As a medical school admissions consultant and the former director of both the Johns Hopkins and Goucher post-baccalaureate premedical programs, I am often asked about post-bac programs by prospective medical school applicants. They want to know if a post-bac program is appropriate for their needs, whether they are “career changers” and need to complete medical school prerequisites or “record enhancers” and need to improve their GPA. Not every case requires enrolling in a formal post-bac program.
What Is a Post-Bac Program?
“Post-baccalaureate premedical program” is a phrase that can be confusing because of the different kinds of programs offered. In literal terms, a “post-bac program” consists of additional courses completed after graduating from college, thus the term “post-baccalaureate”. A post-bac program can fall under two categories:
1. Undergraduate Level Courses
Within this category, students enroll in undergraduate courses, either taking them for the first time (“career changers”) or repeating/enrolling in upper-level courses (“record enhancers”). Sometimes programs meld the two, such that the two types of students can mix; these programs are less formal than strict career changer programs, which usually have a prescribed curriculum of courses that career changing students must take to fulfill premedical requirements. Thus, within this category there are two subtypes:
- Formal career changer programs (such as Goucher, Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins)
- Record enhancer programs, which also allow career changers to enroll (such as Harvard Extension, UNC-Greensboro, University of Pennsylvania)
2. Graduate Level Courses
These can be traditional graduate programs or “special master’s programs”. The former entail regular graduate coursework leading to a master’s degree. The latter almost always includes medical school courses as part of the curriculum. These programs are always for those seeking to improve an academic record. Only students who have completed the premedical requirements would be eligible to enroll since they need that course content to take graduate level courses.
- Traditional graduate programs (physiology master’s programs, such as at the University of Michigan and Georgetown; other disciplines such as “biomedical science” are offered elsewhere)
- Special master’s programs (such as Georgetown in physiology, Boston U in medical sciences, Brown in medical sciences)
The AAMC maintains a comprehensive list of post-baccalaureate programs.
Post-Bac Options for Career Changers
If a prospective medical school applicant is truly changing careers they will need to either enroll in a formal post-bac program or take the premedical requirements independently at a school of their choice. There can be advantages to enrolling in a formal program such as strong advising, a sense of community and support, courses that may be separate from undergraduates and thus smaller, linkages with medical schools, and the compressed time frame to complete courses. However, formal programs are often expensive and may require a move, which is sometimes not feasible either financially or for personal reasons.
There are options other than a formal post-bac program for those who need to fulfill premedical requirements. Students can enroll locally at a school of their choice. While this can save money and be easier logistically, it can be complicated. It can be difficult to gain entry to the premedical courses because they are usually in high demand. Those seeking a degree usually get first priority. It can be helpful to enroll as a degree-seeking student so that you can more easily access the courses. These students also may have difficulty accessing advising, depending on the school.
The less formal post-bac programs (those enrolling both career changers and record enhancers) are often cheaper than the formal post-bac programs. Harvard Extension School, for example, is a relatively low-cost option and suits the needs of both career changers and record enhancers since it is flexible in regard to courses.
Post-Bac Options for Record Enhancers
The first decision this group of students needs to make is whether to do an undergraduate or graduate program. This decision will be based, in part, on the prior GPA—both the cumulative undergraduate GPA and the BCPM (biology, chemistry, physics, and math) GPA. A cumulative or BCPM GPA below 3.5 will be marginal for medical school acceptance. Using a GPA calculator to figure out the current GPA and the projected (best-case scenario) GPA after completing an undergraduate-level program can be helpful. The improvement to the GPA can be closely estimated, along with the time and cost required to achieve that improvement. Ideally, the GPA would hit a 3.6 as a minimum for MD schools. This number is derived from the lowest median GPAs listed in the Medical School Admission Requirements.
As with the career changers, students don’t necessarily have to do a formal record enhancing program. They can always opt to take courses on their own, not as part of a program. However, as stated above for the career changers, there could be some disadvantages to doing this. Record enhancers should use the AAMC database of post-bac programs to discern the options available.
If it would take more than one year to achieve the desired GPA improvement and if the student wants to earn a master’s degree for the money spent on additional academic work, then a graduate-level program will be the best option. If the decision is made to pursue a graduate program, then either a “regular” or “Special Master’s” program will be the choice. These programs tend to be last-ditch options for improving the GPA; in other words, students have to do well to gain entry to medical school.
For those who opt for graduate-level courses they will need a formal master’s program; they can’t take courses independently, as those who opt for undergraduate-level courses may do.
Any type of post-bac program provides the opportunity to prove that you can handle the rigor of medical school, whether you’re in a career changing program and coming to the material for the first time, or in a record enhancing program to improve your GPA. Your unique situation will determine if a formal or informal program makes the most sense for you. Good luck with your admissions process!