Going into college, I had no doubt that I was on the pre-med track. Knowing what I wanted to do was definitely an advantage, but I assumed that because I had to work towards that single goal, I would have to be on a specific, fixed path; I wouldn’t be able to pursue any other passions. I figured that was okay because medicine was my first priority. But four years later, I can honestly say that majoring in linguistics instead of a biological science was the best decision I made in my college career.
At the freshman orientation at UC Berkeley, they had a little session for premeds to plan their schedules around med school prereqs. Although they mentioned that med schools don’t require a particular major, they assumed we’d all be in one of two biology majors (molecular cell bio or integrative), so they gave us sample schedules with the classes we’d take over our four years in college. Of course there was plenty of room for electives, which we would use to complete our breadth (or GE) requirements. Without questioning anything, I followed their schedule to the tee, grateful for how clearly they laid it all out. My first few semesters, I filled in those extra units with whatever classes were scheduled at a convenient time and location and seemed easy. Interest in the topic was a secondary concern.
It took me a while to get around to taking a linguistics class. I had heard bad things from friends who thought it was incredibly boring, but I’ve always been particularly interested in language. I signed up for the introductory course, an overview of the different branches of linguistics. From the first lecture, I was entranced. The class answered so many questions I’d had about language but never had the vocabulary to properly articulate. Linguistics is definitely not for everybody, but I loved it and the subject matter was very intuitive to me. I was coming to the end of my sophomore year and had to declare a major soon. Suddenly the integrative biology major was much less appealing and for the first time I began to consider becoming a non-science major pre med, I still liked biology, but I hadn’t enjoyed any of the science classes I’d taken up to that point. The class sizes were huge and many of the professors seemed uninterested in the material and in the students. Granted, these preliminary classes were weeder classes, they were certainly effective in turning students off. Moreover, if I continued with the biology major, I wouldn’t have room in my schedule to take more linguistics classes. On the other hand, the linguistics major at my school was much less rigid and I had just taken the intro course, the only prerequisite to declare. I would still have room to take plenty of upper division science classes, but the bulk of my time would be spent studying a subject I was much more excited about. At the last minute, I took the leap to become a non-science major pre med and declared the linguistics major.
It took me a while to explain to my dad that: yes, I still want to be a doctor, and no, you don’t have to be a biology major to go to medical school. Across the board, the reaction I get to “pre-med linguistics student” is surprise and confusion. They’re not all that related. But the fact that medicine and linguistics are unrelated (at least on the surface) actually turned out to be an advantage a lot of the time. In medical school, I’ll be immersed in science so I saw my time in undergrad as my only chance to pursue other interests. But obviously, I had to take upper division science classes to show medical schools (and myself) that I could handle it, so taking linguistics classes at the same time made for a good balance every semester. Linguistics and humanities/social science courses in general require a different type of thinking from biology. Having variety in what I was studying kept me from burning out most of the time, not to mention the added bonus on the MCAT of being used to different kinds of readings.
More practically, the Linguistics department at Cal was very small, which allowed for smaller class sizes and a less competitive environment. I believe I was the only premed student in the non-science major, so I didn’t stress out comparing myself to other students the way I had when I was taking the prereq courses. A smaller, more intimate department also meant closer relationships with professors and graduate students. This was crucial in getting good letters of recommendation especially the non-science academic. If you’re at a large public university like mine, I highly recommend seeking out smaller class sizes no matter what your major, for the sake of strong letters of recommendation.
Of course there were a few drawbacks to pursuing a non-science major pre med route. It was sometimes harder not being around lots of other premed students, despite the benefit of less comparing. Peers and especially upperclassmen that are on the same path can be a great source of guidance and information. In addition, I was sometimes viewed as being less ‘serious’ about science, because of my field of study. For example, it was difficult for me to find research positions on campus even though I had a lot of relevant coursework, because my major seemed so unrelated. In the end, I did an honors thesis in linguistics on speech perception, designing and conducting my own experiment. I gained a ton of valuable experience and a deeper appreciation for research, but I did it knowing that it won’t be considered by admissions committees the same way research in a genetics lab would have been. It’s certainly possible to do research in the hard sciences while majoring in some other field, but it requires additional effort.
I’m so glad I decided to go the non-science major pre med route. I had the rare opportunity to find something I was unexpectedly passionate about and pursue it through both coursework and research. But as much as I enjoyed learning about language for its own sake, I had to always relate this back to how it could make me a better doctor – I wrote a paper on doctor-patient communication. A class on language disorders reminded me of the biological basis for language and showed me how it could factor into a clinical setting. I explored this field that I find so interesting, and now know that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life studying it. I want to be a doctor. If you delve into your other passions and still come to the same conclusion that you want to pursue medicine more than anything else, your conviction for medicine will only be strengthened for medical schools to see. Medicine should be your first love (or else why bother with med school?), but if you can articulate your passion for something besides medicine as well, it can make your application and your interviews much more memorable.
You hear it all the time but it’s really true. There is no checklist, no single path that will get you into medical school. College is not only a stepping-stone in reaching your goal of becoming a doctor, but it is also a learning experience in its own right. Make the most of it. Step outside your comfort zone and put yourself in a position to discover what you enjoy doing instead of rigidly following a particular pre-med formula. If you love biology and nothing else will do, that’s great! Major in biology. But if you have a personal interest in the humanities or social sciences, it’s worth encountering some additional challenges to study what you want to study. Maybe a non-science major pre med route will be important for you. Discovering more about yourself and becoming a well-rounded, unique applicant can only help you on the path to medical school.
Sarah Lee is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently a medical student at University of California San Diego. While pre-med, she majored in linguistics and received recognition for academic excellence in the department.