Pre-med and nursing programs are like a garden hose and a trowel; they’re both tools used with a related, yet different, end in mind. Pre-med programs are often the first step toward becoming a doctor, while nursing programs prepare students to become registered nurses, professionals who assist doctors in patient care. This difference in end goals means that the components of each program, and the type of each program, are not the same.

To Major or Not to Major, That Is the Question

Pre-med is a track, not a major. For the most part, students cannot earn a bachelor’s degree in pre-med. Nursing, on the other hand, is a major, not a track, most often leading to the granting of a Bachelor of Science in nursing. Pre-med tracks are designed to complement students’ chosen majors, ensuring that they are prepared for medical school and have fulfilled all the necessary med school prerequisites. Common majors for students on a pre-med track include chemistry and biology. Students who’ve chosen nursing as a major follow a set curriculum leading to the granting of the B.S.N., after which they may obtain a license and work as a nurse. Nursing students can also begin working as professionals after completing an associate degree, cutting the time in school down to two years or so, if desired.

Different? Yes.

One big difference between pre-med and nursing programs is when students begin interacting with patients. Nurses are ready to work as health care professionals upon graduation, which means that they will have studied in a clinical setting during their four years of undergraduate study. This hands-on learning usually begins in the junior year. Pre-med students, however, don’t usually enter the clinical setting until they’re in medical school. Medical school prerequisite courses aren’t medical courses; rather, they tend to focus on the areas of physical and life sciences.

Similar? Actually, Yes.

Although pre-med and nursing programs aren’t the same thing, there’s some overlap in coursework and education options. Students in both take courses related to chemistry, biology, math and English. Pre-med track students don’t necessarily have to, but they can take some of the same courses nurses take, such as those related to anatomy, physiology or psychology. And just as pre-med students go on to earn higher-level degrees, students who’ve majored in nursing can, too. For example, to become an advanced practice registered nurse, which is one step above a registered nurse, nurses must earn a master’s degree.

Would You Like to Make That a Combo?

A pre-med track can technically be paired with almost any major, so in theory, a student could major in nursing and earn a B.S.N. while following a pre-med track and planning to go to med school. Whether this is a sound idea ultimately depends on the individual student. According to expert advice from the Association of American Medical Colleges, medical schools often expect applicants to explain their choice of undergraduate major; students with intelligent reasons for choosing nursing, such as the desire to understand the health care field in the most complete manner possible, are viable candidates for admission. As a bonus, students who major in nursing before attempting medical school have an extra career option.

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