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Understanding Pre-Medical Weed-Out Classes and Their Impact on Medical Education


The journey to becoming a doctor is paved with challenges, one of which is the presence of pre-medical weed-out classes, such as the dreaded organic chemistry. Weed-outs are courses intentionally designed to be rigorous, serving as a filter or barrier to entry into medical schools.

While their purpose is to ensure that students are adequately prepared for the demands of medical education, studies suggest these classes often have unintended consequences. A 2019 study found that 35% of students who are “weeded out” by these classes wind up leaving their majors or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) entirely. This article looks at what weed-out classes are and how they may impact who gets into medical school.

What Are Pre-Medical Weed-Out Classes?

Pre-medical weed out classes are typically foundational courses in sciences such as biology, chemistry, physics, and organic chemistry. They are structured to be challenging, aiming to assess a student’s ability to comprehend complex scientific concepts and apply critical thinking skills.

The grading in these courses can be stringent, resulting in lower average GPAs compared to other courses. Earning a low grade in these classes—or having to withdraw completely—can tank a student’s cumulative and science GPAs, which are critical to medical school applications.

Why Do Schools Use Weed-Out Classes?

Medical schools use these classes as a method of selecting the most academically prepared students for their programs. They serve to gauge a student’s ability to handle the rigorous coursework that awaits them in medical school.

Additionally, these classes are intended to ensure that individuals pursuing a career in medicine have a strong foundation in the basic sciences, which are crucial for success in the medical field. While weed-out courses can motivate students to improve their study habits and learn to make use of their support networks, they are often a source of significant stress—stress that can go above and beyond the rigorous stress of higher education in general by creating a toxic learning environment. The ethicist Cargile Williams, writing for the Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University in 2022, compared weed-out classes to “a kind of bullying that identifies some people as superior and others as inferior, only loosely tracking a student’s academic merit.”

The Impact on Structural Inequities in Access to Medical Education

While the intention behind these classes is to identify the most competent candidates, they often inadvertently exacerbate disparities in access to medical education. For example, success in pre-medical weed out classes can be more attainable for students with greater financial resources. Affluent students may not have to work during their studies, giving them more ability to focus on their coursework. Additionally, students of greater means may be able to access private tutors or additional study materials, providing a further advantage over students from lower-income backgrounds.

The pressure of these demanding classes can significantly impact the mental health of students. This burden might disproportionately affect students from underprivileged backgrounds who may not have access to adequate mental health support. First-generation students may also struggle to find support from family members who have not been to college and cannot relate to the pressure students are under.

Students who struggle in one class aren’t necessarily unfit to pursue medical education. They may simply lack access to additional resources that could help them succeed and persist in their studies.

Addressing the Issue

To mitigate the impact of these weed-out classes and ensure a fairer access to medical education, schools and policymakers could consider several strategies. First, they could implement a more holistic admissions process that considers various aspects of an applicant’s profile, not solely academic performance, could aid in diversifying the medical student body.

Next, they could reinforce or establish support programs for students facing academic challenges, especially those from underrepresented communities who need additional resources and mentorship to help them navigate these rigorous courses.

Finally, universities can determine whether these courses focus on what’s necessary to become a good physician—while a strong science background is essential, there are other competencies a physician needs for success. Revising the structure of these classes to focus on assessing these competencies rather than disproportionately difficult content could level the playing field for all students.

Making Use of Post-Bacc Programs

Students who have struggled with weed-out classes—especially current undergraduates, whose education was disrupted by the pandemic—can take advantage of pre-medical post-bacc programs to help get them back on track for their goals. Find the right one for you by searching our database.

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