What should I consider when applying to undergraduate pre-med or biomedical programs?
Updated: Nov 2, 2020
Author: Matthew Gooden holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Exercise Science and Applied Kinesiology from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey and a Master of Science degree in Biomedical Sciences from Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts. In his free time, he enjoys running, experiencing new cultures, and spending time with friends and family.
In this article, Matthew shares his guidance when applying to undergraduate premedical or biomedical programs.
For Middle Schoolers
As a middle schooler, how should I start thinking and dreaming about a future in the biomedical field?
A great first step would be to ask your parents or guardians if they know anyone with the career that you are interested in learning more about. If there is a possible connection, I would ask to have a conversation with them (either in person, over the phone, or through email) so that you can talk with them about their daily job responsibilities, the education needed to pursue that field, and any other questions you may have.
Another method of learning about potential careers is to search for your biomedical career of interest on a platform such as YouTube or a general search engine such as Google. For example, you could search “All about doctors and pharmacists” or “A day in the life of a biomedical engineer.” If possible, ask your parent or guardian for help when searching for these videos. You want to ensure that the videos are credible and reliable.
Which skills sets do I need to develop?
As a middle school student, it is important to develop the ability to ask questions and remain curious while learning in school. For example, if you are learning about geology in your science class, ask your teacher why the rocks appear the way they do, how they would look if they were in a different climate, or anything else that comes to mind about what you are learning.
In biomedical careers, many different variables often apply to the same concept. For example, while Matt visits Colorado (higher altitude), his blood pressure is higher. When Matt visits New Jersey (lower altitude), his blood pressure is lower. When we look further into what could be causing his blood pressure to change, there could be many reasons! It could be lower in New Jersey because of the altitude. He could have consumed less sodium-rich foods or had been drinking additional water. If you become Matt’s physician, nutritionist, or physical therapist, it is important to ask him lots of questions to help him better. Becoming comfortable with asking questions in middle school will help in high school and college because students often learn the most by asking questions.
Another skill is always to remain excited about what you are learning. If you want to pursue a biomedical career, you will at least need a bachelor’s degree, sometimes a master’s degree, and sometimes a doctoral degree. With additional years of education, it is important to stay excited, no matter which subject you are learning. This excitement can help prevent burnout or the feeling of becoming tired and exhausted from doing the same task repeatedly. Remaining curious and excited about your education will help you even during your time in middle school!
Which types of things should I like to cultivate my interest in a biomedical field?
I firmly believe that any career in biomedicine is structured around how things work. For example, physicians often question how the body maintains homeostasis or "appropriate" levels of everything in the body. Dentists often ask what the best method is for preventing dental caries or cavities in patients who identify as low socioeconomic status who cannot afford routine care. Engineers often ask the best way to optimize a construction plan while using the minimal amount of resources to save money. If you like learning about different parts, understanding how they function together, how they can fall apart, and how to put them back together, a career in the biomedical field is an excellent option for you.
You must also like to be challenged, and you may often have to alter how you think about certain things. A biomedical career is enriching because you will always need to act quickly on your toes and continually create new ideas for you and your team. Each day will likely be different, so it is important to be flexible in what you do daily!
Which subjects should I be interested in studying in high school or college to pursue my interests in a good biomedical program?
If you are interested in a biomedical career, you should be primarily interested in math and science classes. Math and science form the foundation for many biomedical careers, and it is important to understand that while some of these classes may be more difficult than others in your schedule, you should try your best to remain excited and interested in them! In high school, many students try to take Advanced Placement (AP) science courses to show colleges that they can perform well under pressure. It may vary by college, but some schools allow you to use credits obtained after successfully completing your AP test towards your college credits. While you are in college, you will likely take additional science classes, including but not limited to: Biology, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, Physics, Genetics, Anatomy, and Physiology.
Also, students who are bilingual or trilingual are extremely valuable to a biomedical program. If you speak a second language, or are interested in learning another language, middle school is a great opportunity to start taking classes in a new language and improve your ability to speak, write, and listen in a new language.
Starting from middle school, which extracurricular or volunteer activities should I participate in to support my goals of getting into a good biomedical undergraduate program in college?
With extracurriculars and volunteering, it is important to understand that you should look for opportunities that you enjoy. Many students volunteer at certain organizations to “check off boxes” that they think they need, and the experience is often undesirable for them. Instead, I would recommend finding a “population” you want to work with (for example, the elderly, special needs, imprisoned, or homeless) and then find organizations that help that specific population.
With volunteering, many colleges like to see a long, meaningful commitment of service to one organization rather than shorter commitments to multiple organizations. While the more volunteering you have, the better, I think it would be wise to pick a local organization as early as possible, develop a great relationship with them, and get to know who they serve and foster relationships with them.
As a middle school student, I would attempt to join as many leadership opportunities as possible as early as you can. Serving as a leader in the biomedical field is crucially important as you will often have to work as part of a team to solve problems. If you can develop teamwork skills through school, service, and volunteering, you will likely succeed in high school, college, and in any career path you choose.
For High Schoolers
What courses should I take in high school? What can I do to prepare academically?
A rigorous coursework while maintaining a good GPA will help you prepare for any college program, however courses in STEM specifically may better prepare you for engineering programs specifically. Specifically, AP Physics C, AP Calc, AP Computer Science, AP Chemistry, and others are known to be rigorous and may help prepare you academically for engineering. This doesn't mean to only focus on these courses, however these can be very challenging and help prepare academically.
How can I obtain healthcare-related volunteer opportunities as a high school student?
As a high school student, it is important to understand that general volunteer experiences are more than sufficient, compared to highly specific opportunities. If you think you want to become a neurosurgeon or a pediatric anesthesiologist, it is perfectly acceptable to volunteer in an emergency room or at a nursing home first. I would argue that volunteering through more introductory and basic methods is more important at this point in your career. If you want to practice in a hospital, I think volunteering in the emergency room, oftentimes the first location patients arrive before being admitted, is absolutely critical to understand the patient flow and dynamics of any hospital.
I would recommend either calling or emailing your local emergency department, nursing home, or organization of interest to see if there are volunteer opportunities available on the weekends. To search for these opportunities, I would type “[Hospital] OR [nursing home] volunteer opportunities” in a Google search. For example, I can search for “Sinai Hospital volunteer opportunities”. After this, you will be able to find a
contact or forms and if any questions arise, you can contact the organization directly. Volunteering through Red Cross as a high school student is also a great opportunity to become accustomed to healthcare-related openings in your area.
How can I make myself a well-qualified candidate for good undergraduate pre-med or biomedical programs?
The main pillars of presenting yourself to an Admissions Committee as a well-qualified candidate are, in my opinion: 1) A strong academic record (high school grades and SAT/ACT scores); 2) A clear desire for applying to and pursuing a strong undergraduate program; 3) A general idea of why you want to pursue a biomedical career and why that specific program will help you get there; and 4) A sense of how your past experiences will put you in a position to positively contribute to the undergraduate program. It is important to have the “stats”, but it is also important to have a mature outlook on why you are interested in this career, how that specific school with help you, and what you “bring to the table”, or your incoming class. This will make you stand out tremendously among other applicants.
Another important aspect to show is that you have exposed yourself to a career in the field. It sounds straightforward, but you should have an idea of what your day-to-day responsibilities may look like in your desired field. If you gain shadowing experience, this will improve your application because you will show the Admissions Committee that you have been in the field and you are that much more interested as a result.
What extracurricular opportunities should I look for? How do I find out about these experiences?
Sports or musical activities are great extracurricular activities to become involved in because they distinguish you from the rest of college applicants. You will be able to demonstrate how you have learned to effectively communicate, lead a team, and work in a group setting. If there is Student Council at your high school, or a National Honor Society, I would recommend joining and participating in those as well, as it shows your investment in your development as a student. Volunteering is also significant as a college applicant, whether it is part of a high school organization or by yourself. While applying to schools, I would also look at the extracurricular activities they offer and make sure they interest you. This can help you make a case for attending their school, as you would either have experience with those extracurriculars, such as religious events, hospital volunteering, or speaking a second language, or you would express interest in participating in and contributing to those activities.
To find extracurricular activities, I would start small and local and then work larger and more distant, if necessary. If you have a hospital near where you live, you can usually find volunteer opportunities by searching, “[Name of hospital] volunteer opportunities” on the internet. For example, I could search “Saint Agnes Hospital volunteer opportunities.” Or if you are interested in other opportunities, you can usually search the organization’s name, followed by “volunteer opportunities.” On the websites of most non-profit organizations, they will have a tab or page with something that says, “Giving Back,” or “Ways to Help.” If you click here, there is a good chance you will find either more information about volunteering or a contact that can provide more information to you.
What summer programs should high school students look for? How do I approach research and acquiring positions?
Local high school students interested in acquiring summer research experience should consider programs at the National Institutes of Health, such as High School Summer Internship Program (SIP), High School Scientific Training and Enrichment Program (HiSTEP), and HiSTEP 2.0. While each program is unique, they range from experiences in full-time biomedical research to introductions to scientific, professional, and personal skills with leadership training and a further exploration of biomedical careers. Additional information can be found here: https://www.training.nih.gov/programs
For those interested in patient contact, shadowing a health care worker during summer breaks is an excellent opportunity. I would recommend asking your Pediatrician if you can shadow them, your Dentist if you are interested in attending dental school, or a Physical Therapist if you are interested in physical therapy. You can call other health care settings and ask if they accept students to shadow, however, it may be easier if you are a patient where you shadow.
While acquiring these positions, whether in research or in health care, I think it is crucially important to emphasize to the research laboratory or the clinic how vital the opportunity would be for your future career. While applying for these positions, I recommend telling them how their guidance will fit into your career plans. For example, if you have an interest in Pediatric Endocrinology, shadowing a Pediatric Endocrinologist will allow you to see their lifestyle and ask specialty-specific questions with a health care provider.
As a high schooler, how do I find a research position? Is the research experience necessary to get into a good undergrad biomedical science program?
Finding a research position before college is unnecessary for most universities unless specified on their admissions website. However, the more research you have, the better your application will appear. If you want to look for research opportunities, I would recommend finding your local community college or 4-year institution and searching, "[Community college or 4-year institution's name] Department of [field that you are interested in studying] research." For example, I can search, "University of Maryland College Park Department of Neuroscience research." From here, you can usually find faculty and staff that research areas that interest you. I would then send them an email explaining who you are and why you are contacting them and ask them if there are any research opportunities with them, and, if so, sharing why conducting research would help you in your career. Please remember that research is usually not required for admission into college unless specifically stated on a college's website. Still, it certainly would not hurt your chances of admission.
What should I consider when applying to undergraduate pre-med or biomedical programs?
If you are definitely interested in pursuing a career as a physician, you may want to learn more about combined BS/MD programs. Though each program offers different benefits and drawbacks, these programs may shorten your undergraduate studies by a year (a seven-year BS/MD program will be a three-year BS degree and a four-year MD degree) and allow you to enroll in medical school as long as you meet certain requirements, such as a science GPA, cumulative GPA, or MCAT scores. There are many eight-year BS/MD programs, where your undergraduate coursework will be nearly identical to other undergraduate students, and the benefit of these programs is that you often know where you will be attending medical school following the completion of your undergraduate degree.
Acceptance into BS/MD programs is highly competitive and requires a heightened level of commitment and dedication. Outside of combined BS/MD programs, the overwhelming majority of medical students complete an undergraduate degree and then apply to medical school.