When I tell someone that I’m a pre-med student, their general response is one of sympathy. Looking at Princeton’s pre-med classes, it’s not hard to see why. For many first-years, acclimating to Princeton’s rigorous environment while taking classes such as CHM201: General Chemistry I, CHM202: General Chemistry II, and MOL214: Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology, is incredibly difficult for one simple reason: these classes are weed-out classes.
Princeton is one of the many colleges that have weed-out pre-med classes. Headlines like “Weed-out classes shouldn’t be a lesson in survival” and “Grade Toxicity, Weed-Out Culture, and Other Gen Chem Qualms” are found too often within college newspapers. Across several universities, classes like general chemistry, organic chemistry, or even biology are known to attempt to “weed out,” or filter out, students who are either unable to keep up with the rigor or are only superficially interested in the major.
Weeding out can also prevent overcrowding in certain departments. With increased rigor and high standards come increased pre-med dropouts, the logic being that only the strongest and most committed students will remain on the path. This is especially true because a strong undergraduate transcript is crucial for a medical school acceptance.
Yet, this strategy is far more detrimental than it is beneficial. In order to increase diversity in the medical field and allow students to pursue their passions, the University must engage in a “lift-up” culture rather than a “weed-out” one.
I’ve seen the weed-out effect first-hand among my peers. After taking CHM201, a number of my friends decided to diverge from the pre-med track. CHM201 is notoriously difficult: we covered over 50 class periods’ worth of AP chemistry content in the first five weeks, and the midterm had a staggering range of content. For those who did not have a strong foundation in chemistry (and even for many who did), this was far too much information to learn in such a short period of time. The second half of the semester was hardly any better, and the class caused many to seriously doubt whether being a pre-med was truly feasible.
I’ve also seen a similar wave of panic gripping pre-med students in MOL214 this semester. Despite a dismal class average of 68.4 percent on the midterm exam, there was no curve to relieve pressure on students. One friend told me that even though she was incredibly passionate about being a physician, she felt like she’d be weeded out before she even reached that goal. Many of us pre-meds feel like we are drowning, and that despite our best efforts, we will not be able to get the grades we need to even pass the screening process of competitive medical schools.
I truly believe that all of my friends who expressed these concerns are incredibly intelligent and capable. This is Princeton University — everyone is intelligent and capable. Furthermore, pre-med classes were initially put in place because of limited class space. Conceivably, this would then lead to limited space for physicians: a recent AAMC report revealed that there is a growing shortage of physicians in the United States. So, if they’re not filtering out incapable students, and they’re not preventing overcrowding, then what exactly are weed-out classes achieving?
Even though pre-med classes can serve to effectively weed out those less committed to the track, more often than not they inadvertently filter out students who have received less prior preparation in the sciences than others. These students are overwhelmingly first-generation, low-income (FLI) students or students of color.
A longitudinal study conducted on Stanford University freshmen tracked pre-meds’ interest in becoming physicians between the beginning of freshman year and the end of sophomore year. The study found that “[underrepresented minority (URM)] students showed a larger decline in interest than did non-URM students” and that “women showed a larger decline than did men, independent of race or ethnicity.” Furthermore, the researchers found “no association” between scholastic ability (determined by SAT scores) and the changes in students’ interest level. When interviewed, 85 percent of those whose interest decreased identified one of their first or second-year pre-med courses (particularly the chemistry courses) as the reason for their declining interest.
In an age where increasing diversity in the medical field is a priority and physicians are in short supply, having a system that filters out underrepresented identities is counterproductive and nonsensical. The study with Stanford students concluded that Stanford pre-med classes were “substantially more likely to discourage students’ interest in medicine as a career than to encourage that interest.”
Students (many of whom belong to underrepresented groups) who were no less capable or intelligent than their peers were filtered out, simply because of the challenging nature of the pre-med classes and the lack of preparation prior to matriculation. Perhaps it’s not as drastic here at Princeton, but the truth remains: weed-out courses are incredibly damaging, not only to individuals who are directly affected, but also to the composition of the medical field as a whole.
If the University wishes to increase the diversity of the applicant pool to medical schools and truly help students pursue their passions, it must convert to a lift-up strategy. This lift-up model is best exemplified by Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which are experts in lifting up their students. One study found that when compared to graduates from “Ivy Plus” colleges and other universities across the U.S., HBCU graduates experienced greater social mobility. One key difference between the two systems is how HBCUs are highly aware of the “educational disparities that often exist between URM students and non-URM” and adapt to help those students acclimate.
Furthermore, relentless efforts to make students’ success and social mobility a priority at these schools are often felt and appreciated by their students. One student at Xavier University noted that she’d wanted to attend the institution because it was known for its strong science programs and the fact that it was “really geared towards getting people into medical school.” Students at HBCUs feel like their institutions are helping them achieve their goals and working with them, not against them.
While Princeton does have some mentoring programs and resources such as the Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP), which offers events like chemistry table dinners and other forms of academic support for FLI students, these students still cannot be truly supported or uplifted when pre-med classes’s fast-paced and rigorous work actively weed them out. After all, even with external support, success is difficult when it feels like the curriculum itself is working against you. In that sense, SIFP’s efforts cannot fully compensate for the copious amount of knowledge that students are expected to master in a such a ridiculously short amount of time
Both Princeton and HBCUs seem to recognize that there are educational disparities and gaps in information for URM students, but the University fails to properly address the issue. Pre-med courses seem to be designed with the assumption that each student already has some basic understanding, but current support systems cannot fully compensate for that lack of foundational knowledge.
Restructuring or redistributing the amount of information covered across CHM201 and CHM202 so that students can learn concepts at a steadier pace is the kind of structural solution that will improve the pre-med culture at Princeton. Another solution is to give students more opportunities to drop a certain number of tests or curve tests more frequently. This would enable more students to feel capable and empower them to continue on the pre-med path. Finally, increased advising and tutoring resources for URM students are needed, especially in order to cover “basic” knowledge that professors assume students already know.
These early classes, especially those popular among first-years such as general chemistry, are crucial for students (especially URM students) to decide whether to stay on the pre-med track. In order to truly support pre-med students and produce a diverse pool of medical school applicants, those classes must lift their students up rather than weed them out.
Lucia Wetherill is a first-year from Newtown, Pa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.