In the world of linear career thinking we often take comfort in what we know to be "true." Pre-med students should major in biology, of course. Pre-law students should major in political science or economics. The problem is that the truth isn't nearly as obvious as it might seem. Or even true.
While waiting to do a television interview about my book yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with a dentist, Dr. Shane Matt, who was waiting to do an interview about good and bad Halloween candy. (By the way did you know that pretzels and raisins can be worse for your teeth than candy? But I digress...) When he learned that my book was about chaos theory and the lack of connection between a college major and the subsequent career, he laughed. He told me that although he was a science major in college, he now believed that the best pre-dental major would be art. He said that the fine motor skills a student would develop through art classes - not to mention the aesthetic eye needed for cosmetic dentistry-- would serve the student well in dental school and in the profession. He also said he wished he had taken more business courses-and that most pre-professional students would benefit from at least a minor in business.
This got me thinking about the most common question I get from parents of students who are thinking about going on to professional schools after college: what is the "best" major for medical school or law school? And they anticipate the linear answer: biology for medical school; political science for law.
Well, here comes the non-linear response: What would you like to major in? What courses interest you the most? Which faculty members do you enjoy learning from? What subjects do you like to read about? What books would you read even if they weren't required for a course?
Those questions will help you select a major that is likely to enhance your professional school application. First, it will show that you're not one of the herd. You have unique interests and ideas and will bring a different mindset and perspective to the profession. Law school admissions officers, for example, enjoy applications from dramatic arts and music majors- what a way to build "performance" skills for the courtroom. They are looking for intelligence and achievement-- a nontraditional major adds a layer of personality.
All right- a quick caveat: If you're excited about majoring in a traditional pre-professional major, that's fine. Lots of biology majors get into med school-- and lots of political science majors get into law school.
The keys to professional school admission are grades, scores on standardized tests (like the LSAT and the MCAT), well-rounded experiences and excellent recommendations. Your choice of major? Not so much. In fact, if you take courses you enjoy and want to study, your grades will likely be better thus bettering your chances of admission.
Keep in mind that regardless of your major if you're going into a health profession you will have to take a basic core of science courses-- - usually organic and inorganic chemistry, biology, physics and biochemistry. You can either take these courses throughout your regular college career, after graduation, or in the summers.
Philosophy, anthropology, and economics majors do pretty well in medical school admissions. While non-science majors generally make up less than 5% of the applicants to medical school, their admission percentage rate can be higher than traditional sciences-- in some cases over 50%. One student I worked with was a Latin/Classics major who was accepted to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
So if you're considering professional school, consider veering off the tried-and-true path. Research the schools you'd like to attend, make note of their admission requirements and make sure you take the necessary courses.
What should you major in? Follow your passion and make the connections between your major and your future career in your admissions essay. And, if you want to take the very insightful Dr. Matt's advice, add some business courses.
Illustration from MIT's Premed site.