A special master’s program, or SMP, 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. In this blog, we will discuss what the SMPs are, their benefits and disadvantages, and show you the best SMP application strategies. Plus, we will get to read two SMP personal statement samples! Finally, we will give you a list of 20 best SMPs for medical school.


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What Are Special Master’s Programs?

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 to succeed in medical school. 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 that you already have experience in a medical school classroom setting. 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 your desired program, you can do the required work. This is your chance to show the admission committees that you have what it takes to be a medical student.

SMPs vs Postbaccalaureate Programs

SMPs and postbaccalaureate programs are similar in intent but are designed for different types of students. While most SMPs are graduate degrees, postbaccalaureate programs are not full degrees. The latter are designed for non-traditional medical school applicants who have not competed medical school prerequisite courses. Postbaccalaureate programs allow students to get their medical school prerequisites and 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.

Benefits of SMPs

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.

Let's revisit the main benefits of SMPs:

Possible Disadvantages of SMPs

Cost. The journey to medical school 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 some 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.

Review the possible disadvantages of SMPs:

How to Choose the Right Special Master’s Program?

Firstly, you will need to know what different SMPs and postbaccalaureate programs offer and reflect on what you need. Do you need to bolster your GPA? Are you coming to medicine from a completely unrelated professional background? Did you socioeconomic status prevent you from achieving your full potential? Typically, all special master’s programs, as well as postbaccalaureate programs, have the following designations:

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 like Stanford or Ivy League medical schools, 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.

As you can see, there is a variety of options based on your needs and your educational background. Shortly, we will discuss SMP requirements and application process, but before we do that you must understand what you are looking for and which programs can help you achieve your professional goals.

Application Strategies

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 system set up by the school of your choice. This means that you must cater every application components to the program you are applying to, i.e., if you are applying to 3 SMPs, you will have three different personal statements.

Most special master’s programs have similar requirements as other grad programs and medical schools. The majority of SMPs do not require your MCAT score, but you can submit your scores if you have written the test and the score is impressive. To be considered for the majority of SMPs, you must have a bachelor’s degree with a GPA of at least 3.0. Just a reminder, each SMP will have its own GPA thresholds and requirements. While many programs will set their cut-off at 3.0, some might set it at 2.8, 3.2, or some other number. Always check with the program of your choice.

Educational Background

SMP requirements and medical school prerequisites are similar. You are recommended to have background in the following disciplines:

Transcripts

You must provide one transcripts from each school you have attended. 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.

CV

While medical school applicants typically fill out AMCAS Work and Activities or a similar section in their application system, SMP candidates are usually 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. If you have already applied to medical school and did not get in, then you must have compiled a list of activities and experiences you wanted to share with the admissions committees. Use this list to create your CV for SMPs. Remember, just because it's not a medical school application does not mean that you can slack off. Your CV must be impressive.

Do you want to know if a master's or a PhD will help you get into medical school? Check out our video:

Personal Statement

Your application must also include a personal statement. It is not unlike your medical school personal statement. Each SMP will have its own character limit, and sometimes even prompts. Typically, your personal statement should not be longer than a page; two at most. Create a strong and captivating introduction and share the story of how you ended up on the path to becoming a doctor. Most importantly, 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 an SMP is a stepping stone for you. 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. Tailor your submissions to the goals and mission of each program you apply to.

Keep in mind that there are some programs that will require the submission of supplementary application essays. Since every program has an individualistic approach to candidate selection process, check with the program of your choice whether any secondary components are required.

Letters of Recommendations

Recommendation letters for SMPs should come from professors and professionals who can evaluate and describe your performance in coursework, clinical work, 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 your 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.

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.

SMP Personal Statement Samples

Sample #1

The thought of my loved ones dying never occurred to me until one day, when I was 10; I saw my grandfather collapse to the floor holding his chest. We were at home, in a rural town in Ukraine, and my first thought was that the emergency vehicle would not arrive in time to save his life. What I remember most about that moment is my mother’s reaction. Without panic, she performed the necessary first aid and ensured that my grandfather was as comfortable as possible. Help arrived in time and my grandfather survived. This incident left me in awe of my mother. I knew that she was a physician— she was the only endocrinologist in our small town— but I had never seen her in action before. Her poise and knowledge of what to do ignited a fire in me that day. From then on, I knew that I wanted to be as brave and resilient in the face of human frailty. Medicine seemed like the logical path to this, and I have pursued this career ever since.

While my aspiration of becoming a doctor never wavered, I was naturally distracted on my journey. As a new immigrant to a public high school, I wanted to prove myself and fit in with my American peers. But the language barrier and culture shock took their toll on me. I did not perform well academically as I could not understand much of what was being taught; in my junior year of high school, I received a mere 2.5 GPA. My setbacks riled my spirit and in the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I got a part-time job that helped me pay for an English tutor. My progress was impressive, and in the end, I graduated high school with a 3.6 GPA.

With the dream of becoming a physician, I enrolled in a premed program in college. Even though I knew that hard sciences were not my forte, I chose to stick to the traditional path. I worked hard to keep up my GPA and got involved in extracurriculars like shadowing and clinical volunteering, but my resources were limited, and on top of my premed responsibilities I had to get a part-time job to sustain myself. Slowly, I lost sight of some targets necessary for becoming a physician. Upkeeping my GPA became my obsession, and I neglected to study for the MCAT, gain research experience, and get involved in volunteer work.   Upon graduation from college, I had a great GPA, but a low MCAT score and application that lacked essential elements for success. And even though I made mistakes, I knew that I can be a great physician. This is what led me to this opportunity.

I am interested in your Master in Medical Sciences program because I want to gain the necessary experiences and skills that are essential for becoming a medical student. My setbacks and mistakes have revealed to me what I must do to catch up to my peers and your program would be perfect for providing me with the opportunity to build myself up for medical school. For instance, your X research program can help me build the necessary research and lab skills, while your MCAT preparatory course can provide me with the opportunity to increase my score on the test. Additionally, I would love to have the opportunity to work in your medical facilities alongside medical students. This would be a great chance to entrench me in the medical school environment.

Remembering my stoic mother the day my grandfather had a heart attack, I am always reminded of why I wanted to become a physician On my journey to medical school, I have gained a great deal of experience in clinical settings, but I am still lacking in vital areas. Coming from a rural town, I also know I would like to work with underserved populations and hope to make a difference in the lives of those who cannot always afford healthcare. Your program is my chance to regain my footing on the path of becoming a doctor. 

What makes this statement good? The author captures our attention right from the beginning of the essay. They paint a vivid picture of the scene and create a cohesive narrative of what led them to pursue medicine. The writer also presents us with the hurdles they had to overcome in their journey, but they strengthen the narrative by presenting us with how they overcame the problem. Note that the student takes on responsibility for their actions and reveals that they learned from their mistakes. They explain how this particular SMP can help them achieve their goals, and demonstrate that they have researched the program and made a well-informed choice.

Sample #2

As I was standing on top of the podium with a friendly stranger congratulating me on my win, all I could think of was "Do not faint". My head was spinning, and I was using all my willpower to keep myself from being sick. This was not the first time this happened to me – as a professional gymnast, I have sprained, broken, and bruised my leg thousands of times. Sometimes I wonder how it hasn’t just simply fallen off because of the way I treated it. My desire to heal it was one of the first times I thought of becoming a physician. The world of professional sports is full of injuries. I have seen  friends going blind from pain. My yearning to alleviate their suffering and mine, is what cemented the desire to pursue medicine.

I am what they call a non-traditional medical school applicant. Academia and learning were never my focus. Even as a student at the University of X, I was forgiven for less than mediocre grades for winning gold medals. My life revolved around gymnastics and I loved it. The need to prove to myself that I could do a seemingly impossible trick was enthralling. I loved being a part of a team and soon became the captain. But my health and the health of my teammates started to concern me. My leg, which never got the time to heal after each injury, became almost a separate part of my body. I could feel it ache all the time. Finally, I chose health over sports and ended up lost without meaning in my life.

My only choice was to focus on my academics, as I was still a student at the University of X. Now I had to truly focus on increasing my GPA. To my surprise, I fell in love with my classes. I majored in History and slowly began to branch out to other departments, taking classes in Religion, Political Science, and Philosophy. My grades soared and I finished my junior year with a 3.7 GPA.

My injured leg was a constant reminder that kept me pondering the thought of medical school. But by the beginning of my senior year of college, I have not taken the necessary prerequisites and haven’t begun studying for the MCAT. My research led me to your program.

I want to enroll in the Master of Science in Medical Physiology program because it will help me prepare for medical school. Not only will I be able to complete all the necessary prerequisites in two years of this program, but your state-of-the-art facilities will provide me with the chance to gain clinical experience with some of the most renowned professionals in the field. I am especially looking forward to the Physical Therapy course, which will help me determine if this is the medical path I want to pursue eventually. Additionally, these two years will give me time to prepare and ace my MCAT exam.

Leaving gymnastics did not diminish my resilient spirit. During practices and competitions, my coach always stood on the sidelines of the floor or the bars. As we landed a particularly difficult trick, he yelled “Hold!” As I am embarking on a long and challenging journey, I keep his guidance in my mind. I know I have a long way to go to medical school, but my determination and drive are unwavering. With the help of your program, I can acclimatize myself to the medical field and gain the necessary experiences to succeed.

What makes this statement good? The introductory sentence of this essay intrigues the reader. We want to find out what happens next. We are presented with a unique experience that explains why the student chose to pursue medicine. Furthermore, the writer manages to loop back to the beginning with her conclusion, thus making the story complete. The author also paints a picture of qualities and experiences that would make her the right fit for this program and for medicine in general. It is a very personal and sincere story. We understand the drive and motivation behind the student's choice of program. They clearly indicate what they can accomplish in the program and why they want to enroll.

Tuition Costs

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.

How Long Does It Take to Complete SMPs?

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.

Best SMPs for Medical School

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FAQs

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), TMDSAS, 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.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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