What's the Deal with Pre-Professional Programs?

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Posted by Jessica Gross on June 16, 2011
What's the Deal with Pre-Professional Programs?

Nowadays, pre-professional programs are as prevalent on college campuses as Ugg boots. There are pre-professional programs for almost any career track, from the usual pre-med and pre-law, to the lesser known pre-nursing, pre-architecture, and even pre-studio art. Pre-programs aren't majors; they're directional paths of study and experience to prepare undergraduates for a specific industry or career.

So what's the point of picking up a pre-professional program? We've laid out the specifics of the three most popular: pre-law, pre-business, and pre-med.

Pre-Law

Some colleges have an official pre-law curriculum, but this isn't incredibly common. Most pre-law programs involve meeting with an advisor to choose classes, clubs, and jobs that will appeal to law school admission committees. Law schools require a bachelor's degree, LSAT (entrance exam) scores, essays, and recommendations, but no specific coursework, so most pre-law programs' non-regimented nature makes sense.

"We don't have any preference of what someone studied in their undergraduate school as long as they're coming from an accredited college or university," says Andrea Depaoli, an information specialist at Harvard Law School.

It's more important for applicants to have done well in their majors than to have studied a law-related field. According to Lyon Zabsky, assistant director of pre-law advising and alumni resources at Princeton University Career Services, law schools want to admit a class with a range of intellectual interests.

"Law school admissions deans/committees look for how well an applicant did in his/her major. Law schools fill each class with diversity in every sense of the word, and major is one of them. A law school will not fill half the class with history majors and the other half with politics majors. For example, an art history major or a religion major will stand out among the 'typical' thought of majors for law school," Zabsky writes in an email.

Not only do law schools value a diverse student body, but each applicant should have widespread interests, too. According to Zabsky, taking a variety of classes in an area outside of your major shows you have varied passions and aren't risk-averse.

That said, pre-law students should demonstrate an interest in law. This doesn't necessitate taking politics courses: classes like anthropology of law or legal traditions can get the job done. And outside of coursework, gaining law-related experience - for example, completing legal internship - shows law school admission committees that you're seriously interested in the field.

Law school is a good option for students who want to be a lawyer or government official. If you're interested in either career, meet with your school's pre-law advisor early on to begin to think about if you are passionate about law-related work and to get a more concrete idea of which courses and internships law schools favor.

Pre-Business

Like pre-law, pre-business tracks often don't include specific coursework. This is because, like law schools, business schools require a bachelor's degree, GMAT (entrance exam) scores, essays, and recommendations, but no prerequisite classes.

"As far as we're concerned, there's no 'pre-business' curriculum," says Eric Abrams, director of outreach for the Stanford University MBA Admissions Office. "We don't really care what you major in. We care that you did really well in what you chose to study."

Variety is much more important than a specific, business-related focus - but the variety should include an interest in business. "We want to see that you picked up some quantitative skills along the way," says Abrams. Certain courses - like accounting, computer science, economics, and math - show analytical competency.

Business schools also prefer applicants with work experience, including jobs and internships. But, more broadly - and more importantly - pre-business students should demonstrate that they know how to take initiative. That doesn't necessarily equate to doing something extraordinary like distributing mosquito nets to 1,000 families in Uganda (though that would certainly help). Start a tutoring program, a T-shirt company, or anything else related to your interests. "We are looking for people who have a passion for something and who've had an impact," says Abrams.

Business school is not just for students who want to work on Wall Street when they grow up. Whereas law and medical schools tend to lead to specific career paths, business school prepares its students to be leaders in a variety of fields. If you're considering going to business school, ask yourself: Am I interested in leading and managing organizations? Have I been in charge of anything? Did I like it, and was I good at it? Nonprofit directors need good leaders, too - it's not all about heading up huge corporations.

Pre-Med

The pre-med track is the only one of the three that requires students to take certain courses. In addition to holding a bachelor's degree and submitting MCAT (entrance exam) scores, essays, and recommendations, medical students must display competency in a number of scientific disciplines. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges' Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR), the prerequisites for applying to med school are one year (two semesters or three quarters) of biology, one year of physics, one year of inorganic or general chemistry, and one year of organic chemistry. All of these courses should include laboratory work.

Only 35 of the country's 129 medical schools require mathematics coursework, but MSAR notes that all medical school admissions committees look favorably on mathematical competence and statistical knowledge, so it's a good idea to supplement the science requirements with math and computer-related coursework. Med schools also value written communication skills, and some schools - like Harvard Medical School - require a course in expository writing. Others, including the Stanford University School of Medicine, recommend knowledge of a foreign language.

Just as law and business schools want applicants with many passions, the ideal medical school candidate is not only interested in and good at science, but also has diverse intellectual experiences. Given the spectrum of courses medical schools require, pre-med students in particular should meet with advisors early to plan a course of study.

Medical schools also converge with law and business schools in their preference for applicants with relevant extracurricular or work experience. Harvard Medical School's website states that "Our Committee on Admissions evaluates applications based on a variety of criteria that range from your academic records and MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) scores to your extracurricular activities, research, and community-service experiences in the field of health care." Some ideas? Complete a laboratory-based thesis, do an internship in a lab or hospital, serve as an EMT, or run a blood drive campaign.

The career option that follows the attainment of an M.D. is typically straightforward: being a doctor. If you're considering medical school at all, it's a good idea to meet with a health professions advisor. You can always go off the pre-med track, but it's harder to make up the coursework after you've graduated from college (this requires entering a post-baccalaureate program).

The Bottom Line

Pre-law, pre-business, and pre-med are not disciplines in themselves, but tracks that prepare undergraduates to apply to professional schools. For pre-law and pre-business, take a varied course load that includes law- or business-related classes, and show your interest in the subject matter through extracurricular and internship experience. For pre-med, make sure you've completed the prerequisite coursework by the time you graduate, and get research or medical experience. In all cases, meet with a career advisor at your school to determine a curriculum that suits both your intellectual interests and your professional goals.


Article provided courtesy of Unigo. For more advice and information related to your college search and college life, check out www.unigo.com.

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