Being an engineer at Penn is already hard; so is being pre-med. Unsurprisingly, few students try to do both.
“We’ve lost a lot [of students],” said Engineering and pre-med junior Hayley Williamson, explaining the frequency of students choosing not to pursue both an engineering degree and medical school. Many students in bioengineering choose to switch to other majors, and many who start as pre-med decide to do otherwise in their freshman or sophomore year.
Bioengineering is the major of choice for most pre-med students at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Bioengineering students must complete 40.5 course credits to graduate; students in the College of Arts and Sciences need anywhere from 32 to 36, depending on their majors.
The high GPA required for a competitive medical school application can also serve as a source of stress, exacerbated by the difficulty of many required engineering courses.
“I think definitely the hardest thing about being an engineer and pre-med is dealing with the GPA,” Williamson said. “When I have to take classes up to Math 241, you know you’re not very likely to get an A ... and if you’re just an engineer, that’s okay. You don’t need a 4.0; you don’t need a perfect GPA.”
Given that the average cumulative GPA of medical school applicants in 2015 was 3.60 at Penn and 3.77 nationally, students with a 3.3 or 3.4 — perfectly acceptable and even impressive GPAs in engineering — may worry that they are at a disadvantage.
College junior Thomas Seykora also struggled with the Engineering School’s math sequence. Seykora started Penn in the Engineering School, and he hoped that his engineering background might help distinguish him among thousands of medical school applicants. After doing poorly in Math 240, Seykora began to rethink his choice to study engineering.
“I really re-evaluated — is this really the path I want to take? Because, [in] med school, I don’t need this higher-level math,” Seykora said.
Seykora decided to switch from the Engineering School to the College fall semester his sophomore year. He says that he doesn’t regret making the shift at all, as the higher-level biology courses he has taken in the College are more interesting to him than the engineering and math courses he had previously taken.
Engineering junior Brianna Wronko made the opposite choice; she had initially been planning on applying to a joint M.D./Ph.D. program upon graduation, but she decided after her sophomore year to drop her plans for medical school.
“I love the medical field ... it’s something I was really passionate about, and still am, in a way,” she said. “Honestly at the end it came down to which did I like better — research or medicine? And in the end I liked research more because of the out-of-the-box thinking and the room for creativity.”
Dropping her pre-med plans allowed her to develop a more personally and less grade-oriented approach to learning. Wronko now hopes to go into industry, where grades are much less important and experience in research is more heavily valued.
“A lot of my class stopped being pre-med around the same time,” Wronko said. “So it really increased the collaboration and the willingness to work with people rather than compete against people.”
Collaboration in the Engineering School is highly encouraged — and necessary. “You cannot survive an engineering class without collaborating with somebody,” Wronko said.
Williamson emphasized the supportiveness of her community of bioengineers, which has helped her navigate the difficulty of being both pre-med and engineering.
“Sometimes I don’t get the same sense of community ... when I’m in classes without my engineers and with just pre-med students,” said Williamson. “It seems like students are a lot more uptight and worried about their GPA — they’re still willing to help, they’re still reaching out, but I see a difference there.”
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