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Haverford College

Pre-Health Advising

Frequently Asked Questions for Parents

Parents can play a significant role in supporting their college student who is on the path to medical school. The admissions process to medical school has become demanding and highly competitive and the criteria for admittance are many, including significant academic success, demonstrated ability in the sciences, evidence of maturity and other character strengths, a strong orientation to service, and a realistic understanding of what the practice of medicine entails. For this generation of applicants, unlike earlier generations, it is much more common to apply for admission one or two years after college in order to build a strong record of academic and extracurricular achievement. To assist you in supporting your student, these freqently asked questions address common concerns posed by parents over the years.


How successful are Haverford’s premedical students in gaining admission to medical school?
Haverford is an excellent place in which to lay the foundation for medical school. A small, premier liberal arts college nationally known for its strength in the sciences and research, it provides undergraduates with rich opportunities for mentoring relationships with faculty and for participation in cutting-edge research. Furthermore, our students engage in a rich array of local, regional and international service experiences, and volunteer in clinical settings in the Philadelphia area and/or elsewhere. All of these activities and accomplishments enhance their prospects for admission to medical and other health-related graduate programs.
Successful Haverford applicants to medical school share certain characteristics. These include:

  • Strong intellectual curiosity and engagement in course work, along with solid relationships built with faculty
  • Academic success in required premedical courses: our most successful applicants achieve a 3.5 or above in the sciences
  • Dedication and leadership outside the classroom in such areas as sports, music, theater, research, etc.
  • Demonstrated orientation to serving others through community service or other activities
  • Exposure to clinical settings and volunteer work in hospitals, shadowing physicians, etc.

It often takes applicants longer than four years of college to build strength in all these areas.
Haverford students fare well above the national average in admissions to medical school. Not surprisingly, our college’s applicant pool gets into medical schools at rates comparable to those of students from peer liberal arts colleges and Ivy League schools. Over the past four years, Haverford applicants with a GPA of B+/A- (3.5) or above and an MCAT score of 30 or higher have the greatest chance of admission.

How do students prepare for medical school?
Students may pursue any major that interests them, along with completing the current standard curriculum of pre-medical requirements which consists of one year each of lab courses in biology, physics and English, along with one year of general chemistry and one year of organic chemistry. Medical schools have varying mathematics requirements, and many require or recommend one or two upper-level courses in biology, biochemistry, microbiology and/or genetics for non-science majors.
In addition, students are tested in their mastery of basic sciences and verbal skills with the MCAT exam. The test consists of four areas: Verbal Reasoning; Physical Sciences; Biological Sciences; Writing Sample.  The first three sections are graded numerically, from 1 (lowest) to 15 (highest); and the Writing Sample, which will be eliminated in 2013, from J (lowest) to T (highest). Nationally, the average MCAT for admittance to medical school is 30, Haverford’s in 2011 was 32.

As you may know, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) is overseeing a transition from its current premedical curricular requirements to competencies in biological, physical and social sciences, along with critical analysis and reasoning skills. Our chemistry and physics departments have already reworked their introductory course curricula to address the changing academic foundations expected by medical schools. Over the next transitional few years, some medical schools may still require 2 years of organic chemistry, while most others will be satisfied with one semester of organic chemistry and one semester of biochemistry. The new MCAT will be designed with the expectation that the test-taker will have knowledge of biochemistry equivalent to one introductory semester in the subject. For more information on the changing requirements, go to: We will be updating all of our pre-medical students as we receive information from the AAMC. Be reassured that some of our faculty have been on the committee designing the new science requirements, so they are on the cutting edge of the changes.

Students who have strong grades and MCAT scores but have not shown a commitment to service or made an effort to gain exposure to clinical settings, however, may not necessarily fare well in the application process. Students who lack a realistic conception of what the profession of medicine demands can be hindered during their premedical interview, coming across as unrealistic. Thus, we encourage our students to pursue volunteer work in order to gain the experiences that will make them all-around strong candidates for medical school. Likewise, students who want to apply to M.D./Ph.D. programs should acquire a couple of years of bench research before applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs to be certain that they are well suited to research. Increasingly applicants are taking extra time after graduation in order to build their records in all the dimensions necessary for medical school admittance.

Do pre-medical students have to pursue a science major?
Absolutely not. Pre-medical students can major in ANY discipline, science or non-science. Medical schools do not prefer a particular course of study but they do look for candidates who have shown intellectual curiosity and passion, along with success in their premedical courses. Medicine is an interdisciplinary field which requires a sophisticated understanding of the natural and social sciences, and also an ability to communicate clearly and empathetically with others. Furthermore, in the practice of medicine physicians encounter many situations requiring sound judgment and a strong ethical compass. Majors in the humanities or social sciences may help students develop in these areas. Those who do not major in a science, however, should take a couple of extra upper-level science courses to enhance their preparation for medical school, e.g. biochemistry, genetics, biostatistics, etc.

Individuals who plan for a combined career in medicine and biomedical research, however, do best pursuing a science major to gain maximum undergraduate research experience in their area of interest. For graduate study such as M.D./Ph.D., significant time in research laboratories is essential (about two years-worth).

How can I best support my daughter/son through the “pre-med process”?
There is no way around it: for some students the pre-medical process can be quite stressful. The academic curriculum is rigorous and time-intensive. On sunny spring days, while their light-hearted friends are throwing frisbies on the green, pre-medical and pre-dental students are probably in the lab worrying about the outcome of their experiments. On weekends, when dorm mates are engaging socially, pre-medical students are memorizing organic compounds or untangling problem sets. And, in addition to making time for their studies, pre-medical students must also find hours in the week for significant extracurricular activities in research, service and/or clinical settings. This undergraduate pathway requires a significant amount of maturity and flexibility, an ability to manage time well and significant self-discipline – skills not necessarily developmentally attained by the ages of 18 to 22.

For some individuals, these multiple demands provoke significant anxiety. This may be compounded by the fact that as high school students they were able to sail through science classes with ease, never encountering the challenge of a setback. For the first time in their academic careers they may find that, even though they are working hard, in college they are not getting the same results as in high school. This can feel intensely discouraging and these pre-med students may not know where to turn for help.

Parents can play a critical role in alleviating their child’s stress. If he or she mentions feeling “anxious” about academics, or seems to be faltering in his or her pre-medical requirements despite long hours in the lab or with the books, a pep talk with the message “work harder” may not necessarily be helpful.  Certainly many students do overcome difficulties in their course work with a combination of elbow grease and tutoring assistance available at Haverford, along with the support and encouragement of Haverford’s dedicated faculty. Other students, however, may really need to step back from the sciences and take classes in disciplines that play to their strengths. Subsequently, with the experience of success in other areas they may be able regain confidence in their abilities and consequently improve their overall academic performance.  The worst thing a student can do, however, is to persist doggedly with course work in science that is unrelentingly discouraging and in which they are unable to make progress at that point in time.

Individuals who are flexible and resourceful and deal with their challenges realistically do best at overcoming or moving beyond them. Talk openly and supportively with your son or daughter. Encourage him or her to take advantage of the small college environment, easily accessible faculty and advisory staff, Haverford’s excellent advising staff and counseling services.  The latter can help with time management and test anxiety. But also be open to the possibility that the best thing for your student is to take some time off from the sciences and explore other areas.

My child wants to take time off (a “glide” or “gap” year) after graduating from Haverford, in order to pursue something else for a couple of years. Won’t she get derailed from medical school? Will this adversely affect her chances of admission?
In bygone years the typical pre-medical student applied to medical school between his or her junior and senior years. This has changed, however. Presently the average age of admittance to medical school is 24.
Although medical schools are happy to admit qualified students regardless of when they apply, they are looking for stable, realistic, well-adjusted individuals who know what they are getting into. Students can gain solid life experience working after college and therefore may bring a degree of maturity to medical school - which is appealing to admissions officials. Why do students take time off? Some need to complete pre-medical requirements or to boost a weak undergraduate record by pursuing formal or informal post-baccalaureate study. Others want to take a break from rigorous academics and spend a couple of years working (teaching high school science or healthcare consulting); or doing service (e.g. Peace Corps, Americorps).  Some individuals want to earn money before taking on medical school debt. Still others travel abroad on fellowships, e.g. gaining public health experience and/or possibly a Master of Public Health. We also see graduates take off time to clarify doubts about whether or not medicine is the right pathway for them. Vocational clarity is very important when undergoing such a demanding course of study and career as medicine. The most important thing is that your adult child be both intellectually and psychologically ready for medical school when he or she enters.

My son started Haverford as a pre-medical student, but now seems to be having doubts. What should I do?
It is important to listen carefully to your son or daughter and find out what is going on. Some students find themselves struggling with science for the first time in college and become quite discouraged. College-level science goes beyond memorization and demands the engagement of more sophisticated analytical skills than in high school. Your child may need to work with a tutor in order address specific problems that have come up in a particular class, or discuss his difficulties regularly with his professor during office hours. If poor performance continues despite assistance, however, and begins to affect his or her academic record, he or she may need to re-assess his or her proposed schedule for completing pre-medical requirements and take a break from the sciences. Perhaps later he or she will have developed better time management and study skills and be able to earn higher grades in the sciences. It is often the case that mastery of college-level science is part of a developmental process, and emerges after a student has built an intellectual foundation in other academic areas. It is not uncommon to see individuals perform quite well in basic science classes in a post-baccalaureate setting, for instance, after they have developed maturity.

Another important consideration, however, is that your son or daughter may have greater intellectual interest and natural talent in a non-science discipline and would perform better academically and achieve greater satisfaction if she or he did his or her major in the humanities or social sciences. It is also a good practice for undergraduates to consider several career options, whether in health care (e.g. public health, healthcare management, etc.) or elsewhere (law, teaching, business, social work, etc.). Career exploration tools and counselors are available through Haverford’s Career Development Office and the Association of American Medical Colleges.

My daughter has experienced some academic difficulties with the pre-medical science courses at Haverford. Will the Haverford name compensate for a mediocre performance?
Unfortunately, despite the reputation for excellence at Haverford, getting into medical school ultimately depends on the academic record of the individual applicant. No amount of community service, or other extracurricular activities, or even a wonderful personality, will compensate for a mediocre performance in the sciences. Remember, classes in medical school can be even harder than in college.

Even if my son has low grades or a low MCAT score, doesn’t it still make sense to apply and see what happens? Is there any harm in this?
Actually, yes, there are significant drawbacks to applying hastily to medical schools. When students are rejected and then reapply, they have to overcome an initial negative perception of their records by medical school admissions officials and prove that they have made significant improvements in their areas of weakness. That may include taking a couple of years of upper level undergraduate science courses, and/or retaking the MCAT, and/or working for a couple of years in a medically related setting. Often it takes a good two years to remedy a weak initial record. We always encourage our students to apply when they are at the top of their game, not when they are struggling, and, of course, to be sure that medicine is the right vocational fit for them!