Requirements for Admission
The Faculty of Medicine accepts applications from current students in good standing and graduates of accredited colleges who:
- Present evidence that their intellectual and personal credentials are of such quality as to predict success in the study and practice of medicine.
- Demonstrate aptitude in the biological and physical sciences during their undergraduate years, but not to the exclusion of the humanities and social sciences.(A study at Harvard Medical School has shown that students are successful in their medical studies regardless of undergraduate concentration, providing that they have had adequate science preparation. Students are urged to strive for a balanced and liberal education rather than specialized training. No preference is given to applicants who have majored in the sciences over those who have majored in the humanities.)
- Supplemented their education with at least one year of college or university training in the United States or Canada if they have completed academic work outside the United States or Canada. (Foreign students who do not have a baccalaureate or advanced degree from an institution in the United States or Canada are rarely accepted for admission.)
PLEASE NOTE: Students who have been enrolled in medical school are ineligible to apply for admission to the first-year class. Students who have applied for admission to HMS on two prior occasions also are ineligible. HMS does not accept transfer students.
General Comments Regarding Course Requirements
The Committee on Admissions considers the level of courses when evaluating academic performance and determining a candidate's suitability for medicine. We require a strong preparation in the sciences and mathematics basic to medical school studies. Candidates should take courses that are comparable to courses taken by students majoring in these subjects. All requirements must be completed prior to matriculation at Harvard Medical School.
In the final analysis, however, it is not the number of years in college or hours in a course, but the quality of education and the maturity of the student which determine readiness for medical school. At least three years of college work and a baccalaureate degree are required prior to matriculation.
New Course Requirements
The requirements for medical school have remained basically unchanged for many decades, despite the obvious change in medical knowledge (e.g., about disease mechanisms and our understanding of drug actions), the pace of new discovery, and the permeation of biochemistry, cell biology, and genetics into most areas of medicine. Therefore, adequacy of preparation in the preclinical sciences requires acquisition of more information than in the past. At present, pathophysiology and pharmacology require detailed knowledge of molecular targets and biochemical mechanisms, and modern cell biology has become the language of medical disciplines such as pathology, oncology, cardiology, and neurology.
Interdisciplinary courses that break down the barriers among, demonstrate complementary concepts of, and highlight collective wisdom in, biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics are encouraged. In short, a focus on integration of principles over several courses should be emphasized.
We will consider other course formats or combinations that are sponsored by the undergraduate institution attended and provide equivalent preparation. When advanced placement credits used to satisfy portions of the chemistry, physics, or mathematics requirements noted above, scores from the AP examination must be submitted prior to matriculation. If these scores are not shown on the college transcript, an AP score report will be required before matriculation.
- 1. Biology
All applicants must complete a full year of biology. We will accept advanced or higher-level biology courses towards this requirement as well.
The required 1-year biology course should be devoted to genetics and cell biology and should emphasize human biology (signal transduction, basic pharmacologic principles, homeostasis and feedback, an introduction to hormone receptors, neuronal signaling, and immunology). Because biology is the most elegant expression of chemistry, physics, and mathematics, computational skills that tie these previously separate disciplines together should be emphasized.
The focus on genetics should include nucleic acid structure and function, genetic recombination, and mechanisms of gene expression in eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells, i.e., molecular biology/genetics); the study of cell biology should include subcellular organization, differentiation, cellular metabolic function, energy transfer, structure-function relationships, reproduction, and membrane properties. Preparation in biology should place more of an emphasis on human biology and on principles of systems biology.
Although a formal year-long course that covers these concepts will meet this requirement, other innovative approaches (including interdisciplinary courses taught together with biologically relevant physical sciences) that allow students to master these “competencies,” independent of discrete courses and semester time commitments, are encouraged and will be considered. Advanced placement credits cannot be used to satisfy this requirement; upper level courses should be taken if students have been granted advanced placement credits.
- 2. Chemistry
All applicants must complete a two year chemistry sequence that covers inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry.
Students should be exposed to general chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry in a 2-year sequence that provides the foundation for the study of biologically relevant chemistry. Organic chemistry preparation should be woven seamlessly with basic principles of biochemistry (especially protein structure and function).
Without an increase in the two-year requirement in chemistry, the premedical chemistry curriculum should focus on more biologically relevant areas of general and organic chemistry. General chemistry preparation should include foundational topics in physical and inorganic chemistry such as bonding, molecular structure, chemical reactivity, equilibrium, energetics, and thermodynamics. Organic chemistry preparation should be woven seamlessly with basic principles of biochemistry (especially protein structure and function). Instead of two semesters of organic chemistry, the second of which is devoted primarily to organic synthesis, both biologically relevant organic chemistry and biochemistry should be covered during these two semesters. Whereas, previously, biochemistry had not been a formal requirement, completion and mastery of biochemistry will be expected of matriculants going forward. Many possible course sequences can be used to satisfy this requirement, but an integrated sequence that includes biologically relevant general, organic, and biochemistry is preferred. Although a formal two-year course sequence that covers these concepts will meet the chemistry requirement, other innovative approaches (including interdisciplinary courses taught together with human biology) that allow students to master these “competencies,” independent of discrete courses and semester time commitments, are encouraged and will be considered.
Advanced placement credits that enable a student to take an upper-level course may be used to meet one semester equivalent of this requirement; however, regardless of the number of chemistry courses and the time devoted to them, mastery of biologically relevant general and organic chemistry as well as biochemistry is required.
- 3. Physics
All applicants must complete a full year of physics.
In the area of physics, students should be well prepared in biologically relevant areas of mechanics, kinetics, thermodynamics, the properties of matter (quantum theory) and wave theory, electricity and magnetism, and optics. Ordinarily, this requirement is accomplished most readily by a year-long course in physics. Although a formal year-long course that covers these concepts will meet the physics requirement, other innovative approaches (including interdisciplinary courses taught together with biology and biologically relevant physical sciences) that allow students to master these “competencies,” independent of discrete courses and semester time commitments, are encouraged and will be considered.
Advanced placement credits that enable a student to take an upper-level course may be used to meet one semester equivalent of this requirement; however, regardless of the number of semesters of physics or the time devoted to physics, mastery of the principles of biologically relevant physics is required.
- 4. Laboratory Experience
Required laboratory components of biology and chemistry are no longer defined as discretely as they were in the past. Lengthy laboratory components of the required science requirement courses are not necessarily time well and efficiently spent. Proper focus on hypothesis-driven exercises, problem solving, and hands-on demonstrations of important principles should take precedence over lengthy laboratory time commitments that steal time away from other, more productive educational opportunities. Active, sustained participation in faculty-mentored laboratory research experiences is encouraged and can be used to meet requirements for the acquisition of laboratory skills.
- 5. Computational Skills/Mathematics
All applicants must complete a one year mathematics sequence that contains calculus and statistics. Biostatistics is preferred for the statistics portion of the requirement.
Computational skills are required for contemporary scientific literacy. Although the calculus of derivatives and integration represents important concepts for the precise, quantifiable understanding of dynamic physiological processes and systems, a full year of calculus focusing on the derivation of biologically low-relevance theorems is less important than mastery of more relevant algebraic and trigonometric quantitative skills. Still, to prepare adequately for the quantitative reasoning demands of the contemporary medical curriculum and certain medical specialties, to provide analytic perspective and to appreciate the uncertainties in evaluation of biological systems, students are required to have familiarity with calculus. A broader and more flexible range of requirements is encouraged, however, and, given the importance of statistics for understanding the literature of science and medicine, adequate grounding in statistics is required. Rather than increasing the one year devoted to mathematics preparation, the one-year effort should be more relevant to biology and medicine than the formerly required, traditional, one-year calculus course. Flexibility will be welcome in meeting these requirements (e.g., a semester course in calculus that covers derivatives and integration and a semester course in statistics; a calculus-based physics course and another science course that includes a firm grounding in biostatistics; or, preferably, a unified two-semester course that covers important, biologically relevant concepts in calculus and statistics).
Although a formal year-long course that covers these concepts will meet the mathematics requirement, other innovative approaches (including interdisciplinary courses taught together with biology and biologically relevant physical sciences) that allow students to master these “competencies” are encouraged and will be considered.
Advanced placement calculus credits may satisfy the calculus component of this requirement (Calculus AB and/or Calculus BC). A course in statistics does not satisfy the calculus component of this requirement.
- 6. Analytical and writing skills/Expository Writing
All applicants must complete a year of coursework that features expository writing. Generally, any course in the social sciences or humanities that involves substantial essay writing will count towards this requirement.
Creative, complex, and compelling discoveries in medicine, as in other fields, involve grappling with good questions borne from close-reading analyses and careful observations. Therefore, effective courses in science and nonscience disciplines should focus on analytical and writing skills. In addition, at a minimum, HMS matriculants should have one year of critical writing/thinking preparation, preferably in a course devoted specifically to the development of expository writing skills. Specific skills students may be expected to master and apply to the fields of medicine and scientific inquiry include the following:
a. Writing logically and with clarity and style about important questions across disciplines.
b. Articulating persuasively, both on paper and in oral presentations, focused, sophisticated, and credible thesis arguments.
c. Appreciating the methodologies that particular disciplines apply for understanding and communicating results effectively.
d. Approaching evidence with probity and intellectual independence.
e. Using source material appropriately with scrupulous and rigorous attribution.
Although a specific expository writing course meets this requirement most directly and optimally, potentially, these skills can be honed in a science or nonscience course that requires extensive expository writing. Advanced placement credits cannot be used to satisfy this requirement.
- 7. Language
Because effective communication among the medical care team and between physicians and patients is so crucial to the delivery of care, all matriculants should be fluent and have a nuanced facility in English. Mastery of a foreign language, although not required, is a valuable skill that expands intellectual and cultural horizons and that reinforces preparation for patient care in a multicultural society.
- 8. Additional Requirements for the HST Program
In addition to all the above requirements, the HST curriculum requires that students be comfortable with upper-level mathematics (through differential equations and linear algebra), biochemistry, and molecular biology. This is usually demonstrated through upper level course work, but other approaches may satisfy these requirements. In addition, one year of calculus-based physics in college is required.
Courses and extracurricular experiences and activities that prepare candidates to understand human behavior, to appreciate societal structure and function, and to achieve cultural awareness provide valuable preparation for the study and practice medicine. Courses in literature, languages, the arts, humanities, and the social sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology, anthropology, and ethics) are encouraged. At least 16 hours should be completed in these areas. In addition, familiarity with computers is necessary. Honors courses and independent study or research are encouraged, because they permit a student to explore an area of knowledge in depth and provide a scholarly experience that will facilitate a lifelong habit of self-education.
Currently, the time required for premedical undergraduate science preparation is substantial. Although expectations for scientific rigor at the undergraduate level are being increased, we do not intend to make the time commitment to science courses so burdensome that medical school candidacy would be limited to science majors/concentrators and that little time would be available in college to pursue other academically challenging scholarly avenues, the foundation for intellectual growth. Therefore, the ideal solution is one in which the current time commitment to premedical science courses is refocused on more relevant content, interdisciplinary when practical, that can be covered within the same time frame or a time frame only modestly expanded. The premedical curriculum should foster scholastic rigor, analytical thinking, quantitative assessment, and analyses of complex systems in human biology. In fact, an inculcation of scientific method and scientific rigor are deemed more important than the specific content of premedical science courses per se. We adhere to the important principle that the college years are not, and should not be, designed primarily to prepare students for professional schools. Instead, the college years should be devoted to a creative engagement in the elements of a broad, intellectually expansive liberal arts education.
The rationale behind the new premedical requirements are addressed in more detail in the following documents:
To create and nurture a diverse community
of the best people committed to leadership in alleviating human suffering caused by disease