Questions About Other Coursework

When to take a Five Course Semester

Question:  I'm a first-year. Is there a certain semester that HPA recommends I take five courses as an AB student?

Answer: AB students are expected to have completed 17 courses by the start of junior year. Here are some considerations we’d recommend for prehealth students:

  • Lab courses tend to require a relatively high time commitment. Aim to take your five course semester when you’re only taking one lab course.
  • Think ahead to all three of your coming semesters as you make this decision. Mapping out a four-year plan can help you see where you'll have more space.
  • Consider using a PDF to help manage the workload.
  • Consider a summer course so that you can take four courses each term during the academic year.
    • A Global Seminar or Princeton-sponsored summer language course can be a great option. The abroad experience will help broaden your perspective and the courses tend to be small and allow for excellent opportunities to get to know peers and faculty.
    • If you take a summer course, we generally recommend a distribution requirement or an elective rather than a science—come and chat with HPA if you’re thinking about taking a summer science.

500-Level Courses

Question:  I’ve taken a couple of 500-level grad courses at Princeton.  They’ve been great, actually among the best classes I’ve had.  When I apply to med school will the grades I got in these classes be counted in my undergraduate GPA or will they be separate since they’re technically grad classes?

Answer:  This is a great question.  Graduate coursework done at your undergraduate institution, while you are an undergraduate, will be included in your undergraduate GPA’s when you complete your generic AMCAS application as Step 1 of applying to medical school.  As long as you have not yet graduated from college, 500-level course will still be counted as work done toward the completion of your bachelor’s degree.  If you’ve done well in these courses, that’s good news! 

Difficult Courses

Question:  I know that Princeton is all about challenging oneself and taking full advantage of a true liberal arts education, but sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice in taking the humanities sequence (HUM 216-219).  While I’ve been enjoying myself and learning a lot, it is very challenging.  Occasionally I wonder if it’s all “worth it.”  I’m certainly not failing or struggling too much in the class, but I could have possibly substituted it with a freshman seminar and some other less-intensive course.  Plus, it counts as two courses so it’s eating up a lot of my time.  I really want to continue it next semester, but I can’t judge the benefits vs. the cost.  I know I’m getting a bit ahead of myself as I’m only a freshman, but I was wondering if med schools somehow understand/acknowledge the weight of one class vs. another; in terms of some of the most competitive med schools, would it be a better strategy to go for the “easier A” or to stick to my guns and push myself through something like the HUM sequence, especially for a student exploring subject matters completely out of his “safety zone”?  Thanks so much!

Answer:  Hang in there.  Princeton can be tough—whether it’s the HUM sequence or any one of our many other unique academic opportunities.  We urge you to refine your perspective and not think in terms of how medical schools will view each of your choices (and the schools are all “competitive,” by the way!).  They do respect the challenging course selections that students make, but we believe that it’s very difficult to survive four years at Princeton without demonstrating your courage in the face of academic challenges—and the possibilities are endless.  You seem already aware of the value of your liberal arts education.  Make the most of it by going after intellectual endeavors that excite you and work as hard as you can to perform well.  That’s all anyone can ask. 

Intro-Level Courses


Question:  I tend to take a lot of 100-level courses, sometimes because I want an easy fourth or fifth class but many other times because I’m truly interested in the field and want some exposure to it. Classes like art history and civil engineering are classes I’m never going to be able to take during the remainder of my education, so I’d hate to miss out. Do medical schools look down on students who take so many intro-level courses? I’m nervous about taking any more in my junior and senior year because I don’t want to appear like I’m worrying too much about my GPA and not enough about actually learning. Should I stick to my concentration and other departments of strength rather than branch out? Or is taking a variety of courses in a variety of fields OK?

Answer: There seem to be at least two questions here: are intro-level courses OK for upperclassmen, and is variety OK? The answers are “yes, in moderation” on both counts. While medical schools have been known to look at the trend in both performance and rigor on a transcript (with the ideal trend being upward from freshman year to senior year), the very nature of your departmentals and independent work requires you to engage in higher-level work as a junior and senior. The level of your courses will naturally rise as you progress through Princeton. Med schools do value academic challenges; they also value breadth of knowledge, risk-taking, and cultural competence. Among your electives, it’s fine to have some 100-level courses if they serve to diversify your education. It’s also fine to PDF a couple of courses that might be higher-level. All in all, you may be worrying a bit too much about how you will be perceived as an applicant.  

Recommended Coursework

Question:  I’m planning my classes for next semester. Does HPA suggest any courses other than the usual prehealth pre-requisites?

Answer:  We hope that you’re using your time at Princeton to explore new possibilities, and generally just expand your perspective – every course that you take is a course that is informing your perspective as a future health professional! In addition, you might consider the core personal competencies that medical educators think are important (described in our “Preparing for a Career in the Health Professions” handout)– some of these competency areas can be developed through classroom exposure. For example, you could expand your cultural competence by examining the diversity in race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, religion, etc., within the society that you hope to serve as a physician. Many of the GHP electives (including Mortality at the Margins: Race, Inequality and Health Policy in the US, GHP 409, and Health and Human Rights, WWS 453) will expand your cultural competence in a health care context. Oral communication skills can be honed in small, discussion-based courses. Teamwork and service orientation might be cultivated in a course that offers a service component through the Community-Based Learning Initiatives program. Your written communication skills will be critical when preparing your applications, so if you know that you struggle with writing, take courses that help you improve. In addition to the sciences, there are a number of courses that offer unique perspectives on health and health care from a social science or humanities perspective. We looked through the course offerings and identified a number of these courses, which are compiled in every semester in our Health-Related Courses document on our website and available in the HPA office.  

Repeating Classes

Question: Dear HPA: When do you suggest retaking a class? And if I repeat the class how does it affect my GPA?

Answer: This is a case-by-case situation – we encourage you to come in or email us about your situation more specifically. If it was not a pre-requisite for health professions school, a repeat is not required. If the course in question is required for admission to medical school, we encourage you to come into Health Professions Advising and discuss your situation more holistically: one weak grade needs context for us to be able to advise you properly. Generally speaking, though, a grade of C- or lower (D or F) warrants a repeat, at Princeton or another institution. Most schools will not accept C-'s, D's, or F's because these grades do not indicate mastery of the subject. A grade of C or better usually indicates basic understanding of the material, and the student should generally go on and take more science at a higher level, and perform better, to correct the problem. In some isolated instances, after consulting with the student, we do suggest repeating a course even with a grade of C or C+; this is usually because the student does not feel prepared to perform well on the corresponding section of the MCAT. As for your Princeton GPA, the grade you receive when repeating a class at Princeton does factor into your Princeton GPA, but you do not receive credit toward graduation for the repeat. Your AMCAS GPA (the one med schools will view) is computed based on all grades earned at all US colleges and universities.   


Question:  I want to learn Spanish in addition to German.  I know that some medical schools prefer that applicants have knowledge of Spanish.  Which path would you recommend, Spanish or German?

Answer:  It’s not so much that medical schools prefer applicants with Spanish but that students at many medical schools these days are asking for Spanish classes to be added to the course offerings at their schools.  Many of expressed frustration over not knowing basic Spanish when they have begun having patient contact.  Med schools do their best to offer Spanish, especially if their hospitals treat a high number of Spanish-speaking patients, but these courses tend to fill up quickly.  We do not see your situation as an “either/or” dilemma.  If you have some talent and love for German, and already have some of your language requirement done in that subject, then by all means stick with it.  Don’t forget that some knowledge of Spanish can be gained through summer course work, often through study abroad programs, and can also be gained during the “glide” year that many people take before entering medical school.  Do not worry so much about what medical schools “prefer” and think more about the subjects you love—or, in this case, the cultures and countries that spark your curiosity. 

Summer Courses

Question: I’ve heard that medical schools don’t like it when you take summer classes. Is this true? I really want to study abroad in the spring of next year, and I’m not sure how else I would get Physics done.

Answer: We say a little bit about this in our “Preparing Guide,” generalizing that taking prehealth science requirements in the summer is generally not encouraged. Health professional schools want evidence that you can succeed in rigorous science courses, and taking them within a full course load during the academic year best simulates the demands of the science course work in health professions school. We encourage you to come in and discuss your specific situation in more depth, so that we can look holistically at your prehealth preparation and provide more individualized advice. If you do choose to take classes over the summer, be sure to get pre-approval through your college if you want them to count for course credit, and be sure to check with HPA to make sure that they’re the appropriate courses to fulfill prerequisites.