Exploring Your Options

In the broadest sense, exploration can refer to everything you do.  It can include the classes you elect, the major(s) and minor(s) you choose, the careers you consider, involvement in student organizations, volunteering in the community, work, research, study abroad and much more!  College is a great time to explore, to “test drive” your interests while narrowing your focus to areas you enjoy most.

Pre-health students also spend a great deal of time exploring their specific area of interest in possible health care careers. Admission committees will want to see that through your explorations you are:

  • Sure of your path
  • Understand the commitment/responsibility you are taking on
  • Have demonstrated personal competencies

Although written with medical students in mind, the AAMC Core or Personal Competencies lists traits and qualities valued by health professional admission committees in general.  You can use this list to evaluate your strengths and consider areas you may want to explore more deeply.

Importance of Journaling

Journaling is simply the act of recording your experiences and your thoughts about those experiences.  Use the medium you are most comfortable with. (TIP: An electronic journal can be easily converted into text for the activity sections of your future applications.)

Journaling helps you record your activities while helping you reflect on what you have learned and which path may be right for you!  This process can help you be sure of your path/decisions and help you answer “Why Medicine?”, “Why Physical Therapy?”, “Why Genetic Counseling?”, etc.

Tips as you journal:

  • Be as observant as possible. Focus on what you are doing, but make the effort to note what is also happening in the larger setting around you.
  • Journal all experiences such as shadowing, volunteering, research, work, travel abroad, leadership experience and more.
  • Record dates, times and contact information. Some applications will ask for verification of your activities and experiences so record the emails and phone numbers of individuals who can verify the activities you participated in. 
  • Record what you did and more importantly, what you learned or gained from the experience?  Did this experience make you want to continue exploring this path more or has it helped you decide this is not the right path for you? The latter can be just as important to learn.
  • Consider what you have learned from patients.  It's okay to include patient stories as you journal as long as the patient cannot be specifically identified. 
  • Consider including things you have witnessed a health care provider do, for example when they have gone above and beyond to help someone.  Or, why they a role model for you.
  • If you have multiple interests or aren’t yet sure of a particular path, then journal as you explore parallel paths.  Ask questions, compare, contrast and see what path(s) interests you most?  Over time it will become clearer which is the best path for you.

Clinical Shadowing and Volunteering

Shadowing and volunteering are important activities to experience, but there are important differences.  Health professional programs will expect you to do both BEFORE you apply.

  • Shadowing is following someone around on the job – with permission of course. Although viewed as more passive than volunteering, shadowing is a great way to see the “daily role” and inquire about the “life style” associated with a particular health career. It’s good to shadow as much as you can and be sure to shadow “generalists” too.  After all, during graduate school you will become the generalist before you become the “super specialist”.  For example, you would become a general dentist before you could specialize as an orthodontist or oral surgeon. Generalists also tend to work with a wider variety of patient populations who present with a greater variety of illnesses and diseases.  So shadowing a generalist can give you a broader perspective of the field you are interested in.
  • Volunteering is a more active experience. There are countless settings you can volunteer in. It is essential to volunteer with patients BEFORE applying to health professional programs.   Yes, admission committees will look for a certain amount of volunteering (which can vary for different paths/fields) from applicants, but more importantly, volunteering can help confirm whether or not you really want to work with patients on a daily basis.
  • In general, it is better to volunteer more consistently over time (three to six months per setting) even if it is just a few hours per week.  This gives you an opportunity to have more in-depth experiences rather than just “scratching the surface” for a short time.  It’s fine to “test your interest” in a variety of ways when you begin exploring, but then settle into activities of interest deepening your involvement and commitment.  
  • Most admission committees will want to see that applicants have explored the field for at least a year BEFORE applying.  This give you more time to think about what you are taking on (responsibility/commitment) and to be sure of your choices.  Also, you are likely to compete with applicants who may have years of experience.
  • As you shadow and volunteer think about:
  • What do you like about what you have seen and experienced?  
  • Do you have any concerns?
  • What do those you have shadowed enjoy most about their career?
  • What challenges have those you shadowed encountered? 
  • If they could “rewind the clock” would they choose the same path again?  Why or why not? 
  • Do they have any recommendations for you?
  • Finally, health care professionals are busy people, so be sure to let them know you appreciate their efforts on your behalf.  Thank them for sharing their time with you.

Broaden Your Exposure Over Time

Take advantage of any opportunity of interest and then broaden your exposure over time.

For example:

  • Volunteer with children through senior citizens. The goal should be to spend time with all age groups and individuals from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. This will prepare you to work with your future patients.
  • Volunteer in a multiple settings like: hospitals, community clinics, nursing homes, schools, private practice, hospice, public health, and more. The more setting you experience the more you will know about the roles of colleagues you will collaborate with and the interdisciplinary nature of health care.

Shadow and Volunteer Opportunities

There is no one right place to find opportunities.  Always keep an “open mind” and an “open ear” as you are on the lookout for new opportunities.  Below are a few places to begin:

  1. Try your family and friend connections first. Can you shadow your family physician/PT/dentist etc.? This may be your best place to start.
  2. Check with faculty, staff, employers or your student organization leaders for suggestions.  You never know who may be able to help connect you.  As long as you politely and respectfully inquire, it never hurts to ask!
  3. Reach out to local hospitals and clinics including places like nursing homes, hospice centers, and more. 
  4. Inquire if you can shadow in private health care settings. You might be more successful if you go in-person and leave a current resume. It is harder to say "no" in-person!

 Review the links below, but also try to think about additional ideas for opportunities:

Keeping a Balance between Academics and Exploration

Having "balance" in your life can be key to overall well being and success.  Although it's tough to do as a student, try to find and maintain a "balance" between your academics and extracurricular activities that works for you.  This is especially important if you are focused on pursuing a health career.  You will need to have demonstrated academic excellence while exploring your area of interest and more broadly before you apply.  It is important to be strong in both areas.  Students who have amazing extracurricular and life experience, but less than ideal academics may not be accepted to programs because of concerns about whether they would be able to handle the rigor of graduate programs.  Similarly, students with stellar academic records, but lacking in exploration and extracurricular activities have also not been accepted to programs.  Admission committees look for well-rounded applicants. 

Finally, as a pre-health student how you choose to explore though is really up to you. So find unique ways to explore and continue being a lifelong learner!

With Others

In general terms, engagement refers to being actively engaged or involved.  For pre-health students engagement can simply mean connecting with others in a genuinely meaningful way.  Hopefully, you will make the effort to connect with a variety of different individuals and groups including: your peers, advisers, faculty/instructors, employers, mentors, student groups, non-profits and other community organizations.

Benefits to Engaging
Benefits to engaging with others include:
  • Exposure to new areas, fields, opportunities and ideas.
  • Sharpen both your oral and written communication skills.
  • Interact with individuals from backgrounds and experiences very different from your own. This can help you gain cultural competency which is a valuable perspective to develop.
  • The ability to take on increasing responsibility over time through research, student organizations or campus groups, community or non-profit organizations or work.
  • You may develop longer term connections with individuals who may be future letter writers for you.

All of these benefits can help set the stage for the professional interactions and relationships you will have as a health care provider.

Why Community Service is Important

Most of you probably participated in community service in high school.  Once you have adjusted to the rigors of college, look for ways to continue participating in community service.  It’s great for the campus or local community and it can continue to make you feel good to be contributing to others too.

From a pre-health perspective, admission committees look for applicants who demonstrate a commitment to community service outside of medicine too.  Why is this?  It can be for a variety of reasons. Keep in mind they are looking for individuals to join the incoming class who will not only be leaders in their class, their future field, but also hopefully leaders in the communities in which they work and live.  So, how you will demonstrate a genuine commitment to serve others broadly? You can accomplish this in a variety of ways. So, continue tutoring, working with non-profits, fundraise for worthwhile causes, or participating in whatever community service causes you value and enjoy.

Ask others you know how they volunteer in their community or search these links for non-medical community volunteer ideas too:

Student Organizations
There are many benefits to joining a student organization including spending time with your peers, learning new information, networking, serving others, and opportunities to demonstrate leadership just to name a few. If you are interested in joining an Oakland University student organization, then be sure to search broadly on  GrizzOrgs for a group that matches your interests.

If you are more focused on finding a health-related student group, then review the names on this  Health-Related Student Organization list before searching for the group(s) on GrizzOrgs.

You may be interested in a specific path, but have you explored enough options yet to be sure?  The health care field is very broad and there may be several areas that would be a good fit for you.  If you are open to considering options, then ExploreHeatlhCareers.org is a great place to start.  This is a very reputable site that can provide you with an overview of different health care career options, years of education required, average salaries, lists of programs, links to national organizations and so much more!  Be sure to also check out Is a Health Career Right for You?

As you consider career options, keep in mind you can choose ANY MAJOR and be successful in applying to health professional schools as long as you have also successfully completed the prerequisites!  There is no “match” between majors and health career paths. Schools and programs actually looks for applicants who have varied backgrounds and experience. Some students choose a science major because of their interest in the subject.  Others choose a science major to save time because of the amount of overlap between the major and courses required by their target health professional programs.  Still, others choose a major because the major may lead to employment in case they don’t gain immediate acceptance to their intended professional program.  

So, explore your options, compare careers paths/fields and choose options that makes the most sense for you! 

Below are listed some of the more common career paths, but think about other less well known options such as Audiologist, Genetic Counselor, Orthotist and Prosthetist, Speech-Language Pathologist, etc.


The field of dentistry is focused on preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases, disorders and conditions of the oral cavity and surrounding structures.  There are two dental degrees, the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD).  Both include completing four years of dental school.  The DDS and DMD are equivalent degrees awarded from completing similarly structured dental programs/schools.  Since there is no required residency program graduates are able to practice dentistry directly after graduation. However, some students choose to participate in an optional General Practice Residency (GPR) or go on to specialize. 

There are nine recognized specialties in dentistry including:

  • Dental Public Health
  • Endodontics
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
  • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics
  • Periodontics
  • Pediatric Dentistry
  • Prosthodontics 

To learn more about these options visit the American Dental Association’s (ADA) page Advance Education Program Options and Descriptions.

Dental Links:

Note: Texas has its own application service for in-state medical, dental and veterinary medicine schools – Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS)

Dental Schools in the State of Michigan:


The field of medicine is focused on preventing, diagnosing and treating patients’ injuries, illnesses and diseases.  There are two educational tracts to becoming a physician – Allopathic Medicine (MD) and Osteopathic Medicine (DO) that both include four years of medical school followed by an additional three to eight years of residency depending upon the specialty.  Some residencies involve a great deal of direct patient contact and some much less contact with patients.  There are over 120 physician specialties and subspecialties.

Allopathic Medicine (MD) and Osteopathic Medicine (DO) share a great deal in common, but there are some educational and philosophical differences.  They each have their own application services and separate medical schools, but efforts are underway for a unified residency structure in the future. This means both MD and DO medical students will compete for the same residency spaces.  Osteopathic physicians are also trained a system of therapy involving hands-on diagnosis and treatment called osteopathic manipulative medicine. 

Shadowing and speaking with both MD and DO physicians is really the best way to understand the similarities and differences between these two physician paths.  Visit the links below to learn more.

Allopathic Medicine (MD):

Osteopathic Medicine (DO):

Note: Texas has its own application service for in-state medical, dental and veterinary medicine schools – Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS)

MD Medical Schools in the State of Michigan:

DO Medical School in the State of Michigan:


The field of pharmacy is focused on dispensing medications and advising other health care providers and patients on many factors related to medications. Topics commonly addressed include medication selection, dosages, potential interactions, side effects and costs.  A PharmD (Doctor of Pharmacy) degree is awarded after four years of pharmacy school.  The majority of pharmacists work in community pharmacies.  However, other career settings are possible including hospitals, managed care, pharmaceutical companies, government, public sector jobs or academic careers.  There are also options for more research focused degrees like PhD in Medicinal Chemistry or PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Shadowing and speaking with individuals who have earned both PharmD and PhD degrees can help you understand the similarities and differences between these two paths.  Visit the links below to learn more.

Pharmacy Links:

Pharmacy Schools in the State of Michigan:

Physical Therapy

The field of physical therapy is focused on helping patients affected by injury or disease reduce pain and improve or restore mobility.  The length of the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs can vary, but is generally about three years. Physical therapists can work in a variety of settings such as outpatient clinics, private practices, hospitals, schools, sport and fitness facilities, nursing homes or home health agencies. 

Physical Therapy Links:

Physical Therapy Schools in the State of Michigan:

Physician Assistant

Physician assistants (PA) work closely with physicians.  PA’s perform many office procedures such as exams, diagnosing illnesses and diseases, ordering tests and  providing office treatment, with autonomy. There are times they also collaborate with physicians or work under physicians’ supervision. The length of PA programs can vary, but is generally two to three years. Physician assistants can work in a variety of primary care settings but also can work in specialty areas like surgery and oncology. 

Unlike many other health career paths, many PA schools and programs prefer applicants to have specific PAID patient contact hours.  Since the number of experience hours required and the details of acceptable activities can vary greatly from program to program it is to your advantage to choose your target schools as early as possible! 

Physician Assistant Links:

Physician Assistant Schools in the State of Michigan: