Choosing a Life Science Major at UCLA

Quite a while back, I was talking to a close friend of mine about my desire to update my blog more often, but not having the time to invest into writing a meaningful and insightful post on a regular basis. He suggested that if I so desired, I should simply blog about things that interest me and are a part of who I am, which would probably not nearly require the amount of effort to polish and post.

That being said, I decided that I wanted to share some of the experiences I’ve learned during my time at UCLA—specifically, my career pursuits in the health care field and some of the practical aspects of that at my specific school. Knowing my current readership, this probably isn’t applicable or helpful to the vast majority of people that presently subscribe to updates from my blog, but hopefully it will help the one or two students that might come across this post from a search engine or referral in the future!

Among the college community, UCLA is well-known for producing many students who ultimately apply to medical school in the future. According to the PreMedLife magazine, UCLA is actually on top for the undergraduate institution that produces the most medical school applicants.

Looking at the way that the life science curriculum is structured at our college, it comes as little to no surprise to me that UCLA would have the highest number of medical school applicants. While I would imagine that most college would have five different majors in the life sciences at most, UCLA boasts twelve different life science majors, ranging from the traditional bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Psychology, to more unique and specialized fields of study including Neuroscience or Computational and Systems Biology. This list doesn’t include the often considered major Biochemistry, which is considered a physical science major at UCLA.

From advising the many underclassmen I have met during my time here, one oft discussed topic is the decision of which major to pursue, considering there are so many choices. I certainly share in their concerns and struggles—I’ve personally switched majors three times before settling on one of the most popular majors in the UCLA life sciences, Physiological Science.

I’ll present several criteria for considering in picking a major that is right for you as a medical school applicant, and then offer some practical tips of advice for those who may be in the thick of making a major decision (shameless pun!). There’s a lot of information outside of this list that I’m sure you can consult, but these points will be specifically geared towards picking a major as a UCLA undergraduate student.

In no particular order, here are some things you should be thinking about when picking a major:

  • Pick a major that you’ll excel in. If the ultimate goal is to secure acceptance into a medical school (or any health professional school, for that matter), one of the most important factors of your application will be your GPA. As my undergraduate adviser puts it, “Grades aren’t everything, but they are IMPORTANT.” To put things in perspective, the average GPA of the matriculant to the UC Irvine School of Medicine is a 3.71. That being said, make sure that you’re not going to pick a major that proves painstakingly difficult for you, simply because you might think it “looks good” on your application. It is far, far better to pick a major that you know you will do well in, while still having time away from studying to involve yourself in extracurricular pursuits.
  • Pick ONE major. Cal Newport makes an argument against double majors on his blog, and I highly encourage you give that post a read. Along with the discussion about GPA above, I would advocate that you choose ONE major and ensure that you perform well in that single major. My argument is that it’s easy to spread yourself too thin with two majors, and while having a double major may hold some value in medical school admissions, it remains to be proven. I strongly recommend choosing one major and performing the best you are able to in one field of study, rather than trying to split your time between two different areas and performing mediocre at both. Additionally, mastery and excellency in one discipline may serve you better in the long run—this is valued much more highly in society than trying to maximize breadth of study.
  • Pick a major that interests you. Each of the life science majors at UCLA have their own subdisciplines that they explore. As a personal anecdote, I chose against majoring in Biology because I wasn’t a huge fan of studying macroevolution of species and memorizing different species of plants. If you’re studying what you enjoy, chances are you won’t mind spending more time studying to maximize success in your major coursework. This is key when you’re studying into the late hours of night, day after day, preparing for your exams for your three hard science classes (most of your courses will have two midterms and a final throughout your ten week quarter).
  • Don’t forget that you don’t have to major in the sciences to apply to medical school. Statistics from past medical school matriculants from UCLA show a vast variety of majors that aren’t strictly life sciences (Bioengineering, Biochemistry), let alone traditional science majors (History, Linguistics)! If the above criteria is better fulfilled in a major that isn’t considered a traditional science discipline, there is no reason why you shouldn’t choose to pursue that major instead!

Here are some practical considerations I would advise for UCLA undergraduates in choosing a major:

  • You don’t need to make a decision right away. In fact, I would suggest that you do not make a decision until after you’ve taken the full life science core (Life Science 1-4). Each of these four courses actually have a corresponding major that expands on the introductory course you’ll have in this series. Roughly, Life Science 1 corresponds with the Biology major; Life Science 2 corresponds with Physiological Science or Neuroscience; Life Science 3, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology; and Life Science 4, Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics.
    • For suggested introductory coursework into other life science majors, look to taking Psychology 10 for Psychology or Psychobiology; Society and Genetics 5 for Human Biology and Society; and Biochemistry 153A for Biochemistry.
    • For any major that you’re interested in, check the UCLA Catalog for your course requirements. Most likely, you’ll be able to enroll into the introductory-level course which typically won’t require any pre-requisites, though you may need to talk to a department counselor to enroll you if there are major restrictions.
  • A point for consideration is the perceived difficulty of the life science majors relative to one another. Don’t get me wrong—each major has its difficult classes and no major is “easy”. However, from personal opinion and general consensus from my peers, Physiological Science is perceived as having the most difficult life science curriculum, followed by MCDB/MIMG/Neuroscience. “Easier” life science majors include Biology and Psychobiology. That being said, not everyone will agree with this order of difficulty. This points back to the two points above—pick a major that you’ll excel in, as well as a major that you will enjoy studying. The balance between the two will come down to personal preference, and only you can make this decision.
    • My personal opinion: Lean toward picking a major that you will perform well in, even if the material may not be as interesting. Your GPA is far too important of a factor to sacrifice for the sake of “more interesting” coursework—though the virtue of your coursework being “more interesting” should mean that you should excel in it regardless.
  • If you choose not to major in one of the life sciences, or even if you do, ensure that you take all of the pre-requisites required by medical schools you intend to apply to. A general list can be found here, under the Medicine tab. This list is pretty comprehensive and should cover all your bases, but do be aware that requirements differ from medical school to medical school. Make sure that you take the classes you need for the medical schools you plan to apply to.
  • The MCAT2015 will begin to include sections on Psychology, Sociology, and Biochemistry. Though only introductory courses should be required to have the knowledge to perform well on those sections of the exam, it may be prudent to pick a major for which you can apply those courses as pre-requisites to (e.g. Psychobiology).

If you’re looking for a decision to be made for you, unfortunately I don’t have that for you here. Only you can make an informed decision in regards to your major and what you’ll study as you pursue your future career in healthcare.

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2 thoughts on “Choosing a Life Science Major at UCLA

  1. Cool post! 🙂 I especially liked the part about not deciding on a life science major until after the LS series–should be helpful for people deciding between bio/physci/MIMG/MCDB.

    As a stats major, I feel compelled to say that the PreMedLife statistic is a bit misleading. I would expect that UCLA would produce a large number of applicants to medical school–with some 30,000 undergrads, I would expect that it would produce 1.5 times as many applicants as USC with its 20,000 undergrads. What would be more accurate–and thus more interesting–would be to report applicants per capita (number of med school applicants divided by the total number of undergraduate students) or some other measure of the _rate_ of applicants, to control for different school sizes. If you look at the PreMedLife list, 9 of the 11 schools are public schools, which tend to be larger than private schools.

    I’ll get off my stats soapbox now. 😛 Did I mention this was a cool post?

    Reply
    • In regards to applicants per capita, you’re totally right! I hadn’t thought about measuring the number of applicants in that way. It sure would be a lot more interesting and relevant, and I definitely agree that the current measure of absolute number of students probably isn’t the most meaningful statistic in that regard. It’s interesting now that you mention it, because with UCLA’s huge number of choices for life science majors (which isn’t a common characteristic of many colleges, as far as I can tell), I would expect our school to have a higher number of applicants per capita. However, maybe the percentage ultimately reflects the general population of college students, with the number of pre-medical or pre-health students in a single university pretty consistent across the board.

      And thanks for the compliment! I wasn’t really sure how this post would be taken, given the specificity of the topic and in consideration of current subscribers to the blog. But I hope that there’s something here for everyone–if not shedding a bit more light for the non-pre-health professionals on what it looks like to be one at a large public university like UCLA.

      Reply

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