Growing group of non-STEM pre-meds explores new perspectives
The David Geffen School of Medicine is pictured. The school, like many other medical schools across the country, employs holistic admissions practices, which take both qualitative and quantitative factors into the admissions process.(Daily Bruin file photo)
By Megan Wang
Aug. 7, 2023 12:51 p.m.
When Bruins scan the list of majors offered at UCLA, the possibilities are almost endless. While students are generally free to explore and switch majors across a wide variety of disciplines during their undergraduate years, those intending to become physicians typically pursue a STEM field. However, a growing group of undergraduates are following alternative paths before committing to health care.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, medical schools are placing a greater emphasis on holistic evaluations in the application process. Not only are students assessed on their grades and MCAT scores, but qualitative factors such as extracurricular activities and writing supplements are equally taken into consideration.
Due to the holistic evaluation process, more students are choosing to pursue undergraduate degrees outside of a STEM field to explore their diverse academic interests. Medical school applicants can concentrate in fields from Slavic studies to international relations as long as they complete the necessary coursework to prepare for the MCAT. According to the AAMC, in the 2022-2023 application cycle, roughly 7,000 applicants out of 55,000 total indicated their primary major in the humanities and social sciences.
Associate Dean for Admissions at the David Geffen School of Medicine Jennifer Lucero said medical schools consider all majors equally in the review process, as long as applicants demonstrate a strong foundation in the sciences.
“The principles of holistic review would not dictate that one road is the only road to travel,” Lucero said. “There is not one particular major that everybody needs to have.”
While medical schools, including UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, use a holistic admissions approach, students who choose to pursue non-STEM majors still face logistical challenges in gaining a strong science foundation in their undergraduate studies. Prospective applicants generally complete at least one year of biology, two years of chemistry and one English course, according to the AAMC.
Several Bruins said their biggest concern as non-STEM pre-meds is the feasibility of completing their major courses and balancing pre-med requirements, which often do not overlap.
Many students still feel the need to take classes in physics, biochemistry and psychology despite more schools becoming increasingly flexible in their requirements. With so many prerequisites to fulfill, most students major in a STEM field because the major courses and requirements overlap.
A recent graduate with an Asian American studies degree, Himaja Vendidandi said the difficulty of completing requirements depends on whether a student came into their time as an undergraduate knowing that they would eventually go into medicine.
Since many pre-medical requirements are offered in sequences of courses, it can be challenging to complete if students decide to pursue medicine in the middle of their undergraduate years.
For example, UCLA’s Chemistry 14 series, which is included in the university’s recommended pre-health requirements list, spans six courses and includes one year of general chemistry and one year of organic chemistry.
“I came in knowing I was pre-med, and so my first two years were really just prerequisites,” Vendidandi said. “But, I can acknowledge that if you make the decision later on in that in those four years or five years, it’s going to be a little bit more difficult.”
On the other hand, Guadalupe Gonzalez, who graduated with a labor studies degree, said the difficulty in completing medical school prerequisites as a non-STEM student is a misconception.
“I’m planning to complete a post-baccalaureate degree program to finish the majority of my prerequisites, so I do have a different pathway, but plenty of people in non-STEM majors complete their prereqs during their four years,” Gonzalez said.
Lucero said students should not feel pressure to complete all necessary courses in four years because not everyone has to matriculate to medical school immediately after their undergraduate education. According to the AAMC, 62.6% of 2017 medical school matriculants reported taking at least one gap year. At Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, 63% of the entering class has taken one or more gap years.
“If you’re planning on trying to get all prerequisites done in four years, there are ways to structure it and plan it. But life happens while you’re on your journey,” Lucero said. “One of the most important things in being a physician is being able to be flexible and adapt to the situation.”
Medicine also requires qualitative skills that may not always be taught in a typical STEM major sequence, according to The New York Academy of Sciences. Non-STEM pre-meds said their majors teach important transferable skills such as writing and effectively communicating with people of varying backgrounds.
Vendidandi said her major allowed her to better understand the needs of Asians and Asian Americans when they require health care services.
“With such a huge Asian population growing in the United States, I think it’s just more important for us to have doctors or health care workers that are competent in what our community needs are,” Vendidandi said.
For Gonzalez, the labor studies major has given her many opportunities to write and conduct research with participants, which is rarer in a traditional STEM research lab.
“Writing is an important skill that I feel like we don’t always think about when we think about the STEM field, but you’re always going to have to write, whether it’s lab reports, research or med school applications,” Gonzalez said. “Through the labor studies capstone requirement, I was able to build skills like quantitative research, qualitative research and interviewing participants for a research study.”
With the variety of academic opportunities available to pre-health Bruins, it can be difficult to pinpoint a specific major to focus on for four years, especially if students have a diverse array of interests.
For students who are struggling to choose between majors, Vendidandi added that reaching out to others is effective in exploring new perspectives and how they may translate to health care.
“Either reach out to friends who maybe are in other majors or reach out to professors if you can understand like, what they’re studying,” Vendidandi said. “Be open minded and not scared to ask questions to see if this is what (you’re) interested in.”