Questions About Majors and Certificates

What majors to medical schools prefer?

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 prerequisite 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 webpage and HPA's Major Choices webpage. HPA Peer Advisers can also talk with you about their majors.

My premed friends are telling me to choose a non-science so I stand out from others. Is this valid advice?

Med school admissions is holistic -- schools will want to know why you made your choices and how they will make you a better health care provider. Princeton premeds majoring in the humanities or social sciences enjoy very similar rates of medical school acceptance.  

When it comes to your life as a premed student, please remember:  admission to medical school is not affected, positively or negatively, by your choice of major in a vacuum. How you have made sense of your concentration and convey this to medical schools is important, though. Study what you love and reflect on how it has changed your perspective, the way that you think and view the world, and the way that you will interact with patients.

Many students major in the sciences, but that is because they 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 premed coursework and any additional science coursework, regardless of major.  Reflect on your favorite classes and professors, think about your independent work, and choose a major based on that.  Talk with your Director of Studies about what draws students they advise to specific concentrations. Talk with the 'Department Reps' in departments you're considering, and try to get a feel for what it's like to major in their departments. 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.  They will also consider the unique perspective that you bring to your medical school cohort; having a less traditional major may mean you'll have a way of seeing the world developed through your major that will enhance your med school peers' educational experiences. .  

Is it best to be a science major and have a lower GPA or major in something non-science and have a higher GPA?

Finding a major that interests and challenges you is important for your own preparation, and potential GPA is not the most important factor. No matter your major, health professions schools will carefully assess your science preparation, including how many sciences you took, where you took them, and 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. We would love to sit down with you and discuss what your options are and which factors may help you in making the decision. 

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?

You certainly do not have to major in MOL as a prehealth 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 in the way that the concentration is designed at Princeton. Perhaps other fields of biology (EEB, neuroscience) are more appealing? Perhaps chemistry, 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 premeds major in the humanities and social sciences, everything from French to Philosophy to Anthropology to Classics to SPIA, as well as the sciences. And medical schools are interested in applicants with broad academic backgrounds: a diversity of opinions and backgrounds will create a richer learning environment in the medical school classroom. The point is to have a fulfilling academic experience, particularly in your independent work and upper-level courses in your concentration, to go into medicine with a clear sense of what your background brings to the patient’s bedside.

I am truly passionate about learning about molecular mechanisms and can’t imagine not becoming a MOL concentrator, but I’m afraid that so many premeds are MOL that it’ll seem “generic.” What can I do to really stand out since there are so many MOL majors?

It’s absolutely fine to love MOL as a premed! Here are some ideas as far as differentiating yourself: 

  1. Learn how to articulate that passion to others in a genuine way. Think of examples of what you love about it; think about how studying MOL will enhance your practice as a physician. It can seem like a no-brainer that a premed would like MOL and in some ways that makes it harder to really tease out unique, thoughtful answers to these kinds of questions.
  2. Choose a thesis topic that you’re drawn to and an adviser with whom you mesh well. Princeton students distinguish themselves by completing this impressive undertaking. It may not feel as special while you’re here since everyone is doing it, but within the larger applicant pool, it will stand out. The letter of recommendation from your thesis adviser is one of the best chances to get a very personal, detailed, positive letter, and letters are one of the most important factors that medical schools consider in evaluating candidates.
  3. Take on a leadership role that allows you to share your interest with peers. Serving as a Peer Academic Advisor in the residential colleges, a HPA Peer Adviser, a representative on the MOL Undergraduate Student Committee, or a tutor or Learning Consultant for McGraw will show your commitment and passion, add another dimension to the way that you interact with the discipline, and help you develop leadership and communication skills.
  4. Since MOL and premed requirements overlap so much, you have a lot of room for electives that can distinguish you from others. Consider taklng a few courses within one area that highlight another aspect of your intellectual interests, or pursuing a certificate.
  5. Push yourself out of your comfort zone in electives. If you recognize that you gravitate toward MOL because it comes easily to you, think of ways to challenge yourself to grow in ways that you might not within the major. Doctors are not purely scientists; develop your humanism, empathy, cultural sensitivity, and other competencies that may be fostered more in other disciplines. Some of our science-focused students admit that they dislike or don’t feel comfortable with writing; remember that being able to portray yourself in writing is required to get your foot in the door as a medical school applicant via your essays, so be sure that you tend to your written communication skills!
I've heard it's hard to balance SPIA requirements and prehealth. Any advice?

In a recent panel, our HPA Peer Advisers did a great job framing the great opportunities SPIA has to offer future healthcare professionals. Woody Woo premeds benefit from a flexible curriculum that encourages multidisciplinary learning and provides opportunities to pursue specific interests, such as health policy, global health, and ethics. Some students are scared off by the long lists of requirements. Here are a few strategies for navigating both SPIA and prehealth: 

  • Choose SPIA prerequisites – in (a) statistics, (b) economics, (c) history, (d) politics, sociology, or psychology – that overlap with SPIA core course requirements, a strategy referred to as “double-dipping."
  • Investigate which science courses also count toward your elective requirements as you plan your science coursework.
  • Consider your learning goals early (i.e., studying abroad, field research) and begin planning coursework and experiential learning with help from the appropriate advisers.
  • Find a junior or senior SPIA premed who can offer you advice on courses and prerequisite timelines.
  • Check out our HPA Majors & Medicine Guide for an example of how to pair SPIA with prehealth.

Although SPIA is a large program, many students form close-knit communities around their shared interests. Seeking funding for study and research abroad (as well as field experience) is not only accessible but also encouraged. Current SPIA often tell us they have honed strong collaborative and conversational skills through precepts and will graduate with real-world knowledge that is of immediate use and applicability during their glide year(s). Finally, even if you don’t choose to become a Woody Woo, you should seriously consider taking a few SPIA courses that can help you better understand the healthcare systems and policies that will affect how you practice medicine in the future.

Certificates

How are certificates viewed by medical schools? Is it worth sacrificing time spent in activities or taking electives I'm interested in to finish my certificate?

Medical schools might 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 a certificate, we could still highlight your commitment to that area of study, and you could get a letter of recommendation from a professor in that area to reinforce our committee letter.  

I’m trying to decide which certificate to do. Are there certain ones that are better for premed than others?

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 – 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: odoc.princeton.edu/advising/choosing-certificate

What do prehealth students think about the GHP certificate?

We get asked about the Global Health and Health Policy (GHP) certificate frequently. The GHP program is for all students (prehealth and non-prehealth) 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 consider this certificate 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 globalhealth.princeton.edu/undergraduate. We consistently hear great things from the prehealth students who have chosen to do this certificate.