Should I Attend a Liberal Arts College if I’m Pre-med?

For high school students with set professional goals, the process of choosing an undergraduate college can involve a little more precision. Students who want to pursue an MBA might opt for an undergraduate school known for its econ major. Those who want to become physical therapists might attend a large research university with specialized courses like Anatomy and Physiology. 

 

But what about aspiring physicians? Should they attend a research university or a liberal arts college? In this post, we look at the pros and cons of liberal arts colleges for pre-med students. 

 

What Is a Liberal Arts College?

 

First, let’s define what a liberal arts college (LAC) actually is. It is specifically not a vocational, professional, or technical school. A liberal arts school generally provides a broad educational base across many subject areas. Usually, the core requirements for graduation from a liberal arts college include classes across all core subject areas. Some liberal arts colleges have an open curriculum, however, meaning that students don’t have any general education requirements. This allows students to explore whatever subjects they desire.

 

LACs also tend to be smaller in size. Most have fewer than 5,000 students and many have an enrollment closer to 2,000. The lower enrollment usually equates to smaller class sizes, a stronger sense of community, and closer relationships with professors. 

 

What Are the Pros of Attending a Liberal Arts College as a Pre-med? 

 

  1. Science classes that won’t weed you out. In some research universities, introductory-level science classes are designed to weed out struggling students; this is to avoid having too many “weaker” pre-med applicants. Weed out classes are especially grueling and delivered as large lectures. On the flip side, intro science courses at LACs aren’t usually weed out. Liberal arts colleges generally want to encourage engagement with STEM fields, as it’s a common misconception that LACs don’t offer STEM classes, or that their STEM departments aren’t strong. Their introductory science classes are designed to support and engage students who might be on the fence about their academic direction. 

 

  1. More faculty interaction. Small classes also mean that you’ll have plenty of chances to build relationships with the faculty. It’s not uncommon at liberal arts colleges to find a professor who invites their students over for dinner, or who hosts a regular coffee hour. You’re more likely to build stronger, deeper relationships with your faculty which can equate to stronger, deeper letters of recommendation when it comes time to apply to medical school. 

 

  1. Strong faculty advising. Smaller classes also equate to fewer students, which usually means a stronger faculty advising program. Your advisor will get to know you and your goals, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities for face-to-face meetings.Your advisor will likely be personally invested in your success, and may help you make connections or get relevant jobs. Pre-health professions committees also tend to be very active at LACs, and they often guide you through the entire process, even helping with mock interviews.

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What Are the Cons of Attending a Liberal Arts College as a Pre-med?

 

  1. Fewer research opportunities. The research opportunities at a liberal arts college are typically more limited than at larger schools, and those that do exist are usually reserved for upperclassmen. It might not be until junior or senior year that you can become involved in research. Furthermore, the research being conducted at liberal arts colleges is generally not as well-funded as at larger universities, so it may feel like you’re not making as much of an impact. 

 

  1. No campus-associated hospital. Many large schools known for their medical programs have on-campus, or at least school-affiliated teaching hospitals. While these are primarily for the benefit of medical students, pre-med students can usually find ways to get involved in certain programs or shadowing opportunities that provide important exposure in patient care. While liberal arts students can usually find these opportunities in other cities over the summer, or through unaffiliated nearby hospitals during the year, existing programs generally provide an easier and more efficient means to the end. 

 

What Will the Med School Admissions Committee Think of a Degree from a Liberal Arts College?

 

Over the last decade, there has been a shift in how medical schools evaluate applicants for admissions. This shift aligns with the transition to a more holistic approach, as seen in undergraduate admissions. Previously, students who majored in biology and chemistry during undergrad seemed to be obvious choices for med school admissions. More recently, however, medical schools are recognizing the value of students who graduate with degrees in other fields, including the humanities. 

 

The medical profession requires not only an excellent understanding of the sciences, but also strong communication skills, both in speaking and in writing. There seems to be a general consensus now that students will get the exposure they need to the science fields through pre-med requirements and medical school training. Communication and life experiences, however, are harder to teach. Students who gain a broader education during undergrad may have a more well-rounded approach to their practice as a doctor.

 

This is good news for students who attend a liberal arts college. While extensive work in the sciences will still be necessary to complete the pre-med requirements and perform well on the MCAT, a science-heavy degree from a well-known research university may not carry any more weight than a B.A. in English from a small liberal arts college. 

 

Instead, as noted in an April 2019 article from the American Medical Association, students from all majors and types of colleges can be successful in medical school. As noted by Dr. Tonya Fancher, Associate Dean for workforce innovation and community engagement at the UC Davis School of Medicine, “We want students to be smart and adaptable . . . We also value their diverse backgrounds, which can enrich our learning environment and enhance care for our patients.”

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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.