September 23, 2014

Which major is most likely to get into medical school?

Rob Humbracht

In part 1 of our discussion of college majors, we discovered that you don't have to major in biology to get into medical school.  So if we don't have to major in biology, what should we major in?  Let's start by examining the data about which majors have the highest acceptance rates to medical school, along with some hypotheses about why indeed this may be so.

First, the data (courtesy of AAMC, reused here for educational purposes).

The top 3 majors are pretty close - humanities, math, and physical sciences majors all have a solidly-above-average (46-48%) acceptance rate.  Sitting right at average are social sciences, biology, and "other" majors, all with a 40-42% acceptance rate.  And bringing up the rear are "health sciences" majors.

Question 1 - what are "health sciences" majors? These are health-related majors such as exercise science and nutrition.  In fact, according to the College Board, 362 colleges offer an exact major called "health sciences."

Why do health sciences majors have such a hard time getting into medical school?  I don't know.  My hypothesis is: very few competitive colleges offer majors in health sciences.  Of those same 362 colleges listed by the College Board, only 3 offering the health sciences major have an acceptance rate lower than 25%: Washington University in St. Louis, USC, and College of the Ozarks.  If this major is primarily offered by lower-ranked institutions, then these students probably weren't good test-takers to begin with.  As a result, they probably didn't do very well on the MCAT. Again, this is just a hypothesis; it's not bullet-proof.

Question 2 - Why are bio majors so much less likely to get in than humanities, math, and physical sciences majors?

Interestingly, it's not because of their overall grades.  Bio majors have about the same grades as everyone else applying to medical school.  

This chart shows that the GPA averages are pretty close among the different majors.  The GPA's fluctuate between 3.5 and 3.59, with most settling right in around a 3.55.  

The biggest difference comes from the MCAT.

With the exception of humanities majors, there's a 1:1 correlation between MCAT score and acceptance rate.  If their MCAT scores were the same, then hypothetically each of these majors would get in at the same rate.  In other words, it's not that being a math major by itself makes you more likely to get in.  Being a math major means you are more likely to have a higher MCAT score on average, which makes you more likely to get in.

Which brings us to the exception: humanities majors.

Why are humanities majors more likely to get in than their MCAT and GPA would suggest? A few hypotheses:

1. Humanities majors are more rare in the admissions process.  For medical schools that value diversity (which is pretty much all of them), that means that humanities majors are more in demand.

2. Humanities majors read better.  Their verbal reasoning scores are higher, and since many med schools put additional emphasis on the verbal section than on the science sections, humanities majors benefit.

3. Humanities majors write better.  Good readers make for better writers, which also helps humanities majors, since so much of the application process is based on writing ability (personal statement, secondary essays) or communication skills (the interview).

4. Humanities majors are less likely to have classes graded on a curve, such as most science classes.  Since their classes are easier on average, they spend less time on their studies and have more time to do interesting things outside of the classroom.

5. This last one is a bit of a guess, so bear with me on this one.  Humanities majors who apply to medical school are much more likely to have carefully considered their reasons for applying to medical school than bio majors.  The default path for bio majors is medical school, whereas the default path for humanities majors is, um, not medical school.  So, when they switch to applying to medical school, they probably had a more compelling, "a ha" moment or influential life event that propelled them to change, and as a result, their "why medicine" is more compelling and unique.

What's the take-away from all this?  No, we shouldn't all switch are majors to humanities.  The major takeaway is that the stats among the different majors are pretty close, so major in whatever you want. And if you are considering a major in something unrelated to medicine, go for it!

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