by Kathleen Engelmann, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Science and Society
As a biology professor and Dean of the College of Science and Society, I am often asked by students how to get into medical school or physician assistant programs. The reasons are obvious: these are in-demand careers that pay well and offer great flexibility. Furthermore, undergraduate students who love the life sciences and helping people are often drawn to these careers, making admission to medical schools and PA programs highly competitive.
In fact, both types of programs often have as many as 30 applicants per seat. For all programs, there are specific admissions prerequisites which must be met in order to be considered for admission. Many applications don’t make it through preliminary screening, due to missing prerequisites. Applicants should ensure they meet all minimum prerequisites and exceed where possible to improve likelihood of admission success. So, I’d like to offer some general advice about how to make sure you meet the minimum requirements for the broadest range of programs.
Necessary Majors and Courses
A biology major is, of course, a great option and many biology programs are tailored to help prospective Medical and PA applicants meet their prerequisites. However, you don’t need to be a biology major to go to Medical or PA school. In fact, many programs are actively recruiting students from non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) majors like English and Human Services because these students bring excellent critical thinking and communication skills that are essential to these professions.
Rigorous science courses are central prerequisites for these graduate programs and, if you are not a biology major, it’s very important that you have a pre-med or pre-PA advisor who can guide you in selecting the right courses. (Please see our quick list below.)
Most universities offer two levels of STEM courses like chemistry or anatomy and physiology: one intended for STEM majors and another lower-level course intended for health science, nursing, and other non-science majors. Don’t be tempted to take the lower-level courses to help boost your GPA. Students who challenged themselves during their undergraduate career are able to show that they can handle the rigors of a challenging graduate program. If you are in a Health Science or Nursing program, the higher-level courses can almost always be used to fill your program requirements.
Almost all programs require 4 semesters of chemistry, and it also comprises a large portion of the MCAT exams. Some programs will require two semesters of Organic Chem, others will require one semester of Organic and Biochemistry. Taking 5 semesters of chemistry is your best way to broaden your options for programs to which you may qualify. Most programs require one semester of calculus and a second semester of either calculus or statistics. Physics is required by most Med Schools and is on the MCATS, but PA programs often don’t require physics.
There is a lot of variation in exactly which Biology courses medical programs require. Many require Bio 101 and Bio 102. Many others require higher level Biology courses or specific courses like Genetics or Molecular Biology which are filled by the requirements of the
Biology major. While many biology classes can meet the requirement for two semesters of biology, with a lab, we strongly recommend students take 200 level Anatomy and Physiology for STEM majors, in addition to Biol 101 and Biol 102. Any course which makes use of a Gross Anatomy laboratory (i.e., a cadaver lab), if your institution has one, will be highly valuable to pre-med and pre-PA students. Genetics and Microbiology are often required by PA programs.
The MCATs also include a biobehavioral section, so we advise students to take general psychology and a sociology or social psychology course.
All medical schools and PA programs require students to have outstanding academic resumes. In addition to a high GPA, applicants should have a well-rounded academic resume that includes research, leadership, community service, and clinical experience.
Research activity shows a high level of academic professionalism and is strongly recommended. Most faculty in your STEM and Social Sciences are involved in research. A great way to get involved in research is simply to ask a faculty member if you can work with them. Often you can get credit for this in the form of an Independent Research course. Your pre-med or pre-PA advisor can help you find a suitable faculty member, if you’re not a STEM major.
Get involved in student club and community activities and seek out leadership roles in these groups. Both Med Schools and PA programs want to see that you can work with a team and care about serving your community. There are many opportunities for pre-med or pre-PA students to be involved in clubs related to healthcare. You are also often able to get student rates for PA and medical associations, something that will show your interest in and dedication to keeping current in the profession.
Experience working or volunteering in a health care setting that involves patient contact is also absolutely required for a competitive application. A prospective applicant should have at least 900 hours of patient contact experience and some programs may require as many as 2000 hours. This can include volunteering at clinics and other facilities, clinical research internships, and work experience such as EMT, medical scribing, or phlebotomy. Most programs will require shadowing experience with a physician or PA, depending on which program you plan to apply to, and at least one letter of recommendation from a physician or PA who has been in a mentor role.
Med School and PA School Prerequisites
In summary, to maximize your chance of admission to the broadest range of Medical and PA programs, we suggest the following.
- All coursework should be rigorous; aim for ‘STEM major’ courses
- Two semesters of inorganic chemistry
- Two semesters of organic chemistry
- Biochemistry strongly recommended
- At least one semester of calculus
- One semester of statistics
- Two semesters of physics
- Two semesters of general biology, with a lab, and two semesters of 200 level Biology, with a lab. 200-level Anatomy and Physiology is a great choice. Genetics and Microbiology are also recommended
- Some schools may require two semesters of English
- A sociology course is also recommended to help prepare for the biobehavioral section of the MCATs
- Have a well-rounded application that includes research, shadowing, patient contact experience, leadership experience, and volunteer experience
Kathleen Engelmann is the Dean of the College of Science and Society and an associate professor of Biology at University of Bridgeport, where she has taught since 2007. She has degrees in Biology and Medical Laboratory Science and a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Her research has studied the genetics and behaviors of a wide range of organisms, from plants to fish, in both lab and field environments.