Science & Research, University News

Med school requirements reflect modern medicine

Trend shows biochem course seen as equivalent to additional orgo course in med school admissions

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2016

In the last decade, many medical schools have removed the requirement for a second semester of organic chemistry and added a semester of biochemistry, said Joanne McEvoy, director of admission at the Warren Alpert Medical School. With recent changes to the MCAT adding material on biochemistry and behavioral science, medical schools face a period of transition in defining their requirements for applicants.

Like many of its peers, the Med School only requires one semester of organic chemistry. Of the Ivy League medical schools, only Columbia requires two semesters of organic chemistry. Some demand a more complex set of requirements — Penn calls for competency in specific topics, and Harvard requires two semesters covering organic chemistry and biochemistry.

The changes to the 2015 MCAT prompted a “national conversation” about pre-medical requirements, McEvoy said. “The things you’re expected to arrive knowing have changed somewhat because medicine changes,” she said.

“There are things that are important about organic chemistry. It not only teaches concepts that are relevant for understanding medicine, but it also teaches a way of critical thinking and a way of approaching biological problems,” McEvoy added.

Brown’s Health Careers Advising page states that most professional health schools require a full year of organic chemistry. Brown students are generally advised to take two semesters, an idea that is ingrained in pre-medical students, said Helen Ding ’18.

McEvoy noted that the majority of applicants lack pre-medical advisors, and thus the requirements clearly outline how these students should prepare themselves appropriately, no matter what advising their undergraduate school offers.

“That helps us to bring a really diverse group of people into medicine,” she said. “We want to be transparent about what you really need to have on your transcript in order to be competitive.”

Most Brown students still take both semesters of organic chemistry, said Claire Rhee ’16, who is currently applying to medical school. The rigor of the courses and critical thinking involved make the full year a valuable requirement, she said, adding that she also enjoyed the classes.

“You have to be able to really apply what you learn” in the second semester of organic chemistry, Rhee said. Organic Chemistry I “is more of an introduction to general critical thinking skills that you learn.”

Ding is preparing to go to medical school and has always planned on taking organic chemistry because it is a requirement. “Professors have told me it’s really helpful in terms of how you think as a doctor,” she said, adding that the course material may not be “directly applicable.”

But not all students follow the suggested path. Jesse Siegel ’16 took his first semester of organic chemistry during the spring of his sophomore year and planned to take the second semester the following fall. While researching medical school requirements over the summer,  he noticed a school that accepted biochemistry instead of a second organic chemistry course.

“That sort of surprised me because I had always assumed that (Organic Chemistry II) was required, and I was planning on taking (Biochemistry) anyway,” he said. “Once I found that, I looked at the requirements for a bunch of other med schools — pretty much any med school I could find — and it seemed like almost all of them said that the second orgo requirement could be fulfilled by biochem.”

Siegel ended up taking immunology instead. He added that there was almost no organic chemistry on the MCAT he took, and he does not expect to feel underprepared in medical school. “I feel like I made the right choice,” Siegel said. “A class like that is only very tangentially related to actually going into medicine.”

As a student in Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education, Noah Lupica ’16 has fewer requirements to fulfill than most pre-medical students. He has only taken one semester of organic chemistry.

“More than anything, I feel like a lot of the pre-med requirements are sort of an endurance test,” he said. He hopes pre-med students can use their undergraduate years to study “the skills required to relate to human experience — have empathy and understand where someone else is coming from and be able to meet them there.”


  1. Most pre-meds in practice take orgo 2 and biochemistry.

    • Agreed. Most pre meds take two semesters of orgo and two semesters of biochem. Good luck in getting into top med school without those courses.

  2. I’m a Brown alum & current med student and seriously, none of it is relevant to medical practice. Ok, biochem helps for like 2 weeks when you learn metabolism, but metabolism isn’t all that useful once you actually learn medicine. Interestingly, physics has the most application of the non-biology courses (helps with understanding physiology of cardiology & pulmonology). Every once and a while, Gen Chem helps a bit, but don’t get your hopes up. The bio classes help for the first couple months but are otherwise way too basic science-y for most of real medicine. Physiology is far and away the most useful for anything. Really only stuff about humans helps – don’t bother with animals. Learn to talk to people and how to be nice. And please don’t fritter away your education chasing A’s in O-Chem at Brown – take it in summer school if you have to, it’s just so not important beyond your medical school app.

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