What's the Best Prepharmacy Major?

Biology and chemistry might not be the best prepharmacy majors.

Erik Hefti did an excellent job comparing biology and chemistry majors in preparation for pharmacy school. I’m going to move the discussion to include not only biological and physical sciences, but also humanities.

First, let’s consider the reasons you’d pursue a certain major. One might be to prepare for the entrance exam, which in this case is the Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT). But, even that’s changing, since at least one pharmacy school accepts the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). The MCAT creators keep data on the correlation (or perhaps causation) between certain majors and high MCAT scores. However, it would be tough to gather the same data for the PCAT, as only a minority of pharmacy schools require a bachelor’s degree.

I’ll take my data for this table from the American Institute of Physics (AIP), which got its data from the Association of American Medical Colleges’ data warehouse:

I like the old MCAT scoring because it looks a lot like swimming/diving scores in the Olympics. I think we can loosely infer that what holds for the MCAT might also hold for the PCAT.

Let’s first distinguish between the most common major and the best major. In the physics dataset, there are more than 12,000 applicants from the biology pool, 2000 from chemistry, and 400 from English. We can have a high biology major rejection rate, but the major maintains the most acceptances. We can’t have as high of a numerical acceptance rate in chemistry or English because there are fewer applicants.

Biology is the most common major, but it may not be the best major. The best major should be irrespective of the number of students holding it; rather, you want a major with a low admissions rejection rate.

The best major provides 3 advantages:

1. High Grade Point Average (GPA)

According to a Wake Forest study, English majors’ average GPA is around 3.3, biology is around 3.0, and chemistry is close to 2.75. Some pharmacy colleges won’t look at an application below a 3.0, which is disappointing because pharmacists have traditionally been chemists, and their pharmacogenomics work depends on understanding biochemistry and genetics. This makes it less likely that a physical science major, like chemistry, gains acceptance based on GPA.

The GPA difference between English and chemistry seems large. I’m an English major graduate, and I can tell you it isn’t easy, but there’s a big difference between what English and chemistry majors can do to get good grades.

In English, we revise a lot. If I handed in first drafts, I’d have a low GPA. But English majors talk to the professor, get feedback from the writing center, workshop, and create a better version. By the time the final submission is due, the paper is well-polished. Meanwhile, chemistry and biology are often exam-based majors with little chance for revision.

2. Preparation for the Entrance Exam

Based on data from the AIP, the English major beats chemistry and biology overall with cumulative MCAT scores of 29.6 for English, 28.7 for chemistry, and 26.9 for biology. Based on coursework, chemistry majors should get the best scores on the MCAT, followed by biology and English majors, but it’s exactly the opposite.

If we look at the scores by section, there are 3 different parts of the MCAT that correspond reasonably to the PCAT. In the physical sciences section of chemistry and physics, chemistry beats both English and biology, which makes sense. But, why are English majors beating biology students on it?

If we look at the way the questions are worded, especially in the MCAT, it’s reading a paragraph, understand what’s going on in it, pulling out relevant material, and so forth. That’s exactly what English majors do: problem-solve dense academic writing.

However, the next section is a stunner. How can an English major tie with chemistry majors and beat biology majors in biology? I think it comes back to test format because the questions are again in paragraph form.

The verbal reasoning section is where English majors stand alone with a 10.3—a very high score relative to chemistry and biology. So, in preparation for the entrance exam, English wins, chemistry comes in second, and biology comes in third, assuming the overall score is weighted more than science PCAT scores, which isn’t always the case.

3. Preparation for the Application Process

This includes essays in the application itself and maybe during the interview. English majors form arguments from central theses, much like an applicant might do in an interview to defend the claim that they should be accepted to the school.

So, based on those 3 factors, it looks like English is the best prepharmacy major. Here's a video further explaining my rationale: