Why you should be a biochemistry major!! (from a premed perspective)
One of the first choices you have to make before getting to college is deciding on a major. It’s no surprise that at least half of the questions we student ambassadors get at University events are about our major and why we picked it. It can be a hard and confusing decision, but the good news is that there’s no wrong answer. I strongly believe, however, that biochemistry (similar to chemistry here at Baylor since the departments are combined) was the right decision for me, and very well might be for you too. In this post, I would like to share some of the reasons why my major helped me so much as someone trying to get into medical school, and more broadly, as a student trying to get a good education. I might do a part two of this post in the future, but for now, I’ll give two main reasons as to why you should be a chemistry/biochemistry major. If you’re already set on another major or are not premed, the post should still be useful, and if you have any questions about the content of the post or choosing a major in general, feel free to email me or stop by my office hours!
The MCAT is one of the most dreaded parts of the premed process, but it actually was not so bad. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how much my major, unknowingly, helped me in preparing for the exam. The MCAT is fundamentally not a test of memorization. You do have to memorize material, but the most important skill, and the one being tested, is your ability to apply general concepts to unknown situations. In other words, problem-solving and critical thinking.
However, there’s no one class that teaches you how to analyze and solve problems efficiently. Because of this, one of the best things you can do as an undergrad to prepare is to take hard classes that are outside of your comfort zone in terms of familiarity. As a biochem major at Baylor, you have to take analytical chemistry, calculus 2, calc-based physics, biochemistry laboratory, and more classes that are not required for other common premed majors. I’ll give two specific examples of how classes in my major helped me do very well on the MCAT (523, 99th percentile).
Analytical Chemistry (CHE 2416): This is a class that focuses on understanding how measurement and data work in an experimental laboratory. It doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing (I’ll talk about this more later in the post), but this class helped me immensely on the MCAT. While we learned the specifics of many different instrumental methods (chromatography, spectrophotometry, etc.), our professor would emphasize the big picture behind any experimental approach. Specifically, the importance of asking and understanding “why” when doing an experiment, and then understanding that every measurement has some kind of error. This second part is extremely important because it requires critical thinking. One of the hardest things to do on the MCAT is to read an experimental procedure, understand what the experimenters did and why they did it, and then lastly, to critique what they could have done better or to identify common sources of error that could arise.
I remember doing AAMC questions while studying, and some of these experimental-type questions would only have a correct answer rate of 10-30%. These questions were never a huge issue for me, however, because understanding experiments is what we did every day in analytical chemistry.
I want to clarify as well that I was not naturally gifted or anything with profound critical thinking skills. Like anything else, it’s something that comes with practice, and CHE 2416 was a great source of that practice.
Biochemistry 1 and 2 (CHE 4341 and 4342): Biochemistry 1 and 2 were instrumental for my success on the MCAT. The content itself was very useful (amino acids, enzyme reactions, etc.), but what was more useful was the test-taking skills I developed specifically in these two classes. CHE 4341 and 4342 are hard classes with a huge amount of information. I initially started biochem 1 with the strategy of memorizing everything, and brute-forcing my way to a good grade. However, I started to burn out quickly, and I didn’t have as much time as I did freshman and sophomore year to study – I had more extracurriculars to do outside of class.
These two things forced me to be more efficient with my studying and to, more importantly, focus on the fundamentals. I realized I couldn’t memorize everything on every slide (some units had over 100 slides in total which is very similar to med school), so I convinced myself that if I just knew the basic concepts, I could apply them to other situations and problem-solve my way through test questions.
It was scary to take that first class exam on this new strategy, but it worked. Moreover, my test score actually improved significantly. What I realized is that I had learned to be comfortable not knowing. This is a critical and extremely important skill for the MCAT. When I started taking AAMC practice MCATs, they were just like biochem 1 and 2 tests in that I definitely didn’t know every experiment or molecule that was given on the exam. However, I was comfortable not knowing, because I was confident I could figure it out. I wouldn’t freak out if I forgot some structure of the Kreb’s cycle or some characteristic of non-competitive inhibitors while taking an exam. I knew that I had drilled the fundamental concepts, and that if I put the pieces together, I could figure out what to do.
If you’re in a hard class right now, I highly recommend you try this method of leaning more on understanding rather than memorization. In fact, try going into a quiz (maybe one that’s lower stakes) studying less than you usually do, and seeing how much you can piece together just by using this big picture critical thinking. You obviously need to memorize information, but I think you’d be surprised at how much you can figure out by spending more of your study time on logically understanding the basics.
2. The importance of doing and studying things not directly related to what you want to do in your career
This might seem counterintuitive, but it’s something I found to be more and more true as I went through the medical school application process (taking the MCAT, writing essays, interviewing, etc.). Here are the 4 things that I was asked about the most in my medical school interviews, in order of decreasing frequency:
- My volunteer work at a local elementary school
- The basic science research I did in a bioanalytical chemistry lab
- My leadership experience in Prehealth Mentors (a prehealth org)
- Shadowing experiences I had at a primary care clinic in Waco
Out of these 4, only the last one is directly related to medicine (being in a clinic, interacting with patients, etc.) and it was asked about much less than the first 3.
I mention all of this to counter the common thought process many of us have when deciding a premed major: “I want to be a physician…so what’s the major that does the most doctor-y things…Ok, I’ll pick the one where you take physiology, anatomy, and microbiology…Sounds great!”
I definitely had the same thought process as a senior in high school, but one of my mentors then told me that if you really do become a physician, you’ll spend your whole life working with anatomy and physiology in some way.
What medicine, and any other field, needs is not people who can learn and recite information that is already known. The reason all of my other activities were asked about more than the clinical ones is because my interviewers wanted to see what unique insights I learned and could contribute to the medical field one day. My biochem major allowed me to work in a biochemistry lab that was focused on not anything directly medically related. The aim of my project was to find a way to efficiently characterize glycosylation patterns on biological molecules, but I emphasized how I learned to once again, problem solve and think critically while working on the project.
My major was also not too intensive to where I didn’t have time for extracurriculars, and this allowed me to start a civic engagement program at a local elementary school. Once again, not directly related to medicine, but the experience taught me a great deal about the importance of education and social justice when striving for better health outcomes.
During all of this, if I was more worried about learning enough anatomy to become a better physician, I wouldn’t have developed the broad and fresh perspective necessary to become a physician in the first place. In fact, when I talked to other students who had also gotten into great medical schools during this process, they had extremely diverse backgrounds: art majors, creative writing majors, military veterans, engineering students, etc. But the one thing that was common was that they had a unique perspective on medicine that they could utilize to improve the lives of their patients. This broad perspective is what you fundamentally miss out on if you convince yourself that there is only one major that you must do in undergrad if you wish to become a physician.
The same applies to any career, as the most successful people in their fields very likely started out by doing something unrelated to what their current job is.
Thanks for reading, and I hope I was able to share some of the reasons why I think biochem is a great major, and why you shouldn’t be afraid to follow interests that might be unrelated to what you ultimately want to do! Feel free to drop by my office hours or send me an email if you have any questions!!