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In the following article, Admissions Expert Kim Phan (Harvard ‘21) shares tips for how to choose between a liberal arts and a pre-professional college. For more guidance on the college application process, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Many factors may influence your decision to apply to a particular college or university. One of them is whether a school is a liberal arts or professional college.

What is the difference between the two?

A liberal arts institution instructs a broad, interdisciplinary range of subjects including English, math, history, and science. These schools prioritize problem-solving and critical thinking skills as well as one’s ability to effectively communicate in a wide range of disciplines.

On the other hand, professional education institutions are more geared toward equipping students with the necessary skills and knowledge to work in a specific field. The classes offered focus on applying skills, preparing students to enter the workforce in a given discipline.

It’s important to note that within a liberal arts college, there may still be opportunities to choose to major or specialize in a specific subject or industry and thus gain relevant, applicable knowledge to work immediately after graduation. Similarly, in a professional college, there may still be opportunities to explore various fields through diversifying one’s selection of electives or general education courses.

Questions to ask yourself

So, how do you decide which type of institution is a better fit for you?

First, know that there’s no absolute right or wrong path for you to take. At any college or university, you will have the opportunity to learn, grow, and uncover insights about your interests, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and career ambitions.

With that being said, there are a few questions you can ask yourself as you consider how either academic program will suit your goals.

Do you have a strong and consistent interest in a certain subject/career path/discipline?

If you have a clear vision of what you want to do after graduating college, a professional education college might be a good choice for you.

Some individuals have the fortune of encountering a strong passion at a young age. Attending a professional school will allow these students to delve deeper into their interests, explore the many different career opportunities and subfields that exist within that one discipline, and develop the skills necessary to be successful in the workforce upon graduation.

However, it’s also important to note that attending a liberal arts college does not keep students from accessing applied learning. A liberal arts college may not offer as clear of a path of study for a specific career path. Instead, a liberal arts education offers a breadth of classes and encourages exploration into different fields. This allows students to figure out what they are truly interested in while also helping them to apply knowledge from different disciplines into their work in whatever field they ultimately choose. Some may argue that the breadth of perspectives that a liberal arts education provides is critical to success in any field.

Have you explored a wide range of subjects and career paths?

As a teenager/young adult, it’s often difficult to access sufficient life and professional experience in order to fully gauge one’s career ambitions. If you’ve had the opportunity to try many different types of roles in a variety of different disciplines (perhaps through summer internships, part-time work, shadowing professions in their roles and observing older friends/family members in their jobs) and have a strong idea of what discipline you’d like to pursue, attending a professional education program would allow you to jump right into developing skills in that area.

However, it’s likely that there are many subjects that you have not had the opportunity to explore, and many that you perhaps have not even considered. If you want to be able to explore such areas, a liberal arts college may provide you the means to do so.

It is true that in many institutions of both liberal arts and professional education, students have the opportunity to switch majors. However, a liberal arts college is more focused upon encouraging students to explore a wide range of subjects within their first few semesters on campus. They also likely have more general education requirements and elective opportunities that allow students to take a variety of diverse classes while still fulfilling their major.

On the other hand, when one enters a professional college, it is likely that they will enter a more structured track of classes needed in order to graduate. Although there may still be opportunities to explore different majors or topics, many of those topics likely have some direct relevance and application to one’s chosen field.

Consider this ongoing debate regarding the merits of specialization versus variety:

In many of his publications, journalist Malcolm Gladwell posits that in order to become an expert in a field or skill, one must devote ten thousand hours to deliberately learning and practicing the skill. He points to the example of Tiger Woods, who began putting and playing golf as a mere toddler and went on to become one of the world’s most renowned athletes in the field. This reinforces the idea that early specialization is significant in determining how successful an individual will become in their given specialty.

However, investigative reporter David Epstein provides a counterargument. In his works, he argues that starting out one’s educational and professional lives with exploration of a broad range of subjects helps better inform the individual of their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, so that they may then choose a career path that is most suitable for them. Epstein cites the example of Roger Federer, who grew up dabbling in a variety of sports, including squash, handball, badminton, and soccer. Unlike other top athletes, Federer finally settled upon tennis in his late teens after a long period of sampling. Federer then became the top-ranked tennis player in the world.

Final Thoughts

In summary, either type of education program can allow you to grow and learn tremendously. Consider the questions and conversations above in order to help you make your decision. Do research on each of the programs that you are considering at their respective schools. Finally, keep in mind that no matter what type of college you ultimately attend, there are opportunities to adapt your course schedules in order to engage more in specialization or exploration.

This informational essay was written by Kim Phan, Harvard University ‘21. If you want to get help with your college applications from Kim or other Admissions Experts, register with today.