Thursday, December 30, 2010

Favorite comments of '10: ChemProf on med schools and science preparation

(Are humanities majors more compassionate than science majors?)


Med schools have never cared about student majors. They don't require upper division science coursework at all, although some California schools are starting to require upper division biology, and there have been discussions about dropping physics for at least the last ten years.

Med schools require organic chemistry for two reasons that have nothing to do with whether a student understands a Diels-Alder reaction or not. 

1. It cuts down the number of applicants -- think about how many college students were pre-med until they hit organic.

2. It tests whether students can absorb a large amount of unfamiliar information. Every other premed course (General Chemistry, General Biology, and General Physics) is very familiar to a well prepared high school student. In fact, since med schools don't accept AP credit, many pre-med students are just retaking things they did already in high school. Organic is the only course that they are unlikely to have seen, and it requires learning an unfamiliar scientific logic and language very quickly. That's a marker for an ability to do well in med schools, but if they really cared about material, they'd require biochemistry.

At my institution we have a pre-med post-baccalaureate program, where students without science backgrounds complete the pre-med requirements in two years. These students get into med school at very high rates but they definitely are not science students. Our pre-med coordinator came back from a conference with medical school admissions officers, and was shocked at how little they cared about science coursework or research. In fact, a student who had done too much science research was at a disadvantage to students who had lots of "community engagement" that didn't have any science-focus. The basic attitude was "why don't they just get a Ph.D.".

Even the physics requirement shows that they don't exactly care about science knowledge as much as ability to memorize. Med schools don't require calculus based physics, which is typically much more systematic and which is based on deriving the formulas you need rather than memorizing. They'll take it, but they are perfectly happy with an algebra-based physics course (often called physics for life sciences).

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