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What is a Premed Postbac Program?

June 17th, 2013  |  Published in Pre-Med Tips  |  2 Comments

Graduation Cap and Gown

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If you recently decided to apply to medical school and have not taken any of the prerequisite courses required for admission or if you already took the prerequisites and did poorly or if you already applied to medical school, but have been rejected and have a low GPA and/or low MCAT score, then a premed postbac program could be for you!

By definition a premed postbac program, formally known as a premed post-baccalaureate program comes in many forms. By definition, post-baccalaureate (postbac) means “after a Bachelor’s degree,” so don’t expect to be eligible for any of these programs if you do not have a one.  The types of premed postbacs are as follows:

  • special master’s programs
  • certificate-awarding
  • no certificate or degree awarded: designing your own program

Additionally, postbac programs are divided into two types

  • career changer
  • academic enhancer

Career Changer

A career changer postbac is ideal for someone who recently decided to become premed. Maybe this epiphany arrived during your junior year and you haven’t taken any science classes yet because you majored in philosophy or maybe you realized that you want to go to medical school after working as an engineer for ten years. In either case, a career changer postbac will fit your needs! A career changer postbac allows you to enroll in a university and take only the undergraduate science courses required to apply to medical school. These courses are:

  • General Chemistry 1 & 2 (with labs)
  • Organic Chemistry 1 & 2 (with labs)
  • Biology 1 & 2 (with labs)
  • Physics 1 & 2 (with labs)
  • Calculus 1
  • Biochemistry (not for all schools but increasingly becoming required for many schools)

Additionally, there may be a few electives built into the curriculum such as genetics or anatomy.

Chemistry books

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Another advantage of doing a career changer postbac as opposed to taking these classes on your own is that many of these programs have built in opportunities to shadow, research, and volunteer–activities that you need to complete before applying to medical school. Some postbacs require you to complete a certain number of hours of medically-related activities before graduation. Additionally, doing a premed postbac gives you access to premed advisers, a group of academic advisers who know how to get students into medical school. If you didn’t know you wanted to go to medical school since high school or your freshman year like the “traditional” premed, then you might be a little lost when navigating the thick waters of being a premed. Having great advisers to support you can make a big difference in your application. Premed advisers can give you recommendations on when and where to apply, edit your personal statements, help you find extra-curricular activities to round out your application, and perform mock interviews to prepare you for the big day. The most important help that premed advisers can provide is writing a committee letter. A committee letter is a recommendation letter written by a group of premedical advisers. This, in addition to the recommendation letters written by your professors, is expected by most medical schools. In fact, if you don’t have one medical school will specifically ask you to explain this in your secondary application. Not having a committee letter can be looked down upon, but exceptions might be made if you are a non-traditional student. However, a postbac program that has premed advisers that offer committee letters is the best option.

Generally, career changer premed postbacs offer a certificate or nothing at all after you complete your program except a transcript ready for medical school.

Choosing a career changer postbac can seem daunting but I would recommend to consider the following when evaluating a program

  • percentage of students who complete the program and are accepted to medical school (the higher, the better!)
  • do they offer guaranteed admission to medical school for students that meet certain requirements? (extremely rare)
  • do they offer guaranteed medical school interviews to students that meet certain requirements?
  • extra-curriculuar activities built-in to the program or easily available to students (the more variety, the better)
  • affiliation with a large university (larger universities have more resources, more research opportunities, and better premed advising because they often have many more premed students than smaller schools and thus more experience)
  • help offered by the premed advisers (do they help you edit your essays? arrange mock interviews? write a committee letter? e-mail and ask the program!)
  • location (bigger cities means more opportunities to volunteer, shadow, and do research at institutions that are not affiliated with your school)
  • tuition (cheaper is better if they have the qualities I listed above)

Academic Enhancer

An academic enhancer postbac is ideal for a student with a low science GPA or a student with a low science GPA and low MCAT. Generally, if you have a 3.7 science GPA and 35 MCAT and you were rejected from medical school, the reason likely is related to your application–not your GPA and MCAT score. Applying to medical school at the right time, to the right place, and with the right essay and interview style can make or break you. But, if you are a weak student (like me!) then an academic enhancer postbac is a great solution. I have met students who had a moderately-good GPA and weak MCAT score. They chose to do a challenging postbac program and later regretted it because their GPA decreased after the program. Now, they are still premed and had been rejected from medical school. Looking back they wish they had simply retook the MCAT and not done the program. If you have a good GPA and a low MCAT score you need to evaluate if you can afford to risk your GPA or if you should instead drastically change your MCAT preparation and test again. If you don’t do well in an academic enhancer postbac program this can be a big red flag indicating that you cannot handle graduate-level coursework of a postbac or your undergraduate coursework. If you choose to do a postbac program you have to be fully committed in order to be successful.

Most academic enhancer postbacs have a minimum requirement that generally fall in the range of a 3.0 science GPA and ~24 MCAT for admission. This varies by school. In my case, my science GPA was lower than 3.0, but because my MCAT score was higher than the minimum requirement, they were willing to make concessions and I was accepted! If your science GPA is extremely low and you did not score well on the MCAT, you may need to take some undergraduate science coursework before  applying. Another option could be to take the GRE because some programs accept the GRE as an alternative to the MCAT. However, I would recommend contacting the postbac program and discuss your situation before wasting a semester of tuition money! Some schools do not give any hints as to your chances of admissions. If that is the case with your school(s) of choice, you may have to decide if you should take a risk and apply despite a moderate chance of rejection. If you apply to postbac programs early enough in the cycle, you could hear back quickly and enact a back-up plan. If you recently applied to medical school and fear imminent rejection, then you should begin researching postbac programs right away. You need to know when the applications open so you can apply right away. Furthermore, deciding which program fits your needs can take a long time to determine. I felt like choosing a postbac can be more daunting than choosing a medical school. These are the types of academic enhancer postbacs available:

Special Master’s Programs

A Special Master’s Program, also known as a SMP is exactly as it sounds: a special Master’s degree program for a particular end…in this case: getting premeds into medical school.

Traditional Master’s programs in the sciences (i.e. not SMPs) are designed for students who wish to pursue a career in academia or research; these programs usually can only be completed after 2 years of study and often require students to write a thesis, work as a research or teaching assistant, and perform research while in school. All three of these tasks are not necessary or expected of premeds, although doing research as a premed can definitely enhance your application if you are truly passionate about your work. However, as you can read here, most medical schools do not want students to complete a Master’s degree in the sciences for the sole purpose of improving their application because of grade inflation and the fact that a premed would be taking up the spot of a student who truly desires a career in academia or research.

However, medical schools do like to see premeds doing a SMP to improve their application. A SMP can last anywhere from 1-2 years, but the ideal program can be completed in 2 semesters or a 2 semesters and a summer semester. A shorter program allows you to quickly improve your application before the next application cycle. The curriculum of a SMP is composed of graduate courses in the biomedical sciences and are often considered as difficult as medical school coursework. In some SMPs you may even be taking courses at a medical school alongside medical students! In programs like these, you might have the opportunity to transfer your SMP coursework to medical school, but again this depends on the program. Other SMPs may offer courses taught by medical school faculty while others may just be offered through the graduate school–not the medical school.

At the end of a SMP you are awarded a Master’s degree (often in the biomedical sciences). Having a degree in tow can be nice in case you are rejected from medical school again when you re-apply. However, if you are planning to enter biomedical research as a back-up, unless you have an intense record of research and research publications, finding a job without going back to school can prove difficult.

Certificate-Awarding

An academic enhancer premed postbac that awards certificates is an alternative that can often be considered equivalent to doing a SMP if you don’t mind not getting a diploma upon completion. Like the SMP, students enrolled in certificate-awarding postbacs take graduate level science courses that may be affiliated with the medical school, taken alongside medical students, or simply taught by the grad school.

No Certificate or Degree Awarded (non-degree seeking)

Premed books

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A non-degree seeking postbac premed is a premed student who has a bachelor’s degree and is now taking coursework to improve their application to medical school. This means you are essentially designing your own premed postbac program. This option is least preferred by medical schools because in their mind the lack of structure can mean lack of rigor. Another drawback to doing this is that you do not have the same support provided by SMPs or Certificate-Awarding postbacs. However, if you cannot get into an academic enhancing postbac or if you are unable to move and there are no postbacs where you live, this may be your only option. If you choose to design your own postbac, then you need to make sure you are taking full semesters (at least 15 undergraduate hours), If you were a science major, one option can be to take graduate-level science courses as a non-degree seeking student, but you are risking medical schools perceiving your high grades as the result of grade inflation. Overall, this is the option that has the least value. But worse comes to worst, if you have a poor GPA, taking some classes is better than taking no classes.

I recommend that if you cannot do a postbac program then you should take upper-level undergraduate sciences courses, preferably two semesters worth (fall and spring). Then, you can apply to medical school and SMPs/certificate-awarding postbacs at the same time. You can apply to postbacs throughout the Spring semester to increase your chances of admission and then apply to medical school in May/June. However, you may be stuck in a situation where you have been accepted to a postbac program that starts in August and later find out you have a medical school interview scheduled for September. You will have to decide if you should go ahead and start your postbac in the Fall just in case you aren’t accepted after the interview or if you should risk not doing the SMP (and missing an opportunity to improve your application) and hoping that you aren’t rejected. If you are rejected (or wait-listed) you will have to wait another year before applying to a SMP/postbac again. This is when choosing a one year (2 semesters or 2 semesters+summer semester) postbac will be advantageous. Many medical schools require that you complete any degree-seeking programs before matriculation. If you enroll in a 2-year SMP while you apply to medical school, you will likely be asked to complete your SMP before matriculation–I’m not sure if you would be allowed to defer your admission for this particular scenario. However, this depends largely upon the school; you would need to ask other premeds and medical students. A great place to find out about this would be searching the forums of Student Doctor Network.  I think doing a shorter SMP (if you are in this particular situation) would be a better option because you can avoid this sticky situation altogether.

Choosing an Academic Enhancer Postbac

You should consider the following when evaluating programs:

  • percentage of students that go to medical school after the postbac
  • is there a guaranteed placement in the affiliated medical school if you meet certain requirements? (rare!)
  • is there a guaranteed interview with the affiliated medical school if you meet certain requirements?
  • do you take classes with medical students?
  • do you take classes taught by medical school faculty?
  • do you take classes taught by the graduate school?
  • do they have built-in or required extra-curricular activities to keep you well-rounded?
  • are there opportunities for research?
  • are the premed adviser supportive? (do they write committee letters, guide your application, edit your personal statement, hold mock interviews, etc.? call and ask!)
  • do they offer a SMP or certificate?
  • tuition
  • location

When it comes to choosing an academic enhancing postbac program there are two camps. Some believe that unless you do a postbac where you are actually taking medical school classes, you are wasting your time. This group believes that by taking actual medical school coursework you are proving your capability of handling medical school coursework (obviously!) Thus, when you apply to medical school the admissions committee can immediately see you are prepared and capable. This group also believes that if you do not take medical school coursework, the only medical school that will believe you are prepared and capable is the medical school affiliated with your postbac program. They feel that doing any other type of postbac program is a waste of time.

I am part of the other group. My understanding comes from my conversations with admissions counselors during my file review. No one indicated to me that I should be taking medical school coursework but that rather I should simply be doing a premed postbac program. I feel that taking rigorous graduate-level coursework as part of a program that is designed to prepare students for medical school, I should be able to prove my academic preparedness. However, I cannot deny that taking medical school coursework during a postbac looks really good. There is no reason that taking medical school coursework (and getting a 4.0) would lead to a rejection from medical school (unless you are socially creepy in your interview and essay.) I can see that some schools may think that graduate-level science coursework is inferior to medical school coursework. Ultimately, you will have to apply to as many postbac programs as possible. Ideally, you will apply to a range of postbac programs, ones that are very popular, ones that are moderately popular, and ones that are not popular. This will guarantee you get in somewhere! Applying to postbacs that allow you to take medical school coursework is the best option.

My Postbac Choice

Since I’m married I did not want to move far away from my husband to pursue a postbac program, even though they are less than a year in duration. Thus, I only had one postbac program available to me: the VCU Premed Health Sciences Certificate Studies program.

Advantages of the program

  • guaranteed interview at VCU if you have a 3.5+ GPA after 2 semesters of the program and a 28 or higher MCAT
  • take graduate-level science courses taught by medical school faculty
  • can do a second year of the postbac which can lead to earning a master’s degree (good if you need longer to improve your application–can do research during this second year)
  • an intense program that is trying to become as difficult as the Georgetown program
  • helpful advisers

Disadvantages of the program

  • only 50% of students who complete the program go to medical school afterwards
  • 30% of students who complete the program go to VCU afterwards (I strongly desire to return to Texas so the prospect of only having VCU available to me is scary and reinforces the idea of “the other group” who believes that only by taking medical school coursework you can get into a medical school that is not affiliated with the postbac)
  • do not take coursework with medical students
  • cannot transfer coursework to VCU medical school if you matriculate there after completion
  • crazy intense and if you aren’t careful and studious, can ruin your GPA
  • specifically instructs students to quit all extra-curricular activities in order to do well
  • does not have any built-in shadowing or volunteer opportunities, or time to do them (see above)

Overall the disadvantages of the program are occasionally overwhelming. But, I know that in order to get into medical school I have no choice but to do a postbac somewhere. I feel that if I had been able to do the UNTHSC postbac in Ft Worth, Texas I would have felt more secure in my ability to possibly attend medical school in Texas after doing well in a postbac program. However, I have no options and thus, VCU is my program of choice. Hopefully I will be able to share a success story with you soon.

The moral of this story is: do well in undergrad so you can afford the perils of being a non-traditional premed student.

  • http://www.SurvivingGrays.com Survivor DO

    Great post – I’ve always been a little unclear about what exactly these programs consist of. Definitely going to share with my readers!

    • http://www.goingtomedschool.com Jennifer Isaacs

      Thanks for sharing it! I checked out your blog last week or so. It’s nice! Looking forward to hearing more about your time in med school :)