Advice to a High School Pre-Med

I was looking through my comments this afternoon and saw this.  I had meant to write a brief response but got distracted with some other things.  So, I figured that I would respond in a post.

I’m in high school (going into my junior year) and plan on/hope to go into the medical field and become a doctor. I realize anything could change in the next few years, but it’s the path I am most interested in for now. Anyway, the reason I’m writing is that it was complete news to me that physics plays such a big/any role in medicine.

I’m not a medical student, so take what I say with that in mind – I’m most definitely the wrong person to tell you about medical school curricula.  I doubt that physics, as it is perceived by non-physicists, plays a significant role in what one learns in medical school.  Like a lot of things one studies, it probably has zero relevance to clinical practice as well.

I didn’t realize physics is covered on the MCAT either.

It is all over the MCAT that I have to take.  But, since you will be taking the MCAT several years from now, that will change since the exam is scheduled to be redesigned in 2015.  The prevailing view is that the new version will place a greater emphasis upon genetics and biochemistry than upon organic chemistry and physics.  You can read about the proposed changes at the AAMC website.

I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories about “honors” physics at my school, and had planned on taking regulars physics this upcoming year for that reason. Do you think this will put me at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding physics in college and for the MCAT’s?

I’m not your guidance counselor, but I’ll give you my opinion anyway since you asked.  First of all, start learning now to ignore horror stories from people that have come before you.  The vast majority of the horrific tales you will hear in college and beyond are concocted by students as an excuse for why they did poorly.  I’ve written extensively about this in my earlier posts about how to succeed in organic chemistry and other science courses.  Don’t make decisions based upon stories that you hear from other people – play your game, not their game.

Assuming you have taken a semester of calculus, an honors course is far and away a better choice for learning material.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, honors teachers are usually much more engaged in teaching the material and you will most likely learn it better.  Second, an honors physics course is probably the closest thing to preparation for a college level course that you are going to find in high school.  Reasons for why students do poorly in physics are pretty varied, but poor math skills are usually a contributing factor.

Do you have any advice? Which is more valuable in the long run- the greater understanding of physics or the pretty much guarantee of a higher GPA in regulars? I know everyone says that high school courses don’t really matter in the long run, but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to choose!

High school success is a poor metric for college success.  Most of the people that took AP or honors physics courses in high school bombed my introductory physics course.  That said, an honors course will probably prepare you for college level coursework a lot better than a lower level course will.  If you want to do well in physics when you get to college, focus on understanding concepts, ignore memorizing equations, and learn to develop stronger study habits.

On a somewhat different topic, don’t get too consumed with the idea of being a doctor at this point in your life.  You’re a junior in high school – that means you just recently got your drivers license.  You have plenty of time to decide what you want to do with your life.  I didn’t really go to college until I was in my mid-20s and it wasn’t until I was 31 that I decided that I wanted a career in medicine.  I’m not telling you to avoid medicine – just giving you some friendly advice to keep a level head about it all and not let it consume you.  Best of luck to you pal!

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2 Responses

  1. Found your blog via “Intern Year. PGY-1″‘s blog. Good stuff!

    As a college-grad looking back at high school (and being a shrewd person in general) – I recommend giving AP Physics a shot to see what the class/teacher is like. If the first week is a blast, then stick with it, but if not, I would prioritize the GPA above all. If the student’s aim is to get into the best college s/he can get into, a high GPA makes the app stronger.

  2. Dude, if the kid likes physics and is good at math, by all means take honors. If you’re just taking it to get it out of the way, or to get a taste of it, take regular. There is PLENTY of time to take more difficult physics and math classes later. And MSO is completely correct in that there is very little physics per se in medical school. That being said, if you like it, take it anyway. Med schools like people who have studied what THEY LIKE not just people who go through the motions to get their pre-reqs covered. Plus if you end up not going to med school, a physics and math background will serve you well in a number of other professions. It helps that a lot of people struggle with these subjects and many people will automatically assume you’re smart if you major in these subjects. If you’re planning on med school you’ll still need to get As anyway though. 🙂

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