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  • Katerina Tolkachev

Electives to Take in College

College is a time for young adults to spread their wings and try new things. The amount of freedom college students have in selecting classes both, inside and outside of their majors, enables curious learners to explore many different fields of study. While it’s good for all students to pursue a well-rounded education, students who aspire to apply to medical school should take advantage of the opportunity to study subjects outside of typical pre-med majors. Enrolling in college courses that demonstrate an interest in and a passion for humanity—such as developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, and medical anthropology—are attractive choices to medical school admissions boards.

In 2015, psychology was added as one of two new subject areas covered on the MCAT. Aside from MCAT prep, a class in developmental psychology provides many benefits to students planning for a career in the medical field. The course involves the study of major developments during the human lifespan, specifically the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional aspects. Students will learn about important milestones in human development, major theories of lifespan development, influences on human development and behavior, and physical, cognitive, social, and emotional developments throughout life. Through this course, pre-med students can gain an understanding of the specific needs and challenges of different kinds of patients that require different methods of treatment. They will also learn about the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders and how to treat “special populations” of patients. These “soft skills” are of special interest to medical school admissions counselors as they show the applicant’s knowledge of life skills and willingness to improve bedside manners and approach patient care with empathy. Additional skills developed in a developmental psychology class that are desirable to the healthcare profession include critical thinking, problem solving, empathy, communication, and resilience. In fact, psychology majors tend to have high acceptance rates to medical school.

Pre-med students already know they have to take a number of courses in biology, but one of the standout classes they should consider taking is evolutionary biology, which is the basis of modern biology. During this course, students will learn about the common ancestry shared among all organisms on earth, along with the common set of principles that govern their evolution. Topics of study will include the evolution of behavior, development, ecology, molecular biology, and genetics. This course helps pre-med students gain knowledge about biology, anatomical anomalies, evolutionary factors behind genetic diseases, and how natural selection shaped the systems that regulate defense and compromise in the human body. This course is particularly important to those planning to specialize in medical research, because it provides students with a deeper understanding of biology and evolution, preparing them to ask useful questions while observing research subjects. Studying evolutionary biology teaches future medical doctors and researchers that the medical world is constantly evolving, and they must contribute to that progress through evolutionary thinking, which is appealing to medical school admissions boards.

Another class that’s proven valuable for medical school applicants is one that helps them demonstrate a more mature and sophisticated understanding of sociocultural issues that affect healthcare. Medical anthropology is the comparative study of human relations and of social and cultural life that involves the analysis of four traditional subfields—cultural, biological, linguistic, and archaeology. By taking this course, pre-med students will gain a better understanding of how social complexity can affect patients’ access to healthcare, how to cater healthcare to the needs of individuals and communities, and how to interact with patients more effectively by observing them carefully and empathizing with their particular circumstances and life history. Anthropology courses can expose pre-med students to basic skills that can help them better address issues of patient care, such as thinking critically about social and cultural factors that can affect disease prevention and treatment.

Students who are well-versed in humanities subjects tend to perform better on the MCAT and are successful medical school candidates. Therefore, students planning to apply to medical school should not feel pressured to select traditional pre-med majors such as biology and chemistry. Degrees in humanities and physical sciences are just as effective, and at the very least, exposure to these classes will provide a leg up on the competition to get into medical school.

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