Questions About Required Science Coursework

Are the minimum prerequisites enough?

Q: I have fulfilled the basic premed requirements with AP credit and a few Princeton classes. I'm not planning to major in science. Is this enough?

A: It would be helpful if you came in so that we could talk about your specific situation. It’ll depend on a number of factors: exactly how many science courses you took here and which ones, how well you did in them, how you’re doing overall, your MCAT score if you’ve taken it, and your state of residence, among others. Also keep in mind that you’ll need at least two letters of recommendation that comment on your ability in sciences – many students take smaller science courses in order to have better opportunities to get to know faculty who can then write for them.  Medical schools are interested in candidates who have both a well-rounded, liberal arts preparation and ample science background to be able to succeed in an intensive science curriculum – you want to find a balance of both. It might be helpful to read through the pre-requisite requirements and recommendations offered by schools of interest. We have compiled a list of some popular schools on our website.

Is there a minimum number of science courses I should take before applying to med school, as a non-science major?

There is no agreed-upon minimum stated by medical schools, though any medical school would tell you that they’ll want to see evidence that you will be able to succeed in the rigorous, science-based curriculum in medical school. Our rule of thumb is generally that you should have at least 11-12 science classes (which is the equivalent of 48 credit hours); this corresponds to the number of classes you’d take to meet minimum requirements with no AP credit (4 semesters chem, 2 bio, 2 physics, biochem, math and stats). But, it’ll also depend on which courses you’ve taken, how well you do in them, whether you take any over the summer, how strong your science letters of recommendation are, whether you’ve done science-based work in the summers – all of these factors will be important in providing the evidence that schools are looking for. Looking at our recent applicants, the average number of BCPM credits of successful applicants is 70 (17-18 classes); looking only at non-science majors, the average was about 52 (13 classes).  A couple of students have been accepted with as few as 40 credits (10 classes), but they tended to have very high MCAT scores and GPAs. We’re happy to talk with you about your specific situation!

Are there medical schools that don't require science classes?

Technically yes, but it’s more complicated than that. Many medical schools recognize that undergraduate schools teach introductory science content in unique ways. Med schools are trying to be sensitive to models that don’t include the traditional two-semester sequences. Additionally, some medical schools acknowledge that students can gain competency in knowledge and skills in places other than traditional classroom settings. The movement from pre-requisites to competencies is driven in part by two reports: Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians and Behavioral and Social Sciences Foundations for Future Physicians – both outline the kinds of competencies—observable abilities related to a specific activity that integrates knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes— that physicians should gain throughout their training. In turn, the medical schools seek to enroll students who already have a basic grasp of these competencies, and who are going to be interested and able to continue to develop them throughout their medical training.

For specific school examples, read the explanations for the medical schools at VanderbiltStanford, and Penn, all schools that have shifted from specific course requirements.

Does this mean that you could take zero science courses and still gain entry to these schools? No – you’ll need to demonstrate ability in the sciences, and provide evidence that you’ll be able to navigate the rigorous medical school curriculum – but it does provide some flexibility.

Not all schools have moved away from discrete requirements, though – be sure to fulfill the prerequisites for your public state medical schools, since they are among your best chances of gaining entrance to medical school and stop by HPA any time to look into requirements for other specific schools – we have a list of requirements for schools popular with our applicants in our office (also published in our Majors and Prehealth handout on our website). You can also access to this list yourself by buying a subscription to the AAMC Medical Schools Admissions Requirements website or check individual websites for medical schools (we have compiled links to many of them on the Prerequisite Web Links page of our HPA website). 

I recently learned that Texas schools require four semesesters of biology. Are there other unusual requirements I should know about?

Texas is unique in this respect. You’re right, all the Texas schools (save Baylor) ask for 4 semesters, or two years’ worth, of biology.  This is included in the information you were given as a first-year, in our handout “Preparing for a Career in the Health Professions” (and online).  For those of you with no intention of applying to medical school in Texas, your EEB 211 and MOL 214 sequence meets the requirement, don’t worry.  However, this Texan’s question does bring up a larger point: It is always wise to check the Medical School Admissions Requirements, or MSAR, available in our office. This is the most centralized and reliable source for reviewing the requirements at the medical schools you dream of attending and making certain that they do not have any unusual, school-specific requirements beyond the basic ones.  Websites for individual med schools will give you that information as well, although they tend to be more confusing, in our experience, and it can get frustrating trying to navigate through various sites. As we all know, more schools every year require Biochemistry, and that number may be rising in the near future. Also, schools have changed their math requirement in recent years, saying that one term of Calculus plus one of Statistics is acceptable. Most of you will be fine if you stick to the basics: one year of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, math, and English.  We’ll certainly let you know if anything changes on a grand scale. Nevertheless, when the new MSAR comes out this spring, take a look—at least at the public medical school(s) in your home state. 

I'd like to study abroad next spring. Can I take science classes over the summer?

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. But, we wouldn't want you to give up a meaningful academic enrichment opportunity like study abroad, either! 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. 

Is it okay to take premed prerequisites online?

Your medical school requirements should be taken the old-fashioned way--in a classroom with preceptors and professors present. Most medical schools would not accept prerequisites such as Physics taken purely online (with exceptions made during the pandemic when classes were only offered online). 

Some health professions are more lenient about courses taken online. Check with individual programs of interest to gauge the acceptability.

Is it okay to take premed prerequisites or other sciences PDF?

As a general rule of thumb, we recommend taking all of your science courses for grades rather than P/D/F. As written in the Undergraduate Announcement, the spirit behind the P/D/F option is “to encourage exploration and experimentation in curricular areas in which the student may have had little or no previous experience.” By the time you’ve reached advanced-level science electives, most of them will not fall into this exploration and experimentation philosophy. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule of thumb (especially during the pandemic), and we would encourage you to talk with us about potential implications if you’re considering P/D/F in your science coursework.

Does ENV 303: Agriculture, Human Diets, and the Environment count as Biology (as part of my BCPM GPA) or as Environmental Science and Policy (not part of my BCPM GPA).

With interdisciplinary classes, it’s so difficult to try to box them into one category or the other. Plus, depending on who’s teaching the course and how they present the material, the classification could change from term to term. It’s up to you to categorize it based on where you felt the majority of the course content resided – if the course was primarily biology content with some policy and environmental studies, then you would classify it as Biology. Talk it over with peers in your class and even with the professor if you’d like other opinions on the subject, but ultimately, you just want to place it where you feel it best belongs. Students have had the same question about some CBE and PSY courses, among others—it always comes down to your own judgment.

I’ve looked at the courses that you list for med school requirements, but I’m not that interested in some of them. What would happen if I didn’t take some of the courses? Would I immediately be disqualified from applying to medical school?

irst, there are some schools that no longer have specific course requirements, so no matter what courses you take at Princeton, you could be eligible for these schools (presuming you meet any other requirements they have, such as state residency, taking MCAT, etc.); we have a list of these schools on our website (netID login required).
 
Beyond those schools, you can spend the money to apply to any school without having completed its prerequisites. Some may reject applicants who do not have a plan to complete the requirements pre-interview, but most will wait until they have decided to extend an offer of admission and make that offer contingent upon completing any remaining requirements. If you only have one or two courses left and your top choice school accepts you and requires that you take those courses, you could do so in the summer before matriculation.
 
That said, given how competitive it is to gain any admissions offers, we tend to recommend staying in line with requirements, especially for your state schools and any schools of specific interest to you, so that you have broad options in where you might be eligible to matriculate. Meeting the traditional course recommendations will also reduce ambiguity when you’re applying, which can make you feel more secure as an applicant during a time of ambiguity and stress.
 
Finally, decisions on whether or not you meet requirements are always in the hands of the admissions committees. Some are more willing to make exceptions than others. If there is a specific school that you’re particularly interested in and you’re not sure if you’d meet their requirements, you can always reach out directly to the admissions office and explain your situation and see if they can provide insight.