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Choosing an Appropriate Degree / Major

(Guidelines for pre-OT, PT, and PA students)

 

Most Programs Have No Degree / Major Preferences

All occupational therapy and physical therapy programs require that applicants have completed, or are in the process of completing, a bachelor's degree. The vast majority of physician assistant programs also carry this requirement, and soon all PA programs will do so. Hence, the most common pre-OT, PT, or PA educational path is to choose a degree / major that is a good fit, and work prerequisite courses into the degree (while fulfilling other admission requirements).

Most OT, PT, and PA programs have no preference with regard to what kind of degree you earn, or which major (or minor/s) you choose.

Allow this last point to sink in: few if any programs are particularly concerned with what undergraduate degree / major you choose. If you ask a program which majors tend to be "common" or "popular" among its applicants, they will probably have a ready answer for you; but more "common" does not mean preferred or more competitive. It is very important that you draw this distinction! - see below.

OT, PT, and PA programs suggest that you simply choose a degree / major in which you are genuinely interested, and in which you can excel, as you develop the skills and experience necessary to thrive in an intensive graduate school environment.

Therefore, do not choose a degree / major based upon what you think "will look good" on an application! Programs do not tend to screen applications in this manner.

Case in point: in any given year, most programs (including IU's) admit applicants from 15 or 20 different majors, including humanities and social science majors. We have seen successful applicants major in English, history, philosophy, sociology, social work, biology, exercise science, dance, communications, classical studies - the list goes on. (Still not convinced that an arts and humanities - or social science - degree is fine for preprofessional students? Read this, on the explorehealthcareers.org site.)

Similarly, there does not necessarily need to be requirement overlap between your major and your OT, PT, or PA prerequisite courses. As long as your degree is flexible enough to incorporate prerequisites within your given preprofessional timeline, then it's fine. For example, someone who majors in English will find no specific overlap between English major requirements and preprofessional courses; however, this does not matter since the BA degree is designed to be very flexible, and allows for lots of elective credit that can be used to fulfill prerequisites.

Nor is it at all the case that a double major, a dual degree, or multiple minors will automatically make you a more competitive applicant. Programs do not think in these terms. Most would far prefer that you complete one major / one degree and maintain a strong performance in prerequisite coursework than complete multiple academic credentials with a lower GPA. In addition, combining multiple majors, degrees, or minors can lead to more complicated scheduling challenges which sometimes result in weaker academic performance overall. Finally, an overly-packed schedule demands more of your time - time which you might be better off investing in job shadowing, program research, hands-on community service, and other endeavors critical to your preprofessional process.

 

So there can be trade-offs to such choices, but it depends on your situation and your rationale for whatever choices you are considering. If you wish to discuss anything along these lines, you are welcome to schedule a HPPLC appointment!

 

If you still need additional persuasion, think of it this way: if a program wanted students to major in something specific, they would require it! If a program needed applicants to take an additional prerequisite course in a given subject area, they would require it!

 

Purpose Of The Undergraduate Degree

Contrary to popular misconceptions the purpose of most undergraduate degrees is not to lead to a specific job. The purpose of most degrees can be summed as skill and experience development.

We strongly urge you to take just a few minutes to read the explanation of the purpose of the 4-year degree linked below. After doing so, approach each and every assignment and every activity (whether academic, personal, or cultural) as a skill / attribute development opportunity, and not merely something to check off a syllabus. The document below can lend some important perspective even for those majoring outside of the College of Arts and Sciences.

 

How To Choose A Degree

Your choice of degree (not to be confused with choice of major - the major concentration is just one component of your degree) includes the bachelor of arts (BA), bachelor of science (BS), bachelor of social work (BSW), bachelor of fine arts (BFA), and many others.

Again, it's important you choose a degree / major which truly interests you, and in which you can excel. It might even be one you would have chosen even if you weren't pre-OT, PT, or PA. (Incidentally, it is also possible there is more than one degree / major that is a good fit for you.)

Selecting a degree / major that can accommodate prerequisite courses

There are two ways in which a degree / major can accommodate prerequisites:

  1. If the degree / major specifically requires some of the given prerequisites
  2. If the degree / major simply has room for enough elective credit to accommodate the prerequisites


In other words, your degree or major does NOT have to specifically "require" the prerequisites as long as there is room for them otherwise.

 

For example, the Bachelor of Arts degree is designed for flexibility and very intentionally builds in room for lots of elective credit hours so students can essentially create their own degree plan. In this respect someone majoring in English or history can just as easily incorporate prerequisites as someone majoring in biology or exercise science. The fact that biology and exercise science specifically require a number of courses that also happen to be prerequisites for OT, PT, or PA programs is fine but almost beside the point, and should not be the determining factor in degree / major selection, since the BA also has plenty of room for the prereqs. In either case the prereqs would still count toward degree progress and graduation. In this sense the student interested in biology or exercise science should certainly consider majoring in bio or ex sci, just as the student more interested in English or history should fashion their degree accordingly.


Degree / major depth or breadth

Here we will elaborate on the points made above.

 

While most OT, PT, and PA programs aren't particularly concerned with your choice of undergraduate degree, some degrees / majors are more flexible than others, and offer greater breadth; conversely, some degrees may be less flexible, but offer greater depth, or focus, within the given field. In this sense, one degree might simply be a better fit for you than another, depending on your goals and circumstances.

 

Most degrees / majors can accommodate OT, PT, and PA prerequisite courses* within a 4-year plan, but there are some which leave little room for credit hours that do not fulfill specific degree / major requirements. If someone has chosen a more focused, prescriptive degree such as this, and then decides to pursue OT, PT, or PA, it is sometimes worth looking into other degree / major options, if it is still early enough to do so. On the other hand, if you were to find yourself pursuing a less flexible degree, and near graduation, only to then realize you want to pursue a graduate-level professional program, it might make good sense to stick with your degree, and then complete admission requirements later.

Similarly, undergraduate health programs like nursing and respiratory therapy are examples of undergraduate degrees which are ill-suited to those on a pre-OT, PT, or PA path. Succinctly put, one does not usually become a nurse to become a physician assistant or occupational therapist.

Compared with the examples above, the BA is an example of a degree with greater flexibility. (More on these comparisons below.) In the case of the BA, it doesn't even matter if there are specific course overlaps between your major and your professional program prerequisites, because the BA is designed to be flexible enough to accommodate a variety of goals, regardless of whether the student majors in biology, folklore, or something else.

* Remember that the preprofessional process usually includes more than just completing prerequisite courses; for example, job shadowing, a personal essay, volunteering, gathering letters of recommendation, and so on. Conduct your short-term and long-term time management accordingly!

Contingency or "back-up" plan

If you are concerned about having a contingency plan, in case your career plans or circumstances change, remember that the most fundamental purpose of most degrees / majors is to help students develop the kinds of skills that employers in every corner of the job market value; e.g., time management skills, critical thinking skills, writing skills, group and interpersonal communication skills, and so on. If you combine skill and experience development with assiduous career research, your undergraduate degree can help provide you entrée into more career options than you might at first imagine.

Bachelor Of Arts, Bachelor Of Science, and other degrees

To reiterate what we've said above: The BA is more flexible than the Bachelor of Science degree, and allows room for students to fashion a very customized undergraduate experience; for example, double-majors, multiple minors, and/or certificates. On the other hand, while a BS degree is not as flexible as a BA, in some respects a BS can be more focused on the development of deeper skills within whatever major and subject areas the student is completing through the BS.

Is one better than another?

Sometimes people speak about the BA and the BS as though one is inherently better than the other. This notion misunderstands the nature of each degree. For example, there is a common misconception that if someone plans to attend a graduate-level health program, they should or must earn a BS, and not a BA. This is not the case **. Remember: choose a degree / major which truly interests you, and in which you can excel.

To further underscore this point: if most OT, PT, and PA programs are unconcerned with your choice of major, they are even less concerned about your choice of degree-type. Few if any will have a preference as to whether an applicant earns a BA, BS, MSW, BGS, BFA, or some other degree. Your choice of degree ought to be made according to the specific characteristics of the degree, and how these characteristics work in favor of your levels of aptitude, your goals, and how you wish to utilize your undergraduate experience.

** Two alternative scenarios:
If someone is seriously contemplating an advanced research degree - for example, a PhD in biology - then it makes sense for them to consider earning a biology BS, so as to learn the more specific, deeper skills they will need for doctoral research in biology.

One degree type might also make more sense than another depending on what the applicant's contingency plan is - would one kind of degree better prepare them for whatever they might do if not admitted to OT / PT / PA school?

 

So in neither of these situations is it a given that the BS is a necessity. The choice of undergraduate major / degree would still depend on what the student wants to achieve during their undergraduate years and / or on what alternative career paths they might be considering.

 

 

Specific Tips And Resources
For Explori
ng Preprofessional Degrees and Majors

If you are still deciding on a pre-OT, PT, or PA degree / major, utilize the resources on the Health Professions and Prelaw Center site, Exploring Majors, Minors, and Certificates.

There, you will find specific tips, a list of every major at IUB (along with minors and certificates), and easy-to-follow steps to help you quickly and efficiently narrow the list. You may surprised at how quickly you can narrow the field and move toward a decision!

 

 

Important

This information was prepared for Indiana University Bloomington students by the Health Professions and Prelaw Center. Please note that specific requirements and policies can change at any time without notice. Students are responsible for obtaining the most current information directly from application and testing services, and the schools and programs in which they have an interest. Refer to each program's web pages, bulletins, and other publications for the most current information. Students are responsible for understanding degree course requirements, as well as other requirements, policies, and procedures related to the degree(s) they are pursuing; for enrolling in appropriate courses; for understanding IU policies/procedures; and for following through properly with regard to all of the preceding.