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Tobin Richardson, Indiana University Southeast

Tobin Richardson.jpgAn extremely complex facet of advising pre-professional students is how to instill realism in students whose goals mismatch with their current academic performance.  Many struggle with how to approach this situation without leaving the student with a “bad taste” in his or her mouth, leaving the student to feel angry, hopeless, or overwhelmed. Although no advisor wants to discourage a student from pursuing his or her goal, advisors also may feel a responsibility of instilling a level of realistic expectations with their advisees.  While this mindset is shared among advisors in general, it becomes imperative to those working with students interested in gaining admittance to competitive professional programs such as medical, dental, or pharmacy schools.  These programs by nature deny admission to the majority of students who apply, and typically accept only those with truly outstanding academic and extracurricular records.

To provide an example, as indicated on their website, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) School of Medicine, the only medical school in the state of Indiana, received nearly 4,000 applications for their entering M.D. class of 2012, while fewer than 400 of these applicants ultimately enrolled in the program. The vast majority of these applicants were denied admission.  Although this scenario may seem disheartening, we have reason to believe it is fairly common.  IUPUI School of Medicine does not possess drastically different admission statistics from most other medical schools across the nation, and other professional programs such as dental and pharmacy schools often indicate a similarly competitive selection processes. Although this reality is likely known and accepted by most advisors, it is not always as well understood by those being advised.  Conveying this information to undergraduate students in a way that they can understand, without discouraging or offending them unnecessarily, is ultimately key.  This process is made more effective by developing an advising plan.  Following are suggestions to consider exploring with an advisee:

Understanding the mandatory requirements

A common misconception among pre-professional students is that they must choose a major within the sciences.  Although this may be suggested for a variety of reasons such as better preparation for the Medical Admission Test (MCAT) or Dental Admission Test (DAT), advisees should understand that even as pre-professional students they often have flexibility in terms of major, and that major itself does not typically affect chance of admission.  For example, in order to be accepted into medical, dental, or pharmacy school, students typically must meet certain pre-requisites outlined by the school such as specific coursework in biology, chemistry, physics, and math.  Although the student must take and be successful in these courses, most medical schools will not require that they take any additional upper-level science classes.  Students can often fit these specific pre-requisite courses into a variety of majors.  For this reason it would not make sense for a student who did not enjoy or excel in biology, for example, to choose this major only for the purpose of medical school admission.  Especially for students whose academic performance within science is deficient, explore other options for major or area of focus. 

Strategizing coursework

Although typically only a handful of courses must be taken, the timing of these courses can be crucial.  It is advisable to explore the students’ level of comfort in these prerequisite courses as soon as possible.  If a student believes his or her goal is to attend medical school, for example, but plans on taking general chemistry in his junior year, he has lost two years of time to consider how this requirement may help or hinder his chance of admission.  Although it may not be sensible to take all science requirements immediately, figuring out how to begin them early without overloading a single semester is desirable.

Considering a back-up plan

Regardless of a student’s academic performance, at least considering a back-up plan is sensible. Advisors should remind the student that a back-up plan is necessary for a variety of reasons, and even for those who might feel certain of their admission into a professional program.  Some students, for example, realize they do not enjoy their professional program’s focus only after they have begun in that program.  Other students may experience personal or professional barriers that prevent them from completing their program.  It is impossible to know when a back-up plan will be necessary, and advisors should stress that it can never hurt to have one in place.  Especially for students who have not yet been admitted into their program, advisors should explore what other career opportunities they have considered, and keep in mind that certain majors may help to promote certain back-up plans. Explore with the student how they can devise a back-up plan while simultaneously preparing for admission into their professional program.


Professional school admission is complicated.  It is not an advisor’s responsibility to know exactly how to develop a plan for admittance, as this changes from student to student, school to school, and year to year. Although an advisor could never memorize the requirements for each school or come up with an ultimate plan of coursework that would benefit all students, the advisor can stimulate an advisee to consider the process in a way that he or she has not before.  Only conveying the fact that professional schools are competitive may not be helpful as the majority of even beginning students have already heard this; explaining the logistics of the admission process is more important.  Advisors should encourage advisees to research the program or programs that interest them, paying attention to admission requirements and statistics, which most schools make readily available even on their websites.   Encouraging an understanding of mandatory requirements, strategic timing of coursework, and a back-up plan are ways of assisting students toward their goal, while also preparing them for the sometimes harsh reality that that may ultimately be denied admission. By doing this, you are preparing the student for his or her future, regardless of whether it includes a professional program, without being overly aggressive or intimidating.  Although each advisee must be approached based on the individuality of the student as a whole, it is best to have a plan in place beforehand for how to approach this type of student.

Tobin Richardson
Academic Advisor, School of Natural Sciences
Indiana University Southeast

Cite this article using APA style as: Richardson, T. (2013, June). Advising pre-professional students: Encourging an optimistic yet realistic perspective. Academic Advising Today, 36(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2013 June 36:2


# Joshua
Tuesday, June 11, 2013 12:45 PM
Thanks for this clear and concise guide for advisors working with students hoping to enter competitive admission professional programs. As someone who works closely with students seeking admission, I would suggest the following as well:

1. Advise students to always behave professionally and courteously with admission representatives and with any faculty or staff they interact with, even before an application is filed. Many programs keep detailed records of all interactions with applicants. Failing to recognize the constraints of those who are taking the time to work with you is not only poor manners, but it can impact the way you are perceived when it comes to an interview.

2. Help students understand that professional health and other programs receive dozens of inquiries a week. The staff available may barely meet demand. Therefore it is helpful for students to do considerable "homework" before reaching out to faculty and staff in a program of interest, and to bundle questions in one message. As always, be courteous and professional with these requests; avoid demanding quick answers or bending of admission policies.

3. Encourage students to seek out an academic profile of the most recent enrolled classes. Many programs keep these statistics for assessment purposes, and they should be used as a guide to determine what steps a student should take in order to become competitive. Keep in mind these are averages, where some applicants who were successful had much higher scores. In addition, note that these are not predictive of future class profiles.

Thanks again, Tobin!

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