McMaster University’s Bachelor of Health Sciences Program – What to Expect?

Disclaimer: The content expressed here is reflective of my own experiences, and opinions are of
my own unless otherwise specified.

The BHSc program has considerable notoriety for its presumed ability to send hopeful pre-meds easily into medical school. Unsurprisingly, this notoriety begins at an early age when prospective high school students are attracted to this undergraduate program and apply for the associated prestige. There are countless pages of internet forums providing outlets to myths, suspicions, and misguided advice to students who are genuinely interested in this program. To the resourceful ones, some may find the BHSc admins are a source of untapped legitimate information. However, as a recent graduate of the program, I hope to discuss in the words below my experience in the program in the context of where I am now, and where I once began. It is my intention that this information can provide an aspect of the program that is not often advertised, but crucial to those interested in applying.

The crux of my experience in the BHSc program lies within a singular entity – uncertainty. From the minute I applied to this program, to every course work and interaction with others, and preparing for my departure, uncertainty guided and challenged me. I still remember writing my supplementary application during high school, and the plaguing concern I had – what does the program expect? What do they want to hear? How do I stand out of the thousands who will apply with me? It certainly didn’t help that the questions were quirky. To paraphrase some of the questions (both ones I encountered and those before mine): “what is an act of folly?”, “what best describes you?”, “why?”. It quickly became clear what distinguishes BHSc from other programs – it is not just a battle of grade point averages, but a search for a substantial amount of introspection prompted by questions that are not insurmountable, just unusual. A lesson of uncertainty began at the gates – there doesn’t always exist a ‘right’ answer, but a well-reasoned one.

In fact, to the successful few who is accepted into the program, unusual becomes commonplace. After all, McMaster is home to problem-based learning, an unusual but such obvious pedagogy. Cell Biology was one of our mandatory classes in first year. Our examinations in that class consisted of rapid-fire, short exercises that were extremely focused but could be vastly challenging. The premise varied but was simple: here is a piece of data, provide a hypothesis that explains the data. Or, design an experiment that can test a hypothesis given to you. This exercise, notably lauded by some and hated by others, was taking something not foreign to any science student but posing it in a fashion that likely was. The scientific process is a fundamental principle that science students are taught at an early age, but few will have the chance to experience it in circumstances where it is needed most – in times of uncertainty. As a former student and teaching assistant to Cell Biology, I can attest to the uncertainty we faced writing those exams. There was no singular, ‘correct’ answer. In fact, much like the supplementary application, it was a test of reasoning. As someone who went through high school studying and regurgitating textbooks, application-based questions suddenly had a whole new meaning. Dealing with this uncertainty in test situation was even more uncomfortable.

I recall my first lecture in Cell Biology, the lecturer presented a chest x-ray film and asked the class to find the hidden pathology. Looking back, the exercise could’ve ended quickly if there was a budding radiologist, but instead a curious rumble of chatter ensued discussing various anomalies: “the heart was too big”, “the lungs were irregular”, “is that a clot?”. Indeed, everybody either found something abnormal, acknowledged they had no idea what they were examining, or both. Turns out, the x-ray film was normal. Why then was everyone (including myself) vying to find something abnormal? Well, we were told to. What would have happened if the lecturer said nothing and simply just put up a chest x-ray less the prompt that something was wrong with it?

My first class in Inquiry, another mandatory course in first year, I met a group of 20-some students, four upper year student facilitators, and one faculty facilitator. “What do you want to do today?” The level of discomfort in the room was palpable. This was the first question we faced in the class and will continue to face for the remainder of the year. In retrospect, this was not a question that was inappropriate. We were paying thousands of dollars as young adult learners, is it too much to ask to let us decide what we want to learn? So we did. But then the question is, what do we learn? In second year, we had more context. The topic I had along with the group I was working was cancer-induced depression. The expectation was to create a presentation every few weeks to the rest of the tutorial. We were simply given the topic but how we proceed from there was entirely in our own control. Just like Inquiry, the sudden autonomy over our learning was dramatic but coupled with the vast amount of information we were expected to understand added a new layer of challenge. It was yet another lesson of uncertainty with added difficulty. For instance, how do we find information, and more importantly, pertinent and reliable
information? How do we work cohesively as a group? How do we create an effective presentation?

As the years went on and did the numerous group-based projects, I think more and more about the notoriety the BHSc program bears. Indeed, a large percentage of grads will proceed to professional school (namely, medical school). However, there is nothing inherent about this program that prepares students specifically for medicine. Grads have pursued graduate work, law, arts, etc. The uncertainty that comes with deciding what happens after university is shared with many of the turning points one will experience in their life, whether in work or personal life. A degree of introspection fuelled by courage to face unwavering ambiguity is what I believe the BHSc program provides. Now in medical school, I can firmly say there are many things that some may consider ‘fundamental’ I never learned in university. That’s fine – I don’t believe university should be designed for students to leave with a volume of information that decays without use. However, it should teach skills that is applicable to any person in any situation. Perhaps more importantly, it should teach an ability to realize what we don’t know and drives our pursuit to further ourselves.

Applying to the BHSc program requires preparation. MD Consultants may offer services that can help students who are currently applying or will hope to in the future. Feel free to contact us today and inquire into our services.