Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
In Part One of this series, we discussed post-baccalaureate pre-medical programs for career-changers (i.e. those who have not yet taken any of their medical school prerequisites). In this article, we will address a different kind of post-baccalaureate program—the Special Master’s Program, or SMP—that is designed for pre-medical students who need to show academic preparedness via additional coursework before applying to medical school.
Let’s face it—one of the most important components of your medical school application is your numerical data. Is your MCAT score competitive? Is your BCPM GPA strong? For many medical school hopefuls, falling short on one or more of these aspects is a frightening reality. And while studying for and retaking the MCAT is a relatively simple way to address weaknesses in your test results, remedying a low GPA can be trickier.
While it is possible to independently enroll in science classes after college graduation, many students instead opt to complete a structured “Special Master’s Program” (or SMP) to prove that they are prepared to take on the challenging course load of medical school. If you’re thinking about applying to an SMP, begin with these questions and answers to learn more about what SMPs are like, how they admit students, and what they entail.
What is an SMP?
A Special Master’s Program is a sequence of classes, occasionally offered by medical schools themselves, that allows prospective medical school applicants with low science GPAs to prove their readiness for medical school by completing graduate- or medical school-level coursework. SMPs may offer a Master’s degree in biomedical sciences, physiology, or another area related to medicine. Post-baccalaureate programs that do not issue a Master’s degree upon completion are also an option, though they may be viewed differently by medical schools.
Who should apply to an SMP?
SMPs seek students with a low GPA, a low MCAT score, or both who show promise as medical school applicants. SMPs generally consider students with a minimum science GPA between 2.5 and 3.0 who also have a demonstrated interest in healthcare. Successful applicants to SMPs often have hours of volunteer work or shadowing experience in clinical settings, and most have completed all of the core pre-medical requirements that are necessary to apply to medical school.
How long is an SMP?
SMPs are traditionally one academic year in length, though some programs may stretch to two years.
Will I take medical school courses with medical students?
In some SMPs, SMP students take certain medical school classes alongside MD candidates in their first year of medical school. This is not characteristic of all programs, however, so it is important for you to decide whether or not you wish to attend an SMP that incorporates medical school classes.
What courses will I take?
Common SMP courses include anatomy, biochemistry, molecular biology, and physiology. The SMP curriculum generally builds on the undergraduate prerequisite classes that students have completed, much as medical school builds on the same coursework.
What extracurriculars and test preparation options are available?
Some, but not all, SMPs offer MCAT preparation to those students who need to improve or sit for the MCAT.
SMPs may also offer research, shadowing, and volunteer opportunities to their students. For those programs that are affiliated with a medical school, the extracurricular opportunities may be facilitated by the associated teaching hospitals of the university, as well as the medical school faculty. When looking for an SMP, identify what kinds of extracurricular activities are key to building your medical school application, and then ensure that your program offers such opportunities.
When should I apply to an SMP, and what should I submit?
SMP admissions typically occurs on a rolling basis. However, in order to avoid spots filling before your application is evaluated, it is best to apply early in the cycle.
SMP applications include many of the elements in a medical school application—your contact and demographic information, your transcripts, your overall and science GPAs, several recommendation letters, a list of extracurricular activities and your employment history, standardized test scores (i.e. the GRE or the MCAT), and a personal statement. There is also an application fee.
When will I apply to medical school?
Students can apply to medical school during the same year that they complete their SMP, but some individuals elect to first finish the SMP, and to then apply to medical school in order to present a complete SMP academic record at the time of their medical school application.
Cassie Kosarek, MD is a professional tutor with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. She earned her Bachelor of Arts from Bryn Mawr College and was a member of the Class of 2021 at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.