One of the key medical school requirements is the completion of medical school prerequisites. While most medical schools in Canada and the United States do not have a strict list of prerequisites, you are strongly encouraged to take certain courses that will help you to get a good MCAT score and prepare you for the study of medicine. In this blog, I will go over a list of the necessary medical school prerequisites, why they are important, and how to ace them.
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Most Common Medical School Prerequisites
While each medical school differs somewhat in their undergraduate prerequisites, there are some nearly universal subjects and sub-fields that MD programs want matriculants to have completed.
Overall, prerequisites for medical school tend toward being general, such as introductory/first-year biology and chemistry. Focusing on a broad base of introductory courses provides a solid grounding for more specialized study in medical school, but it also ensures that applicants still have time and space to pursue other topics of study as undergraduates. It’s important to remember that medical schools admit students with a wide range of majors, and part of this is that the nature of medicine is quite complex. Social and communication skills are nearly, if not equally, as important as expertise in biochemistry for the practicing physician, so demanding that students develop highly specialized knowledge in physics, for instance, at the cost of exploring literary studies or sociology would be seen as overly narrowing an individual’s development as a well-rounded person.
Prerequisites are nonetheless the central part of a premed academic foundation, so they should not only be taken but taken seriously. Here are the most commonly required medical school prerequisite courses, which we’ve compiled from the admissions data of dozens of top-tier medical schools.
It is important to note that these prerequisites should be taken as part of a four-year Bachelor’s program at an accredited postsecondary institution. AP or IB credits are usually considered inadmissible as prerequisites, and taking any of the above courses at a community college is not recommended unless otherwise noted on a specific school’s admissions page. Fulfilling these requirements as part of your Bachelor’s program assures the medical school that you have studied these mandatory subjects at an acceptably rigorous level.
Still thinking through your plans for undergrad? Check out our video on how to choose your premed major:
Additionally, be aware that some schools have time limits in place for completing these prerequisites, so there may be an expiration date for your science and non-sciences prerequisites. For example, some Ivy League medical schools will not accept science prerequisites older than 5 years at the time of application. You must make sure that you check with your school to determine not just what you should take, but whether there is a time limit for how old your prerequisites can be, to confirm your eligibility.
Recommended vs Required Prerequisites
The biggest technical difference between required and recommended coursework is this: without completing the required prerequisites, you will not move up through the selection process. Period. Most medical schools will reject your application straight away if you do not complete the required courses. On the other hand, if you do not complete the recommended coursework, admissions committees will still review your application.
However, the distinction between recommended and required courses should to some extent be overlooked. Why? If a medical school, especially a competitive one, specifically names a course as important you should do all you can to take it, whether it’s a formally required prerequisite or a recommendation. The nature of the admissions process is so competitive for most MD programs that you should simply assume that most other keen applicants will do all they can do to gain an edge in their application materials. This means curating their undergraduate academic work to be as attractive to medical schools as possible.
It’s important to weigh this fact against the reality that admissions committees do, nevertheless, want to admit well-rounded and unique applicants. Sure, a student who has checked all the boxes for required and recommended work will stand out, but so will a student who has excelled in musical performance or art history while maintaining good grades in their required science courses. As with most things, striking a balance—in this case between med school monomania and unrestrained personal exploration—will yield the best results.
To that end, you should seek to take all courses recommended by your chosen schools so long as it doesn’t negatively impact other aspects of your undergraduate academic work. If enrolling in a linear algebra course would radically disrupt the final 3 months of your MCAT study schedule, then perhaps it isn’t the best use of your time. In almost every other case, though, you should seek to take both required and recommended courses as a matter of showing medical schools that you take their admissions criteria seriously, and that you’re a committed and conscientious student who doesn’t shy away from extra work.
With all that said, let’s take a look at some of the most recommended—but not usually required—medical school prerequisites.
How to Find Your Schools’ Prerequisites
There are two main sources for information on medical school prerequisites. The first, of course, is the admissions page(s) on a school’s website. Specifically, you’ll want to head to the MD program page and then look for a page or section on admissions requirements. While there isn’t always a specific page for prerequisite courses, any information relating to both required or recommended courses should be fairly visible in the admissions section since students, understandably, are eager to obtain this information early on. This is in every way the most important resource and will be most up-to-date. Requirements can change from year to year, so always begin by consulting the source of this information. You can also utilize the help of medical school admissions consulting to help you plan your prerequisites!
The other main resource for medical school prerequisite and recommended courses is the AAMC’s Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) database. Learning how to use MSAR is an extremely helpful skill when you’re beginning to seriously research MD programs, as it contains well-organized pages for hundreds of medical schools that include nearly all of their relevant information, from prerequisites to average graduate debt and everything in between.
How to Complete Your Prerequisites
You may be wondering, "How hard is it to get into medical school?" The short answer is: It's very hard! Aside from putting together a great application, getting experience and volunteer hours, and all that, it’s equally important that you not just pass your prerequisite courses; you must do well in them. Medical schools will consider your prerequisite course grades as part of your overall GPA, so you should aim to get the best possible grades you can in these classes.
Here are some suggestions for maximizing your prerequisites performance:
How to Complete Your Prerequisites for Mature Students
It’s important to note that if you have finished your Bachelor’s program and have not managed to complete the necessary prerequisites, there are still alternative paths you can take to get to medical school, such as special master’s programs (SMPs) and post-baccalaureate programs (PBs).
Post-baccalaureate and special master’s programs both seek to provide non-traditional medical school applicants with the opportunity to better prepare for professional programs like medical school. However, the ways in which these two types of programs organize this preparation are quite different.
Postbaccalaureate programs are aimed at students who have graduated with a bachelor’s degree but are lacking one or more important components to a viable medical school application package. This may mean a student who graduated with a non-science degree and needs to complete important prerequisite courses in any number of scientific fields, or simply someone who graduate with a low GPA and needs to improve it to increase their chances of admission. The beauty in the diversity of PB programs is that they tend to specialize their coursework for specific purposes: some are aimed at “career changers,” while others are for record-enhancers. Regardless of its specific focus, a PB program will run 1-2 years and, crucially, not end with an additional degree but rather a certificate or diploma.
PBs are great for students who simply need to check a few more boxes and proceed with applying to medical school, while potentially gaining some limited medically-relevant experience like shadowing and volunteering. There are also PB programs that specifically seek to help students from educationally or economically disadvantaged groups, as well as those from visible minorities, so they can often be a perfect fit for people who do not traditionally have the same access to higher education. Admissions requirements for PB programs are usually fairly unproblematic, with minimum GPA thresholds as low as 2.5, and GRE or MCAT scores in the 40th percentile.
However, because of the short and limited nature of PBs, some students will find SMPs more suited to their needs. SMPs are similar in many ways, but obviously differ in their terminus. While PBs confer a certificate or diploma, a special master’s program grants—you guessed it—a master’s degree. Specifically, SMPs will end with a degree in a medically-relevant science such as physiology or biomedical science. Coursework, research, and extracurricular work included in an SMP will be much more sophisticated and demanding than that of a PB, comes at a greater cost, and will in most cases be more exclusive. While PBs are aimed at providing more accessible opportunities for students who have likely not performed optimally so far, SMPs are highly competitive and typically only admit students with high GPAs and other credentials.
Yet, SMPs have a lot of benefits that far outweigh these downsides. The first is that, as mentioned, the work is geared toward medical school specifically, and in most cases is undertaken alongside medical students. Some, if not most, SMPs are affiliated with a specific medical school, and can even guarantee conditional acceptance to this school’s MD program upon completion. This does mean, though, that your performance in an SMP must be impeccable—not meeting the conditions of acceptance would not only prevent you from attending the affiliated medical program, but it would be a red flag to any other MD program you applied to thereafter. SMPs come with a greatly increased pressure to succeed.
Still, SMPs also come with much more research experience, higher level coursework, and copious volunteer opportunities that would be exceptionally helpful in rounding out your AMCAS work and activities section.
If your sole motivator in exploring these options is medical school prerequisites, then postbaccalaureate programs will in most cases suffice for most students. But if you’re applying to an extremely competitive medical program or have your heart set on a career in medical research, an SMP could be an incredible opportunity.
Why Are Medical School Prerequisites Important?
Before we wrap up, let’s take a bigger-picture look at why medical school prerequisites are so important:
1. Solid Knowledge Base
Medical doctors need to have a broad knowledge base, with a solid grounding in several subjects, to be effective physicians. Anatomy and physiology courses, while required by some schools, are actually subjects that will be covered extensively during your medical education. Schools want to know applicants have knowledge of subjects like chemistry, math, English, and other subjects that can’t be covered during medical school due to time constraints. A physician will need a solid grounding in math and physics to practice in a range of specialties, from internal medicine (calculating various important medical lab values) to radiation oncology (knowing how radiation works and how it affects the body). Biology and chemistry courses give students the grounding in basic sciences to study subjects like physiology, anatomy, and pharmacology during medical school.
Medical school prerequisites also give you the chance to test out your strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you’re top of the class in biology but struggle to achieve high grades in your chemistry courses. Gaining thorough knowledge of your scientific strengths and weaknesses during your Bachelor’s can help alert you to knowledge areas you need to improve if you want to succeed in getting a high MCAT score and, later on, in medical school. The more exposure you gain to different scientific disciplines, the more certain you will be regarding what does and does not require concentrated improvement.
Additionally, English courses help physicians write and communicate effectively. Don't forget that your command of the English language must also be demonstrated in application components like the medical school personal statement and medical school secondary essays.
2. Critical Thinking Skills
Most prerequisite courses require more than rote memorization. You will be expected to display your critical thinking, self-learning, and self-assessment skills to succeed in prerequisite courses. These critical thinking abilities are important to success as a medical student and physician, as physicians constantly take part in continuing education, assess their own skills and abilities as practicing clinicians, and strive to improve their performances. Your performance in the prerequisite courses will display these skills to the medical schools’ admissions committees.
- TIP: These critical thinking skills will also come in handy for the challenging Critical Analysis and Reasoning (CARS) section of the MCAT. As many of you know, you cannot prepare for MCAT CARS by memorizing the passages and answers. It takes months to develop an MCAT CARS strategy that will help you tackle challenging texts. Additionally, you should practice your reading and reasoning skills by using MCAT CARS practice questions.
3. Time and Stress Management
Medical schools want to see that you can succeed while taking a variety of courses, as well as juggling your extracurricular activities. As a physician, you will take part in a variety of activities, from clinical practice to teaching students to administrative or research work. You will also be working long hours. Medical schools will want to see that you can effectively manage your time, as well as handle the stresses that will be placed on you as a medical student and physician. Succeeding in your prerequisite courses shows medical schools that you can manage competing priorities, do well at a variety of tasks, such as taking tests, writing essays, and completing lab reports, as well as that you can manage your stress with effective strategies, such as exercising, good sleep hygiene, and unwinding with friends or family.
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4. MCAT Preparation
There are some medical schools that don't require the MCAT, including some BS/MD programs and medical school early assurance programs like FlexMed, but it is required by most medical schools. MCAT scores have a huge effect on medical school acceptance rates.
While it may be tempting to see med school programs that offer fewer mandatory perquisites as freeing, the truth is that anyone who wants to be a doctor should not shy away from science classes, as these will be important elements of their training. Additionally, science-based questions make up the majority of MCAT content. Taking the necessary prerequisites helps you to develop a strong grounding in sciences and social sciences you will need to ace the MCAT and succeed at medical school.
To do well on the MCAT, you must have an appropriate background in certain subjects. Luckily, these are the same subjects that medical schools require as prerequisites. The MCAT tests critical thinking abilities and does not rely solely on memorization or regurgitation of facts, but it will require a solid grounding in biology, chemistry, physics, statistics, English, and at least one social science like psychology. This means that even if the school you are applying to does not require prerequisites, but does require the MCAT, you should complete courses that will also function as MCAT prep, so you have the required background knowledge to do well on the MCAT. Ensure you're aware of upcoming MCAT test dates so you know when to start studying for the MCAT.
Don't forget to take an MCAT diagnostic test to help you prioritize which content areas to focus on and create a thorough MCAT study schedule.
5. Keeping your Options Open
Completing prerequisites and the MCAT keeps your options open. As mentioned above, many medical schools do favor prerequisites and have the MCAT as a mandatory requirement, so completing all of the prerequisites gives you plenty of medical schools to choose from when the application time comes. Doing the bear minimum may limit your options in a way you will regret later.
Medical school prerequisites and recommended courses are more than just hoops to jump through on your way to an MD program. As we’ve stated over and over again in our articles on the MCAT, your undergraduate coursework is the foundation of your success not only on the MCAT but in your MD coursework and eventual physicianship as well. If you’re sincerely drawn to medicine try to let your passion guide you through the tougher moments of grinding through organic chemistry quizzes or statistics finals. It’s all there to make you a better medical student and doctor, and the more you can relax, engage with, and internalize the material the happier and more successful you’ll be in the long run.
1. Do most medical schools require their applicants to complete these prerequisites?
Many medical schools do not require their applicants to complete a particular set of medical school prerequisites. Some schools, like Stanford medical school or the University of Toronto medical school, simply advise you to pursue certain science and social science courses to prepare you for the study of medicine. However, there are schools that have strict rules about medical school prerequisites, such as Geisel School of Medicine. Rules regarding prerequisites differ from school to school, so make sure to check with the program of your choice which prerequisites are required.
2. My school of choice has a list of “suggested courses”, does that mean that I can avoid taking them?
I would encourage you to complete these suggested courses. Even if these are not strictly required, remember that you want to avoid giving the admissions committee any reason to weed you out of the pool of applicants. If you’re up against students who have taken these courses, they might have an advantage. Plus, remember that many of these prerequisites are intro courses that will help you in your preparation for the MCAT and further study of medicine.
3. Should I get a certain grade in these prerequisites?
This will depend on the schools to which you are applying. In some cases, you simply need to pass the prerequisites – your grade will have no effect on your admission chances (it may affect your GPA). However, there are schools that set a minimum passing grade for the prerequisites, such as the University of Ottawa medical school.
4. What are the most common prerequisites that are required?
Two semesters of biology with lab, two semesters of chemistry with lab, two semesters of physics with lab, one semester of math, and two semesters in English. Additionally, most schools want to see background in anatomy and social sciences like sociology, psychology, or anthropology. As you can imagine, medical schools in Canada and the US expect fluency in the English language.
5. Why are medical school prerequisites important?
Having this knowledge base signals to the admission committees that you are ready to take on the rigorous medical school curriculum. A strong command of the English language demonstrates that you can communicate with your patients effectively.
6. Should I pursue a science major in my undergrad to fulfill all these prerequisites?
You should only pursue a science major if that is your passion. The discipline you study in your undergrad does not have a direct effect on your chances of acceptance. You can pursue whatever course of study makes you happy. Think of it this way: students tend to get better grades in courses they love, so take classes you are passionate about and ace these courses! This will increase your GPA, which is another important medical school requirement. Enjoy your undergrad education, but don’t forget to carefully research which prerequisites are required by the medical schools of your choice and plan when you want to take them.
7. When should I take the prerequisites?
My best advice is to spread out the difficulty of your courses, so you are not taking all the challenging science classes at once. Try completing the prerequisites over the course of 2 years or so. This way, you can mix taking the prerequisites with electives that you excel in. You can also choose to do some of your prerequisites over the summer terms while not taking any other classes.
8. What are the other medical school requirements apart from courses?
Medical schools seek well-rounded, balanced applicants who show a wide variety of skills and interests. Your medical school application will be much stronger if you keep in mind some of the non-coursework requirements many medical schools look for, such as clinical experience, research, and volunteer activities.
Also keep in mind that you will need three letters of reference for your application, so make sure you seek out good mentors during your Bachelor’s who can guide you and vouch for you when the time comes.
9. Should I pursue a science major in my undergrad to fulfill all of these prerequisites?
The discipline you study in your undergrad does not have a direct effect on your chances of acceptance, and you should major in science only if you genuinely wish to do so. Think of it this way: students tend to get better grades in courses they love, so take classes you are passionate about and ace those courses! This will increase your GPA, which is another important medical school requirement. Even if you don’t major in science, taking a variety of science courses will help you determine your strengths and weaknesses, which will in turn leave you more prepared for your medical school studies. Enjoy your undergrad education, but don’t forget to carefully research which prerequisites are required by the medical schools of your choice and plan when you want to take them.
10. I took several/all of these prerequisites several years ago. Are they still valid for a medical school application?
It depends. Some medical schools do specify time frames (e.g. five years) for the validity of prerequisites, as they want to ensure that your knowledge is current. Always check out the official information provided by your medical school of choice if in any doubt about the validity about the timing of your prerequisites.
11. Do AB or IB credits count towards prerequisites? What about community college courses?
The answer is usually “no” to both queries. Your prerequisites should be taken at the postsecondary level as part of a four-year Bachelor’s program. This is because medical schools need to be sure that their applicants have taken courses at the right level and with sufficient rigor.
12. What if I am missing some of these prerequisites?
If you are missing prerequisites, there are other options available that can still provide a route to medical school, such as special master’s programs and post-baccalaureate programs.
13. How do I find out which prerequisites are required by my chosen schools?
The best way to find out which prerequisites your schools of choice want to see in your application is to check the schools’ official websites or learn how to use the AAMC MSAR. This online database provides you with detailed information about every MD program in the United States, including which prerequisites each school requires.
14. I have already graduated but have not completed all the required courses. What should I do?
You can look into enrolling into a post-baccalaureate program. Many of these programs are specifically designed to provide students with opportunities to complete all the required medical school prerequisites.
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