It’s a question I’ve been asked by hundreds of students and their parents on Instagram, YouTube, and email – what is the best pre-med major? In traditional Med School Insiders fashion, we’ll take a look at the numbers, analyze the data, and give you actionable advice to optimize your chances of a medical school acceptance.
The “Pre-Med Major” Myth
First, it’s important to understand that at most schools, there is no such thing as a “pre-med major”. To get into medical school, you can technically choose any major you’d like, so long as you also complete the medical school pre-requisites.
Each medical school will have slightly different pre-requisites in order to apply. However, there’s a shared core of requirements which are as follows:
- 1 year of Biology with lab
- 1 year of General Chemistry with lab
- 1 year of Organic Chemistry with lab
- 1 year of Physics with lab
- 1 year of English
Many other schools require a few additional courses. For that reason, we also suggest you also take the following:
- Psychology and Sociology
You should aim to take as many of these courses as possible prior to taking the MCAT, although taking every single one is not always necessary. For example, I didn’t take biochemistry until after my MCAT, and I still achieved a 99.9th percentile score, or “100th” percentile, as the statistically illiterate would say.
Following this logic, many students and advisors alike conclude that you can choose any major and it shouldn’t matter, so long as you complete your pre-requisites. I don’t necessarily agree with that, and I’d say that not all majors are created equal. To see what I mean, let’s jump to the data.
The Data on Pre-Med Majors
When people ask, “what is the best pre-med major”, they’re usually asking, “what is the major that will maximize my chances of getting into a good medical school?” Luckily, we have data on that.
The Association of American Medical College, or AAMC for short, publishes annual data on the medical school application process. For the 2018-2019 application cycle, we can group applicants by the major they applied to.
Out of the 52,777 applicants last cycle, 55.8% majored in biological sciences, including majors like molecular biology, cell biology, neuroscience, which is what I majored in, and the like. About 9.7% majored in social sciences, including majors such as economics, government, etc. Approximately 9.1% majored in physical sciences, such as physics and chemistry, and 3.4% majored in specialized health sciences, including nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and public health. Around 3.2% majored in humanities, such as history, English, and literature, and 0.7% majored in math and statistics. The remaining 18.1% studied other majors not falling into the aforementioned categories.
It’s clear that the biological sciences are the most popular pre-med major, and we’ll discuss why shortly. But more interestingly, the average MCAT score and even acceptance rate vary significantly between these majors.
On average, math and statistics majors topped the list with an MCAT of 509.4, followed by physical sciences at 508.0, humanities at 507.6, social sciences at 505.6, biological sciences at 505.5, other at 505.0, and specialized health sciences by far the lowest at 502.4.
In terms of acceptance rates, math and statistics topped the list at 47.6%, followed by humanities at 47.2%, physical sciences at 46.1%, and so on. Biological sciences were second to last, at 40.2%, trailed only by specialized health sciences at an abysmal 36.2%.
So Which Major is Best to Get Into Medical School?
If you were to go blindly off the data, you may assume that you should pursue a math, physical sciences, or humanities major. After all, those are the three majors with the highest average MCAT scores and highest average acceptance rates. But such a conclusion would be a terribly inaccurate portrayal of the data. So how should we interpret the data?
First, correlation does not equal causation. Just because students studying certain majors had a higher MCAT or acceptance rate does not mean it’s because of their major. In fact, there are a series of confounding variables and biases that are likely at play.
Theory 1: Certain Majors Prepare You Better
Others have suggested that students majoring in humanities may have higher MCAT scores because they’re better prepared for the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section, or CARS, arguably the most difficult section of the MCAT to rapidly improve your score in. But by looking at the data, we see this explanation falls short. While humanities majors do score highest on CARS, it’s only on average 1 point higher than other majors, thereby only accounting for half of the score difference between humanities and other majors.
In extending this logic, we would expect biological science majors to score the best on the bio section of the MCAT. But that’s not the case. In fact, bio majors score right on average with everyone else, and it’s actually math and statistics majors that score highest. Do physical sciences majors score the highest on the chemical and physical section of the MCAT? Nope, again it’s the math majors that win out.
Taking a step back, we can notice two interesting trends. First, students majoring in Humanities, Math, and Physical Sciences dominated multiple sections of the MCAT and had the highest medical school acceptance rates by a large margin. Second, students majoring in Specialized Health Sciences were far behind the pack, scoring the worst in both the MCAT and having the lowest medical school acceptance rates.
Theory 2: Survivorship Bias
I’d argue that the reason we see these trends has little to do with the major and field of study. Rather, over the large population of medical school applicants, we’re seeing a survivorship bias of highly ambitious and driven students.
Biological sciences are the default pre-med major, because it’s the most straightforward. Most classes that are medical school pre-requisites overlap well with the courses that are required for a biological science major. For that reason, 55.8% of pre-meds default to a biological science major. And therein lies the secret. It’s on average an easier path. If a pre-med choose a biological science major, they’re more likely to end up applying to medical school. There are fewer obstacles in the way.
On the other hand, the less than 1% of pre-meds who major in mathematics or statistics are generally working an uphill battle. You need to not only complete your full course requirements for math, but also 2 years worth of medical school pre-requisites. For this reason, those who choose this path and are able to even get to the point of applying to medical schools must really want it. Remember, this path is more difficult, so I’d argue that a higher percentage of those who choose this path will fall short. They’ll simply never even get to the point of applying to medical schools. Hence the survivorship bias. We only see the successful fraction that made it all the way through – those that really wanted it.
This also explains why those studying Specialized Health Sciences fare off so much worse. They’re essentially the opposite of the math majors. Some portion of students who choose nursing or physical therapy may be pre-med as more of a moonshot – something they’d like to do, but they aren’t fully committed to. After all, they have a backup option in the healthcare industry that they can fall back on.
3 Steps to the Best Major for You
As you guys know, I don’t like to leave you hanging, so in classic Med School Insiders fashion, after busting the myths and misconceptions, I’ll provide you with actionable advice.
Consideration 1: A Straightforward & Streamlined Path
If your top priority is getting into medical school, I recommend you pursue a major in a Biological Science, particularly one that is of interest to you. The requirements for your major will overlap nicely with your medical school prerequisite courses, and you’ll hopefully be studying something that is of interest to you. After all, you want to be a doctor and study the human body.
Consideration 2: Prioritize Something You’re Interested In
If you want to be a doctor, there should be at least one Biological Science major that is of interest to you. If you despise all bio majors, then seriously ask yourself why you want to be a doctor. That being said, there are students who still would rather pursue something else. After all, you have the rest of your career to study biology and the human body. For those students with a burning interest in political science, the humanities, art, or Asian history, by all means follow that passion.
Simply understand that it’ll be a bit more of an uphill battle for you, but it’s definitely not impossible. In fact, some medical schools will even prefer that you have a unique background and interests outside of medicine that you pursued.
Consideration 3: Preparation for Medical School
Medical school is the toughest, most rigorous schooling in the world. Getting yourself prepared for that process will only make the transition easier. For that reason, I suggest you consider majors that will prepare you either in subject matter or in rigor – or do what I did, and choose a major that prepares you for both.
As a pre-med at UCLA, I chose Neuroscience as my major. The brain, after all, is the sexiest organ in the human body and one of life’s greatest mysteries – it was something I was and still am deeply interested in. It was a biological science major, so the overlap with my pre-requisites was nice. And finally, it was tough. In fact, during my time, Neuroscience and Bioengineering were considered the two most challenging pre-med majors. In choosing a difficult path, I was able to hone my work ethic and learn a great deal about the nervous system – in some areas to far greater depth than what I would cover in medical school. I learned so much about the brain and its anatomy as a Neuroscience major that in medical school, setting the curve in my neuro and psych block came easily.
Remember, statistics apply to populations, not to individuals. Just because you’re a math major doesn’t mean you’ll do spectacularly, and just because you’re a bio major doesn’t mean you’re bound to be mediocre. Despite choosing Neuroscience, a biological science, I ended up with a killer MCAT score and my pick of multiple top medical schools, multiple with merit based scholarship offerings.
And you can do the same! That’s why I started Med School Insiders – to help you learn the ingredients to success in both your personal and professional life. These are things that took me years of studying, optimizing, and experimenting to figure out. In the end, they helped me become wildly successful and I know they can do the same for you.