Denise Malloy and Sheila Nielsen, Montana State University
According to the Cooperative Institutional Research Project (CIRP) Freshman Survey, one in five incoming freshmen identify themselves as pre-med for both public and private universities (Pryor, Eagan, Black, Hurtado & Berdan, 2012). As a result, advisors must be available to address the specific academic concerns of students interested in the health professions.
The Academic Advising Center and the Health Professions Advising Office at Montana State University (MSU) have partnered to develop a pre-med intake major. This optional major serves incoming freshman during their first year at MSU who are interested in attending medical, dental, physician assistant, pharmacy, physical therapy, optometry, and occupational therapy schools. The program allows students to explore a variety of majors and, ultimately, choose a major from which they will graduate. Since health professional schools have no preferred major, students are encouraged to identify a course of study (which may or may not be in the life sciences) that is consistent with their interests, skills, and passions. Although students do not graduate with a degree in pre-med, this program offers many benefits. Not only does it track students into the appropriate pre-med coursework, it also serves as a mechanism to support students throughout their academic journey and clarify their continued interest in healthcare. Through this program, support is provided to all students during the year whether or not they continue to pursue a healthcare career.
The Pre-Med Intake Major: Serving Three Categories of Pre-Med Students
Students enter the program from diverse backgrounds and academic experience. Typically, they have varying degrees of understanding of the coursework required for the pre-med path and the level of commitment required. MSU serves a diverse group of pre-health professional students who fall into three basic categories: (1) goal-oriented, high-achieving students, (2) students who have a general interest in healthcare, and (3) students with more vague goals.
The first category consists of goal-oriented, high-achieving students who enter college with strong high school grade point averages, ACT and/or SAT scores, and exposure to the medical field. The traditional starting point for students who are academically ready for placement in chemistry (based on a math scores of 25 ACT or 580 SAT) is chemistry, biology, and statistics. At MSU, the pre-requisites for the math and science coursework are strictly enforced. These students enter the program ready to immediately begin the science coursework. Students will take a first-year seminar course and many of them are also admitted to the Honors College.
As a general rule, these high-achieving students have excelled in high school academics. Many have taken multiple AP courses and may have received academic credit for several college classes. These students tend to have high levels of self-confidence. Confident students are inclined to “work harder, persist longer, and use better learning and problem solving strategies” (Chemers, Hu, & Garcia, 2001, p. 62). Many students have already shadowed healthcare professionals and have been active in extra-curricular activities with demonstrated motivation and preparedness. Most of these students are searching for the “best” major to help them achieve their goal and many are actively seeking involvement in both student and community organizations that will further their objectives. The pre-med intake advisor helps this group of students clarify their academic interests and assists them in choosing a major that will best meet their goals.
In the second category, students refer to themselves as pre-med because they have a general interest in healthcare or because they are being encouraged by others to do so. These students may not be fully committed to a healthcare career; however, they still want to take the pre-requisites and explore their options. These students may not have taken AP or dual enrollment courses so their preparedness is less predictable. One of the biggest challenges for the advisor is to support and identify resources that are appropriate for student success, regardless of whether they choose a health care career. This cohort contains a mixture of students who have direct health care exposure and those who do not, as well as students who may or may not find academic success. Indeed, some students may excel academically but find they are not compelled to pursue a career in health care. The pre-med intake advisor is particularly important in supporting these students as they identify a new career trajectory.
The third category of students who declare pre-med do so for more nebulous reasons such as wanting to help people or are attracted by the reputation of health care providers. Since they are unable to articulate their goals with specificity, the academic path for these students tends to be less clear. Although some of these students will persist with a health care goal, many will find their niche in a non-health care field. Students in this category require even greater advisor support since they are often less well-prepared academically. These students tend to benefit from the advising relationship specifically as they clarify their career objectives and refine their academic interests. The advisor is able to suggest additional course work to assist in this process.
While some of these students, regardless of category, will make a seamless transition to college-level academics, others will need to adjust their study habits and avail themselves of campus resources such as tutoring or departmental help centers. A partnership between the pre-med intake advisor, to support the academic transition, and the health professions advising office, for career guidance, facilitate student development. While each role is distinct, the partnership fosters confidence in the student decision making process and academic success. Advisors have the unique opportunity to clarify the significant differences between the high school curriculum and the academic rigors of university coursework (Hunter & Kendall, 2008). In addition, advisors can help students evaluate study skills and time management techniques to better align with expectations for college (Hunter & Kendall, 2008, p. 145). Viewing students through the lens of these three categories informs the advising process as to academic preparedness, strength of commitment, and level of clinical exposure. The combination of advising support with student empowerment is proving successful. At MSU, the pre-med intake program has resulted in a five-year retention rate 15% higher than the average for the university. According to Anderson (1997), advising has the single greatest influence in retention.
Advising Pre-Med Intake Students: A Partnership Approach
The Pre-Med Intake Advisor for Academic Advising. The pre-med intake advisor works with incoming students for their first year on campus, usually beginning during summer orientation. The pre-med intake advisor meets one-on-one with students to select coursework, identify areas of interest or concern, and to ascertain professional objectives. The advisor identifies the overall framework of the program to emphasize the sequential nature of the curriculum and the importance of the pre-requisites. Clearly explaining the pre-med requirements and the sequential progression of the coursework promotes student success and retention (Tinto, n.d.). Additionally, students need to understand the purpose and rationale for the foundational coursework to comprehend the logical progression toward their goal (Angelo, 1993). Since the pre-med advisor has regular contact with the student during the first year, there is the opportunity to consistently reinforce these concepts (Lowenstein, 1999). The pre-med intake advisor provides a strong foundational relationship for the exploration process.
A commitment to strong academic advising also plays a significant role in student persistence (Bean, 2005). When students are able to see connections with their passions and strengths, they often consider new ideas for majors and careers (Bloom et al., 2008). Advisors help students create a vision and a workable plan to assist in reaching their future goals (Markus & Nurius, 1986). During the orientation meeting and again in the fall, the pre-med intake advisor helps students clarify their interests, assists students in developing a vision for their future, and creates an academic plan for students to reach their goals.
After mid-terms, some students realize they are struggling in their coursework. The first exams are often a wake-up call that the study habits that were adequate in high school are not applicable to the rigor of university-level classes. Many students are able to modify their approach and experience success in subsequent tests. Other students need to be directed to campus resources.
At the close of the first year, the pre-med intake advisor helps students transition to their new major department. This may involve exploration of potential career goals. Advisor support is provided even, and perhaps more importantly, if the student decides not to continue a healthcare path.
The Health Professions Advising Office for Professional Advising. The health professions advising office works with students during their full tenure at MSU as long as they are considering a career in health care. MSU offers students a supportive environment in which to prepare for the application process and a career in the health professions through the Health Professions Advising (HPA) office. Routine one-on-one advising as well as formal programing is available to all students, regardless of major or academic emphasis. Consistent with the university’s Land Grant Institutional concept of education for all, students have open access to the advising services and application preparation programming provided by the HPA office. Ideally, initial contact is made during orientation, then continues each semester until the student has a change of career path or has been accepted to a health professional school, ultimately serving as a profession- and/or professional school resource for advisors and students.
The HPA office supports students as they: 1) explore academics and career options, 2) navigate the college and extracurricular experience, and 3) prepare their health professional school applications. The HPA office provides individualized advising to help students understand professional school expectations, give students an objective analysis of preparedness, and assist students during their decision-making process. Support provided by the HPA office culminates in a semester long, formalized pre-application process to help students prepare the most competitive application possible. In addition, the HPA office is a point of contact for numerous health-related organizations that provide opportunities for community engagement, leadership, and career exploration. The HPA office also sponsors several health professions-related service clubs and honor societies. The HPA office, in conjunction with the pre-med intake advisor, offers monthly workshops to help students better understand the requirements for a career in healthcare. As students further explore possible majors and the full spectrum of health care related careers, they are encouraged to take MEDS 140 Introduction to Medicine and the Health Professions. The purpose of this one-credit exploratory course is two-fold. During the first half of each class, representatives from academic units discuss how the pre-med coursework fits within the curriculum for that particular major. In the second half of class, healthcare providers visit the class to share their path into medicine and the realities of their daily practice. This course is co-facilitated by the pre-med intake advisor and the health professions advisor. The goal for the class is help students inform their decision making process, both academically in the shorter term and professionally in the long term.
The pre-med intake major allows students to identify their academic interests, adjust to the university curriculum and experience, as well as explore careers in healthcare during their first year. With the assistance of the pre-med intake advisor and the health professions advisor, students have the guidance available to make informed choices and decisions about pursuing a career in medicine during their first year and beyond. Through meaningful discussions with both advisors, workshops, and exploration, students are able to determine whether medicine is the right academic and career trajectory and receive support regardless of which path they choose. The goal of the Pre-Med intake major is to increase the success and productivity of the student experience by employing traditional themes of Developmental Advising and meeting students where they are in their personal journey.
Montana State University
Coordinator, Health Professions Advising
Montana State University
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Cite this article using APA style as: Malloy, D. & Nielsen, S. (2015, December). Facilitating and encouragine student exploration in the health professions through a pre-med intake major. Academic Advising Today, 38(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]