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Honors Courses and Admission into Schools of the Health Professions

By Gordon Mitchell

Two Pitt undergraduate students are chatting in a coffeehouse. One of them, interested in the health professions, says, “I’m thinking about taking an honors course next term that looks really intriguing.”The friend replies: “Yeah, but you want to go to med school, and it might tank your grade-point average.”

So starts a recurrent conversation that is often filled with more speculation than data. Do honors courses actually help or hurt student applications to schools in the health professions?

On a sheer grade-point-average metric, internal Pitt analyses show that students taking honors courses earn almost exactly (i.e., to the second decimal place) the same grades as those that they earn in non-honors courses.

What do admissions officers have to say? “We look at the academic record in its entirety, rather than just the GPA,” notes Dr. Robert Witzburg, Associate Dean & Director of Admissions at the Boston University School of Medicine. “In that context, we interpret the choice to take honors courses as evidence of a student’s willingness to take on the challenge of a more demanding academic program and a commitment to rigor over high grades.”

 “We do take into account the degree to which a student pushed themselves academically, as in taking advanced courses, or choosing to take an honors course when a standard course is available,” adds Dr. Quinn Capers, Associate Dean for Admissions at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “If students do well in these honors courses, it is definitely a positive, but one of many things that will be considered.”

As Professor of Medicine and Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dr. Beth Piraino explains, “The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Admissions Committee is interested in admitting students who challenge themselves and one manifestation of this would be taking honors level courses.” Echoing this perspective, in the context of dentistry, Dr. Elizabeth Bilodeau, Associate Professor of Oral & Maxillofacial Pathology and Director of Admissions at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, says: “The academic rigor of the courses taken is evaluated. More difficult course work is looked upon favorably.”

Pitt undergraduate students applying for admission to schools of the health professions are fortunate to have the benefit of a powerful multiplier effect in this regard. Each year, the University Honors College (UHC) convenes two subcommittees, each consisting of five faculty members from the Schools of Engineering and Arts & Sciences, who meet weekly for approximately 10 weeks beginning in mid-May to evaluate the students who are applying that year for admission to a Health Professional School and prepare a letter that is submitted along with the students’ credentials.

“Honors courses are highlighted in the committee letter,” explains UHC Director of pre-Health Professions Advising Andrea Abt. “The committee looks for evidence of a curious student, a life-long learner who will be able to seek out resources as a professional and apply this information to their practice. Our committee highly ranks candidates who enroll in honors courses where they demonstrate a depth of learning and passion toward subject material.” (As a footnote, she adds that “the letters of recommendation from instructors of Honors courses tend to be more personal due to the smaller class sizes and greater opportunity to interact with faculty”.)

Along with the impressive talent of the student applicants and the skill and savvy of their advisors, this committee letter contributes importantly to Pitt’s remarkable record of successfully placing undergraduate students in schools of the health professions: typically, around 70% of Pitt students are accepted into the professional program of their choice, outpacing the national average of about 40%. 

Yet admissions is only part of the story. A strong honors profile can continue to pay dividends once a student matriculates. “I would encourage students to academically challenge themselves. The demands of professional school are great and honors courses are taught at a higher level, better preparing students for the expectations of professional school,” says Dr. Bilodeau. As the Harvard Medical School notes on its admissions website, "Honors courses and independent study or research are encouraged, because they permit a student to explore an area of knowledge in depth and provide a scholarly experience that will facilitate a lifelong habit of self-education."

Pitt’s honors courses cultivate this lifelong habit, by offering students opportunities to drive their own learning, pursue interdisciplinary perspectives, engage primary sources, and connect with the university’s top teachers.

Of course, students should think carefully about whether an honors course is a good fit for them prior to enrolling, cautions Dr. Piriano: “The students should consider their background academic work — are they prepared to take an honors level course? If so, then by all means go with the higher level course as this is likely to enhance your preparation for doing well in medical school.”

Professional school admission decisions are typically made holistically, so that strength in any one area (such as honors courses) will not likely be definitive for any given applicant. And the intellectual investment necessary to succeed in honors courses at Pitt is substantial. Yet in coffeehouse conversations to come, it may be worthwhile for those Pitt students considering the health professions to realize that in taking honors courses, they not only gain invaluable learning experiences but also may catch the attention of admissions officers and lay the groundwork for future success in the classroom, clinic, and research lab.