How to Select Undergraduate Premed Coursework

Premed students shouldn’t think of a heavy course load and competitive GPA as mutually exclusive.

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It's freshman year, and you're toying with the idea of becoming premed. Maybe you'll change your mind, but you want to keep your options open. As the medical school admissions process becomes more competitive, the threshold for grades and MCAT scores seems to rise exponentially. Most aspiring premed students can't help but wonder: Is it better to get the easier A, or to tough it out?

First, it is important to remember that, regardless of what major you ultimately choose, there are core courses that most medical schools require you take:

• two semesters of biology with laboratory (up to four semesters at some schools)

• two semesters of inorganic chemistry with laboratory

• two semesters of organic chemistry with laboratory

• two semesters of math, at least one in calculus

• two semesters of physics with laboratory

• two semesters of English and/or writing

[Learn how to make the most of your premed adviser.]

Because all applicants will have these requirements on their transcripts, they are the most standardized way, along with the MCAT score, used to compare applicants across undergraduate schools. In addition, since the widely used AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) application divides the science or BCPM (biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics) GPA from the overall GPA, performance in these classes is even more important.

There are some common scenarios in which the issues of when, where, or if an aspiring applicant needs to take a particular required course may arise.

• Advanced Placement (AP) credit: At many undergraduate schools, at least one semester of many of these requirements can be substituted with an AP score of 4 or 5 depending on the institution.

However, many medical schools are not so generous; even if your undergraduate institution gives you one semester of credit for a requirement, some medical schools will not honor it as fulfillment of that requirement. You will still need to take an additional advanced course in that subject in order to fulfill those schools' requirements.

AP credit gives you the flexibility to carry a lighter course load during earlier semesters, but since medical schools want to know that you can handle advanced college-level work after your first year, the subject in which you received credit should, for example, not be the one you take at a community college over the summer.

[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Medical Schools.]

• Non-science major: Though medical schools welcome the different perspectives non-science majors bring to class, they examine the BCPM grades of non-science applicants to ensure they will be able to handle rigorous science coursework­—as that will be their entire course load in medical school.

Medical schools understand that students majoring in non-science subjects also tend to study abroad more or decide to apply to medical school later; in these cases, it is considered acceptable to take one or two requirements in summer school to be able to apply in time.

For all other students, it's better to take a mix of rigorous science requirements and other classes while carrying a full course load, rather than reducing your semester hours to raise your GPA. Pursuing a major that interests you and that you find challenging is much more meaningful to medical schools than choosing a certain track to maximize your GPA.

[Check out these 9 hot college majors.]

That does not mean there is no flexibility. If you have a full course load (e.g. a double major), it is perfectly acceptable to take a couple of requirements outside regular terms without raising concerns. Also, if there are some requirements that really frighten you, it's better to take the ones that don't (or are less frightening) with a full load during a regular term and the others during the summer, when you can give them your undivided attention.

Whatever you decide, it's best to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses to determine what course load you can handle realistically. A higher GPA and a rigorous course load don't have to be mutually exclusive; through effective time management and knowing when to seek appropriate help, they could both be yours.

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How To Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.