When I prepare to write an article for this blog, I typically begin by going through the entries I have already made and determine if there are any “holes” in the information that I’m providing. I think about what else I might have wanted to know about the road toward a health career when I was in high schoolor college. Overall, I’m usually pleased with what I’ve written about so far and I find myself filling smaller and smaller gaps with more specific topics that were more personal to me. But not today! When I realized that I hadn’t yet written about choosing a college major I knew I had to – when I reflect, though, I think that the reason I have neglected writing this article for so long is because in most cases I don’t find it all that important for being successful in a professional school. (!!) That’s probably a surprise to most of you and it’s not always true, so this topic certainly still deserves its own article.
As with many of my posts, my viewpoint stems from my own experiences applying to medical school. It bears noting that this advice may not apply to you. For example, if you are wanting to graduate college with a nursing degree you should likely major in nursing! But if you are planning to apply to a program that only requires that you fulfill certain prerequisite classes, you may take something from this information. It also bears noting that I’m not discussing the possibility of double majoring, minoring, or anything else in this post. I’m sure I’ll eventually follow up with my thoughts on those possibilities, but for now I think I’ll stick to the basics of a single major.
Let’s start by talking about those prerequisite classes I mentioned above. Most professional school programs will list in their admissions information what classes you must have taken to be eligible for admission. These classes may be extensive, but they won’t fill up your entire time at a four-year university. This means that you can usually major in something that has similar requirements to a health professional school (such as chemistry, biology, or biochemistry) and still have plenty of time to explore other areas of study. It also means, however, that you can major in something with completely different requirements than a health professional school (visual art, music, or language, perhaps) and have room in your schedule to also fulfill those professional school requirements. I hope you’re starting to see why I don’t find majors so important! They are important, but are important to you and not necessarily to your ability to get into medical school (or dental school, etc.) Let’s dive deeper into how you might go about choosing what’s right for you.
If you’ve known for a long time that you want to go into health and have found enjoyment in studying aspects of science in high school (you may even consider yourself a nerd), there is certainly nothing wrong in majoring in a scientific field of study. In fact, the vast majority of medical school applicants and, in turn, admitted students do just that. If you don’t enjoy science, then you probably wouldn’t enjoy medical school! This approach also allows you to both focus primarily on maintaining your excellent GPA (those chemistry classes aren’t going to ace themselves!) and add on classes in any other discipline you want! Or alternatively, you can dive even deeper into your major field of study than the average pre-health student. This is a great way to get a leg up on certain sections of the MCAT! Given that most other applicants to professional schools will also have majored in a similar field, admissions committees won’t penalize you for sticking with something like biochemistry.
On the other hand, given that admissions committees see scientific majors over and over again, a non-typical major might actually allow you to stand out in a crowded field of applicants. Let’s say you’ve played a particular instrument all your life and feel that if medicine wasn’t what you want to do, you’d want to play professionally. College may be your chance to explore that passion! Not only would you be able to pursue both your medical and musical passions, but by majoring in an artistic field you’d be diving into a world that you might not get a chance to experience otherwise. (I should note here that I know several musically inclined medical students and practicing physicians who do still find time to play regularly.) You may find that your musical studies actually inform your future medical studies. This is why admissions committees may pick you out of a crowd – they understand that diversity makes the profession stronger, and this holds true for diversity of interests and educational backgrounds. As long as you’re able to focus on your non-science major enough to excel in the program while keeping your “pre-professional” (science & math) GPA high, this might be a wonderful option.
I hope you can see that while your major will define your collegiate career, it doesn’t define your ability to gain admission into a health-related professional school. I majored in neural science at NYU, which I consider to be in between the two scenarios I outline above. While a neural science major required that I take the chemistry and biology classes that were also required by the medical schools I was interested in, it also required a lot of courses that focused more narrowly on how the brain works. We studied the biology of memory for an entire semester, for example. Most of my colleagues were working toward doctoral programs, not medical or dental school, but those ultra-specific courses gave me a perspective on the nervous system that I wouldn’t possess otherwise. I enjoyed the program a great deal; I say all of this to encourage you to really explore the options that are available to you. Neural science isn’t a major that’s offered by all schools. I’m sure that the schools you’re interested in have similarly unique areas of study. Whether you know what you want to major in right now or not, know that you have time to explore – and know that no matter what, your professional school application will be stronger because of what you choose.
Have a specific question about the majors offered by your school? Not sure if any of the advice above applies to you? Want to know an excruciating amount about how the finch brain encodes birdsong? Shoot me an email at email@example.com and I’ll get back to you right away!