For many, the journey from high school through college and onto a successful healthcare career often seems like a mystery that even the best CSI specialist couldn’t solve. Here are a few clues for putting the pieces together to solve the mystery and reach your career goals.

Competitive GPA – What exactly is competitive?

The Importance of your academic performance goes without saying! Your TGPA, SGPA and admissions tests scores will be used as baseline screening tools for most programs.

With this in mind – remember the following – the best GPA cannot counter a poor admissions test score (meaning a perfect 4.0 GPA can be obliterated by a 22 MCAT) and your GPA and tests scores get you through the screen but it will be these scores combined with what is in your application that determines who will gain acceptance.

Since most students are applying during the spring of their junior year, what programs are generally reviewing is three years of college academic performance. Keep in mind that applicants are already part of a very competitive pool. Schools review both Science GPA (BCPM – Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics) and the overall Cumulative GPA. Students are generally encouraged to strive for a GPA of 3.5 or higher. Although students should be cautious and remember that a high GPA does not guarantee acceptance no more than a low GPA guarantees denial. Also, students graduating from schools with 4+ GPA program structures should be reminded that they should evaluate their scores based on a standard 4.0 scale and know that their applicant schools will adjust their scores to a 4.0 scale prior to reviewing their application.

Finally, with respect to required courses, students should make sure that if they chose to take some of these courses at another institution (i.e. Summer School) that these should always be taken at a four year institution and not as a Distance Education (DE) course (online courses not designated as distance education are acceptable – please consult with registration and records if you have any concerns regarding a course designation). At NCSU, we have converted to a new reporting system and the “E” designation typically seen on the transcript adjacent to DE courses will no longer be visible eliminating the problems of DE instruction for NCSU courses but not necessarily at other programs. Always check with R&R at any institution you are considering taking a DE prerequisite course at for how it is reported on their transcripts.

It is okay to take other courses at a technical or community college, but all prerequisite courses should be taken at four year institutions. Also, as a general rule of thumb, healthcare graduate programs will not accept “D” hours in prerequisite courses and “C-“ grades are frowned upon. Students are encouraged to repeat D hours and to look at subsequent performance in upper level courses in the discipline of any C- hours. It is also recommended that students not repeat C hours but again, seek to perform better in next courses because if they repeat a course and essentially receive any grade less than an “A”, it appears that they were incapable of earning an A even taking the course twice. Consider the entire transcript, not a single course.

Admissions Exams – What are schools looking for?

Most healthcare graduate programs require some type of entrance exam as part of their application selection process.

Both allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) programs as well as most Podiatry (DPM) programs require the MCAT. Scores which are more than five years old are generally not allowed and a student is not generally allowed to sit for the exam more than 3 times during a year without approval from an advisor or testing center. As a general rule, students should strive for a combined score of 508/509 without a significantly lower score in any one subject area – 127 per section (Chem & Phy, CARS, Bio & Biochem, Psych & Soc).  In the previous MCAT test (discontinued) the recommendation was for a combined score of 30 and without a significantly lower score in any one subject area. (10/10/10 – Biology/Physical Sci/Verbal). The test is offered between Jan – Sept each year and students are strongly encouraged to make their first attempt by April of the summer they plan to apply. You may not be registered for more than one test at a time and application windows typically open ~120 days prior to the test date. Test results are received in approximately 4 weeks.

With respect to dental school, the DAT is the exam required for admission. A score of 20 and above is considered solid. Students should strive for at least an 18 or higher on the Academic Average and Total Science portions of the test again, with no significantly lower score in a single area. Again, we encourage you to make your first attempt between April and May of your application year. This test is self-scheduled and offered throughout the year at various testing centers. The results are immediate. A 90 day window is required between testing attempts.

The OAT is the required test for optometry school – each school sets their own standards for admission review – generally a score of 320 to 340 or better is considered competitive. Like the DAT, this test is self-scheduled and the results are immediate.

The PCAT is the pharmacy school admission exam and scores in the 80% and above are considered by most schools as competitive – the test is scored 200-600 with 400 being the mean. The PCAT is offered four times a year Jan, June, Aug. and Oct.

The GRE is the admission test that students seeking master or doctoral level degrees in such programs as PT, OT, Nursing and PA programs should take. Scores vary and there are general as well as specialized tests available to better qualify knowledge level. The test is self scheduled.

Application Process – How, When, Where, How many…

The Health Professions Application Handbook is available to guide students in the application process as well as Health Professions Advising.

Most students apply to their chosen health professional programs during the spring and summer of their junior year for admission in the fall following their senior year.

Most of the application services open their electronic submission services between March and July (most in May or June) for data input. AMCAS, AACOMAS and AADSAS typically open the first of May for keying data and for submission the first of June. Applicants are encouraged to submit their transcripts to these services as soon as spring grades post and to submit their applications no later than July 15th and between June 1 and 15th if at all possible (earlier based on school requirements or early acceptance applicants).

Some schools automatically send supplemental/secondary applications – others wait for receipt of letters of recommendation and review committee recommendations before sending supplemental application. Because of this, receipt of secondary applications or lack of receipt should not be taken as positive or negative signs.

In general, students should submit their applications in summer with hopes for interviews in the fall and winter and for notification of program decisions in late winter/spring. This is done to allow time for students to review and complete financial aid forms, evaluate programs for selection and to complete their senior year and prepare for a fall entrance.

Students are expected to provide the following components for their application:

  1. official transcripts from all institutions of study,
  2. admission test scores,
  3. completed application,
  4. letters of recommendation and review committee evaluation as applicable,
  5. personal history of accomplishments (supporting your academic record with a listing of clinical, service and social/community service work), and finally
  6. a personal statement which highlights and exposes an applicant’s strengths and personality.

For most, the greatest chance of acceptance is at public programs in the state of their legal residence. For these programs and as you look at private programs and those outside your state of residence, you are encouraged to investigate these schools with respect to GPA and MCAT numbers, Cost, Location, Percentage of out of state versus in state acceptances as well as curriculum, etc. You may wish to use the following references to help find this information:

  • Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR)
  • ADEA Official Guide to Dental Schools
  • Schools and Colleges of Optometry: Admissions Requirements
  • World Directory of Medical Schools
  • Osteopathic Medical College Information Book

In addition, the professional association web sites (AAMC, ADEA, AACOM, etc) are full of good information on their schools/programs. Each school typically also has its own website with this information. Please take the time to review the information on each program of interest early to ensure that you will meet their requirements as well as for how well your credentials meet with their program specifications.

In recent years, the national average number of schools applied to is 11 and typically ranges from 5 – 15. Cost is a key factor in deciding the number of schools to apply to – for instance, the fee for applying to a medical school via AMCAS is $160 with each additional school costing $30. Secondary application fees tend to range from $50 – $150. You also need to consider the cost of travel for interviews, lodging, meals as well as time missed from classes. Also, do not apply to a school unless you would sincerely consider attending if accepted as you forfeit not only your own time and money but could also cause another student to forfeit their spot (or that student could very well have taken your spot at a program).

If you decide to apply to 11 schools – the costs would be as follows:

  • 11 School = $160 (1 school) + $300 (10 schools x $30) + $825 (~$75/supp or 11×75) = $1,285
  • PLUS – Airfare, hotel, meals, etc

Regardless of the number of schools, your GPA/MCAT and application pieces – APPLY EARLY. Begin organizing your information, recommendations and personal statement early and aim to complete these as well as make your first attempt at your admissions test by May of your application cycle.

Academic Factors – What are other important academic factors to consider?

Again, the importance of having a solid GPA and admissions test score cannot be over emphasized. However, there are other areas for improving the academic portion. This includes but is not limited to: tutoring, joining academic honor programs and societies, research, study abroad, scholarships, etc. Research is not required for admission but is often beneficial for demonstrating a better understanding of the principles of research and how these fit into modern medicine.

What Major Should I Select

As a general rule, medical schools are less concerned with what an applicant majors in as they are with the quality of their academic career. Applicants are expected to perform well in the required prerequisite courses and obtain a “C” or better in any of these (Grades of C- or below in pre-requisite courses are strongly recommended to be repeated or retaken). As long as the required courses (such as chemistry, biology, physics, etc.) are completed prior to matriculation with a strong performance, applicants are encouraged to pursue the major that they find most interesting. If you are interested in a subject matter, you are likely to perform better in that area, thus improving your GPA. Also, if you later chose not to pursue a health care career, it is important to have a major in a career field you would be interested in working in. Students should never select a major because they believe “it will look better” to a school. Please remember that schools screen numerically – meaning on GPA and MCAT. It’s not uncommon for our psychology, engineering and other students to take the required science courses as their electives in order to apply to medical, dental school, etc. Again, major in what interests you, not to try to fill a category or what you think or have heard will look best to a school.

As noted above, application to most health care graduate schools requires successful completion of science courses and labs including biology, inorganic and organic chemistry, and physics and often other science-related courses like calculus, anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, and genetics. The general goal is to achieve an application which is well rounded academically as well as with respect to clinical, service and social accomplishments.

Recent data shows that most applicants continue to choose a traditional course path with over 60% of students majoring in biological or physical sciences. Not because this is better or preferred but because students interested in health care careers typically enjoy the sciences and therefore select this as their undergraduate major. A large number of students still pursue other majors including liberal arts, humanities, engineering, textiles, and even design.

What is expected is that students acquire through their studies, an understanding of the principles of the sciences basic to medicine in rigorous academic study which includes lab based coursework. Outside of this, students are encouraged to explore a breadth of coursework and meet the requirements of their chosen major.

At NCSU, like nationally, many of our pre-medical students select Biological Sciences as their major (including many who select our human biology concentration (HB) which replaced what was previously thought of as a “pre-medical track”) – However, many of our students select many of our other majors including BUT not limited to – the other Biological Sciences concentrations (IPN, MCD, EECB), as well as Chemistry and Biochemistry, Microbiology, Genetics, Nutrition, Engineering (including Biomedical Engineer as well as others), Textiles, Psychology, Business and even Design. Our applicants as you can see come from essentially every major and college across the campus with solid success rates (regardless of major) when they combine their academic performance with the other key components.

Clinical Experience – How much does an applicant need?

Gaining clinical experience (through shadowing, volunteering, missions, or actual employment) is critical not only to show a thorough understanding of selected healthcare areas but to also reassure the applicant of their suitability for their chosen field. By acquiring actual clinical experience or exposure, students are better able to evaluate their career options while also demonstrating to programs a commitment to understanding these fields. Experience does not mean “6 week internships, etc.” but rather exposure to a variety of healthcare situations. One thousand of hours of volunteering in the chart room of the hospital shows great service but provides little clinical exposure whereas shadowing five types of physicians for several days can.

There are numerous ways to gain experience. Some of these include:

  1. volunteering at hospitals, clinics, retirement homes, shelters, etc.
  2. contacting local care providers and requesting shadowing opportunities to observe healthcare professionals at work (check Advising Centers Physician Network as well),
  3. searching out internships – check online and with the advising center for options,
  4. enrolling in a transferable skills program and obtaining certification such as EMT, CNA, etc. – training sites include Wake Technical Community College and Durham Technical Community College
  5. the campus directory, local information volunteer services as well as the advising center list numerous volunteer service opportunities, and
  6. look into volunteer medical mission organizations online, through churches and listed in the advising center.
  7. some sites include Mariam Clinic, Alliance Medical Ministry, Open Door Clinic/Urban Ministries of Wake County, Planned Parenthood, NC Mission of Mercy (MOM) – dental, WakeMed Health & Hospitals, Duke Raleigh Hospital, UNC Rex Hospital

Regardless – the key thing is to diversify your clinical experiences and if possible attempt to gain experience in different areas of health care from a private care setting (primary and specialty care), emergency medicine, indigent care, international health care, etc.

Leadership & Service – Why are these important?

Many accomplished students are historically leaders in other areas of their lives. Most have established leadership skills from high school and college experiences. Over their college career they should have been developing and expanding these skills through club, community, university and other possible leadership roles. It is important to document these experiences during the college years and in turn, highlight these skills during the application process. Programs will be looking for character and leadership abilities as these future healthcare providers will need to provide comfort and leadership to their patients. Also, there are many professions that involve service but careers in health care fields often involve maintaining this commitment to service in uncomfortable and stressful situations. It is important to not only obtain a variety of service experiences but also helpful to investigate ones that may take you out of your traditional “comfort zone”.

Social Attributes – How does the social aspect of my application fit in?

Just as attaining the solid academic, clinical, and service components are important – showing a diversity of your personal and social interests is also important. As a health care provider, you will work closely with patients from all walks of life and backgrounds. It is important that you have the mental aptitude to acquire the knowledge and the clinical and service commitment to work in the field but you must also be able to relate to all types of people. By demonstrating areas of outside interest including sports, music, arts, travel, groups/clubs/fraternities, church and more, you show a greater depth of your personal profile.

Commitment – What demonstrates commitment?

Healthcare careers in general require a lifelong commitment to service and learning. Because of the ever evolving components of healthcare; graduates (medical, dental, etc.) will be expected to complete continuing education courses, training and more. Institutions will be looking for signs in the application materials and throughout the interview process that demonstrates an ability to commit and adapt to situations and to strive for excellence. It is important that students maintain a focus on these components throughout the college career and that they are highlighted during the application and interview process. Highlight roles as officers in programs, activities in sororities, fraternities, service organizations, research, etc. Regardless, students want to present a mature and responsible attitude with a willingness to commit and follow through. You are also interested in acquiring unique experiences that will stand out in the application review process. Remember – if you hope to apply the spring of your junior year – you need to start planning early as you essentially have 2 summers and three academic years to acquire these experiences and plan any additional ones for your third summer and senior year.

Letters of Recommendation

Applicants are strongly encouraged to carefully consider their selections for evaluators. Throughout their college careers, students should make an attempt to interact with and get to know professors whom they may consider asking for recommendations.

If possible, they should request a letter from one physical and one life science instructor as well as a humanities instructor. The remaining letters should come from individuals able to speak to the applicant’s dedication, maturity and suitability for the program curriculum and future career. Recommendations from ministers, local physicians who have only seen applicant as a patient, family members, etc. are strongly discouraged. Students are encouraged to solicit letters from employers, clinical associates, researchers, associates from volunteer programs, etc.

Regardless, when approaching a potential evaluator, students should contact them explaining what they are considering and reasons to support their decision. They should then set up an appointment to meet or speak with them further and come prepared or email the evaluator a summary of their qualifications and career goals. These greatly assist an evaluator in developing the strongest evaluation possible. Always remember to send a thank you note and/or email to the evaluators whenever possible thanking them for their time and assistance.

For applicants to other healthcare programs, they should check with individual schools regarding numbers and types of recommendations required but should still follow the above guidelines when requesting recommendation letters.

Interview Preparation – What will they ask? How do I answer?

The interview can be the make or break point for many in the application process – this is your opportunity to allow your personality to shine through – first impressions are critical! This is your “fifteen minutes of fame” – your opportunity to not only express your commitment and desire for your chosen profession but to provide insight into the depth and diversity of your personality. Not only does this give the interviewer a greater understanding of your character but also of your future patient interactive skills. In the sea of academic excellence shared by most candidates, you want to leave your interviewer and program with “sound bites” or impressions that will make your interview stand out in interviewer’s memory.

Finally, prior to your interview, familiarize yourself with current issues and trends in medicine and current events (read and stay current with Week in Review, USA Today, etc.), current pieces of literature (fiction and non-fiction), a historically significant piece in the career field (i.e. House of God), key issues and components of the interview program and try to prepare a personality point or achievement that you wish to highlight during your interview which will leave a lasting impression on your interview program.

Other Benefits & Transferable Skills – Are there other things I can do?

These are skills that students may have already learned or can learn that are highly beneficial for future healthcare providers.

Speaking Skills – for some this comes naturally, for others, it requires practice – the ability to speak and interact will be challenged in the interview processes and throughout the rest of one’s career. Suggestions for improving speech communications skills include: taking a speech class, giving tours that require moderating, serving as a speaker at campus events, assuming a leadership role in an organization, participating in mock interviews, and continually seeking opportunities that require dynamic speaking and interaction.

Listening Skills – because keen listening skills are vital to healthcare providers as they must be able to listen to concerns and needs and make the appropriate decisions – it is important to develop these skills. This can be enhanced by some of the following methods: listening in club and leadership roles and reacting, listening and act in volunteer groups, refining listening skills in class situations and in roles as part of group assignments and finally in work and employment situations.

Organizational/Time Management Skills – time management is critical in healthcare professions as is organizational skills to ensure accuracy and accountability. A busy college schedule of classes, study, volunteering, leaderships, clinical, research and not to forget social life primes applicants for their future career goals. Utilize these opportunities to refine and enhance these organizational/time management skills to demonstrate to programs your success in these areas.

Writing Skills – these are critical in being able to express in written format a person’s own thoughts and opinions as well as to accurately document healthcare information. Most admissions tests now have writing components and the personal essay sections of applications allow students to demonstrate and highlight their abilities. Students should work to develop clear, concise and professional writing styles. Take advantage of college and technical writing courses whenever possible as credit course, through advising center offerings or just through general correspondence. Students should also familiarize themselves with scientific writing styles through journal review, etc.

Endurance & Stamina – Do I have to be the Energizer Bunny?

Because most graduate healthcare programs and subsequent careers require a need for stamina to complete them, programs will be looking for indications of an applicant’s stamina and dedication. Students will need educational and mental stamina to constantly utilize knowledge in learning and subsequent healthcare roles. Physical stamina is obviously important for being able to complete the demanding schedule and load of both the education process and future work days.

Finally is the need for emotional and mental stamina for dealing with the stress of course work and patient issues as well as practice responsibilities. By demonstrating to schools an ability to maintain strong academic performance as well as successfully participating in “non-classroom” activities, students can demonstrate their personal stamina.

Ethics – Can you be trusted?

The trust of a patient and the ethical handling of situations are critical in all aspects of healthcare. Programs need to feel comfortable that future healthcare providers will respect patient rights, obey the laws and adhere to professional standards in their fields. By demonstrating diligence in classwork, clubs, programs and employment students not only improve on their responsibility and ethics skills but also demonstrate these capabilities to program administrators. Also, since graduate programs now perform criminal background checks on applicants, think seriously about what you are risking when tempted with underage drinking, driving and other conduct issues.

Analytical Skills – Can you figure this out?

The ability to analyze situations under stress and pressure is another key skill for healthcare professionals. Administrators are looking for the ability to listen, answer the right questions and make an educated response and to follow through on this. Clearly, one can see how these skills will be tested in future careers but also how interviewers will be looking for these abilities in an interview process. All medical, scientific and other information cannot be memorized and problem solving skills are a must. Throughout college studies and clinical/service experiences, students are encouraged to continually try to develop and refine these problem solving skills. These are components evaluated by admissions exams and a reason why significant weight is placed on these as well as the interview. A strong GPA is always a benefit but this cannot stand alone and a true understanding and an ability to apply this knowledge is critical in any healthcare profession.

The “Un-Accepted” – What if I don’t get in?

Realizing that competition for acceptance to health care graduate programs is extremely fierce, and that depending on the overall strength of your application, you need to consider your options if you are not accepted in your first attempt. The first question is to address your willingness to reapply with the understanding that although rejection can be painful it should also be viewed as simply a year out of your life compared with the rest of your career. Glide years can provide an excellent opportunity to address any applications weaknesses or to simply bolster your application, take a break from academics or to even save for your continued education.

If you find yourself facing a reapplication year, seriously review your application with respect to addressing your greatest areas of weakness – for instance, if you overall GPA is weak, then consider post-bac coursework at the 300/400 or graduate course level. These grades will provide a separate post-bac GPA. Consider repeating science and prerequisite courses where Ds and low Cs were earned or if you have limited science background (ie. Non-science UG major), you might want to consider a post-bac program for medical prerequisites. If your clinical areas are weak consider obtaining a licensure (EMT, CNA, phlebotomy, etc) and securing employment or even volunteering. Expand and diversify your clinical experiences. Although it is often harder to acquire service experience after graduation, if you are weak in the service and leadership area, use the internet as well as the many resources online and participate in community and international service work.