Am I Cut Out to be a Doctor?
Question: I’m a first year student and I didn’t do as well as I thought I would in my classes. Maybe I’m not cut out to be a doctor.
Answer: The level of rigor and the expectations at Princeton will be far beyond what many of you experienced in high school. It’s fairly normal to experience some “culture shock” as you make the adjustment. The most important thing is to “diagnose” any potential problems areas early and “treat” them via things like changing your study habits, visiting office hours, meeting with McGraw Center learning consultants, going to study groups, and adjusting your time management. These are a lot of things to think about! Talk with an adviser at HPA or in your residential college to assess what steps might be best for you to take as you adjust to Princeton. HPA advisers believe that everyone who got into Princeton has what it takes to become a physician – many of you will discover that there are other opportunities that better suit your talents and interests, but if you are sure that medicine is right for you, we will help you find a way to get there (even if it may not have been the way that you intended when you arrived). Please don’t hesitate to be in touch to make an appointment, or come in during drop-in hours.
Question: I think I may be earning a very poor grade this semester in biochemistry, perhaps a C or worse. I no longer think I have a good chance of getting into any medical school, as I may not have the aptitude to earn high enough grades. Should I consider dropping being premed?
Answer: It can be very discouraging to hit obstacles like this. The first step is to try to “diagnose and treat” – reflect on what you would have needed to change in order to find more success in the class. Was it the amount of time that you had to work on it? Did you use all of your resources (faculty, preceptors, tutors, friends in study groups, extra resources, Khan Academy videos, etc.)? Was it a lack of interest in the subject? Maybe you never figured out how to study properly for the type of exam given in the class. Maybe you subconsciously put more effort into endeavors where you were doing well since success can be a more positive motivator than struggle. Working with a McGraw Center Learning Strategies Consultant can be a great way to identify some aspects of your studying and prep that you can adjust for more success, but just spending some time thinking through the situation this summer may provide insight, too – things are clearer in hindsight.
As far as dropping premed or sticking with it, it's certainly a question worth pondering over the summer, as it should be for any student regardless of GPA. Becoming a physician is a tough road, full of stress and anxiety – now and during medical school – and some say that if you can think of anything else you'd be happy doing, it may be worth doing that instead of medicine. Sometimes a difficult semester can be an indication that you're losing some interest in pursuing medicine or science. But, if you're really committed to the career path with all of its difficulties, then don't let one rough semester dissuade you! Our firm belief is that if you had the aptitude to get into Princeton, you have the aptitude to get into medical school. But, you have to have the maturity and perspective to own the areas you need to improve and address them along the way in order to do so. And, just because you have the aptitude to become a doctor, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best career path for you based on your values, interests, and skills.
We recommend taking time this summer to explore your career options -- get some medical experience if you don’t have much, since concrete experience is a positive motivator. Do some research on other careers (research, teaching, consulting... whatever sounds interesting to you). Do some self-assessment (Career Services can help with some tools and resources). If, after soul searching and gaining experience you definitely want to keep medicine as an option, then we can look at how to help you improve moving forward. There are plenty of students who struggle academically at Princeton and go on to medicine, but it may mean taking more classes via a post-bac program after Princeton to get back on track or otherwise making sacrifices along the way. It's up to you to decide whether or not it's worth it and we're happy to help you weigh the options!
Trouble in One Course
Dear HPA, I’m not doing very well in one of my courses this semester. The grade I’m getting isn’t as strong as my other grades—it really sticks out. I don’t know what to do. I’m thinking I should drop the course. What do you think?
Answer: First of all, it is important to remember that one grade will not make or break things for you as a pre-med, and eventually a med school applicant. Medical schools will make every effort to put a weak grade in context, viewing it in light of your overall academic path. Furthermore, your attempt to work through the challenges associated with this academic “stumble” and use the resources available to you (such as the McGraw Center and your college peer advisers and tutors) may demonstrate a quality to schools that will ultimately be a positive. As a doctor, won’t you always want to learn from your mistakes and take advantage of all resources? If you’re pretty sure that things in this course aren’t likely to improve, or you feel they’re getting worse, remember to talk to your director of studies in your college. And of course, come see us at HPA so that we might have a more complete picture of your individual situation. The McGraw Center website is the place to start for knowing your academic resources.
Question: Hi. I’m in two science classes this semester both with labs, and I’m totally overwhelmed. I’m worried about how I’m going to do in the classes. I’m a sophomore who did fairly well last fall, but my grade from CHM 202 last spring wasn’t great. Now it looks like I may be in the same situation again. I need to know what I can do. I know there are study halls but I’ve never used them. Are they worth it? What else should I be doing to get help? Sorry to bother you.
Answer: In our opinion, yes, the McGraw Center study halls in Frist are indeed “worth” the trouble of walking over to Frist, but don’t take our word for it. Go judge for yourself. The McGraw Center organizes these study halls and also has a lot of other very useful information for someone in your position. They run occasional seminars and workshops on how to succeed in certain difficult courses, including science courses such as CHM 201-202, Organic Chemistry, and Physics; they have a wealth of “tips” and strategies on their website; they have peer mentors available; and they have full-time staff available for academic counseling. To find out more information, go to The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning website. Also, don’t be shy about using your professors’ and preceptors’ office hours; sometimes students, especially those who were very successful in high school, find it difficult to admit their academic troubles to our faculty, but you will not improve unless you’ve sat down with someone more knowledgeable than yourself and identified your exact weaknesses and the ways in which you study most effectively (ways which may differ from those of your friends). Lastly, make an appointment with your Dean or Director of Studies in your residential college (if you haven’t already). Let us know how it goes.
Question: Hi HPA, I'm having a somewhat difficult time deciding whether I'd like to graduate in 4 years, or in 3 years with Advanced Standing. I believe I have enough AP credits to make me eligible to finish in 3 years, but I'm not sure if I know all the pros and cons of the two paths. The main reason I'd like to graduate early is time-related, and another is tuition-related. The way I see it is that if I decide to apply to medical school and then become a resident, and maybe a fellow, I will be spending a lot of time "not working." So, the earlier I can finish my schooling, the better. And, it would also be nice to save my parents one year's worth of tuition. But the other half of me wants to stay here at Princeton so I can enjoy my senior thesis, finishing with my original class, and taking in the social scene. Also, I'm afraid I might miss out on something if I'm rushing through college, and then my application won't be as strong for medical school.
Answer: We haven't had any medical school applicants in the past two years applying to go to medical school early, meaning they were graduating in 3 years and headed straight on for more schooling. This is indeed rare with Princeton pre-meds and with the same population at most top colleges in the country. A main disadvantage is the lack of maturity you may exhibit, frankly, when presenting yourself as an applicant (compared to peers). Over 70% of Princeton applicants take four years to graduate and then take a year off before medical school, so you would be interviewing at age 20 or 21 alongside 22- and 23-year-olds. Also, medical schools might question why you didn't take full advantage of the cultural, intellectual, and yes, social offerings at Princeton; you may not encounter such offerings again in your lifetime. And we're not sure what to make of your comment that being a resident and fellow isn't "working" (!). If the financial situation is extremely serious then medical schools would surely understand your decision to limit your college to 3 years, but generally speaking, we do not recommend graduating early unless it is for these purely financial reasons (and dire ones at that). In the end, of course, the decision is yours.
Question: Hi HPA – I have to declare a concentration soon, and I still don’t feel like I know what direction to choose. I love my psychology courses, I’m taking sociology now and enjoying that, but I’ve always been a “science person” and I can’t seem to leave my interest in MOL or EEB behind. Can you tell me more about what medical schools might prefer? Am I at an advantage if I’m a social science major instead of a science major, since there are fewer non-science majors going into medicine? Am I at a disadvantage if I don’t do a lot of science while I’m at Princeton? What if I don’t get into medical school -- I don’t know what to do with a major outside of the sciences when it comes to careers.
Answer: These are all great questions to be considering as you commit to a concentration at Princeton, and beyond what we can answer in a simple email, or probably even in a single meeting, but here are some places to start: Medical schools want you to study what you love, delve deeply into your discipline of choice, and think about how studying it is helping you develop skills and perspectives that will inform your future practice of medicine. Every discipline provides certain habits of mind, ways of looking at the world and interacting with it, and connections to others within an intellectual community. It will be up to you to think about and learn to articulate the connections between the things that you do and who you want to be as a physician, and HPA will work with you on how to do that.
Medical schools expect you to come in with certain pre-requisite courses, or scientific competencies, which will provide a foundation for success. Our non-science major alums who come back to campus have all found medical school rigorous but manageable. Taking one or two extra MOL or EEB courses along the way, though, especially if you have AP credit, will give more evidence of your ability in the sciences. Similarly, if you major in a science, we recommend some of the health-related gen ed courses, like Race and Medicine, Medical Anthropology, and many others (we create a list of suggestions every semester) to round out your preparation for medicine.
Come by and talk to us about your interests and we’ll be able to provide more food for thought. There are also many other resources that can shed light on major choices, many of which are listed on Princeton’s Choosing a Major website. HPA Peer Advisers can also talk with you about their majors.
Majors, GPAs, and Admissions
Question: I’m considering medical or dental school and I’m trying to figure out my major. Is it best to be a science major and have a lower GPA or major in something non-science and have a higher GPA?
Answer: No matter your major, health professions schools will carefully assess your science GPA (made up of your biology, chemistry, and physics course grades for dental school and those three disciplines plus math for medical school) in addition to your cumulative GPA. Finding a major that interests and challenges you is important for your own preparation, and potential GPA is not the most important factor. We would love to sit down with you and discuss what your options are and which factors may help you in making the decision. We have additional advice regarding major choices on our HPA website.
MOL and Medical School
Question: Hi HPA, I had a quick question about molecular biology and med school. I noticed that most MOL majors are also premed. Is there any correlation between these two things? Do you have to be passionate about molecular biology in order to become a good doctor? Or is it because med school studies focus on molecular biology? I've just discovered recently that I'm not particularly passionate about molecular biology, but I am still interested in being a premed. I'm just worried that if becoming a doctor/being premed means that I will need to be passionate about MOL, I may not be cut out for med school after all.
Answer: You certainly do not have to major in MOL as a pre-health student. If you are turned off by science completely, then of course a science-based profession like medicine will make you an unhappy professional. However, you do not have to be passionate about molecular biology per se. Perhaps other fields of biology (evolution, ecology) get you excited? Perhaps chemistry, biochemistry, physics? Perhaps computer science or math or biotechnology? A scientific mind can find any number of rich fields during the undergraduate years and any number of areas of expression in the medical profession. As for your choice of a concentration, study what you love. Many pre-meds major in the humanities and social sciences, everything from French to Philosophy to Anthropology to Classics to WWS, as well as the sciences. And medical schools are increasingly interested in applicants with broad academic backgrounds. The point is to have a fulfilling academic experience, particularly in your independent work and upper-level courses in your concentration, to go off into medicine with a clear sense of what your background brings to the patient’s bedside.
Medical School Prerequisites
Question: What classes would I have to take at Princeton so that I’d be eligible to apply to any medical school? I want to cover all of my bases.
Answer: Years ago, it was far easier to take every course required by every medical school. Medical school curricula were more standardized, as were the schools’ prerequisites. Today, there is far more variation in how you’re taught and in what amount of time, and in what medical schools value in their future scholars. Realistically, no one applies to all 145+ MD and 30+ DO schools, so it isn’t necessary to take every course that every school will require. On the other extreme, there are 22 schools that have no specific required courses and instead have recommended courses or competencies that they want you to meet, but we don’t recommend forgoing all requirements! We recommend that you take all of the courses we’ve outlined in our “Preparing Guide” along with any requirements that may be specific to the public medical schools in your state of residency. Your state school(s) should always remain on your radar because they’re going to be one of the less expensive options and are likely holding seats for in-state residents, which gives you a leg up in the admissions process in most states. As for specific schools outside of your state school, we have linked to the pre-requisites websites for many of our most popular medical schools, so that’s a good place to start your research: https://hpa.princeton.edu/pre-health-prep/academic-preparation/prerequisite-websites. You’ll see that some schools require humanities and/or behavioral/social sciences – your distribution requirements will cover these prerequisites.
Science or Non-Science Major?
Question: My parents are telling me that I need to major in Mol Bio or another science if I want to go to med school, but I've heard from other places that it doesn't matter. Some of my friends even say the opposite of my parents - they think I should not choose a science. I'm a sophomore and have to decide very soon. Which do you recommend?
Answer: When it comes to your life as a pre-med student, please remember: admission to medical school is not affected, positively or negatively, by your choice of major. Princeton pre-meds majoring in the humanities or social sciences had just as much luck getting into med school last year as the science majors did. Many of you still major in the sciences, but that is because you enjoy these subjects, not because these subjects are somehow more attractive to med schools. Non-science majors need to demonstrate a proficiency in science, yes, but that can be done through their pre-med coursework and any additional science coursework - regardless of major. Reflect on your favorite classes and professors, and choose a major based on that. It's also a good idea to meet with the directors of undergrad studies or 'department reps' in a couple of the departments you're considering, and try to get a feel for how available they'll be during your junior and senior years, and how enthusiastic they seem about ever seeing you again (!). And don't forget to consider the smaller majors, such as the languages, Classics, Philosophy, etc. If and when you apply to medical school, those who evaluate you will look for intellectual depth and rigor, strong letters from faculty, and genuine intellectual curiosity, not for any particular subject of study. Your question certainly comes at an opportune time for the freshmen and sophomores considering their concentration. Thanks for asking it.
I. Certificate in Global Health & Health Policy
Question: Hey HPA, I’ve heard about this new certificate program in Global Health & Health Policy (“GHP”) and am wondering whether I should do it. Will it strengthen my med school application? Also, is this program really just for pre-meds who want to do health work overseas?
Answer: We get asked about the GHP a good bit. The GHP program is for all students (pre-meds and non-pre-meds) who are interested in the multi-disciplinary factors and dynamics that affect health, including economics, politics, anthropology, ethics, history, molecular biology, policy, ecology and evolutionary biology, philosophy, engineering, religion, etc. It addresses local, national and international issues (i.e., it’s not just for those hoping to work abroad). You should do this program if you’re naturally inclined to take the GHP courses, conduct health-related summer research and integrate health into your senior thesis—and not solely because you hope it will strengthen your medical school application. If you do plan to pursue the certificate, you can prepare by looking over the prerequisites that must be completed by the end of your sophomore year. Read more about the program’s philosophy and curriculum at http://globalhealth.princeton.edu/undergraduate. We consistently hear great things from the pre-health students who have chosen to do this certificate.
II. Should I finish my certificate?
Question: Hello HPA, I just had a quick question about certificates. I’m currently a junior and I’ve been taking Chinese every semester since I came to Princeton (including one summer). At this point, I have enough language-related coursework to obtain a Language and Culture certificate in Chinese; however, if I decide to do it, I will need to produce a substantial piece of independent work (exclusively for the certificate) next summer, which might interfere with my other plans as well as MCAT preparation. My question is, how are certificates viewed by medical schools? In your opinion, would there be any value in getting the certificate in addition to my seven semesters thus far of language study? This impacts next summer and also my course selections for next year.
Answer: It’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell you how all medical schools might view certificates. We’d advise you to weigh the importance of doing your MCAT (and gaining clinical experience, if you haven’t done much) against the independent work. Also, consider: when are you thinking of applying to medical school? Is this coming summer the last possible time to take the MCAT or could you do it during senior year if you’re applying after you’ve graduated? Do you have significant health and service experience already? We’re sure most medical schools would value seeing a certificate on your application in addition to your concentration, but they would not value it highly enough for you to risk putting yourself at a disadvantage in other ways just to complete the certificate’s requirements. Remember, too, that the committee letter we write for you in the spring before you apply discusses academic anomalies and trends on your transcript—things such as focus of coursework in a particular subject that may not get immediately noticed without our highlighting it. If you were to skip getting the Chinese certificate, we could certainly address in your letter how much Chinese you’ve studied, and why, and what you’ve gotten out of it.
III. Premed recommended certificates?
Q: Hi HPA – I’m trying to decide which certificate to do. Are there certain ones that are better for premed than others?
A: There are some certificates that may provide insight into areas that relate to medicine – Global Health and Health Policy (GHP) and Neuroscience are among the more straightforward; of the others, you can find connections to healthcare in many places – Ethnographic Studies could be of interest if you’re passionate about learning the stories of patients or others; Urban Studies may provide insight on future practice in an urban environment; any of the culture-based certificates could help you understand a segment of your future patient population; Entrepreneurship could introduce you to means of medical innovation. But, the idea behind certificates is to pursue something meaningful to you that will enrich your experience. You shouldn’t feel like you ‘have to’ get one (or more). In fact, if you’re not a MOL major, then taking all the premed courses becomes like an informal certificate, so it may be hard to find room in your schedule. Of our 103 students accepted to medical and dental school last year, 44 students completed 17 different certificates, including the usual Neuroscience and GHP, and more unique ones like Jazz Studies, Planets and Life, American Studies, and Creative Writing. A certificate can be a nice capstone that formalizes an interest in a particular area, but you can also signal that interest to admissions committees through your activities, course selections, and admissions essay – we also highlight areas you’re passionate about in our committee letter. So, even if you don’t get a Latino Studies certificate, for example, if you study Spanish, volunteer with El Centro or as a translator, are a member of Princeton Latinos y Amigos, or find other ways to let your interest in Latinx cultures come through in your experiences, schools are sure to see and value that. Read more about certificates on the ODOC website: https://odoc.princeton.edu/advising/choosing-certificate.
Successful Transition to Princeton
Question: Hi HPA – what advice do you have for a new pre-health student to maximize academic success?
Answer: We stand behind everything that the McGraw Center suggests in their First-Year student checklist – we’ve included that info here, with some more premed-oriented specifics:
- Create a study group for one of your classes; they're really efficient: The McGraw Group Study Halls are a great place to meet like-minded students and they’re offered in all of the premed sciences!
- Schedule a Learning Strategies Consultation with a McGraw Consultant: Many of the Learning Consultants are pre-health and may be able to provide some perspective on their pre-health choices; all consultants are trained to work with any student in any discipline, so you can’t go wrong meeting with them to talk about time management, organization, goal setting, and study strategies.
- Visit the Writing Center for help with your first big paper: Written communication is an essential skill for aspiring doctors (you’ll be writing dozens of essays as part of the medical school application process and you’ll need to think critically and express your ideas accurately and succinctly in many settings).
- Go to at least one of your professor's office hours to talk about something you find interesting in the course: You may feel more invested in the course if you’ve developed a relationship with the prof; if you run into trouble over the semester, it’s easier to bring it to the prof’s attention if you already know them a little; and you’ll need a number of recommendation letters for your next professional step, so start early in building these connections. Project Welcome Mat offers some advice on how to communicate with faculty.
- Even when things are hectic take time for recreation; this will actually make you a more successful student: burnout is a serious issue in medicine. Start developing good self-care habits now!
- Find at least one mentor among faculty and staff, in addition to your adviser, to meet with regularly: the AAMC offers some guidance for premed students about mentorship.
- Attend at least one of McGraw's workshops to prepare for your first midterms, finals, and everything in between: spending an hour just sitting still and making a plan with the help of experts can work wonders for your efficiency, confidence, and effectiveness as a student. McGraw’s fall schedule is online.
- Take 20 minutes a week to reflect on your academic approach and ways you might adjust it to meet Princeton's demands.
- Look around campus for additional resources, workshops, and activities to help make a smooth transition: HPA is one of those resources for pre-health students! Learn more about working with us on our website.
When Should I Give Up?
Question: Hi HPA: I’m a sophomore and I was hoping to start medical school right after graduation, but I’m afraid that after my fall grades that I’ll just never get to medical school. I’ve also started falling in love with anthropology. At what point, grades-wise, should I just give up my premed plans?
Answer: Deciding to leave the premed track is a very individual decision that shouldn’t be made based solely on grades, especially not after just three semesters. The key is figuring out why your academic performance isn’t where you want it to be. Getting to the bottom of this and finding ways to address it is often the first step. If it’s due to a waning interest in science / a developing passion for another academic or professional path, then that may be a reason to more strongly consider stepping back from premed. Some students are afraid to come in and talk with us about their doubts about medicine, but there’s no need to be! We’re happy to serve as a sounding board as you try to figure things out – we just want you to have as much information as possible as you make decisions about your future. But you’re certainly not required to work with us – seeing someone in Career Services, attending their Career / Life Vision workshop, talking it through with other mentors, having informational interviews with individuals in fields of interest, are all great options as you explore your interests.
Medical schools also consider your academic metrics in the context of the rest of your life. If you came in with a weaker science foundation than peers, had health or family issues during a semester, or faced other obstacles that affected your performance for a period of time – that’s all information that they will take into account. It helps us provide the best guidance if we know as much of this context as you’re willing to share.
We’ve seen students who have failed science classes who bounced back and were accepted to medical school. It does tend to change your timeline to application, but if you’re truly committed to becoming a physician, we can help you devise a strategy that can get you there. For some students, the road to the next step is longer than they want to spend, and that’s reasonable, too. In any case, we hope that you’ll come and talk through your concerns about academic performance. The more that we get to know you, the more we can be helpful with your individual situation.