Pre-Health Studies

Chair, Health Professions Committee (HPC), 2014-15: Kevin Crisp (Biology)

Health Professions Committee, 2014-15: Douglas Beussman(Chemistry); Diane Angell (Biology); Nicole Beckmann (Nursing); Jay Demas (Biology and Physics); Dipa Kalyani (Chemistry); M. Minda Oriña (Psychology); Wes Pearson (Chemistry); David Van Wylen (Biology); Julie Legler (Statistics); Karen Renneke (Administrative Assistant)

Pre-health studies are a roadmap through the liberal arts that begins with your admission to college, and ends with your admission to a health professional school (such as a medical school). At St. Olaf College, this route intersects with our commitment (as stated in the Mission Statement) to an education that fosters critical thinking, heightens moral sensitivity, promotes lives of unselfish service to others and challenges you to become responsible, knowledgeable citizens of the world. Pre-health studies are supported by the dedication and efforts of the faculty of the Health Professions Committee and the staff of The Piper Center for Vocation and Career.

overview of pre-health Studies

The following information is intended for St. Olaf students who are in the process of deciding what path their future career will take in the health professions. There are many health careers in addition to human and veterinary medicine, dentistry and nursing. Some of these areas are listed below, along with the HPC member with advising expertise in that area:

Health Careers

Advising Specialist


Wes Pearson
Chiropractic Practioner

Susan Kramer (Piper Center)
Discerning Your Path in Health Care Susan Kramer (Piper Center)
Genetic Counseling

Jay Demas
Health Administration

Ashley Hodgson
Medical Illustration

Diane Angell
Medical/Clinical Technician

Diane Angell
Mental Health

Donna McMillan
Naturopathic Practioner

Susan Kramer (Piper Center)
Nurse Practioner

Nicole Beckmann
Occupational Therapy

Cindy Book

Jay Demas

Doug Beussman
Physical Therapy

Cindy Book

Wes Pearson
Public Health

Susan Kramer (Piper Center)
Veterinary Medicine

Diane Angell


Preparing for any health science profession requires careful planning, as prerequisites vary by field and even by school or program. More information concerning professional preparation for these areas can be found on the Piper Center Website. For specific details about the nursing program, please see the Nursing Major catalog page. Allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) medicine, dentistry, physician's assistant (PA) training and podiatry will be the focus of the information that follows.

Students should seek advise from their academic advisor, the Piper Center staff, and the HPC as they plan and prepare for health science professions.

prerequisiteS for pre-medical, pre-dental, pre-physician's assistant and pre-podiatry students

Each medical school (whether MD or DO), dental school and physician's assistant program differs somewhat in their exact list of courses required for admission. However, St. Olaf's general education curriculum provides you with most of the non-science prerequisites typical of these programs. The following "recommended" courses are recommended for all students planning on entering medical schools (either MD or DO) or dental schools.

Recommended coursework (for MCAT preparation and medical school admission):

  • Math 119 or 120: Calculus
  • 2 semesters of general biology (typically Biology 150 and Biology 227)
  • Chemistry 125 and Chemistry 126 (or Chemistry/Biology 125 and Chemistry/Biology 126)
    • Math 119 or 120 is a prerequisite for Chemistry 126 and Chemistry/Biology 126
  • Chemistry 247 and Chemistry 248: Organic Chemistry
  • Chemistry 379: Biochemistry (organic chemistry is a prerequisite; required at some medical schools)
  • Physics 124 and Physics 125
  • Biology 243: Human Anatomy and Physiology (required at some medical schools)
  • Psychology 125
  • A sociology course (121 is open to first-year students only)
  • A statistics course (typically Statistics 212)

Pre-medical students should note that there is much more to being a competitive candidate for medical school than course planning. A competitive candidate to medical school might have a GPA of greater than 3.5, an MCAT score of greater than 30, significant experience with patients in a medical setting, and long-term volunteer experience (especially working with the underserved).

Pre-dental students should note that many dental schools recommend that students take a semester of introductory psychology, a semester of statistics, and coursework in studio art and English (e.g., composition) in addition to the recommended natural science and mathematics coursework above.

Prererequisites for podiatry programs are similar to those for medical school, and some podiatry schools may accept the MCAT, DAT, or GRE. A student who will use the MCAT when applying to podiatry school should take courses in psychology, sociology, and statistics in addition to the recommended natural science and mathematics courses recommended for pre-medical students.

Prerequisites for Physician's Assistant programs are similar, but students should note that these programs may not require organic chemistry, biochemistry or physics; however, these students are also recommended to take:

  • Psychology 125 (introductory) and Psychology 241 (developmental psychology)
  • Medical terminology (typically as Biology 291: Medical Terminology)
  • A course emphasizing speech and communication
  • Biology 143 and Biology 243 (2 sem sequence of Human Anatomy and Physiology)
  • A statistics course

recommendations for graduate study

Health Professionals graduate schools (such as medical schools) are looking for well-rounded individuals who are interested in a wide variety of areas and have demonstrated their interest in both medicine and people. Students should take advantage of the many opportunities to obtain patient contact and observe practitioners at work in their field of expertise. Medically related experience is essential to successful application to many health profession programs; medical schools strongly recommend potential applicants obtain medically related work or other contact with patients, and physician assistant programs often require as many as 1500-2000 hours of work with patients before the student submits an application. The Piper Center's coaches and peer advisors can assist students in arranging internships with physicians in their hometown, with alumni, or with healthcare professionals in the Twin Cities. Internships during the Interim and summer of the students' sophomore or junior year work well. Students may also shadow healthcare professionals during the summer, or work in a hospital, clinic, or nursing home (e.g., as a CNA); note that formal registration for credit is not required.

Some medical schools highly value research experience, whether in the laboratory, the field, or internships (such as the Mayo Innovation Scholars Program). Students should also maintain a high level of involvement in extra-curricular activities. They should select and involve themselves in activities of genuine interest. Extensive involvement in a few activities ranging from music to athletics to clubs (such as the pre-medical or pre-dental club) can demonstrate and develop valued traits such as dedication, commitment, leadership, perseverance, and professionalism. However, extracurricular commitments should not be permitted to negatively influence academic performance.

Health professions schools are also interested in students who have demonstrated compassion and empathy through volunteer activities. Examples of volunteer activity include hospice programs, home health aid, crisis-line counseling, working with physically disabled or developmentally delayed individuals, working with abuse victims or with trouble youth. Long periods of service involvement are preferred to brief stints in many activities. Note that some medical schools require non-medical volunteer experience, and some physician assistant programs specify that volunteer activity should be unpaid and emphasize _______.

additional courses of interest

Exercise Science 110 Nutrition and Wellness

This course explores the sources, chemical composition, and metabolic behavior of nutrients. Nutritional requirements for a balanced diet are examined as well as the consequences of excesses and deficiencies. Students use nutrition tools and guidelines to make sound food choices, learn how to read food labels, and consider factors affecting food consumption. Class activities increase students' awareness of a healthy diet, help students evaluate nutrition behaviors, and facilitate a nutritionally sound lifestyle. Offered annually.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Biology 143 Human Anatomy and Physiology: Cells and Tissues

The study of the anatomy and physiology of the human body is founded on a thorough understanding of the structure and function of cells and tissues. Students attend lectures plus one 3-hour lab per week. Nursing and exercise science majors may pre-register for this course. This course may not be taken after completion of Chemistry/Biology 127 or Biology 227, either of which serve as a prerequisite for Biology 243 Human Anatomy and Physiology: Organ Systems. Offered in the fall semester.

Biology 231 Microbiology

Microbiology examines the morphology, composition, metabolism, and genetics of microorganisms with emphasis on bacteria and viruses. Students examine the dynamic impact of microbes on humans, the immune response, and the role of microbes in the environment. Students attend lectures plus one three-hour laboratory per week. Prerequisites: BIO 143 or BIO 150, and one Chemistry course. Offered annually.

Biology 243 Human Anatomy and Physiology: Organs and Organ Systems

Students journey toward greater understanding of the human body through an integrated study of the structure of the body (anatomy) and how organs such as the brain, heart, and kidney perform their remarkable functions (physiology). The course is designed primarily for students intending careers in the health sciences. Students attend lectures plus one three-hour laboratory per week. Prerequisite: BIO 143, or BIO 150 and BIO 227, or BIO 125, or CH/BI 227. Offered annually. Counts towards exercise science major and neuroscience concentration.

Biology 245 Economics of Health Care

The health care sector in the U.S. is undergoing rapid change which affects patients, providers and payers. Managed care and managed competition are restructuring the delivery of health care services and reducing costs, while frustrating physicians and patients. The course examines the economic factors leading to the changes, current issues and controversies and federal health policies. Students from nursing, pre-med and the sciences are encouraged to enroll. Prerequisites: one of Economics 110-122 or consent of instructor. Offered annually.

Biology 250 Biomedical Ethics

This course clarifies central concepts and distinctions developed in the literature of moral philosophy and applications of those concepts and distinctions to concrete moral problems that arise in the practice of medicine. Issues may include euthanasia, abortion, medical paternalism, allocation of scarce medical resources, culturally sensitive medical care, pandemics, and conflicts of loyalty in managed care. Readings are drawn from both philosophical and medical discussions. Prerequisite: completion of BTS-T or permission of instructor. Offered annually. Counts toward biomedical studies and neuroscience concentrations.

Chemistry 260 Medicinal Chemistry in Jamaica: An International Perspective (Abroad)

In this course students gain an appreciation for the drug development process, including how natural products are isolated, how their structures relate to activities, and how research into the mechanism of disease leads to the targeted development of drugs. Issues relating to medicinal chemistry in a developing-world context, medicinal plants, and the chemical basis of folk medicine are discussed. Prerequisites: CHEM 248 and CHEM 254. Offered alternate years during Interim. Counts toward biomedical studies concentration (for students through class of 2016).

Sociology/Anthropology 267 Medical Anthropology

How do people understand illness and healing? How does social inequality shape health? These are among the questions explored by medical anthropology. In this course students examine the ways people in different societies experience their bodies, by looking at AIDS in Haiti, old age in India, and childbirth in the United States. Students investigate diverse understandings of health, different means of promoting healing, and the role of power in providing medical care. Prerequisite: one sociology/anthropology course. Offered annually in the fall or spring semester. Counts toward biomedical studies concentration (for students through class of 2016).

Biology 284 Peruvian Medical Experience (abroad)

This course is a service/learning experience. Week one is spent on campus learning basic clinical techniques, examining emerging disease, and studying existing health care issues. Students spend three weeks in Cuzco, Peru, assessing patient needs in a public hospital, a homeless shelter, orphanages, and a small village. Week four involves discussion and writing reflective journals. Prerequisites: BIO 150 or BIO 126 or BIO 231, and BIO 291. Apply through the Office of International and Off-Campus Studies. Offered during Interim (for students through class of 2016).

History 296 Medical Vocation in Historical Context

This course surveys the history of the medical professions in Europe and the U.S. from 1700 to the present, with attention to legacies from earlier periods. The unifying theme is "vocation," understood as a lived experience shaped by the values and expectations of practitioner, profession, and society, and manifested in various ways. Students examine scientific, cultural, institutional, ethical, and personal factors influencing the development of physicians and their practice in specific historical contexts. Offered periodically. Counts toward biomedical studies concentration (for students through class of 2016).

Nursing 302 Medical Vocation in Historical Context

This course focuses on critical issues in contemporary health care. Topics include principles of wellness, health promotion, sensory perception, interpersonal communication, cultural competency, and legal, political, and economic aspects of the health care system in the United States. Students have the opportunity to explore health care issues, such as genomics, bio-terrorism, and global health problems. Prerequisites: concurrent registration in NURS 304, NURS 306, and NURS 308. Offered annually in the fall semester. Counts toward biomedical studies concentration (for students through class of 2016).

Biology 382 Immunology

Immunology focuses on the structure, development and function of the immune system. The course explores the molecular and cellular basis of the immune responses. The application of immunological principles to allergy, autoimmunity, AIDS, transplantation, and cancer are included. Students attend lectures plus a two-hour discussion per week. Prerequisite: BIO 227 and BIO 233, or BIO 125 and BIO 233.

special internships and opportunities

The Physician in Clinical and Hospital Health Care

The program occurs during the St. Olaf January term at the clinics and hospitals of the Fairview Health System in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area or at the Family Health Clinic in Willmar, Minnesota. Students at the Fairview locations are assigned in pairs to a physician in a given clinical setting who serves as their primary mentor. The students shadow their primary mentor or other designated physicians through their daily activities in pertinent clinical and hospital settings. The student experience involves exposure to primary and speciality care area settings involving all age group patients. Students may experience emergency care and will become acquainted with many providers in discussions about the field of medicine. If appropriate and possible, students will be invited to attend lectures and grand rounds that are held during the student observation period. Students are observers only; they will not participate in the delivery of medical care unless cleared to do so in an emergency. The Fairview Clinics involved are: Burnsville Ridges, Cedar Ridge, Eden Center, Hiawatha, and Lakes Regional Medical Center. Students are responsible for their own transporation to the assigned clinic site either from their home or from campus. Contact Professor Wes Pearson for further information.

Mayo Innovation Scholars Program

Mayo Innovation Scholars Program offers an opportunity for selected undergraduate science and economics majors to evaluate projects submitted to the Mayo Clinic Ventures, the arm of Mayo responsible for evaluating potential business opportunities for discoveries and inventions created by Mayo Clinic physicians and researchers. This program is an initiative between a select group of Minnesota Private Colleges and the Mayo Clinic, with funding through the Medtronic Foundation. A team of four students will represent St. Olaf College each January and summer in the Mayo Innovation Scholars Program. The project team will be comprised of students representing a variety of science and economics backgrounds who demonstrate strong analytical and communication skills and success as an effective team member. Kevin Crisp, Biology and Neuroscience, will serve as the faculty advisor. The team will also be mentored by an MBA graduate student. Students apply through The Piper Center.

Independent Study in Human Anatomy

For the past 22 years, the Human Gross Anatomy Independent Study course offers a unique opportunity for eight undergraduate students to dissect two human cadavers. Dissection is completed during the fall with the expectation that dissectors will also participate as teaching assistants for the lab component of the Human Anatomy and Physiology II course. Students apply through the Biology Department.