The Future Doctor's Friend

This article originally appeared in The Crimson on September 29, 1972. The unusual number of requests convinced the Crimson to reprint the article. As a result, some courses mentioned here may be outdated.

(Premed Advisor and Assistant Senior Tutor in Adams House.)

WHAT THEY don't tell you when you arrive as a freshman premed is what courses to take. And by sophomore year there are more disillusioned ex-premeds than there need be. Furthermore, because of wrecked hopes and poor spirits, these otherwise superb people are a shambles. Why? Because they have taken the wrong premed courses, they have done poorly, and they then doubt their own abilities and their own genuine desires to become "doctors."

The point of writing this article is two-fold: (1) to help freshmen select the appropriate premed courses before it is too late, and (2) to draw attention to the lack of information provided by all the various science departments and to the lack of premed advising in the Yard and for freshmen in general.

What are the premedical requirements?

The requirements for admission to medical school include one year of biology with lab, two years of chemistry with lab, one year of physics with lab, and one year of mathematics. In general, AP courses taken in secondary school may not be counted; most states require the five premedical courses in college before licenses to practice medicine can be issued. Don't plan on anything less than five years of science and math as listed above. Furthermore, medical schools are unhappy with just the minimum requirements; but that is something to worry about later. The premedical requirements should be completed by the end of junior year, and only under exceptional circumstances (such as a late decision to study medicine) this should be the case.


Everybody knows that a year each of biology, physics and math, and two years of chemistry are required. What they do not understand is the order in which to take the premed courses. Not only do students fail to understand the importance of the "holy order," but, apparently, most of the involved departments are so parochial as to ignore the issue. The priorities for enrollment in prerequisite premedical courses should be mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physics in that order.

For heaven's sake, get a good grounding in mathematics before ever going on even to Nat Sci 3. The appropriate math to take ranges from Math Ar to Math 21. The math requirement is the most flexible of all the premed requirements as far as the medical schools are concerned. The med schools are often willing to accept pre-calculus, statistics, computer sciences, etc. to fulfill the requirement. Clearly, if you are a student with excellent math preparation, say an AP score of 4 or 5, you need have little concern except that you must still take Math 20 or, preferably Math 21. Otherwise, enroll in either Math Ar or Math 1a.

A word about Math Ar. This course was designed to fill a gap which the Math Department denied existed until the inception of the course. Math Ar prepares students for calculus and prepares students for sciences that require facility in algebra, trig, etc. As far as medical schools are concerned, with very rare exceptions among those schools requiring calculus per se, Math Ar is sufficient to fulfill half of the premed math requirement. As a course, it has status with any other; it is offered for credit; and it is perhaps more conscientiously taught than other math courses. Students are sometimes worried that taking Math Ar will delay their progress. However, they should realize that nothing will impede their chances of doing well in the sciences as much as not knowing the material in Math Ar.

A reasonable, recommended beginning program for freshmen with little AP exposure in math or chemistry is Nat Sci 3 and Math 1 or Math Ar. More than two premedical courses as a freshman is unwise unless you are not only confident about your academic prowess in the sciences, but also have demonstrated facility in sciences. Such demonstrated facility would include previous excellent work in secondary school in chemistry, physics, mathematics; APs in chemistry, physics, math or biology; or, superhigh math SAT scores (over 700-750) with considerable exposure to the sciences in secondary school.


The fundamental principle to be kept in mind in selecting premed courses as a freshman is it is always safer to enroll in easier courses as a freshman and then move up to the more difficult ones as a sophomore and beyond. (note: this is contrary to the advice given by most science departments). Perhaps the most important single factor determining whether a freshman goes on to be "premed" or drops the idea is his performance in premedical courses as a freshman. All too often students enter their sophomore years with poor grades in two or three difficult (or not so difficult) science courses and decide that because of these poor grades earned during their freshman year, they should not go on. To avoid such discouragements, which often snowball into a disastrous sophomore slump, you should avoid a rough science schedule with inadequate math background as a freshman. If you fear a rough time with chemistry or biology as a freshman, take only Math Ar and Math 1a or Math 1a and 1b and plan to take Nat Sci 3 as a sophomore. And if you find chemistry hard you may well need to strengthen your math background and should consider Math Ar. The worst of all possible worlds is when a freshman loses all his self-confidence. Freshman year is a rough time of adjustment, self-doubt, etc.; and work in the sciences is best deferred until a rough period of adjustment has passed.


Math Ar and Math 1a together are a good pair for the medical school premed requirement and for preparation for Nat Sci 3 or other chemistry courses. Realize that Math 1a (also Math 21a) is offered in the Spring as well as the Fall, and that Math 1b is offered during both semesters as well, making it possible to take Math Ar, Math 1a and 1b in sequences beginning with the fall semester of freshman year. If you feel your background in math is good, take Math 1 straight off. If you have less than 600 on the math SATs, or did not have a full algebra II and trigonometry course in high school, you should consider Math Ar. AP in the AB Math AP exam leads most appropriately to Math 1b, which should be taken straight off at the beginning of freshman year; and BC Math AP leads most appropriately to Math 20 or 21. Math 21 is less applied and more theoretical than Math 20; both are fine choices. Statistics and Nat Sci 110 may be counted for the math requirement at many medical schools, but this should be cleared at each medical school and the fact that you are using either of these to fulfil the premed math requirement must be stated in your medical school applications and letters of recommendation from your House.

N.B.: Nat Sci 1 a is not intended to be useful in providing a background for further math courses nor for competence in calculations necessary for science courses; it should not be taken to fulfil premed requirements.