Put Down That MPH Application: How to Reapply to Medical School the Right Way

By Monya De, MD, MPH

Unsuccessful medical school applicants face a quandary. What to do next?

A popular option has been the master’s degree in public health. Students figured it was a way to spend a year doing something “health-related.” They could take off for medical school interviews, maybe write a paper or two. But the MPH is too easy a route. It is not enough. Here is what the MPH telegraphs: “I sat down for a year in easy to moderate difficulty classes and passed. I have a broad overview of public health.”

Note: none of this says “I have a new skill” “I have distinguished myself” or “I have made a significant sacrifice”. And the admissions committee already knows the student can pass easy to moderate classes—that is what a college diploma with a respectable GPA is for. The MPH is a *great* degree to get during residency or fellowship, when the program is paying for it, when it creates a needed break in residency, and when it can extend loan deferment in a time of financial need.

As a former admissions committee member at my medical school, I was well aware of the reality of application readers. These are tired physicians with young kids running around. They grab a few hours at the end of a long day, glass of wine in hand, to read students’ applications. They are looking for something to surprise and delight them, not “I took some more classes that were not that difficult.” [I have an MPH, but did it during residency].

They are looking to be impressed, to be startled out of the haze that settles over them after reading too many identical applications. And doing that does not have to involve $60,000 in tuition money, two years, and weak hamstrings from sitting in the library. There will be plenty of that later. If medical school is your goal, there are many ways to strengthen your application without taking two years of your life and adding significantly to the amount of debt you accumulate.

Applicants should figure out where the weak spots are in their applications. Weak science grades? Take one-off classes in physiology and biochemistry at the local community college instead of paying for another degree that is highly unlikely to be used enough to justify its expense. (The rare exceptions to never using your MPH include preventive medicine and running epidemiological studies as a faculty member).

Not enough volunteering? Unique opportunities abound. Teach ESL at a community center and learn Spanish yourself as you get to know the people there. Coach a sport in a low-income school district. Teach art in an assisted living home. Become a court appointed special advocate (CASA) for foster children.

Application too boring? Take up competitive bodybuilding. Then write an essay about lessons in human performance, discipline, motivation, and pushing your limits to be the best you can be. [Or: work in the office of a local congressperson fighting for access to healthcare].

Not enough medical experience? Become a medical scribe and see patients every day. Or do patient intake at a high-volume rural clinic or ER. The patients are guaranteed to be fascinating, and the experience will be impressive to big-city admissions folk.

Need to make money? Become a waiter or bartender. Write a personal statement about serving people from all walks of life, balancing multiple orders and keeping them all straight in your head (if you don’t think being a hospital intern is exactly like being a waiter, just ask any physician), and staying professional in the face of upset customers.

Admissions is a numbers game, and success means doing something the rest of those numbers are not willing or able to do. Applicants need to have an application unique enough that readers say, “Oh, yes, I remember the one who did…”. Find it, do it, and the chances of success increase markedly.

About the Author

Monya De, MD MPH is an internal medicine physician, journalist, and speaker in Los Angeles. She has been a reporter for the ABC News Medical Unit, a commentator for the television show “Hopkins,” and a script consultant for shows including “Harry’s Law”, “The Ghost Whisperer”, “Brothers and Sisters”, “House”, “The Firm”, and “black-ish”. Dr. De attended Stanford University and graduated with distinction from the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. She is the co-author of the 2016 book Minerals:The Forgotten Nutrient. Find her on Twitter @medjournalist.

2 thoughts on “Put Down That MPH Application: How to Reapply to Medical School the Right Way

  • August 6, 2018 at 7:37 pm
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    In general, I agree with the sentiment. I admit – the title caught my attention about singling out the MPH pathway. But, I wouldn’t downplay that opportunity across the board. If someone is legitimately interested in public health and intended to get specialized training regardless, then it’s not a throw-away degree or use of time. But, yes – I don’t think people should think that getting their MPH is going to significantly improved their chances of admission to medical school, unless they are concurrently doing other things to prove their commitment to being a clinician.

    However, if someone is particularly interested in preventive medicine or clinical research, I fully agree with your endorsement to get the MPH during another period of training. The financial argument is undeniable. But, I also believe that having spend some time immersed in the practice of medicine will make the experience much fuller (and likely more productive). People interested in this route should be aware of the fact that preventive medicine is a boarded specialty that is an option for medical school graduates with at least an internship year under their belt. It’s a small specialty and are often not on medical student’s radar. If interested, I recommend visiting the American College of Preventive Medicine website.

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  • August 7, 2018 at 4:58 pm
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    I agree with the two comments posted above. What I would like to contribute is that if the weakness in the application is academic, especially in the sciences, an MPH is not an adequate answer. Committees that I have participated on since the late 90’s want to be convinced of the core science knowledge levels if weak in the initial degree, An MPH is a good degree for many things related to the healthcare world but does not usually have enough “meat” to change that core science academic equation. While there are several different scenarios I will address the three most common that I consistently see:

    1. Weak performance in a generally accepted core science degree available a most programs with a good upward trend placing the overall GPA numbers in the ~3.3-3.5 range. In general those in this area many gain an acceptance, but it seems that many more will not. A good strong effort that builds on a strong Jr/Sr trend in a good one-year core-science MS/Certificate (30-36hrs) will usually be of great benefit in a future application. The best chance for this to pay off would be the application cycle after the MS/Cert is finished because usually only the fall term grades are available during the admissions committee/interview cycle.

    2. Weak performance in a generally accepted core science degree available in most programs with a flat or inconsistent trend. This may need a strong effort in a MS for at least one year, maybe two.

    3. A good performance in a non-science degree where most of the minimum requirements were taken. This may need an extra strong semester or two of solid science BS coursework trying to do full-time semesters to show a committee that you can excel. I do not recommend repeating coursework unless the applicant has been away from academics for a few years or can otherwise justify repeating the courses for foundation of knowledge. Another option for those who have been away from academics could be a second BS (~60hr) in a core science area.

    There are several other scenarios that could be developed here. Each of the above are general guidelines that may need to be altered based on some of the many other factors that have to be considered. In every instance above the applicant must continue to actively demonstrate an interest in medicine and humanism by continuously volunteering their time for others as well as teamwork skills. To improve the academics and forsake these other activities would surely un-do an application in short order.

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