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“What undergraduate degree do you suggest I study?”

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Thanks to Evette for the first question and giving me the opportunity to start adding some real content!

What undergraduate degree do you suggest I study?”

Great question and a very common one from secondary students worldwide. First and foremost, the answer to this question will vary depending on your location. There are two common streams of entering into a medical program:

(1) Direct Entry at the completion of Secondary School (really only possible outside North America*)

(2) Graduate Entry at the completion of an Undergraduate or Graduate Degree

*There are some pre-med undergraduate programs in the United States that have a pseudo direct entry stream based on GPA and MCAT in the undergraduate courses.

Obviously if you’re located in a country that allows you to directly enter into a school of medicine (ex. Ireland, England, Australia, etc) then that should be your first choice. If you’re in North American or are considering the undergraduate route first then you’ve got to put on your explorer hat and find a program that suits you.

A few things to keep in mind:

  1. Very few programs have a specific degree requirement – so you can pursue a bachelor of science, arts, fine arts, business, engineering, basket weaving and still be eligible for medical school admission
  2. Most programs have course requirements – in general it is expected that you will have completed the following courses at an undergraduate level:
    1. 1 Year of Biology
    2. 1 Year of Physics
    3. 1 Year of English
    4. 1 Year of Math
    5. 1 Year of Inorganic Chemistry
    6. 1 Year of Organic Chemistry
  3. You will probably need to take a standardized test – MCAT in North America or GAMSAT abroad and that will evaluate you on your:
    1. Multiple Choice test taking
    2. Physical Sciences
    3. Biological Sciences
    4. English
  4. GPA is important!
    1. Graduate Entry programs are just as competitive as Direct Entry programs – so you want to have a mix of required courses, challenging courses and less challenging courses. Almost universally, your GPA will be used to evaluate your application, either as a minimum to be considered or part of a ranking algorithm. It may sound cool to graduate from the hardest program in your area, but if your GPA is less than someone graduating from an easier program – chances are, they will appear as a better applicant on paper than you.
    2. Best way to have a high GPA? Pick something that interests you. I can’t read Tolkien (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings) to save my life – if I took a literature course on his works, no matter how notoriously easy it would be; I’d probably scrape by because I have so little interest.
  5. Escape Plan
    1. Medicine isn’t for everyone and it can be tough to realize that as you’re finishing secondary school. Having a program that gives you other options and a chance to explore other careers gives you alternatives.
  6. Medicine has a science foundation
    1. While it won’t teach you to be a doctor; taking courses that relate to the human body will help your understanding later on when you get to medical school – even general/ introductory courses will make the topic less foreign. These areas include:
      1. Anatomy
      2. Physiology
      3. Pathology
      4. Histology
      5. Biochemistry
      6. Pharmacology
      7. Genetics
      8. Neuroscience
      9. Psychology

So how do you pick the right program? It’s a combination of multiple factors – more than I’ve listed above. Don’t be the kid who goes into it thinking “I’m going to do my undergraduate degree in surgery before going to medical school and then be a cardiothoracic surgeon when I graduate” because I can promise you, that’s not happening.

I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto in the department of Human Biology. I was part of a specialist program in Genes, Genetics and Biotechnology. I chose it because coming out of secondary school I was interested in genetics and thought it gave me the flexibility to take other courses while having a genetics foundation.

Here are the good and bad of my thought process:

  1. U of T is a tough school full of kids who graduated near the top of their class in high school. Unfortunately, trying to be a smart kid in a room of other smart kids is really hard, especially if the school is trying to maintain a low class average. But I figured the prestige of the institution was worth it – WRONG.
    1. To do it again, I’d have gone to a smaller, less well-known school (my first year biology class was 1500+ students – ack).
  2. Genetics was fun but I got bored with it quickly and realized I didn’t like lab work – most clinicians probably don’t’. Medicine is a talking/people specialty; by the end I found myself gravitating towards global health studies because I was interested in delivery of healthcare more than just the nuts and bolts of a given blot.
  3. U of T has a ton of diversity in their courses – this is a good and bad thing. The breadth of the program gives you the flexibility to take a wide variety of classes but then you’re a Jack (or Jill) of all trades and a master of none. I think I would have preferred a more structured curriculum – hindsight is 20/20 and this is going to be very person dependent.
  4. Undergraduate did allow me to mature as a person and as a student – have some flexibility to take unorthodox and random classes. Two that stand out for me were – Intro to Latin/Greek terminology and First Nations Health and Healing; both very clear departures from genetics but taught concepts that I still use today.

In conclusion – the quick and dirty answer to “how do I pick an undergraduate program?” is going to require a little introspection. Make sure you don’t close off any options, have all the prerequisite courses and have given yourself the best chance to succeed academically – after that, pick something you think you might love – don’t worry you can always change if you don’t love it.

 

**Disclaimer – I can’t guarantee you a spot in medical school, but I wish I could; the post above is my opinion and I openly welcome that there are other views about choosing the right undergraduate program which will differ. Feel free to share yours below in the comment box or write me directly. **

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1 Comment

  1. […] already posted a fairly detailed synopsis of selecting an undergraduate major here. Usually around year 2-4 most students will take the MCAT. Depending on where in North America […]

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