Pre-Meds Should Suffer Through 'Hunger Games'

Pre-Meds Should Suffer Through 'Hunger Games'
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Occupied by re-tweeting an emoji in response to a selfie posted on Instagram, a distracted driver rams your car off the road. You awake in the hospital that night and meet the doctor in charge of repairing your fractured legs and piecing together your damaged spine. Whose eyes would you prefer to look up into from your hospital bed?

Doc A: received top-of-the-class A's in biology, chemistry, physics, biochemistry, organic chemistry, medical imaging, electronic devices, and neuroscience. He overcame coursework pressure and scored higher on science-based entrance exams than 98% of other medical school applicants.

Doc B: wrote well-marked sociology papers in Comparative Perspectives on U.S. & European Societies: Inequality, Institutional Underpinnings of the Arts & Media; Sexual Cultures; and Virtual Communities/Social Media. He aced portions of the entrance exam focusing on social studies and psychology to gain admission to medical school.

In a column written for Scientific American, Nathaniel P. Morris explains why he dislikes the pre-med track undergraduate education and wants to tone down the tough science courses in favor of more social studies education. He points out that competition is hard and stressful, basic science is difficult, and who uses that stuff anyway?

Plus, lots of students who want to help other people don't do well enough in science classes and aren't accepted to medical school.

I disagree with his view. The Hunger Games atmosphere for pre-med students is a good thing.

That's not just because I choose Doc A, every time, over Doc B. (So would you -- be honest.) I've also taught pre-meds and watched the pre-med system at work.

Pre-med coursework is much like coursework for any other difficult and technical professional occupation. These students take a broad range of tough classes in which they must excel. They are often graded against their peers and ranked. This can raise the competition to a frenzy and cause some pre-meds to break down and fail. It's heartbreaking to see a student overcome with anxiety and fear for their future after receiving a single low assignment score. It's not necessarily a pretty system.

But if preparing a ten-line calculation for Chemistry I Lab at home is overwhelming for a student, how would they fair in a ten-hour surgery in the operating room? Is that a good environment for anyone but a tremendously driven person who has learned to cope with extreme pressure and make crucial analytical decisions? Those skills are what a pre-med major is really about.

While the level of stress is very high for pre-meds, they aren't going through anything that most other science majors don't face too. There is one major difference between those science majors and pre-med majors. In return for the increased breadth of study and higher competition, pre-meds are relieved of the very hardest parts of a science major: the most advanced courses.

A pre-med major largely consists of a broad survey of introductory level science courses: biology, chemistry, physics. It then includes one or two mid-level chemistry courses including organic chemistry. It often includes calculus as well as biochemistry.

That's well short of the requirements for a full degree in chemistry or biology, much less physics or math. Some pre-meds moan about the difficulty of their physics and math coursework. Yet, they are taking only the classes that are considered the barest low-level introduction to these areas for most scientists. Pre-meds face stiff competition, but they don't face unduly difficult courses.

My observation -- in the lab courses I've taught -- is that the students who will be accepted to medical school buckle down and earn A's on their basic science coursework. They learn to cope with whatever is thrown at them and hone a mentality to rise to the difficulty of their work. The students who aren't the most successful at working hard, under pressure, on problems that are fundamentally scientific in nature don't go on to be doctors.

That's tough love. But reality is tough love. Shouldn't we teach that in college?

(AP photo)

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