I’m failing chemistry—does that mean I shouldn’t be a doctor?

academic advice chemistry College premed

Ask almost any premedical student about chemistry, and you’ll get the same set of reactions. If they haven’t finished the chemistry prerequisites, it's a gulp and a look of fear. For those who have completed chemistry and are still premed, it's a sigh of relief: the hardest part is over! And for those who are currently struggling in chemistry courses, it's a look of existential dread: Am I able to finish these courses? And if I’m struggling, am I fit to be a doctor?

This struggle is not an unfamiliar one for me. I have spent many sleepless nights agonizing over chemistry concepts; I have experienced the panic and anxiety before a chemistry midterm or final, wondering if this grade from a 3-hour exam would tank my GPA (and my chance at medical school). I have, in fact, performed poorly and failed chemistry exams. In these moments, I often questioned whether I was smart enough to be a doctor if I could not get through college chemistry.

Now, as a fourth year medical student, I want to say this: for those who are struggling in chemistry classes, I see you, I hear you, and you are not alone. More importantly, even if you are not a chemistry whiz, there is a place for you in medicine.

Because so many people enter their undergraduate years interested in medicine, and so few actually end up pursuing medical school, many people have explored the reasons for this gap. Studies among underrepresented racial and ethnic minority undergraduates have found that students report that their main reason for their loss of interest in medicine was negative experiences in chemistry courses [1]. Indeed, given how competitive medical schools are to gain admission to, it is understandable how chemistry performance would deeply impact people’s confidence about getting into medical school.

This is a shame because, if you ask any current medical student, performance in chemistry classes is not a predictor for how good of a doctor you will become. So much of what makes an excellent physician goes beyond the science you learn and into the non-quantifiable: your background, experiences, empathy, and compassion that are so crucial to not only helping patients feel more understood, heard, and comfortable, but also listening patiently to patients so that you are able to better diagnose and treat their ailments. In fact, one paper argues that performance in premedical science courses is inversely associated with empathy scores [2].

I write this not because science courses and MCAT scores are not important in medical school admissions. They undoubtedly are. However, I write this for the college students toiling through their semesters of chemistry, questioning their worth and their promise in medicine. To those people, I say: do not give up. You belong here. Medicine needs you.


[1] Barr DA, Gonzalez ME, Wanat SF. The leaky pipeline: factors associated with early decline in interest in premedical studies among underrepresented minority undergraduate students. Acad Med. 2008;83(5):503-511. doi:10.1097/ACM.0b013e31816bda16

[2] Barr DA. Science as superstition: selecting medical students. Lancet. 2010;376(9742):678-679. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(10)61325-6

Jason is an MD Candidate at Harvard Medical School. Previously, he conducted research as a Fulbright Fellow in China, and graduated with honors from Stanford University, where he earned his BS in Human Biology.


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