Is Medical School Better Than Undergrad? (Explained!)

One of the major things pre-meds often think about is how the experience of med school will likely look. Compared to the existing path you’re now on, you might be wondering if it’s harder, easier, or a huge departure from your current day-to-day.

So, is medical school better than undergrad?

Medical school demands much more of your time than undergrad. There’s more work involved, more material to cover and the pace is a lot faster. For that reason, many students argue undergrad is a better experience.

If that puts you off, hold up. Just because you get more time during undergrad, doesn’t automatically mean it’s always a better experience.

Comparing the two is actually more complicated. So that’s what we’ll get into in this article.

Here’s what else we’ll cover:

  • Reasons why med school can be better than undergrad (and vice versa)
  • The differences between the two
  • If undergrad or pre-med is easier/harder compared to med school

As a med student myself who’s gone through it all (and remembers asking similar questions), I hope my insight can help.

Ready to get started? Let’s go.

Why undergrad is better than med school

Most students argue undergrad is better than med school for a couple of reasons:

  1. More free time
  2. Less pressure

Whether these reasons are actually legit though comes down to the individual. Most students on a pre-med track taking their medicine application seriously? Probably working just as hard on their extracurriculars (and feeling just as much pressure to get into med school) as any student already accepted!

For everyone else though, or just the casual who’s still undecided on med, undergrad could be the better experience.

Here’s why:

  • There’s more time to experiment (take new subjects and classes without having to worry about your GPA)
  • More time for social activities, sports, and other interests
  • There are (probably) fewer exams you’ll have to take (and their outcome will be less decisive)
  • It’s cheaper (and absent of the pressure that comes with financing med school)

All these help to add up to undergrad being less intensive than med school but of course it’s just an opinion!

Many people would argue the opposite.

Reasons why med school is better than undergrad

One of the biggest reasons why med school may be seen as better than undergrad is that it’s more “purposeful”.

What I mean by this is that it feels more serious and more deliberate. And that it’s setting you up perfectly for a career that hopefully, you’ll feel passionate about.

This is at least true in my case, as a career changer into med who originally studied English at undergrad!

But here’s where else I feel med school could potentially beat out undergrad:

  • It’s more interesting (each class seems relevant to the things you see, hear and practice later in the clinic)
  • It’s structured (you know, once you graduate, what you’re set up to be/do – no worrisome job chasing!)
  • Good balance of practical/theoretical
  • Closer and more tight-knit (the cohorts are smaller, meaning you get to know most of your colleagues, seniors, and staff)
  • You already have the experience of college-based study (something you didn’t have the first time around at undergrad)

Sure, med school isn’t all fun and games (I talk about the boring aspects here and the even worse ones here), but that doesn’t mean any of the above isn’t true.

Compared to how I felt during undergrad to how I feel doing medicine; I’m much more happier doing the last!

How is medical school different from undergraduate?

In the U.S. medical school is considered a post-graduate course. That means you have to have completed an undergraduate degree to apply.

It’s different because it’s more serious.

The cost of training doctors is more expensive than educating most undergrads. There’s a greater amount of bureaucracy, especially as (from the 3rd year onwards) you’re actually working in hospitals completing clinical rotations etc. And the effort and work you put in throughout med school will directly correlate to where you end up specializing (what kind of doctor you become) for your career.

That last sentence is true because of licensing exams (USMLE Step). Working hard to do well on these largely determines where you end up for residency.

In Europe however (where I study), there’s no real distinction between med school and undergrad. You can become a medical student straight out of high school (for the most part), and graduate with a medical degree when most students in America would only just be starting.

For students here, although med school is longer (5 or 6 years compared to 4) there’s not that much difference to it compared to undergrad.

Something else that factors in however is what type of medical school you go to.

There’s some difference between public schools (where there are lots of other students studying other subjects) and private ones.

Many of the advantages I highlighted about med school being smaller and a “closer community” for example, are only really true of private schools.

Related: Does It Matter What Medical School You Go To? (Solved!)

The key difference between undergrad and med school

One place I feel undergrad really differs from med school (and something that’s worth discussing) is the intellectual freedom that comes with it. At undergrad (unless you declare a major really early) you have a far broader catalog of courses to choose from. Making it great for exploring your interests.

Med school, for obvious reasons, is a lot more confined. You’re on one track, headed in one direction. There’s not much room (despite a lot of schools having some very creative and interesting electives) for anything else.

But something else I see a big difference in, especially at European schools where you don’t have to do undergrad beforehand, is in things like critical thinking and broader communication skills (writing, reading, etc).

Med school doesn’t really cultivate these types of skills in students. At least not at that level that many undergrad courses do.

So that’s something else to consider!

Is med school harder or easier than undergrad?

Most students (myself included) would say no, it’s not easier.

There’s a lot more work involved in med school. You’ll take more classes and cover a lot of material much faster than you ever did at undergrad.

In fact, there’s a reason why learning content in med school is likened to “drinking water from a firehose” (check out this post to get a visual illustration of that!), the speed at which it hits you is unreal.

The first two years in med school is all about theory. And there’s a ton of it; spanning several different subjects in varying levels of detail.

Although the material in med school isn’t any “harder” to conceptualize than similar material at undergrad, the vast quantity of it makes it that much more difficult.

Of course, there are always counterarguments to that. Some students suggest med school is “easier” than undergrad because you get to learn what you really want to learn about (i.e. it’s more stimulating).

Here’s where else med school could be a little easier:

  • It’s really hard to fail out (most med schools will go to big lengths to keep students)
  • You’re guaranteed a career at the end of it

But clearly, there are a huge amount of variables (not just your college/university and undergrad topic!) to give any real definitive answer over what’s easiest.

So it’s still best to not go in with any assumptions!

Is med school harder than pre-med?

Med school is more detailed than pre-med and covers a lot more topics.

Personally, I think pre-med sets you up pretty well though. Especially as the required courses you take introduce you to a lot of the foundational concepts you’ll cover in your first and second years of study.

Conceptually, again, I think the way med school compares is similar to undergrad. The extra information isn’t exactly difficult to understand, it just involves more effort memorizing and more practice applying the concepts to questions.

At least being in med school removes the anxiety of the “will I/won’t I make it” feeling that goes with being on a pre-med track at undergrad. I appreciate that can be very distracting and not at all fun!

From an emotional perspective at least, med school is definitely easier than pre-med.

Final Thoughts

Being both an undergrad and a medical student, it’s tough to answer the question over what’s better without any bias. As a career changer coming to the sciences from the arts, that hardly helps thing either!

Ultimately however I feel that both experiences are entirely what you make them. They may have their differences at a logistical and intellectual level, but how you respond to them is only ever down to you.

To say that any one experience is “better” than the other, kind of misses the point!

Undergrad is a broad educational experience mainly designed for people out of high school. Med school is a training path for a career.

Go into either with an open mind and a blank slate.

That’s always the best way.