Parents FAQ: Introduction »

Parents FAQ: Pre-Med

A Pre-Medical Guide for Parents

For many parents, guiding a child down the path toward medical school can be a confusing and challenging experience. We hope this will answer most of your questions.

How successful are Penn’s pre-med students in gaining admission to medical school?

Penn is a premier school for pursuing pre-medical coursework. Medical schools know that it is a rigorous institution, and that students who excel here are well prepared for professional success. Penn students also have access to excellent research and clinical volunteer opportunities, which enhance their medical school applications. Every year, Penn students fare well above the national average in applying to medical school, as you can see from the medical school admissions statistics that we track.

How do students prepare for medical school?

Part of the preparation for medical school is academic. Although students may pursue any major they wish, they must complete a standard “pre-med curriculum,” which consists of introductory biology, general chemistry, introductory physics, organic chemistry (all with lab), English, and math. In addition to these courses, some medical schools require upper-level classes in biology and biochemistry.

Students must also take the MCAT exam, which tests their mastery of the basic sciences, as well as their verbal skills. Our pre-health advisors will work with students on how to prepare for the exam and when it makes the most sense for them to take it. Penn student applicants to medical school consistently score higher than the national medical applicant average as you can see from our medical school admissions statistics. However, students need more than strong grades and MCAT scores to fare well in the application process. Aside from the academic work, students must also demonstrate their commitment to the medical profession by becoming involved in clinical volunteer work and/or clinical research. With several hospitals in walking distance from campus, and its own renowned medical center, Penn is an ideal place for exploring all the facets of health care.

What are the benefits of going to Penn, as opposed to doing a combined BS-MD program?

The University of Pennsylvania does not have a joint BS-MD program with Penn’s School of Medicine.  There are other schools that do have joint-degree programs, which allow students to complete both a bachelor’s degree and a medical degree in six or seven years. These programs are attractive to some students because they provide a guaranteed and streamlined route toward earning an MD. However, there are certain advantages to pursuing undergraduate work at a school like Penn, as opposed to doing a joint-degree curriculum. The most serious drawback to the joint-degree is that students are put onto a very fast track at a young age. Students do not have the opportunity to explore a wider range of course work or to seriously consider whether medicine truly is the right career fit for them. Even those high school students who “know” for sure that they want to become doctors often do not really understand much about the profession, and an intensive joint-degree program does not give them the time or the flexibility to weigh all of their career options. Also, by having four years to complete their undergraduate work, students at Penn have the time to take classes that will enhance their ability to be good doctors. Courses like “Medical Sociology,” “Bioethics,” and “Health Care Systems,” among dozens of others, help students to understand the social and economic aspects of health care, thus preparing them all the more fully for medical school and beyond.

Do pre-medical students need to pursue a science major?

No. Pre-medical students can major in any discipline whether science or non-science. Medical schools do not require or even prefer a particular major, and if a student pursues a non-science major, the basic pre-med courses can be taken as elective courses. Medical schools expect students to pursue a balanced, well-rounded education, no matter what they major in. Medicine is an interdisciplinary field; it requires not only a sophisticated understanding of science, but also an ability to communicate and empathize with others. Therefore, those who major in one of the sciences must be sure to take electives in the humanities and social sciences. Those who major in a non-science field will take the required pre-med courses, and should also consider taking one or two upper-level science courses to enhance their preparation for medical school.

How can I best support my child along the pre-med path?

Being a pre-med student can be extremely stressful. The academic course work is rigorous, and since students are graded on a curve, the competition can seem intense. In addition to being academically difficult, the pre-med path requires a great deal of maturity and flexibility, in terms of finding time to do volunteer work, research, and other kinds of extracurricular endeavors. It is not unusual for students to feel overburdened and anxious at times along the way. For some students, this anxiety may be compounded by the fact that they sailed easily through high school, and therefore do not have experience in coping with school-related stress. For the first time in their academic careers, they may find that while they are working hard, they are not getting A’s. This can be very unnerving, as they may not know what to do, or who to turn to, for help. Parents can play a critical role in helping to alleviate this stress. If your child mentions feeling “stressed out” or seems nervous about faltering in his or her pre-med work, it is essential that you not dismiss such concerns. Talk openly and understandingly about them. Try to make specific suggestions, and point your child toward resources at Penn that might provide needed support. The University’s Tutoring Center offers both individualized and group tutoring sessions for all of the pre-med science courses. The staff at CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) can help students with test anxiety, or with other personal problems that may be distracting them from their academic work. Also, be sure encourage your child to make contact with professors and teaching assistants, for questions about problem sets and exams.

My child wants to take “time off” after graduating from Penn, to pursue something else for a couple of years before applying to medical school. Isn’t that frowned upon by the medical schools?

Traditionally, pre-med students applied to medical school after his or her junior year. However, that has definitely changed. Today, a majority of Penn’s applicants to medical school are alumni, not graduating seniors. In recent years, more than half of Penn applicants admitted to medical school took 1-3 gap years first. More importantly, students who take time off are not at a disadvantage. Medical schools are pleased to admit qualified students, regardless of whether they apply directly from college, or whether they wait 1, or 2, or 5, or even 10 years before applying. Why do students take time off? Some need extra time to complete required course work, or to prepare for the MCAT exam. Others want to take a break from school in order to work and earn some money before starting medical school. Still others go into the Peace Corps or travel abroad on a fellowship or participate in Teach for America or Americorps. And some want to explore another career before committing themselves to medicine. The important thing is that students apply when they are ready, both emotionally and intellectually, to go to medical school.

My child started Penn as a pre-med student, but now seems to be having doubts. What should I do?

It depends on the source of the doubts. Some students start to shy away from medicine because they are struggling with the pre-medical science courses. If your child is having academic difficulties, please encourage him or her to seek extra help from the pre-health advisors in Career Services, from Penn’s Tutoring Center, and from their professors and teaching assistants. Sometimes, students just need a break from the “pre-med track” and want time to explore other possibilities. This can be a great thing for students to do. Looking at other options, whether in the health care field or outside of it, can either lead to other exciting opportunities, or help students realize that medicine truly is the right career fit. Students who are interested in health care, but who do not want to pursue a medical degree, can begin investigating other career possibilities from information we have on the pre-health section of the Career Services web site.

My child has experienced some academic difficulties with the pre-med science courses at Penn. Will the Penn name compensate for that?

Although medical schools regard Penn highly, students must still perform well here. The average GPA of Penn applicants who are successful in gaining admission to medical school is around 3.7, and 3.5 in the sciences.

Even if a student has low grades or a low MCAT score, doesn’t it make sense to just apply and see what happens? Is there any harm in trying?

Actually, yes, there can be serious drawbacks to applying hastily to medical school. When students are rejected, and then re-apply, they are not working with a “clean slate.” They have to overcome the negative judgment made against them by the medical schools they have to prove that they have significantly improved upon their first application. It is much better to delay applying, use the extra time to gain some more life experience, and to put together a stronger application. Getting into medical school requires hard work, maturity, scientific ability, discipline, and a spirit of compassion. Medicine is also an immensely demanding profession, and anyone who enters into it must feel that it is the right vocational fit. If all these factors are present, more likely than not, your child will be successful in the application process.

Good luck in supporting your child through this arduous but ultimately rewarding journey to medical school.