There are 448 students in Life Sciences 1a, the standard Harvard pre-med choice .
Students file one-by-one into the green seats of Science Center B’s lecture hall. They sit down, pulling out laptops or legal pads, sometimes problem sets to complete in class. A constant hum of gum chewing, chair-shifting, and text notifications is amplified against the walls.
The room has yet to quiet down when Life Sciences 1a, Harvard’s 448-person introduction to chemistry, molecular biology and cell biology, begins with an unwelcome announcement.
There will be a “little quiz” in section. Students in the packed lecture hall respond to the news with a loud groan.
“Don’t you want to know how things are going?” molecular and cellular biology professor Robert A. Lue calls back. The class responds with a resounding “No!”
Lue reasons, “It’s important to diagnose how everyone’s doing.” He tailors his word choice to the make-up of the class. Diagnosis is a familiar concept to these students, many of whom are interested in attending medical school.
Often taken as the first of many pre-med required classes, LS1a introduces Harvard freshmen to the academic life of a pre-med. While many of the students in the lecture hall believe that they will go to medical school, between one and two thirds of them will end up dropping the program.
The story of droves of students entering college expecting to be pre-med, but later switching tracks—whether because of the rigor or the draw of other disciplines—is a familiar one. However, at Harvard unique factors play into this whittling down of aspiring doctors.
Although Harvard offers a robust pre-med advising program in the Houses, many pre-meds struggle freshman year, when they say that advising is less structured. Later on, a variety of factors—from alternate disciplines and academic communities that are perhaps less grade-obsessed or more diverse, to more lucrative careers that require less up-front time investment—draw students away from the path towards medical school.
Learning The Ropes
The Office of Career Services estimates that a quarter of the incoming class each year is “exploring medicine.” This data is based on annual attendance at Opening Days events aimed at students considering pre-med and pre-health careers.
However, popular wisdom among Peer Advising Fellows says that the proportion is closer to 50 percent. “Half of them are pre-med, or more,” says Khin-Kyemon Aung ’14, who is a PAF and president emeritus of the Harvard Pre-medical Society.
OCS estimates that, ultimately, 17 percent of a given class will apply to medical school.
As is the case at most of its peer institutions, Harvard does not offer a pre-med concentration, secondary, or citation. Rather, the school suggests that students take a particular set of classes before taking the MCAT or applying to medical school.
Currently, most medical schools require students to take one year of biology, one year of general chemistry, one year of organic chemistry, one year of general physics, and one year of English. On top of these requirements, medical schools expect applicants to have leadership experience and strong extracurriculars.
These requirements offer some framework, but the open-endedness can leave students unsure of how to navigate their courses or envision what it means to be a strong candidate for medical school.