by Jenny Mitchell
November 15, 2022

How I almost made the biggest mistake of my life (Part 2)

Med school checklist: undergrad degree, prerequisites and a ridiculously high GPA

This time last year, I was playing the waiting game. I had chosen my top three programs. The applications were done, and it was all riding on one letter. The letter from the Registrar’s Office of McMaster.

Finally, it arrived.

I had applied to McMaster’s Health Sciences undergraduate program, and was hoping this was the letter. The one officially welcoming me into my top-choice undergraduate program.

Eventually, I want to apply to med school, so I needed a program that could bring me closer towards that goal. I had considered (and applied to) several other programs at U of T and the University of Waterloo, including biology and biomedical sciences.

But then I discovered Health Sciences at McMaster.

It instantly became my top choice. I wanted to be on the most efficient path to med school. An undergraduate program with all the prerequisites built-in, but also one that focused on a subject area I find fascinating: biology. The Health Sciences program seemed like a perfect fit.

By the end of the four-year program, I would have all of the prerequisites necessary for every med school across Canada. Acceptance into the program doesn’t come with any guarantees of a future spot in med school later, of course. But I knew it would be the perfect pre-med program for me. I wanted in.

But I knew getting in wouldn’t be easy.

The few select spots are reserved for students with GPAs of at least 90 per cent. In order to be competitive, however, McMaster makes it clear you need something in the low 90s. Minimum. My GPA was in the low 90s. Would it be enough? The lengthy application process also includes answering some really challenging personal questions.

Including, “Please describe a non-academic aspect of your life that you feel is important to your sense of self and explain why.”

So, was this where I could brag about building an 800 piece 3D puzzle in less than an hour? Maybe not. Instead, I explained how important my artwork is to me. How much I enjoy creating large works of art on canvas using oil paints. Of course, the minute I laid claim to considering art an important non-academic aspect of my life, one that is also important to my sense of self, I felt pretentious and somehow exposed. But since we can’t ever be certain about what the ‘right’ answer might be, or worse, the ‘wrong’ answer, all I could do was answer the questions as honestly as possible.

The next question was the one question I think should never be asked. “If there were one question that shouldn’t be asked, what would it be and why?” I’m not kidding. That really was one of the questions.

Despite my search for the perfect pre-med program, most Canadian med schools claim there is no ideal program, that they view all undergraduate degrees equally. Just as long as you also have the required prerequisites. Such as organic chemistry, physics, several specific biology courses, and lab experience. Oh, and also a ridiculously high GPA.

Of the 2008 accepted applicants to McMaster’s med school, for example, more than half are science or health sciences students. But law, divinity, and engineering students, just to name a few, also got in. Just not as many. And they still had to chase after those prerequisites, of course.

The thing is, not all undergraduate degrees help you get the best marks, and your GPA is one of the most important considerations when applying to med school. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should choose a program just because you think it will give you some advantage.

Because chances are, you might not even get in.

So that morning last May, when I held the letter in my hand, I was afraid to open it. So much was riding on that first sentence. What if they said no? I ripped open the envelope and began to read. Then I read it again. And again.

“Unfortunately, after careful consideration, we are not able to offer you admission at this time. ”

I hadn’t made it in.

I’d been accepted into the biology programs at McMaster and U of T, and the Health studies, biology, and Biomedical Sciences programs at Waterloo. But that didn’t matter. I hadn’t been accepted into my top choice. I was devastated.

Well, for about 10 minutes. Then I felt relieved that I’d been accepted into my second-choice, the Biomedical Sciences honours program at the University of Waterloo. The core classes built into the biomedical sciences program are prerequisites common to almost every med school in North America. Exactly what I need for my goal of one day attending med school. Somewhere. Anywhere. Please.

Plus, Waterloo has the added bonus of being just a 45-minute bus ride from my home in Kitchener. It even makes me centrally located for about a dozen friends from high school who are going to Guelph, Brock and McMaster. And although none of my old friends from high school are in Biomedical Science with me at Waterloo, three are in other programs at the school so I still get to see them for coffee and study breaks.

I’ve now completed my first year of the biomedical sciences program. I’m learning about genes and mutations, cells and cancer. And that’s only first year.

Biomedical sciences at Waterloo allows students to tailor their program using lots of electives to meet the admission requirements for many different graduate programs. Or I can just take more biology courses.

Versatile, but structured. Perfect.

But if you don’t eventually make it into the professional program of your dreams, like med school, doesn’t that make your undergraduate degree useless?

Absolutely not. Most programs list what past grads are doing now, so you can get a sense of what you could be doing later. For my program, it lists possible careers such as respiratory therapist, dentist, forensic scientist and speech pathologist. And yes, physician. Yay.

So even if I don’t get into med school one day, my degree will not have been for nothing.

My program works for me. And it’s not just a means to an end.