Examining the U.S. premed path as an example of discriminatory design & exploring the role(s) of capital

Barret Michalec, Frederic W. Hafferty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


The college-level pathway to medical school (i.e., the “premed path”) includes all coursework, extra-curriculars, shadowing, volunteering, high-stakes examination (e.g., MCAT®), and application-related processes. Although medical school admission committees routinely insist their interest in diverse and “well-rounded” applicants, the premed path (PMP), through formal and informal mechanisms, is constructed to favor those from high in socioeconomic status (SES) privileged backgrounds, and those majoring in typical premed majors such as in the Biological Sciences. In these respects, the PMP is an example of Discriminatory Design—an entity constructed and sustained in a manner that (un)intentionally discriminates against certain groups of individuals. We begin this paper by providing a brief description of the PMP (within the U.S. specifically) and conceptual and theoretical overview of the discriminatory design framework. We then explore how the PMP is an example of discriminatory design through the distinct but related role(s) of financial, social, cultural, and (what we term) (extra)curricular capital. Using data gleaned from interviews with premedical students, content analyses of the curricular structure of particular majors and publicly available data on the various “costs” associated with the PMP, we detail how the PMP is reflective of discriminatory design, spotlighting specific barriers and hurdles for certain groups of students. Given the persistent lack of representation of students from minoritized groups as well as those from diverse academic backgrounds within medical schools, our goal is to spotlight key features and processes within the PMP that actively favor the pursuit of certain majors and students from more privileged backgrounds. In turn, we conclude by offering medical schools and undergraduate institutions specific recommendations for remediating these barriers and hurdles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)70-97
Number of pages28
JournalSocial Theory and Health
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2023


  • Capital
  • Discriminatory design
  • Medical education
  • Premed

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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