Choosing a pre-med path at Columbia means steeling yourself for a hefty course load, with 10-plus recommended prerequisite courses compounded by the Core Curriculum. But enduring the rigorous courses is only a fraction of the roadblocks that await students who decide to use Columbia as their launching point for a career in medicine.
Those who have stuck to the path, while not regretful, describe a frustrating routine of driving ahead alone. They fashion their journey to success as students who either work with each other or soldier on alone, rather than collaborating with the University’s faculty and administration.
Mariana Duenas Lopez, a Columbia College sophomore majoring in music, only decided to go into pediatrics a semester into her first year. Although she ended up obtaining help from search engines and a few upperclassmen friends, she initially found it difficult to locate information about the pre-med track. On-campus resources for pre-meds are not as accessible as they should be, she explains.
While students have the option of speaking with a pre-med advisor, advising appointments are not always helpful. Pre-meds say that the system often feels impersonal, staffed with administrators whose aloof approach students sometimes perceive as an implicit expectation that most pre-med undergraduates will fail.
“She [the advisor] approached me as ‘just another pre-med’ rather than someone who is trying hard to achieve their goals. Just the way that she spoke to me seemed like she didn’t want to be there. It’s almost like they’re like, ‘Oh, they’re probably going to drop anyway, what’s the point of talking,’” Duenas Lopez says. “I just felt very ill-advised.”
The detached attitude Duenas Lopez felt her advisor had was especially hard to process given the challenges she encountered finding preprofessional work in medicine over the summer.
“If you have a professor that you want to work with, you have a good opportunity there, but if you don’t, it’s very hard to get your foot in the door with internship possibilities,” Duenas Lopez says. “It’s just another thing you have to do on your own.”
In fact, the lack of support seems to be a common gripe among pre-med students, whether it comes to internships or the classroom. “I regret that the system is set up in such a messy, unproductive way,” Corrine Quirk, a senior at Columbia College, says. “I mean, it’s challenging material, but a lot of people go into the class with the sense, ‘I’m being weeded out.’ ... I think that’s a really toxic idea.”
“Weeding out” is a phrase familiar to most pre-meds here at Columbia. The term describes the sense that the pre-med track is designed to systematically push out students who can’t handle the academic intensity of its courses. Quirk says that “weed-out” courses can make students fear the courses they want to love, that it contributes to the sense that they are not supported.
“When you take a class, you shouldn’t end up hating it,” Quirk says. “It should make you feel inspired instead of making you dread it, feel like you’re being weeded out, or challenged to the point where it’s like, are you good enough? It should be about inspiring interest.”
The standard pre-med curriculum at Columbia includes a full year each in chemistry, biology, physics, and organic chemistry, including the lab sections associated with each science. In addition, it requires a semester in introductory psychology and recommends that students take calculus and statistics. In most required science lectures, class sizes are large and students often have to fall back on teaching themselves difficult material.
For example, for this semester, Tristan Lambert’s Organic Chemistry II was capped at a maximum of 250 students and Deborah Mowshowitz’s Introductory Biology II, which most pre-meds are required to take, was capped at a whopping 400. The lectures do not foster close nor supportive relationships with faculty.
Duenas Lopez wishes that the teaching assistants in her science lectures were more inclined to help out the undergraduates. “I’m just in the intro physics class, which is what every pre-med has to take, and I feel like I’m one small person in a huge classroom and there aren’t enough people reaching out to help,” she says.
Quirk goes a step further, questioning whether professors and TAs could be of much help to her even if they wanted to. She posits that the distance between faculty and students is the result of structural factors rather than anyone’s personal preferences.
“A lot of people here don’t have preparations or backgrounds in teaching, so while I feel like I could seek help, I don’t think that all the TAs and the professors even have the necessary skills to teach to different learning styles,” Quirk says. “They might be teaching to the top tier of students at Columbia who were scooped off the top of wherever they came from.”
“They have their one style of formulaic teaching and if you don’t get it the first time, sometimes I feel like, well, they’re completely open to you asking questions and coming to them, but they don’t always know how to explain it in a different way.”
Photo by Ethan Wu
Quirk is frank about her dissatisfaction with the experience of learning under the professors in the pre-med track.
“[I wish] professors actually had to learn how to teach—people go to school for four years to learn how to teach. For a lot of professors it’s just like, well, you have your Ph.D. so we assume you understand teaching methods. Learning the teaching is very different from just understanding the materials,” she says.
Duenas Lopez and Quirk both point to fellow students as much more helpful and approachable resources both for current and potential pre-meds. “If you know people who are pre-med, get as many answers out of them as you can,” Duenas Lopez says. “That’s how I did it and it works. Chances are they’re going to know something that you don’t or you’re going to know something that they don’t.”
As a first-generation student, Quirk was assigned a mentor when she first arrived at Columbia. She finds that her mentor, who is a fellow biology major and a pre-med student, has been immensely helpful in advising her on classes, internship opportunities, and handling general workload stress. Aside from her mentor, she was able to reach out to Ph.D. and postdoctoral students who work in her neuroscience lab.
In attempts to more adequately support pre-meds on campus, student organizations like the Charles Drew Premedical Society and the American Medical Student Association arrange events for students to learn more about the track and socialize with other pre-meds.
Columbia College sophomore Cole Dunbar co-runs a subcommittee in the undergraduate branch of AMSA where he organizes bioethics discussions for pre-meds each week.
“The idea is that we want to build a little more community,” Dunbar says. “We’re all part of the pre-med community at Columbia, and we’re about to have an enjoyable time throughout our four years as opposed to trying to stress ourselves out about getting into medical school.”
A problem for clubs such as Charles Drew and AMSA, however, is that many undergraduates are either simply unaware of their presence or reluctant to seek them out—understandably so, given the amount of time that a pre-med workload already consumes. In fact, neither Duenas Lopez nor Quirk have had much experience with these organizations.
Despite problems with on-campus support, not Quirk, Duenas Lopez, nor Dunbar regret choosing the pre-med track. In fact, Duenas Lopez and Dunbar still find time to pursue a variety of other interests outside of the pre-med curriculum. Duenas Lopez is a head coordinator for the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program and sings in Vivace, the chamber singing choir. Dunbar, in addition to organizing discussions on the executive board of AMSA, does rock climbing, participates in the ensemble of the King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe’s production of Macbeth, and teaches courses to high school students as a part of Columbia Splash.
Duenas Lopez believes that the most important goal for pre-meds is to manage their time well and plan ahead. Whether or not they receive the support they want, they can make choices to limit their stress. She says students need to be reasonable when deciding how much work to take on.
“If you know that you have all these classes and that your GPA is extremely important and you want that to be a priority, then you have to deal with your extracurriculars and maybe not take all of the things you want to take, but choose two or three that are most valuable to your college experience.”
Students have the option to drop at any point in the pre-med track, and if a student only decides to pursue the track after graduation, they have the option return as a postbac to fulfill the requirements.
“The classes that you’re taking aren’t going to go to waste if you decided not to do pre-med, so I would advise people not to be super worried about making the decision to do pre-med or not to do pre-med,” Dunbar says. “Even if you go from doing pre-med to music or English, you still have a valuable background in the sciences and with analytical scientific thinking and problem-solving, which gives you a bit more flexibility in your future careers.”
While she agrees with Dunbar, Quirk cautions prospective pre-meds to always keep an open mind. The track is far from easy, but for some students like her, that deep-seated dream of becoming a doctor is so powerful they will work themselves however hard they must to achieve their goal.
It’s possible that some students chose and stick with pre-med because it just suits who they are as people. They are driven to work hard, to overcome the biggest challenges they can set in front of themselves.
“Sometimes I have fears that I’m just doing pre-med because that’s the hardest thing—in high school I took all the hardest classes, and now I come to Columbia and it’s like, what’s the most difficult thing I can do?” Dunbar asks.
Students who have taken everything pre-med can throw at them, and who have come back for more, have demonstrated a brand of toughness that must trace back to a passion for what they study. Even if it’s often hard, and indifferent, and alienating.
“I love what I study, I’m doing a lab now and I love my work, and it’s definitely where I want to be,” Quirk says. “My regrets are about how it’s taught as opposed to my choice.”