What is the best premed major? We get asked this question a lot—by hundreds of students and their parents—but there are a number of variables and personal preferences to consider in order to give an answer. The journey of every premed is different, and that’s a good thing. Admissions committees are looking for a diverse group of students when building their student body.
But we get it: making big decisions like this is tough, and choosing your premed major is a decision that will set your doctor journey in motion. When making any tough or big life decision, the first step is doing your research and understanding the data—and we’ve done just that.
In this post, 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 “Premed Major” Myth
First, it’s important to understand that at most schools, there is no such thing as a “premed major.” Premed isn’t a major itself but a term to describe your path before medical school. As a premed, you will pick a major from a number of suitable options, most commonly based in the sciences.
To get into medical school, you can technically choose any major you’d like, so long as you also complete the medical school prerequisites.
Each medical school has slightly different prerequisites that you need to fulfill in order to apply. However, there are 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
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.
Many students and advisors alike say that you can choose any major and it shouldn’t matter, so long as you complete your prerequisites. I don’t necessarily agree with that in all cases, and I’d say that not all majors are created equal. There are many variables to consider, and each student’s ideal path is different. To see what I mean, let’s jump into the data.
The Data on Premed Majors
First, let’s get to the bottom of this question. When people ask, “What is the best premed major,” they’re usually asking, “What is the major that will maximize my chances of getting into a good medical school?” Luckily, we have the data on that.
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) publishes annual data on the medical school application process. For the latest application cycle, we can group applicants by the major they applied to.
Out of the 62,443 applicants last cycle, 36,520 of those majored in biological sciences, including majors like molecular biology, cell biology, and neuroscience. That’s 58.5% of all applicants.
Rounding to even numbers, the other majors work out as follows:
- 9% majored in social sciences, including majors such as economics, government, etc.
- 8% majored in physical sciences, such as physics and chemistry.
- 4% majored in specialized health sciences, including nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and public health.
- 3% majored in humanities, such as history, English, and literature.
- 0.5% majored in math and statistics.
- 16% studied other majors not falling into the aforementioned categories.
It’s clear that the biological sciences are the most popular premed 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 score of 510.2. Let’s go over how each of the majors fairs when it comes to the MCAT.
- Math and statistics – 510.2
- Physical sciences – 509.1
- Humanities – 508.2
- Biological sciences – 505.9
- Social sciences – 505.2
- Other majors – 504.7
- Health sciences – 503.2
There is a considerable difference between the average MCAT scores for these different majors, with over 5 points separating math and statistics from health sciences. Keep in mind this is MCAT score data based on applicants, not matriculants, but as a premed, your goal is to get accepted into medical school.
In terms of acceptance rates, humanities tops the list at 44.1%, followed by physical sciences, and then math and statistics.
- Humanities – 44.1%
- Physical sciences – 42.5%
- Math and statistics – 40.4%
- Biological sciences – 36.0%
- Health sciences – 35.2%
- Social sciences – 34.9%
- Other majors – 33.7%
Interestingly, biological sciences is in the middle of the road in terms of acceptance despite being by far the most popular major for premeds. Does this mean simply choosing humanities or physical sciences will increase your chances of acceptance? Not exactly.
So, how should we interpret this data when choosing a premed major?
Which is the Best Premed Major 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 an inaccurate portrayal of 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
It’s sometimes suggested that students majoring in humanities may have higher MCAT scores because they’re better prepared for the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section (CARS), which is 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 a small difference compared to 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 who score highest. Do physical sciences majors score the highest on the chemical and physical section of the MCAT? Nope, it’s once again the math majors who 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 health sciences, social sciences, and other majors scored last on the MCAT and had 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 premed major because it’s the most straightforward. Most classes that are medical school prerequisites overlap well with the courses that are required for a biological science major. For that reason, over 50% of premeds default to a biological science major. And therein lies the secret.
On average, it’s an easier path. If a premed chooses a biological science major, they’re more likely to end up applying to medical school. There are fewer obstacles in the way of achieving that goal.
On the other hand, the less than 1% of premeds 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 prerequisites. 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 who really wanted it.
This also explains why those studying specialized health sciences fare so much worse. They’re essentially the opposite of the math majors. Some portion of students who choose nursing or physical therapy may be premed as more of a moonshot. It’s something they’d like to do, but they aren’t fully committed to. After all, they have a backup option in the healthcare industry they can fall back on.
How to Choose the Best Major for You
So, even after looking at the data, we still don’t have an answer to the question. What is the best premed major? Let’s consider some other factors and actionable advice you can use to choose the best path for you.
Consideration 1: A Straightforward & Streamlined Path
If your top priority is getting into medical school, I recommend you pursue a major in 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 it’s time to seriously consider why you want to be a doctor.
That being said, there are students who still prefer to 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 prefer that you have a unique background and interests outside of medicine that you pursued. Your application will stand out and you’ll have unique experiences to speak about in your application, personal statement, and interviews.
Consideration 3: Preparation for Medical School
Medical school is the toughest, most rigorous schooling in the world. Preparing 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 premed 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 prerequisites was nice. And finally, it was tough. In fact, during my time, neuroscience and bioengineering were considered the two most challenging premed majors.
By choosing a difficult path, I was able to hone my work ethic and learn a great deal about the nervous system—to far greater depth in some areas than what I would later 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.
Choosing a Premed Major
Utilizing a combination of these strategies will help you choose the path that’s best for you. The data can only take you so far, and it could be that you have a completely unique set of interests and circumstances that take you on a different path to medical school.
We go into more detail in our article: How to Choose a Premed Major in 5 Steps. The guide discusses different paths you might take, the benefits to an unconventional premed major, and additional factors that may help you make your final decision.
Choosing your premed major is a big decision, and like all big life decisions, they come with a lot of pressure. If, after considering these factors, you’re still having trouble deciding, try practicing DOMS decision making strategies.
For example, we always recommend premeds and medical students put notable time in during a research phase before making any big life decision. You can’t make an effective decision if you aren’t informed.
In the case of choosing your premed major, review the data as well as what that data may actually mean—as we discussed in this article, correlation does not equal causation. Put time into understanding what courses you will need to take to cover your prerequisites, and understand what it will mean for your time and workload if you choose a major that does not cover these courses.
What courses will you need to take for each of the majors you are deciding between? Are there options for you to take a second major or minor along the way so that you can pursue your premed prerequisites along with another passion?
In the research phase, go beyond simple Google searches and speak to other students who have been in your position before. What did they learn? Were they happy with their decision? Would they do it differently if they could do it over again?
If you struggle with decision making, you understand how debilitating not being able to decide can be. Utilizing decision making strategies will help you make informed decisions you can feel good about for years to come. Read our guide: How to Make Tough Decisions — 7 Strategies for Better Decision Making.
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—several with merit-based scholarship offerings.
And you can do the same!
Med School Insiders was started to help premeds and medical students learn the ingredients to success in both their 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 incredibly successful, and I know they can do the same for you.
Med School Insiders offers one-on-one advising that pairs you with a physician advisor who best fits your specific needs. It’s our goal to help you create a future that aligns with your vision. We can help you craft an ideal medical school list, provide advice on whether or not a gap year is the best option for you, help you craft a stand out medical school application, and much more.
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