Special master’s programs, or SMPs, can enrich a student’s journey to medical school. As more students take a gap year before medical school, special master’s programs are becoming increasingly popular with premed students as these can be an opportunity to gain more research experience, clinical exposure, and increase your GPA.
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Special master’s programs (SMPs) are the graduate category of postbaccalaureate programs that aim to increase students’ chances of getting admitted to professional schools, including med schools. SMPs also expose students to experiences necessary for their medical school applications. Not only do these programs allow students to increase their knowledge of a field by taking relevant graduate and professional level courses, but they can also help bolster other professional school application requirements, such as GPA, research, and clinical experience. There are SMP curricula that consist of courses that are taken alongside professional school students. This means that you will be exposed to the same courses and materials as medical school students. Medical school admissions committees will take notice of your experience in participating in such classes. Taking courses side-by-side with medical school students will demonstrate to the admissions office that despite having to take extra time to get to medical school, you can do the required work. This is your chance to show adcoms that you have what it takes to be a med student.
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SMPs and postbaccalaureate programs are similar in intent but are designed for different types of students. While SMPs are graduate degrees, postbaccalaureate programs are not full degrees. They are designed for students who have completed an undergraduate degree in a non-science field and do not have the correct prerequisite courses to pursue applications to medical schools. Postbaccalaureate programs allow students to get their medical school prerequisites and to gain experiences in the medical field required for med school applications. Students who complete postbaccalaureate programs tend to receive certificates and diplomas, rather than degrees.
Typically, all special master’s programs, as well as postbaccalaureate programs, have the following designations:
Academic enhancers (AE) are intended for premed students who wish to bolster their med school applications. These types of programs may help raise your GPA by taking relevant science-based courses, increasing your exposure to clinical practice, and gaining valuable research experience. Keep in mind that SMP courses may or may not be factored into your undergraduate GPA.
Career changers (CC) are for students who did not earn a degree in science in college, but now want to enter the medical profession. Students in CC programs take necessary prerequisites for med school admissions.
Educationally/economically disadvantaged (EED) programs offer students preparation to become competitive applicants for professional schools. The goal of these programs is to increase diversity in the medical field and increase opportunities for disadvantaged students.
There are also designations that accommodate students interested in other health professions. To learn more about these programs, check out American Association of Medical Colleges' (AAMC) list of postbaccalaureate and SMP programs.
Postbaccalaureate Research Education Programs (PREP)
If you are a recent graduate looking to pursue MD-PhD programs or other research-heavy medical programs, PREP might be just the opportunity for you. These programs are designed to strengthen students’ research skills and competitiveness to pursue translational research. Students conduct research in a mentored environment and participate in professional development, as well as a variety of educational programs. There are three ways to pursue this type of training:
1. Postbaccalaureate Research Education Programs (PREP) programs are designed to help underrepresented minorities with recent undergraduate degrees strengthen their research skills and academic competitiveness for PhD, MD-PhD, and other research-focused medical programs.
2. NIH (National Institute of Health) Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award Program provides recent graduates who are planning to apply to PhD, MD, or MD-PhD programs an opportunity to spend one or two years doing full-time research at the NIH.
3. Non-NIH Postbaccalaureate Research Programs are organized by medical centers. They provide research training opportunities that typically extend for one or two years. See individual academic centers for more information.
There are a variety of master’s degrees you can take. Some SMPs offer thesis tracks, while others require only coursework for successful completion. Programs tend to have set curricula, but you will also be able to choose courses based on your interests and needs. Generally, thesis master’s degrees take two years to complete. One year is dedicated to coursework and one year to research and thesis writing. Coursework-based programs take about one year to complete. Each program’s curriculum is unique, but each can help students build up areas of their medical school applications that are lacking.
Just like with most graduate programs, there is no unified special master’s program application system. You will need to apply for each program electronically via the application procedure set up by the school of your choice. Check with your program to learn their application process.
Most special master’s programs have similar requirements as other grad programs and medical schools. The majority of SMPs do not make the MCAT a requirement, but you can submit your scores if you have written the test. To be considered for the majority of SMPs, you must have a bachelor’s degree with a GPA of at least 3.0.
SMP requirements and medical school prerequisites are similar. You are recommended to have background in the following disciplines:
- Biology (1 year)
- Chemistry (2 years, this may include general chemistry, organic chemistry, as well as biochemistry)
- Physics (1 year)
- Social or Behavioral Sciences
You must provide transcripts from all the schools you attended, one transcript from each school. Unofficial or personal copies will not be accepted. If your transcripts are from Canadian or American institutions, they can be sent by your prior college to the admissions office of the school you’re planning to attend. Transcripts or grades from institutions outside of Canada and the United States must be original copies in the original language of issue. Official or certified English translation of the transcripts will be required.
Just like med school applicants, SMP candidates are required to submit a CV, which outlines your career goals, work and volunteer experiences, awards, honors, publications, and any other noteworthy qualifications. Your CV must demonstrate intent and dedication for a career in the health profession and the medical field. Learn how to write a CV for grad school in our blog.
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Your application must also include a personal statement. It is not unlike your medical school personal statement. You can check out medical school personal statement examples in our blog to get some ideas. Typically, your personal statement should not be longer than a page; two at most. Firstly, your statement must outline your long-term goals. SMP admissions committees are aware that many of their matriculants seek to be eventually admitted to a medical school. You can be honest – there is no need to hide that enrolling in SMP is a stepping stone for your plans to attend med school. Whatever your aspirations may be, be sure to include them in your statement. You must also demonstrate to the committee how this particular SMP program will help you achieve your goals. Explain why you chose this master’s program instead of another. A personal statement should also outline your qualities and experiences that make you a successful candidate for this SMP and your future career plans. To do this, include the most important personal, clinical, and research experiences that shaped your path to medicine.
Remember, since there is no unified application system, make sure that your personal statement and CV are program-specific. Check each program's website for descriptions to find inspiration.
Letters of Recommendations
Recommendation letters for SMPs should come from professors and professionals who can evaluate and describe your performances in coursework, clinical experience, and research. They must support your candidacy for this master's program and any of your future career goals. When you approach your potential referees, explain how important this recommendation is for you and for your plans to attend the SMP and, eventually, medical school. The recommenders you approach may already know about your aspirations to become a physician, so it will not come as a surprise to them that you are looking to bolster med applications with an SMP. Your writers must be ready to write you outstanding letters of recommendation to help you in your journey to medical school. If you want to find out all you need to know about letters of reference, including medical school recommendation letters, check out our blog.
Check with your program of choice how many recommendation letters are required. Typically, SMPs ask for three letters of reference. Most programs will request for your letters to be submitted electronically by your reference writers. You will need to indicate your writers’ email addresses in the program’s application system. They will be notified with a request to upload the letters on your behalf.
SMPs can be expensive. While some programs offer financial aid, be prepared to take out loans to finance your master’s program if you do not qualify for financial aid. In the United States, SMPs are offered in both private and public institutions. Private schools’ programs usually do not differentiate between in-state and out-of-state applicants, so tuition costs are the same for all students. The situation is different in public schools, as they often offer lower tuition rates for in-state students. To keep the tuition costs low, consider SMPs in the state where you qualify as a resident. In-state students are also more likely to be eligible for more financial aid and scholarships. Be sure to contact programs you might be interested in and ask for information about financial aid.
Annual tuition costs vary greatly between private and public institutions. The majority of private schools’ SMPs cost no less than US$25,000 per year. SMPs’ tuition costs in public schools range between US$5,000, i.e. MS in Biomedical Sciences at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, to US$15,000, i.e. West Virginia University’s Master of Science in the Health Sciences. However, there are public school programs that cost up to US$25,000. Check with the program of your choice to confirm their tuition costs.
Canadian SMP programs are generally cheaper. Prices also vary from province to province. For example, in Alberta, Canadian students pay around CND$6,000 for thesis-based or coursework-based SMP (if they receive no financial aid), while international students’ tuition can be as high as CND$12,000 annually. These costs are subject to change, so check with the program of your choice.
Affiliation with medical schools. Some special master’s programs are affiliated with a specific medical school. Some programs guarantee conditional acceptance to a medical school if the student meets all the requirements upon completion of the SMP. This is certainly worth considering as it would allow you to avoid any more medical school applications. However, it's important to do your research thoroughly to determine if the affiliated medical school is one you'd actually want to attend. You'll want to factor in things like their reputation, tuition costs, graduate success rates, location, etc. Successful completion of some SMP degrees does not guarantee that you will be accepted into a medical school, but participation in a master’s program and exposure to clinical work may give you an advantage. You will get to know the medical school faculty, their mission and values, and familiarize yourself with the program’s environment. Being a recognizable face among hundreds of applicants is always beneficial.
Gain research experience. SMPs are a great opportunity to gain much-needed research experience. This is especially true if the program you choose is thesis-based. In this case, your research needs are already built into the curriculum. Even if you are taking a coursework-based program, medical school affiliated SMPs are also a great chance to find research experience you will enjoy! Ask your program's faculty if they are looking for help.
Built-in volunteer opportunities. Some programs incorporate community service into their curriculum or allot time slots so their students can pursue volunteer opportunities on their own. Some institutions designate volunteer days for their students. This exposes potential medical school students to work and volunteering opportunities outside of the school’s curriculum. It’s a great chance to build up your AMCAS work and activities section.
Networking Opportunities. Because of their affiliation with medical schools, many special master’s programs can connect you with prominent professionals and faculty members. This exposure allows you to learn more about your chosen career path and different specialties within the medical field. These connections may become useful in your career as a medical professional, as they can become heads of your research projects, mentors, and thesis supervisors. They may even agree to write your medical school recommendation letter.
Flexibility. Many master’s programs have much more flexible schedules than undergraduate degrees or medical school curriculums. If you are looking to bolster your med school application, but additionally have a full- or part-time job, master’s programs usually accommodate their students accordingly. Additionally, being a student on campus may prove to be useful when looking for entry-level, low-paid research positions.
Increase your GPA. If you are looking to improve your GPA without re-taking undergraduate classes, a master’s degree may be the right choice for you. Remember, AMCAS calculates your undergraduate and graduate GPA separately. If you choose not to improve your undergraduate GPA, SMP can be a second chance to prove your academic prowess to admissions committees. If you do not have a competitive GPA after graduating college, look into taking a master’s program in a discipline you would ace. Check out our blog for tips on how to get into medical school with a low GPA.
Extra time to prepare for MCAT. If you have not taken the MCAT exam or are looking to improve your score, a special master's program will give you more time to study and prepare to take the test. Some programs may even offer MCAT prep classes. To prepare for the exam you will need to know what is a good MCAT score and when to start studying for the MCAT.
Cost. The journey of medical school education is expensive whether you enroll in an SMP or not, but master's programs can add to the already egregious med school debt. Typically, you would try to enter medical school right after completing an SMP. If you take out unsubsidized federal, state, or private loans and continue directly into your med school and residency, the interest rate on your loans will continue to accumulate throughout your educational journey. This can result in substantial debt.
GPA. In most cases, successful completion of SMP degrees will not improve your undergraduate GPA. Medical school application systems, like AMCAS, separate your undergraduate degree GPA from your graduate GPA. This does not mean that the admissions committees will not be impressed with your SMP achievements, but they will also be able to see your unimpressive undergrad GPA. You must have other reasons to enroll in SMP than to simply improve your undergraduate GPA. It is a costly, time-consuming project, so be sure to have higher ambitions than GPA improvement.
High Pressure to Succeed. Students decide to enroll in SMPs to increase their chances of getting admitted to medical school. If you completed the master’s program, admissions committees weigh your degree performance heavily. If you did not perform well, the SMP degree can actually hurt your chances for medical school admission. Simply completing the degree will not give you any competitive edge.
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1. I want to choose an SMP affiliated with a medical school. By completing my degree, do I have an advantage to get into this medical school?
Some SMPs are closely linked with medical schools. Enrollment and successful completion of an SMP may qualify you for an interview at the affiliated medical school if you meet the requirements. Some programs guarantee conditional acceptance to a medical school as long as GPA, MCAT, and other requirements are met. For this reason, it's important to determine what the SMPs you're interested in are offering before you apply.
2. How do I look for SMPs?
You can use this AAMC directory to find postbaccalaureate programs and SMPs. It is not an exhaustive list, but you can search for available programs in your state. You can also indicate whether you want to search for public or private schools, what kind of SMP you want to get (i.e. academic enhancers, career changers, and so on), and whether you want a graduate degree or a certificate program. Start by searching for programs in your state. If you qualify as an in-state applicant, SMP tuition cost at public schools will be lower.
3. Do I need to submit my MCAT scores?
Your MCAT score is not a requirement for the majority of programs. Many programs will accept GRE scores instead. However, if you have written the MCAT, you should check with the program of your choice whether submitting your MCAT scores can give you a competitive edge.
4. If I choose to attend SMP, when should I apply for medical school?
If you want to attend medical school right after completing your SMP, the best time to apply to med school is the summer before your last SMP year. For example, if your SMP is a two-year thesis program, apply to medical school the summer between your first and second years. In this case, you already have some of your grades and have had the chance to forge relationships with faculty and mentors, who can become your recommenders. You should gather all of your application materials in the summer and submit them as soon as possible.
If your SMP degree is only one year, apply to medical school the summer before SMP classes start. You can include the classes you plan to take in your medical school applications. Even if you are using a unified system like AMCAS, AACOMAS (American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine), or OMSAS application, you should be able to identify that you are enrolled in an SMP degree. Although you may have no grades or recommendation letters from your SMP at this point, med school admissions committees will be aware that you just started an SMP and working to increase your chances of acceptance. If possible, update your applications with grades and recommendation letters from your SMP. You will most likely be asked to submit your SMP grades – do so as soon as possible. If changes in AMCAS and AACOMAS applications are no longer allowed, perhaps you can contact your medical school of choice to notify them of your successes.
5. Is it easy to get accepted into SMP?
No, SMPs are quite competitive. Remember, SMPs are often attended by the same students who seek to become physicians. Some SMP programs only admit students that were on a medical school waitlist. These applicants’ dedication to the medical field is not diminished. They typically have high GPAs, good MCAT scores, and other impressive credentials. Do not assume that getting admitted to SMP will be easy – work hard on your application.
6. Do SMPs have shadowing and laboratory opportunities?
Yes, the majority of SMPs are designed to provide medical school hopefuls with opportunities in the medical field. Students who graduated from SMPs and went onto become med school students report that during their SMPs, they shadowed in internal medicine clinics, had clinical exposure in pediatric clinics, and even in emergency departments.
7. How do I know if an SMP is right for me?
It is often difficult to assess your options and sometimes students rush into applying for alternative programs after they get a medical school rejection letter. If you have a specific weakness, a master’s program may help you address it, but it may also simply distract you from preparing to apply to med school for the following year. If you are not sure whether an SMP is right for you, you'll have to consider the strength of your application without the completion of an SMP. If you feel that your metrics are average or below average, then an SMP can be a good option. It's important to balance any weaknesses with both the cost, competitiveness, and time required to complete an SMP.
8. Is wanting to get into medical school reason enough to pursue an SMP?
No, only wanting to get into medical school is not reason enough to pursue any course of study. If you are only attending a graduate program to help you meet an end goal, you will not enjoy it and will likely not end up performing well enough for it to benefit you anyway. For this reason, whatever studies you pursue are ones you feel passionate about and will actually want to complete.
9. Which option is better, a post-baccalaureate or an SMP?
You will clearly need to weigh the options of both and decide which one is better for you personally. As noted above, you should pursue the course of study that truly interests you and you feel passionate about. The studies you feel strongest about are the ones you are likely to succeed at, and these are ultimately what will help you achieve admission to medical school if that’s your ultimate goal.
10. How is my graduate work evaluated by medical schools?
You need to check with each individual program how your graduate or post-baccalaureate work is evaluated. Ensure you look at program websites or get in touch with them directly to confirm these details.
11. I don’t find bench research interesting! What can I do?
Please note that not all graduate programs are thesis-based. There are plenty of course-based master’s in Canada and the US which are more well-suited for you if you do not find the idea of doing bench research or writing a thesis as interesting or suited for you. A course-based Master’s consists of advanced science courses deepening your knowledge in the field of study you have chosen, and most likely have exams, presentations, and papers as part of your evaluation; it will be an advanced version of your undergraduate degree. Please do note that even course-based master’s may have a research component and require you to do at least some research and write up and present your findings.
12. Do Canadian universities have special master’s programs?
Yes, they do, but they are not really designed to help students get into medicine specifically. They usually function more as stand-alone master’s degrees. The student can use these as opportunities to bolster their med school application, but they are not specifically designed to do so. Also, Canadian students have the option to do after-degree or post-graduate programs. These often count towards GPA calculations and can be a way of boosting GPA, as the student typically takes a full-time course load for 2 years.
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