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Med Schools Disavow Classics Programs' Claim as Road to M.D.'s

Med school officials say it's all Greek to them that classical language skills help aspiring doctors.

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Students who can read the Hippocratic Oath in the original Greek may be more likely than their peers to get into medical school. At least that's a claim that appears on websites of classics programs at Georgetown University, Missouri Valley College, Villanova University, and dozens of other colleges and universities across the country. 

Many of the Greek and Latin departments at those schools link to The Princeton Review's website, which quotes the Association of American Medical Colleges as saying that students who major or double-major in classics—the study of the language, culture, and history of ancient Greece and Rome—have "a better success rate getting into medical school than do students who concentrate solely in biology, microbiology, and other branches of science."

Classics majors' communications and analytical skills, mastery of grammar, and "breadth of view which few other disciplines can provide," serves them well, according to The Princeton Review.

However, neither The Princeton Review site nor the dozens of college and university websites direct readers to statistical data. And Henry Sondheimer, AAMC's senior director of student affairs and student programs, says none of his colleagues has suggested anything of the sort in the four years he's been working at the AAMC.

[Check out the World's Best Universities for linguistics.]

The closest thing the AAMC has found, Sondheimer says, is that on average, nonscience majors fare slightly better on the MCATs.

Cynthia Bannon, associate professor of classics at Indiana University—Bloomington, says she doesn't know of any studies of classics majors and medical school admissions, but if one exists she'd love to see it.

"We do know that our classics majors fare well in the medical school application process, winning acceptance and fellowship support," Bannon says. "We have been told that a major in Greek or Latin helps the candidate to stand out from the pack."

IU—Bloomington's classics program website states that one of the things medical school admissions committees appreciate is "high accomplishment in many academic majors, including classics." Bannon, who is also director of undergraduate studies at the school, adds that classics programs give students "a portable set of analytical and verbal skills that are useful for studying medicine" and "makes them good at communicating with patients."

However, one medical school admissions officer says classics majors' rumored advantages are all Greek to her.

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Greek and Latin majors and minors "gain linguistic and analytical skills" that "have proved highly useful" for physicians, among other types of professionals, according to the website of the classics program at University of California—Los Angeles. But Lili Fobert, director of admissions at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine, isn't convinced.

"Medical schools quite often look for students that are well rounded, and maybe that's what they meant," she says of classics programs. "Major is irrelevant to us."

Charles McNelis, assistant professor of classics at Georgetown, sat on a premed committee at the university. "Sorry, I have no data, just anecdotes," he says. "[O]ne of the things that the scientists [on the committee] lauded about Classics majors was that they understood how to conceptualize larger problems by paying attention to details."

Classics training can help develop "useful ways of thinking," McNelis says, though etymologies "are probably not all that significant in helping students."

[Read about how to select undergraduate premed coursework.]

Pamela Sklar, chief of the Division of Psychiatric Genomics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, holds a B.A. in classics and philosophy from St. John's College in Annapolis, Md.

Sklar says three classmates out of 70 at St. John's, which she says is often called "the Great Books School," also went on to medical school—"a measurable but not huge percentage."

"I advise people to pursue what they are most driven to do; if that is classics, so be it. Habits of logical, clear thinking are helpful, but there are many ways to develop these skills," she says. "There are many ways to skin this cat."