Top Undergrad Majors at the Best Medical Schools

US News & World Report

By Farran Powell
March 20, 2017

Biological science is among the most popular undergrad majors at top-ranked medical schools, U.S. News data show.

Megan Schwerr always knew she wanted to be a doctor, even though she didn’t decide on her major until her sophomore year of college.

“I wanted to pick a major that helped me get there,” says the 22-year-old, who initially thought a major in biology would serve that purpose. “I actually enjoyed chemistry more than I thought I would, and it seemed to be a better fit for what I needed to get into med school – so I switched to biochemistry.”

The Idaho native finished her biochemistry degree with a minor in mathematics at Linfield College in Oregon last December and was accepted at the University of Washington School of Medicine, which ranks No. 1 among the 2018 Best Medical Schools for Primary Care.

(Farran Powell/USN&WR)
(Farran Powell/USN&WR)

“The classes I took catered to the MCAT perfectly,” she says. “One concept that was on the test I literally learned in my molecular biology class the day before the exam.”

Schwerr isn’t the only premed student who studied a biology-related discipline to be accepted at a competitive medical program.

In fact, more than 40 percent of premed students accepted at the top 11 – due to ties – Best Medical Schools for Primary Care or the top 10 Best Medical Schools for Research in 2016 studied a major with a biological science emphasis, according to data submitted to U.S. News by 113 ranked medical schools in an annual survey.

(Farran Powell/USN&WR)
(Farran Powell/USN&WR)

Even though Schwerr was accepted at UW, she says, “I applied to Harvard just to get rejected.”

Premedical advisers say some top-ranked medical schools are more interested in applicants who not only have good metrics in science courses but have also taken social sciences electives.

“Previously, medical schools were focused upon excellent preparation for biomedical sciences,” says Dr. Anthony McGreggor Crowley, a college adviser at IvyWise who used to serve on the Harvard Medical School admissions committee. “Over the last 15 years or so, there has been more emphasis on balance, meaning that premedical students now need to focus on these foundational biological courses and on the humanities.”

Crowley says the shift is also reflected in the new MCAT, which now has a new subsection: Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior.

Degrees in the social sciences at both the top medical schools for primary care and research represent only a sliver of students.

At the top 11 medical schools for primary care, 14 percent of students studied social sciences, while 19 percent studied “other” as their major. Among the top 10 research medical schools, 17 percent of students held a degree in social sciences compared with 12 percent who held “other” for their undergrad degree.

But more interdisciplinary majors that allow students to take a mix of health studies with the traditional medical sciences, such as organic chemistry and biochemistry, have emerged in recent years, experts say.

The University of Texas—Dallas, as an example, launched a bachelor’s degree in health care studies four years ago. The program allows students to take a blend of health care topics with traditional premed science courses, says a UT—Dallas spokesperson.

UT—Dallas student Aseel Dweik, 21, says she decided on this major for her premed studies because it allowed her to take electives that suited her interests. “You get a taste of everything, and it all revolves around one field.”

Dweik was accepted this year at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine, which are both tied at No. 8 for Best Medical Schools for Primary Care.

Premed advisers say liberal arts programs can even help boost a student’s profile when applying to med school.

“I find my colleagues with nonscience backgrounds bring a great deal to the table,” Crowley says. “They are often attuned to the psychosocial etiology of diseases and may have a leg up on understanding the complexity of illness and its effects on a patient, her family and society.”

Michelle Grundy, director of the health professions advising office for Vanderbilt University‘s undergraduates, says two of the school’s most popular majors for premed students are interdisciplinary.

“Our most popular majors are more interdisciplinary like neuroscience or medical, health and society, where those majors have premed requirements, but also allow the student to understand a broad scope of health care in general,” says Grundy, who helps students put together med school applications.

The health professions adviser says that nearly 25 percent of the Vanderbilt undergraduate student body are interested in health professions, in part because the university is well-known for its medical school, a top medical research center. Nearly 16 percent of the school’s premed students were accepted at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine last year, ranked at No. 14 for Best Medical Schools for Research.

Grundy’s advice to undergraduates: “It doesn’t help you to have a medicine and society degree if you have really low metrics. But if you have this diverse major and really good metrics, maybe it makes you a more attractive candidate in general.”