17 Books All Pre-Med Students Should Read

As a premed student, medical student, and physician, it is important to be constantly learning. The best doctors are the ones who never stop trying to be better.

Of course, as a premed student, you will have plenty of reading to do throughout your classes. However, you will have downtime over your summer, winter, and spring breaks.

There are a lot of great books written by physicians out there that are not only entertaining but also very informative about the medical career. These books can be very motivational and thought-provoking regarding the complex nature of modern medicine.

Below is my list of 17 books every pre-med student should read before getting into medical school. (These are also good books for medical students to read!)

#1 Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death, and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon’s First Years


This book was by far my favorite read as a pre-med student. My wife (girlfriend at the time) bought this book for me the Christmas before we went on vacation. I remember spending every night that week falling asleep reading this book.

Hot Lights, Cold Steel is essentially a recap of Dr. Michael Collins’s journey through orthopedic surgery residency. Dr. Collins goes into detail regarding what it’s like to be a young surgeon. Reading this book will give you an inside on the life of medicine as well as entertainment from various humorous situations Dr. Collins finds himself in due to a very hectic lifestyle. 

Click here for a longer, detailed review on the book!

#2 Cutting for Stone


Another must-read for anyone who is interested in medicine. Cutting for Stone is narrated by Marion Stone and follows him through decades of his life and medical career. The story takes Marion through India, Ethiopia, and America during periods of unrest and challenges.

Aside from the great story, premeds, medical students, and doctors will find the medical and surgical aspects of this story very fascinating. This book goes into great detail when it comes to medicine. Some find the surgical descriptions so vivid that you could almost use them as a guide to the real deal!

Reading Cutting for Stone will give you an appreciation for medicine in its rawest state. This is a longer read but well worth it.

Buy Cutting for Stone on Amazon!

#3 Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science


Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science is a different kind of read. The description on this books says it all:

 “In gripping accounts of true cases, surgeon Atul Gawande explores the power and the limits of medicine, offering an unflinching view from the scalpel’s edge. Complications lays bare a science not in its idealized form but as it actually is — uncertain, perplexing, and profoundly human.” 

Dr. Atul Gawande talks about his own experiences learning to be a surgeon. He talks about the challenges he faced, but most importantly the complications. Every premed student should read this books so that they can have a better understanding of what it really means to be training in world of an “uncertain, perplexing, and profoundly human” science. Check out my detailed post on Complications!

Buy Complications on Amazon!

#4 The House of God


The house of God is a fictional satire of what it is like to be a medical resident. This book is famous of its “13 Laws of the House of God” which are essentially 13 rules you need to break in order to help your patients and remain sane throughout residency.

Although this book is not really based on the reality of what medical residency is like, there are important lessons we can receive from it. These “13 Laws” may seem harsh, but there are many physicians who can relate to them to some degree. Some of the physicians I scribed for can attest to this!

Regardless of the accuracy, The House of God is very entertaining to read.

Buy The House of God on Amazon!

#5 Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End


Another great book by Dr. Atul Gawande. Like the rest of Dr. Gawande’s books, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End addresses another “profoundly human” aspect of medicine in order to challenge the way we think about it.

However instead of the topic on training physicians, this book revolves around end of life care. Specifically the tension between doing everything to survive and improving well-being. A classic struggle between quantity vs quality.

Remember the important rule of medicine: First do no harm.

Definitely a challenging topic to address, but that is what Dr. Gawande is good at. Premed students should read this book to broaden the way they think about medicine.

Buy Being Mortal on Amazon!

#6 Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs: The Making of a Surgeon


If you loved Hot Lights, Cold Steel (Which you should!) then you will love Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs.

Instead of following Dr. Michael Collins through Residency, you will follow him from his job as a Blue Collar worker through the challenging world of Medical School.

As a premed student you can benefit greatly from reading this book. Especially if you are a “non-traditional” premed. Dr. Collins not only started his medical practices later in life, but he also did so with a wife and kids.

Think life as a premed is difficult? Trying doing it while taking care of toddlers.

Dr. Collins is an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. If he can do it, so can you and I.

Buy Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs on Amazon!

#7 The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer


Essentially this book is a biography on cancer, dating back thousands of years. A very interesting read for anyone interested or in Medicine.

The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is written by a cellular biologist with the goal of helping us better understand cancer.

Buy The Emperor of All Maladies on Amazon!

#8 The Intern Blues: The Timeless Classic About the Making of a Doctor


Three interns keep a detailed diary of their experiences throughout their intern years. The Intern Blues will give you a great unabridged view of a physicians internship. The good, the bad, and the Ugly.

As a pre-med student or medical student, it’s beneficial to learn about the experiences of physicians who have already gone through the training process. The more prepared you are for your internship the better.

Buy The Intern Blues on Amazon!

#9 When Breath Becomes Air


When Breath Becomes Air will keep you hooked until the very end. This story is about a neurosurgeon who discovers that he has stage 4 cancer in his final year of training.

Dr. Paul Kalanthi, the author and neurosurgeon in this story, does an amazing reflection on life from the perspective of a doctor and a patient. Dr. Kalanthi talks about the struggles of residency, dealing with his illness, and the impact on his marriage.

When Breath Becomes Air will have you very emotionally involved from the beginning to the end. No doubt this book involves a lot of sadness, but it is also very inspiring.

Buy When Breath Becomes Air on Amazon!

#10 The Devil Wears Scrubs


Another book regarding the challenges of the first year of residency. The Devil Wears Scrubs is about a fictional character Jane McGill and her journey through internship. The book takes a kind of Grey’s Anatomy-ish vibe with the romance and overbearing senior resident sick of incompetent interns.

Buy The Devil Wears Scrubs on Amazon!

#11 Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World


An inspiring story about Dr. Paul Farmer, focusing on his work fighting tuberculosis in Haiti, Peru, and Russia.

Dr. Farmer is the kind of doctor that many premed and medical students strive to be. A doctor who really wants to help others and make a difference in the world. Kind of like a Patch Adams character. Inspire yourself to leave your comfort zone by reading this amazing story.

Buy Mountains Beyond Mountains on Amazon!

#12 When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales from Neurosurgery


Arguably the most challenging career in medicine is being a neurosurgeon. I’m sure there are many readers of this blog who are aspiring to one day be able to perform these highly complicated surgeries. Although a rewarding career, the path to becoming a neurosurgeon is long and difficult.

When the Air Hits Your Brain will show you exactly what it’s like to go through neurosurgery residency. Dr. Frank Vertosick describes his journey from intern year to world class neurosurgeon.

Dr. Vertosick portrays the emotions associated when treating patients with complicated, life threatening cases and goes into great detail describing the kinds of surgeries he performed.

If you are like many other premed and medical students interested in reading about the “day in the life” of a physician, this is the book for you.

Buy When the Air Hits Your Brain on Amazon!

#13 Emergency Doctor


Emergency Doctor is an exciting book to read. As you can guess from the title, it’s all about Emergency Medicine.

Dr. Edward Ziegler takes you through the crazy life in the ER of Bellevue Hospital. Everything from intense traumas to humorous encounters with patients, this book will keep you at the edge of your seat.

For premed students this book is a great way to get an inside look at what life in the ER is like. Emergency Doctor is entertaining, motivational, and even educational.

Buy Emergency Doctor on Amazon!

#14 Med School Confidential: A Complete Guide to the Medical School Experience: By Students, for Students


Think of Med School Confidential as a map to your destination of becoming a physician.

Although “Med School” is in the title, this book is not just for med students. Med School Confidential covers applying to/picking your med school, getting through medical school, and your training beyond medical school.

Many premed students find this book helpful in seeing the big picture. Reading through Med School Confidential will put all your goals in front of you so that you can focus on achieving them.

Buy Med School Confidential on Amazon!

#15 In Stitches


In Stitches is kind of a coming-of-age book. Dr. Youn describes his journey from being an awkward teenager with a massive protruding lower jaw, to undergoing major facial reconstruction surgery, to his determination of becoming a successful plastic surgeon.

This is a good read for any student interested in plastic surgery or for anyone else who struggles overcoming the awkward teenage years.

Buy In Stitches on Amazon!

#16 The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right


Another book by Dr. Atul Gawande with a thought-provoking conversation about modern medicine.

The concept of a “checklist” was started by pilots in the US Air force. As airplanes became more and more complex, it was necessary for pilots to implement a checklist in order to fly the aircraft correctly and safety.

Similarly, checklists have become more common in modern medicine as it becomes more and more complex. Dr. Gawande talks about the importance of checklists through his experiences and how it can turn something overwhelming to something manageable.

Buy The Checklist Manifesto on Amazon!

#17 The Year They Tried To Kill Me: Surviving a surgical internship…even if the patients don’t


If you haven’t had enough books about surviving residency, here is another one. The Year They Tried To Kill Me, tends to be more comedic than the other residency books.

A med student from Wisconsin is thrown into the trenches of a surgical residency in Oakland, California. The author describes this book as a coming-of-age novel. Not just a book about the life of a surgeon, but also a book about the struggles of dealing with life outside of the hospital.

Although we have to remain laser focused on the goal, the reality is that life will get in the way and it is important to be prepared to deal with it while working 80+ hours per week.

Buy The Year They Tried To Kill Me on Amazon!


So there you have it, these are a mix of books I personally read and enjoyed, or were recommended to me. I know this is a long list of books and most premed students are just too busy to do any kind of reading that isn’t their school text books.

But I urge you to try to read at least a few of them for 3 important reasons:

#1 You don’t want to go into Medical School without understanding what medicine is really like.

All medical schools will urge you to shadow and get as much clinical experience as possible before applying. The main reason is that they want to see that you have experienced medicine and that you know what the culture is like.

Becoming a physician is not just about the money and the exciting procedures. It’s important to really be passionate about this career because everyone who becomes a physician will experience the tough sleepless nights, long work week, and the tiring paperwork.

These books can provide an insight to the pros and cons of becoming a doctor.

#2 Being a doctor means you are lifelong learner.

As a physician, you will have to essentially continue studying for the rest of your career. Medicine is constantly evolving and it is important to stay on top of it. In fact, the medical boards make you do continuing education, so you don’t even have choice.

Starting this concept of reading more than what is required of you as a premed will only benefit you in the end.

#3 Reading about the lives of amazing doctors is motivational.

Sometimes your premed studies can get you down. It’s natural for a premed student to feel overwhelmed.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to rekindle your motivation to become a physician. The majority of these books will do just that. You will read about inspiring physicians who really made a difference in patients’ lives. This motivation to be better will propel you through undergrad and beyond.

I hope you like these books I recommended. I know countless other premed students have.

If you have any other suggestions, please share in the comments section below!

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