Medical School Prerequisites

Common Requirements and How to Meet Them Effectively

Updated: October 22, 2020

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!

Here's What I'll Cover:

What are medical school prerequisites?

What are common medical school prerequisite courses?

Why are medical school prerequisites important?

Tips, tricks, and suggestions for optimizing your performance on your medical school prerequisites

FAQs

What Are Medical School Prerequisites?

Whether you are applying to DO vs MD programs, even the easiest medical schools to get into require students to complete certain prerequisite courses as part of their admissions criteria; that is, to be considered as an applicant, you must complete and receive a passing grade in certain undergraduate courses prior to applying to medical school. This does not mean that you have to pursue a certain course of study - you can still enroll into any undergrad program you want. If you are worried whether your discipline of choice can hinder your chances of acceptance, be sure to check out medical school acceptance rates by major.

Some medical schools do not have prerequisite course requirements. Some schools make these prerequisites “suggested” courses to complete, so even if you have not completed them, your application will still be considered.

  • TIP: Look at the schools’ websites or speak to their admissions offices to make sure you have the most up-to-date information regarding prerequisites. Requirements can change from year-to-year, so you must have the most recent information.
  • TIP: Even if the medical school has “suggested,” not required, prerequisites, aim to complete them all prior to applying. Completing these courses shows medical schools you have looked at their admission criteria carefully, and taken their suggestions for which classes to complete.

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What are Common Medical School Prerequisite Courses?

The most commonly required prerequisites are:

  • Two semesters of biology, with lab experience
  • Two semesters of chemistry, with lab experience 
    • TIP: Some schools require only organic chemistry, or allow you to substitute a biochemistry course for one chemistry course, while some require both inorganic and organic chemistry courses. Clarify what the schools you are applying to require.
  • Two semesters of physics, with lab experience
  • At least one semester of math 
    • TIP: Make sure you know which types of math courses are acceptable. Schools may ask for statistics, calculus or algebra courses.
  • Two semesters of English

Additional prerequisites some schools ask for:

  • One semester of biochemistry, in addition to chemistry course requirements
  • One semester of psychology or another social science
  • One semester of physiology or anatomy

Still thinking through your plans for undergrad? Check out this video on how to choose a pre-med major!

Why Are Medical School Prerequisites Important?

You may be wondering why medical schools require prerequisites. Why do most schools require courses in math, but not anatomy or physiology? Aren’t anatomy courses better preparation for medical school?

There are several reasons why prerequisites are 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. 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.

4. MCAT Preparation

There are some medical schools that don't require the MCAT, including some BS/MD programs, but it is required by most medical schools. MCAT scores have a huge effect on medical school acceptance rates. 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

Tips & Tricks

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:

1. Plan Your Courses.

If you’re considering applying to medical school, plan your undergraduate courses so you are able to complete these prerequisites. Some undergraduate programs, such as majors in biochemistry, physiology, or the other life sciences, will have all the prerequisites included in their program of study. For other programs, you will have to plan your schedule so you get them all completed. 

  • TIP: Be mindful that you may need to use your optional or elective time, or do certain courses during the spring or summer terms, to complete some of your prerequisites. 
  • TIP: Plan a proposed course schedule for the first two years of your undergraduate program during your final semester of high school, making sure you are completing both your degree requirements AND medical school prerequisites. 
  • TIP: Make sure you spread out the difficulty of your courses, so you are not taking all of the difficult or very time-consuming prerequisites in one or two semesters. Spread them out evenly over about 2 years so you have a good mix of courses and can give the correct attention to each course. 

2. Finish Your Prerequisites in a Timely Manner.    

Aim to finish your prerequisites by the end of your second year of undergrad. Why aim for this deadline, even though most students don’t apply to medical schools until their fourth years? Aiming for an earlier deadline will give you some leeway during your third year to complete any unfinished prerequisites, for example, if you need to withdraw from any courses or need to take time off for personal or medical reasons. 

  • TIP: Finishing your prerequisites by the end of second year will also give you plenty of time to prepare for and write your MCAT prior to applying to medical school.                                

3. Study Effectively

Ensure that you get the best possible grade you can in each prerequisite course, as these will count towards your overall GPA.

  • TIP: Use your calendar or planner to note down dates of midterms, final exams, and due dates for assignments. Block off time in your calendar weekly for each course to make sure you are devoting time throughout the semester, and not leaving studying or assignment work until the last minute.
  • TIP: Take breaks when you study. For every hour of work, take a 5-10-minute break to stretch, walk around, or talk to a friend. You will be able to return to your work after the break feeling refreshed, energetic, and ready to focus.
  • TIP: If you are struggling with any course material, seek help from your professor during office hours. Professors can point you in the right direction in terms of study strategies, as well as resources to help you feel more comfortable with the course material.
  • By informing yourself about which prerequisites you need to complete prior to medical school, and planning ahead, you will be able to complete them and do well, helping you along your journey to medical school! 

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FAQs

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. 

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