After considering my column from last week, in which I effusively described the more profound aspects of a liberal arts education, one insightful reader challenged my Platonic idealism with the more grounded Aristotelian critique that there is a good deal of practicality involved with earning such an undergraduate degree, especially when it comes to applying to graduate schools in any field.
She was right to point that out, of course; moreover, her prompting leads me to think this week about matters both profound and practical, the latter including the matter of finishing and filing the FAFSA … ASAP.
The business of earning an undergraduate liberal arts degree, perhaps especially in one of those “How will you ever find a job with that major?” fields, reminds me of the colloquy I had last fall on my radio show with Lafayette College Vice President Bob Massa.
Also a former dean of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins University, Massa is well versed in access issues at all levels. During our interview I asked him if I was right to urge pre-medical students to realize that their chances of being admitted to the world-renowned Johns Hopkins Medical School were better from a fine liberal arts college than from Johns Hopkins’s own undergraduate program.
He said that was true, but perhaps not for the reason I had in mind—that the competition among pre-meds at Hopkins was especially tough.
The real reason it’s easier to get into Johns Hopkins Medical School from another college’s program, Massa said, is that graduate schools are looking for diversity every bit as much as colleges are. He said that a few Johns Hopkins undergrads would get into the medical school each year, but that many, many more students would get in from all sorts of different colleges, in order to broaden the class with regard to qualified candidates from varied backgrounds and experiences. That goes not only for the institutions they’ve attended, but also the course work they’ve completed, for the reality is that there really is no such thing as “majoring” in Pre-Med. There are certainly required courses to take in Biology, Chemistry and Math, but those prerequisites do not, in themselves, constitute a major.
Indeed, while pre-medical students must succeed in the relevant laboratory sciences and mathematics, as well as on the MCAT, the Medical College Admissions Test, the reality is that admissions committees at medical schools love to find candidates who are not only qualified on the essentials, but also liberally educated in other areas as well.
Indeed, I discussed precisely that matter with Professor Edward Morgan of the Emory University School of Medicine when we met almost two years ago. My concern at that time was well more than simply academic or professional, for I was trying to figure out how to counsel my own eldest daughter with regard to her college applications, in light of her stated desire to study medicine and become a doctor.
In that context, I posited to Professor Morgan my views that attending a true undergraduate college that was strong in the liberal arts in general and the laboratory sciences in particular would be the best route to prepare for medical school and that a nonscience major could well be very attractive to a medical school admissions committee.
In essence he agreed, advancing much the same reasoning that I later heard from Massa, and emphasizing that medical school admissions committees really do appreciate finding qualified candidates who have majored in different fields, including the humanities.
Feeling affirmed in my beliefs, I worked with my daughter on her applications to colleges that have no graduate programs in medicine, and she is today planning to major in English, with perhaps a minor or double major in Psychology, taking the pre-requisites in science and math, but majoring in neither.
To take another example, that of preparing for law school, there is again no real “Pre-Law” major. There are, of course, certain departments that attract a lot of pre-law students, Political Science being the most common; however, the college friends I can recall from my years at Amherst who went on to Harvard Law did so after majoring in Economics.
Indeed, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who successfully prosecuted Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, for perjury in the “outing” of CIA Agent Valerie Plame, majored in both Economics and Mathematics. (Truth be told, he was also pretty good at beer pong and practical jokes. Neither could be regarded as his major, though he did one day put impressive time and effort into getting the other freshmen on the hall to go out, pick up my car, move it, and put it back down exactly where it would block all the traffic trying to get around the college’s quad. Such are the extracurricular activities that do not make it on to one’s resume.)
My final thought on this matter of the practical advantage of earning a liberal arts degree from a true college, one that puts all its emphasis on undergraduate education, is that it is simply more likely that a student will be a big kahuna when swimming in a smaller tank. Given that graduate schools are reading recommendations closely, it’s essential that an applicant to graduate school in any field has had professors who really know him or her well. That is more likely in circumstances where classes are small, and the student-teacher ratios and relationships are real and deep. It’s simply much easier to be the star of the department at a small college than at a major university—again, a very practical reality.
Finally for this week, a practical reminder to all who are applying for need-based financial aid: the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, can now be completed and filed at www.fafsa.gov. It is absolutely essential that the FAFSA be filed no later than mid-February in order for financial aid offices to have the data they need to determine a family’s ability to pay for college.
Some colleges also require the CSS Profile, available at www.collegeboard.com, but all must have the FAFSA. It’s time to get it finished and filed, or the question of what major to select will be moot, for the student won’t have the funds to matriculate in the first place. After all of this effort, that would be a shame.
Chris Teare is the college counselor at Antilles School on St. Thomas. Hear him host “Making The College Choic”e each Wednesday at 4 p.m. on WVWI, Radio One, AM 1000, or listen online at www.amg.vi