Is There a Pre-Med Track at Harvard?
Advanced Placement classes in high school prepared students for entrance into good universities, but in college, there seems to be no set path to a good medical school.
Upon arriving at Harvard, many first-years are anxious to begin the journey down medicine lane. But armed with only one personal goals--the desire to become a doctor--they don't know how to go about achieving it.
While the majority of pre-med students still choose to concentrate in the sciences, advisors say that more pre-meds make the decision to concentrate in an nonscience fields.
The basic requirements for medical school include a year of: biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry and general physics--all with laboratory. Also, most schools require a year of college English and a year of college mathematics.
While most medical schools prefer the mathematics course to be partly calculus, but for Harvard, Duke, Washington University and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Schools, a year of calculus is required. While Harvard offers numerous courses to fulfill each requirement, many first-years are still confused which of the available science courses they should take.
The primary factor for pre-meds to consider when choosing which courses they should take to meet medical school requirements is often their high school background in the respective field.
While some first-years may feel the inclination to sign up for the "more difficult" courses because they will look better on medical school applications, students must also consider whether they can handle the material taught in harder classes.
"I think it's fine to take the so-called easier classes if your interest in these fields is minimal. You only need enough to get by on the MCATs. If you have more interest in in depth knowledge in the field, then you should take the higher level classes," says Mariakarnina Iskandar '99.
But some students say that many premeds tend to take easier classes than they can handle so they can get better grades.
"For the MCATs, you just need the basic level of sciences. It's not like high school where it's better to get a B+ in an AP class. Med schools only look at the final grades," says Monica B. Shah '99.
"I know people who got placed into physics 15 and took physics I so they could get an A. They screw up the curve. Med schools don't give you more credit for advanced level classes like colleges do," she adds.
Perhaps the earliest dilemma confronting pre-meds is whether to take Chemistry 5: "Introduction to Principles off Cheimsitry" and Chemistry 7: "Principles of Chemistry" or Chemistry 10: "Foundations of Chemistry."
While Chemistry 5/7 teaches general chemistry over the time span of two semesters, Chemistry 10: "Foundations of Chemistry" takes up only one semester.
"Chemistry 5 is a good pre-med and introductory class and it's easier than 10," says Roanak V. Desai '00.
But in spite of this incentive, advisors say that pre-meds should consider the difference in difficulty and necessary background knowledge for Chem 10.
James E. Davis, senior lecturer in chemistry, says that a strong foundation in chemistry is necessary before taking Chemistry 10.
"Chem 10 assumes that students have a very, very good background in high school chemistry, essentially the equivalent of most of Chem 5/7, while Chem 5/7 is for students with an ordinary year of high school chemistry, or no chemistry at all," Davis says.
When deciding which of the higher level chemistry and biology courses to take, the student's chosen field of concentration can play a significant role.
Lee Ann Michelson, health career advisor for the Office of Career Services, says that students are at no advantage or disadvantage for medical school admission by choosing not to concentrate a science field.
"If a person has pursued an area in depth and has completed the pre-med requirements, his or her concentration doesn't have to be in the sciences," Michelson says. "It could be, for example, English."
Students who decide to concentrate in the Sciences tend to take the "more difficult" higher-level science courses in meeting their pre-med requirements, advisors say, For example, a biology concentrator will more likely take higher-level biology courses, such as Biological Sciences 10: "Introductory Molecular Biology" (B.S. 10), to fulfill both his pre-med and concentration requirements.
"B.S. 10 Provides a good fundamental background needed to understand important fundamental concepts in medicine and biology today," Desai says.
But Davis says that students tend to ignore their concentration when choosing between Chemistry 17: "Principles of Organic Chemistry" and 27: "Organic Chemistry of Life" and its counterpart Chemistry 20: "Organic Chemistry" and Chemistry 30: "Organic Chemistry" to fullfill their organic chemistry requirement.
"Regardless of their concentrations, students tend to take Chem 20/30 if they have begun in Chem 10, or if they have placed out of general chemistry," Davis says. "The students who take 5/7 almost invariably go into the 17/27 sequence largely for schedule convenience"
Adam B. Pudelko '00, vice-president of the Student Committee on Pre-med Education(SCOPE), says there is a fairly even spread between the students in the Chem 5/7, 17/27 and Chem 10, 20/30 sequences.
"The Chem 5/7, 17/27 sequence usually has a few more students because it is a more convenient track, especially for non-science concentrators, since it is spread out over two years of coursework rather than one year," Pudelko says.
Non-science concentrators must make the decision of whether to take the more difficult science courses in meeting their pre-med requirements, even though medical schools say it they do not require students to take higher level sciences.
Davis says he believes the medical schools' assertion that science courses above and beyond the minimum pre-med requirements are not necessary, noting that many pre-meds must also choose between the Physics 1a: "Principles of Physics: Mechanics", Physics 1b: "Principles of Physics: Electricity, Waves, Nuclearphysics" sequence and Physics 11a "Mechanics" and Physics 11b: "Electricity, Magcrtics and Waves".
"For the non-Science concentrator who wants to do pre-med courses, the science pattern of Chem 5/7, Chem 17/27, B.S. and Physics 1a/b is a very common one," Davis says.
Many science concentrators try to take advantage of summer school because they find it easier to complete a rigorous science course during the summer without any other classes on their schedule load.
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A students' field of concentration can also impact the physics class he or she takes to meet the pre-med requirements. Most Harvard students choose to fulfill their physics requirements with physics 1a/b or 11a/b.
Their choice is often influenced by their background in mathematics, and is usually guided further by their concentration.
"A lot of people laugh at [Physics 1] because they think it's watered down physics," Iskandar says. "I think there's more support in the lower level classes because most of the people are pre-med. Where as in higher level classes, it's people who are concentrating in that field and want to grad school."
Advisors say that students who have only completed introductory calculus, they will more likely succeed in Physics 1a/b. However, if they have completed a course in multivariable calculus, then any either Physics 1/ab or 11a/b would be appropriate.
At this point, one's concentration tends to direct the student to one or the other.
The Biochemical Sciences concentration requires its students to take one semester of multivariable calculus and Physics 11a/b. As a result, those concentrating in this field will take the higher-level courses to complete both their pre-med and concentration requirements.
Science advisors say the level of mathematics one should take is usually chosen independently of the pre-med requirements.
The only medical schools that require one year of calculus are Harvard, Duke, Washington University and the University of Pittsburgh. The others expect one year of mathematics, which can be fulfilled by a statistics course.
Many pre-meds tend to take the calculus-level mathematics courses because they are uncertain which medical school they will apply to in three years, and they want to keep their options open, advisors say. Some students' mathematics choices are based upon the higher-level physics classes they will have to take.
But despite the myriad of choices, premed students can take solace in the plethora of advisors, professors and experienced students available to guide them.
Deborah Hughes Hallett, member of the faculty of education, is available to answer student questions about pre-med course placement and planning in Room 108 of the Science Center. Michelson is also available at the Office of Career Services to help with medical career resources and counselling.
Though there tend to be popular trends in the science courses and concentrations chosen by pre-meds, there are by no means fixed "tracks" that pre-med students need to follow.
"The way to make Harvard work for the pre-med student is to figure out what he or she is truly interested in because then they'll really shine in those courses," Hughes Hallett says.
Students' reported reasons for taking certain introductory science classes From 1997-1998 CUE Guide