepted to medical school than you would like.

5. Nursing

Nurses and doctors are different, and not only due to the distinct roles they hold in clinical healthcare environments. The nursing model of care is different from the medical model used to train physicians, which generally emphasizes the diagnosis and treatment of diseases.

Still, if you’re eager to build the skills and knowledge needed in the healthcare field or you’re considering taking some time off of school after graduation to gain work experience and earn money before applying to medical school, majoring in nursing could be in your best interests. A degree in nursing will definitely prepare you to look after patients. Not only will majoring in nursing allow you to take some of the courses you’ll need to get accepted to medical school, but you will also get to start acquiring clinical experience as an undergraduate.

Although the American Medical Association doesn’t include nursing as its own category of majors, 784 applicants who majored in “specialized health sciences” were part of the class of matriculated medical students that enrolled in 2020.

Like the degree in medical technology, you can get a job as a nurse if medical school doesn’t quite go the way you want. Nursing is a consistently popular program of study, and the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 139,952 bachelor’s degrees in registered nursing programs were awarded during the 2017 through 2018 school year. If you are more certain about your interest in healthcare generally – and in caring for patients – than you about actually filling the role of a physician, you might find that nursing offers some benefits over going to medical school, like lower costs, less student loan debt, and a quicker start in a well-paying

6. Exercise Science

Exercise is an important aspect of a healthy lifestyle, and doctors are always advising their patients to exercise more consistently. It makes sense that a major in exercise science might appeal to aspiring physicians, especially those who would love to become sports medicine doctors. Majoring in exercise science often means taking courses in human anatomy, cell biology, nutrition and other subjects that typically form medical school prerequisites.

Other majors for which the American Medical Association reported numbers of matriculated medical school students in 2020 were the social sciences (1,991), the humanities (832) and math and statistics (156). That said, 3,391 students didn’t fit into any of these categories, making the “other” classification of majors the group that had the second-largest number of students. 

Additional Resources

Which Degree Do You Need to Become a Doctor?

What College Degree Is Needed to Be a Pediatrician?

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Dermatologist?

What Are the 5 Best Careers in Environmental Science?