By Glenn N. Cummings, Ph.D., Director of Health Professions Advising
If you’re a sophomore who attended the recent pre-health meeting then you heard a version of this little speech of mine before. Still, it bears repeating. As a pre-health student, you are no different than anyone else in that you think long and hard (most of you, at any rate) about your choice of a major and the possible consequences of that decision. The most commonly heard questions among pre-health students are “should I major in a science?” and “can I major in something other than science?” You also grapple with what criteria to use when choosing between two or three of your favorite subjects.
The science or non-science question is, in my view, the wrong question to ask. It’s usually based on an underlying concern about what admissions deans at a medical, dental, or vet school might think of the choice to pursue Biology or Chemistry, or Anthropology or American Studies. These imaginary evaluators of your future application, when actually standing before me at conferences and info sessions over the years, have been unanimous in their response to this question: Health professional schools do not discriminate based on majors. They are going to value what you have valued, namely your work in the department that held your interest, challenged you, and provided you with the opportunity for the deepest intellectual engagement and reward. They like evidence of academic rigor, but be careful about making assumptions here; a popular misconception is that science disciplines are more challenging, when I’ve seen how a subject that is “easier” for one student is incredibly difficult for the next. Take a budding biologist out of her lab and put her in a Philosophy seminar and it may prove to be the most rigorous academic experience she has during her four years of college. It is true that non-science majors (humanities, social sciences) tend to stand out among the large pool of applicants in biology and chemistry, and often their choice of major can be an interesting topic of discussion in application essays and interviews. Science majors, by contrast, have more science courses to figure into their undergraduate science GPA. There are advantages for both groups of applicants, science and non-science. Employing the “what will put me at an advantage” mode of thinking is, in my view, a waste of your time and energy.
So what isn’t a waste of your time and energy? I’d like to remind you that your major department is the pond you’ll be swimming around in for the entire second half of your time at F&M. You’ll be spending a great deal of time there. When you’re considering a department, meet with the chair and with as many faculty as you can, since they represent this “pond,” and their approachability and degree of supportiveness will be significant to you as you advance. Are they welcoming? Do they answer your questions effectively? Attend any open house that the department hosts, and if that opportunity doesn’t arise, go to individual office hours. Ask the faculty as well as current students majoring in the department what independent work is being done and what options you might have to pursue various potential research interests. Ask how many majors study abroad, and where do they typically go. Also, is minoring an option? Remember that any concentration of courses in a certain subject will be noted by health professional schools some day, so you certainly do not have to minor in anything, but if you are having trouble deciding between two subjects, majoring in one and minoring in the other might be a good solution. How many students in the department are double-majoring?
And lastly, it’s never too soon for pre-health students to spend a moment thinking about how their subject of choice has relevance in the world of health and medicine—not that there needs to be any overt tie between the two, but I do find that students focused on careers in health enjoy making these connections, and it can be surprisingly fruitful. I’ve had advisees who have made fascinating connections between, for instance, the powers of observation required in analyzing paintings in Art History and the need for doctors to observe their patients in the process of diagnosis. Or the medical methods, tenets, and terminology of important figures in ancient Greece, explored as a Classics major, and the realities of modern medicine.
In the end, it’s about studying what you love. It’s about landing in a department where your interests and values align with departmental strengths in order to fuel, and reward, your curiosity. And let me make one more point: Study what you love, yes, and also what you’re good at. Usually passion and innate ability go hand-in-hand, but if every moment is a struggle, every assignment and discussion a complete mystery to you in the discipline you’ve chosen, I wonder how your love for the material can possibly last, let alone flourish. The trick is to think outside the box, explore new subjects with an open mind, ask questions, and go with the major that is the best natural fit. The end result will be your strongest academic work, and that is what will be valued, ultimately, by any health professional school—and by you when you look back at your college experience.