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Frequently Asked Questions for Premedical Students

(For detailed explanations, see Guide to Premedical Studies at Swarthmore College.)

What are medical schools looking for?

Medical schools are interested in applicants with excellent academic abilities (as shown in grades and MCAT scores), strong interpersonal skills, clear motivation for medicine, and demonstrated compassion and concern for others.

What are the course requirements?

The courses Swarthmore students typically take to meet the premed requirements are: Bio 1 and 2; Chem 10, Chem 22, 32 and 38; Physics 3/3L and 4/4L; Math 15 and Stat 11; and any two English courses. Some medical schools have particular or advanced math or science course requirements.  The MCAT exam now includes a social and behavioral science component. Psychology 1 and any sociology or anthropology course are recommended to prepare for the test.

Can I use AP credit to fulfill my premed requirements?

You can use AP credit to fulfill all or part of the math requirement at nearly every medical school. If you use AP credit to place out of an introductory science course, then you must replace it with an upper level course with laboratory in that department.

Can I take another reading and writing course in place of English?

While some medical schools may accept literature in translation or other reading and writing courses, it is best to simply take two English courses, as some schools are sticklers about that. Any two courses in our English department are fine.

Do I have to major in a science?

No, major in whatever interests you. That is fine with medical schools, as long as you do well in the required premed science courses.

Can I take courses pass/fail?

Yes, but do not take any of the premed prerequisites pass/fail, unless you are taking them during the first semester of your freshman year. Medical schools want to see that you have challenged yourself academically, so don't overuse the pass/fail option.

Can I take required premed courses in summer school?

Yes, as long as it is at an accredited four-year U.S. college or university, and it is a course with lab normally taken by that school's premed students. If you hope to transfer credit to Swarthmore, consult first with the corresponding Swarthmore department, but you do not need to transfer credit for it to count for medical school application purposes. You should not overuse the summer school option, but it is fine to take one two-course sequence, like physics I and II or organic chemistry I and II in summer school.

Can I study abroad?

Yes, it's a wonderful experience that shouldn't be missed, if it interests you. Medical schools like to see that students have had broad, interesting college experiences, and studying abroad demonstrates that you can get along in a culture different from your own.

Can I take on-line courses?

Normally, it is best to take in-person classes, particularly for lab sciences. However, given the constraints of the pandemic, most courses at Swarthmore and elsewhere are being offered only or mostly on-line in 2020, and perhaps beyond. Medical schools understand that. I would recommend that you take your pre-med requirements in the sequence that works best for you, in consultation with your advisor. If that means that some of the required coursework is done on-line, particularly if it was done at Swarthmore, I don't believe it will be a problem when it comes time to apply. 

Can I take premed requirements abroad?

No, do not take any of the required premed courses abroad.

What kind of extracurricular experiences should I seek?

You should pursue anything that interests you. Medical schools are interested in students who have been active contributors on campus, and who have a range of interests. You should choose a few things to do meaningfully and well, rather than dabble in a long list of activities. Community service is an important way to demonstrate your concern and compassion for others.

Do I need to have medically-related experiences?

Yes, it is critically important that you involve yourself meaningfully in a medical setting, to show medical schools that you have observed medical practice first-hand. Students do this through volunteer work in hospitals and clinics, serving as EMTs or hospice volunteers, summer jobs, internships, formal premed summer programs, or shadowing physicians at work, either during the school year or during school vacations.

We expect that in 2020, and likely beyond, opportunities for clinical volunteer work and shadowing will be severely limited, to preserve the health of patients, staff and volunteers. Medical schools understand that. If there are other ways you can serve your community, either through virtual programs, or by involvement in things like food banks or other community programs, this would be a good time to pursue them, as a way to demonstrate concern and care for others. 

Are there opportunities to volunteer in a hospital during the school year?

Normally, many premed students volunteer at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia or the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania , Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia or at Springfield and Crozer Hospitals nearby. Due to the pandemic, these opportunities will likely not be available in 2020-21.

Do I need to do research in the summer to get into medical school?

No, unless you think you may be interested in pursuing an MD-PhD. However, if you think you would enjoy it, research is a valuable experience that some medical schools view as a plus.

What is the MCAT?

The MCAT is the standardized test required by all medical schools. It is a seven hour, computer-based exam, given 25 times a year, that has sections on verbal reasoning, biological sciences, physical sciences and behavioral sciences. You may take the MCAT when you have completed the chemistry, biology and physics premed requirements.

Who will write my letters of recommendation?

When you apply to medical school, you will need to have about five letters of recommendation from faculty and others who know your work, such as supervisors and coaches. These letters are submitted to the Health Sciences Advisory Committee, which uses them to produce a committee letter of recommendation on your behalf.

Is there a GPA cut-off for getting a Health Sciences committee letter of recommendation?

No, there is no GPA cut-off for getting a Health Sciences Advisory Committee letter of recommendation.

Are there Early Assurance Programs? 

There are several medical school programs that accept students at the end of sophomore year. These programs have minimum GPA and other requirements, and accepted students are expected to adhere to these standards for the remainder of their time in college. The Sidney Kimmel Medical College Scholars Program is for students who have a demonstrated interest in studying health policy, population health and community engagement alongside the standard medical school curriculum. To apply, students must take a least 4 of the required 5 math/science courses (Bio 001 and 002, Chemistry 010 and 022, and Stat 011) and two courses that focus on population health and policy. A minimum 3.5 cumulative and science GPA is required, with no grade lower than a B-.  This program has recently been expanded to include students interested in the humanities, social sciences, or design. The University of Rochester (3.6 minimum GPA required) and Albany Medical College (3.5 minimum GPA required) also have early assurance programs for students with a general interest in medicine. Application information is sent out to sophomores in the spring semester. 

What is the timetable for applying to medical school?

You should apply to medical school in June of the year BEFORE you intend to matriculate in medical school. In other words, you would apply in June 2021 to begin school in August 2022. You should take the MCATs by July. You will begin compiling information for the Health Sciences Office in January before the June that you apply.

What kinds of grades will I need to be accepted?

Currently, with a strong 3.5 average, both overall and in the sciences, you can apply to medical school with reasonable confidence in being accepted, assuming you have good MCATs and impressive non-academic experiences. The very top schools are generally only interested in applicants with 3.8 averages and above. However, there are many individual factors that come into play in the admissions process, so students should consult with Gigi about their individual situations.

Do medical schools make allowances for Swarthmore's rigor and lack of grade inflation?

Yes, many medical schools are aware of Swarthmore, and the excellence of its students and its academic program. They are often willing to consider our applicants with grades that are slightly lower than those of their typical admitted students.

What can I do if I'm determined to be a doctor, but my grades aren't good enough?

Many applicants take a few years after graduation to strengthen their academic records. They may choose to take additional science courses at a local university, or to enroll in a formal postbaccalaureate program for students interested in medical school who need to improve their credentials. If you find that you are doing poorly in your science courses at Swarthmore, it may be a wise strategy to put your premed plans on hold, concentrate on subjects you like and do well in, and then do the sciences after Swarthmore if you are still interested in going to medical school. Be sure to consult with Gigi about your individual situation.

Is it okay to take time between Swarthmore and medical school?

Yes, an overwhelming majority of our applicants opt to take at least a year between Swarthmore and medical school, to allow them to take a breather between two intense academic experiences, spread out the premed requirements, acquire some work experience, or strengthen their applications. Medical schools often like older applicants because of the maturity and life experience they bring to their applications.

When should I meet with the Health Sciences Advisor?

Whenever you have a question or concern Gigi. If you email Gigi with several available blocks of time within Monday-Thursday, 9-3, she can schedule you for a Zoom appointment. You can also email Gigi directly with your question at gsimeon1@swarthmore.edu, and she will get back to you promptly.