May 14, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Think you have to be “pre-med” during your undergraduate years to get into medical school? Think again. The reality is that most colleges and universities don’t even offer majors in “pre-med.” Which begs the question: What’s the best way to set yourself up for success when it comes to reaching your goals of becoming a doctor? That depends on you. Here’s a closer look at three potential pathways for getting into medical school.

1. Follow a premed-friendly track as an undergraduate.

At most colleges, the term “pre-med” merely means that you plan to apply to med school. And while it’s common for pre-med students to major in fields like biology and chemistry, the fact is that you can major in anything -- so long as you take the prerequisites for medical school, which may include a year each of biology, physics and English as well as two years of chemistry (through organic chemistry), according to the AAMC.

So long as you meet the requirements for the medical schools to which you’re applying, the sky’s the limit when it comes to majors. Not only that, but majoring in something unexpected -- such as music or the social sciences -- can actually be a distinguishing factor with the admissions committee.

Reveals after crunching the numbers, “[Applicants] most likely to matriculate have a background in non-biological science, with 45 percent ending up accepting an offer to attend medical school. Humanities and social sciences majors are second, at 43 percent. Those majoring in health, biology, or other fields all have lower rates, ranging from 31-39 percent.”

2. Enroll in a postbaccalaureate or special master’s degree program.

Not all students know they want to be doctors when they start out as undergraduates. Others may simply not have the grades to get into medical school fresh out of college. For these students, special master’s degree programs (“SMPs”) offer the opportunity to take the required coursework and/or strengthen their profile by improving their grades.

Configured as both one- and two-year programs, these may confer master’s degrees in medical sciences or medical physiology. Post-bac programs may also differ according to “type.” For example, while some are geared toward career changers, others are designed for academic enhancing. Others still may be aimed at supporting underrepresented students.  Choosing the right post-bac program is the best way to leverage it to its full advantage.

Says US News & World Report of the benefits of enrolling in an SMP, “Most special master's programs will offer a variety of activities with the goals of premed students in mind. Many will provide research opportunities, which is helpful if this is a potential area of weakness in your application. They may also have opportunities for clinical experience and volunteer work….In addition, many will provide MCAT preparation and advising to ensure all areas of an application are in check.”

(Reapplying to medical school? Be sure to check out our list of Five Things to Consider When Reapplying to Medical School before you do.)

3. Enroll in a combined BS/MD program.

Know you want to be a doctor, and as quickly as possible?  Joint BS/MD programs offer an accelerated track to becoming a physician -- in as few as six years, to be exact. Students apply to BS/MD programs during their senior years of high school, and are granted conditional acceptance into medical school depending on certain factors, such as GPA and MCAT scores.

BS/MD programs offer several advantages, including saving both time and money. Furthermore, the conditional acceptance requirements may be less stringent than for students applying from outside the program. Some may not even require participants to take the MCAT. BS/MD program advocates also cite the fact that students can focus more on following coursework and extracurriculars which interest them as undergraduates -- as opposed to focusing entirely on what would look best on a medical school application.

Of course, there are downsides to combined BS/MD programs, as well. For starters, because  they’re rigorous with intense workloads, participants may end up missing out on the typical “college experience.” And then there’s the fact student who decide to “apply out” to other schools may not only have lower chances of getting in, but risk losing their guaranteed places in the process. Furthermore, students who fail to meet the conditional requirements may find themselves worse off than had they pursued a more traditional course.

One BS/MD program graduate sums up his experiences as follows: “Accelerated BS/MD programs may be an attractive option for high school students who are confident that medicine is the right choice for them, who are enthusiastic about both the undergraduate and graduate institutions, and for those interested in the fast-track through college while having plenty of enjoyment on the way. For me, it was a great decision that instilled excellent personal study habits early on in college that would stick with me throughout medical school and I genuinely believe that the experience allowed me to match in an excellent residency as well.”

The takeaway for med school-minded students? A variety of options are available when it comes to getting into medical school. Assessing your unique background, current situation and future objectives can help you choose the pathway that best suits your needs and goals.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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