How do I get into a health professional school?

The pathway is very clear, but not easy. It takes considerable motivation to complete. Basically, any health professional school is looking for:

  1. Mastery of basic science requirements with a respectable/competitive Grade Point Average (however, these requirements vary and students need to check each individual programs); 
  2. Broad exposure to humanities and social sciences; 
  3. Demonstration of initiative for independent learning (independent study, undergraduate research, study abroad); 
  4. Demonstration of going beyond basic course work to examine one or more subjects or areas in some depth. This statement implies approaching your academic requirements beyond a laundry list of requirements (minors, a second major, study abroad, undergraduate research, special study, independent study are all possible pathways to demonstrate a genuine intellectual interest in learning for the pure pleasure of the activity);
  5. Professional growth and maturity as demonstrated through the ability to gain strong/excellent letters of recommendation from faculty members at the university; 
  6. Demonstration of commitment for caring about people who are medically disadvantaged (clinical experience); 
  7. Demonstration of community interest and involvement, or trying to make your community a better place to live (volunteer experience at some level, for example, tutoring, working at a homeless shelter, working with Habitat for Humanity, just to mention a few);
  8. Demonstration of motivation to educate oneself about the health care career you are aspiring to, understanding the role of the health professional (shadowing experience);
  9. Outstanding personal qualities such as maturity, stability, integrity, responsibility, trustworthiness, leadership, enthusiasm and motivation (what examples can you give of these qualities and/or who can speak to them on your behalf?);
  10. An indication that you have taken the initiative and have demonstrated the motivation to accomplish something worthwhile with your life (creativity/volunteerism); 
  11. Ability to carry on a sophisticated, meaningful, and mature conversation with older people (advantage of the interview with the Health Professions Evaluation Committee); and 
  12. Demonstrated ability to interact and communicate effectively with others from different cultural backgrounds.

As one can readily see, preparation for health professional school takes time and a good plan. That is why advisors and admissions officers lack confidence in the student who suddenly appears late in their academic career with the epiphany, “I have now decided to go to medical school!” The pathway is clear, but preparation takes time and considerable motivation. Plan to begin early and show consistency in your preparation. 

Frequent questions about academics

Do I have to major in a science to be competitive?

There is no required or preferred major for professional school. You should select a major based on your interest and abilities, not whether you think it will help you gain entrance into professional school. As a general rule, health professional schools are less concerned with what an applicant majors in as they are with the quality of their academic career. You will need to complete the required prerequisites courses regardless of your chosen major. For students who do not major in a life science,it is recommended that you enroll in a few additional science courses beyond those minimally required as part of your elective choices. If you want to go to the most selective schools, this option is a must.

  • Medical schools, for example, consider students from any major, as long as the student has completed the pre-requisites. Some medical schools require courses in biochemistry and/or statistics in addition to the standard pre-requisite classes. Other health profession areas are more restrictive about the classes they expect students to have.
  • Dentistry, for example, has a longer list of pre-requisites, including courses such as microbiology, genetics, cell and molecular biology, biochemistry, immunology and animal physiology. 
  • Nursing, PA and PT fields like to see students take the class, Human Anatomy and Physiology.
  • The general goal is to achieve an application package which is well rounded academically as well as with respect to clinical, service and social accomplishments.
  • At Virginia Tech, many of our pre-health professions students select Biological Sciences as their major. However, our students also have majors such as Biochemistry, Chemistry, HNFE (Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise), Engineering (Chemical, Civil, and Mechanical Engineering), Psychology, Human Development, Philosophy (Pre-Medical Professions Option), and Business Information Technology.
  • The best way to garner information is to use the internet to look at the website of a few health professional schools that you are interested in, and/or talk with the admissions office for those schools to obtain specific details.

What should my GPA be?

The average GPA for students accepted to allopathic medical schools is 3.65 overall and 3.55 in biology, chemistry, physics and math courses. For osteopathic medical schools, the average overall GPA is 3.4 and for dental schools, it is 3.45. Students who are below these averages may still be accepted, especially if their GPA is very close to these averages. However, students whose GPA is more than a few tenths below these averages will have a much more difficult time being accepted. Each applicant is unique and questions about GPA and other concerns should be discussed with academic and health professions advisors. For example, if you have a period of time when you did not perform well academically but there is an explanation for the poor performance and an established record of success, a poorer GPA may be less troublesome to admissions committees.

What are the basic pre-requisite courses I must take?

These are:

  • First year biology (with labs),
  • First year chemistry (with labs),
  • Organic chemistry (with labs), and
  • Physics (with labs),
  • First year Math, and
  • English.

However, additional courses in such areas as microbiology, genetics, cell and molecular biology, anatomy and physiology, biochemistry and immunology would be recommended depending on the school and the health profession.

What if I receive a C in a class?

It is a better strategy to succeed in a more advanced course than to repeat a course for a higher grade. If you do not feel you have the necessary foundation to proceed in a discipline, then you should repeat the class. However, both your grades will be counted towards your GPA when you apply to professional school so retaking a class will not replace the original grade.

Also you should be aware that Virginia Tech policy states that “a student may not repeat courses in order to improve his or her grade average where a grade of C or higher has been earned. An assigned grade of "A-D" will be changed to "P" whenever a graduation analysis (DARS report) detects a repeated course previously passed with a "C" or better.” See Undergraduate Course Catalog. 

Individual schools set their own policies concerning whether or not a C- grade will satisfy their pre-requisite requirement. If you have a C- in a required course, you should consult the websites of all the schools you plan to apply to regarding their policy.

What if I receive a D or F in a class?

You should repeat a class if you receive a D or F. Such a grade suggests you do not understand the material sufficiently or there was some other significant problem.

Should I consider taking a W for a class?

Professional schools are wary of applicants who must withdraw from classes, especially when there is no compelling explanation or if it occurs often. There are many factors to consider before taking a W, such as the effect it will have on future courses, the grade you might receive should you stay in a course and the reason why you may need to withdraw. It is recommended you discuss this decision with your academic advisor if you have questions about this decision.

Is it alright to take these pre-requisites over the summer in summer school? 

The answer to this question is “No.” Any health professional school likes to see these courses, especially the science courses, taken on campus with a normal academic load (15 credits) so that one's maturity, motivation, time management skills and intellect can be evaluated. For example, the science courses approximate the difficulty of a typical medical school class if the science course is taken during the academic year. If Organic Chemistry, for example, is taken during the summer and an A is earned, although this grade will help one’s GPA, it does not provide a yardstick about one's personal qualities of handling a full semester load.

If one must take a course in the summer for legitimate reasons, take the course at a home institution or another four year college. Medical schools frown on taking science classes at a community college over the summer because the perception is that these courses are not as rigorous as those taken during the normal academic year. One may argue this point, but perception counts heavily in this regard. If one or more of the pre-requisite courses are taken in summer school, this issue needs to be addressed in a letter on your behalf.

Is it a good idea to graduate early?

All applicants should acquire sufficient life experience before applying to professional school. Some students can do this undertaken in a shorter period of time than others, but it is generally advisable for students to remain in school and fully embrace all the unique experiences available to an undergraduate. However, there are always exceptions, such as financial concerns or interesting opportunities after graduation. These can be addressed best on a case by case basis.

I did not do well in my early years at college and my GPA is poor. What should I do? Do I have a chance of getting in?

The answer depends on what is the GPA. If the GPA is marginal, one may need to consider an extra year and take some rigorous courses to demonstrate one's true academic potential. Another choice is a graduate program, or a post baccalaureate program at one of the medical/dental schools. There must be a clear demonstration of an improvement which should represent your true academic potential, which is competitive.

If the GPA is extremely poor and involves academic probation or suspension, then one may need to sit down with an individual in an admissions office (for the health professional school of your choice) and develop a strategy to demonstrate improvement.

There is always the potential to be accepted. However, you must demonstrate your true character, intellectual ability and seriousness of purpose, which may take much longer than normal. Some students have tried for as long as four years after graduation to mount a competitive application, and were eventually accepted to a professional school.

I am a senior and I just decided that I want to go to medical school. I know this career is really what I want to do with my life. Can I get in?

How can you convince someone that you really know what you want to do with your life if this decision is spontaneous on your part? What is there to show that tomorrow morning you will not decide to be an aviator, a deep sea diver, a sheep herder or a sea captain? Being a competitive applicant for medical school, dental school or any other health professional school takes commitment, motivation, discipline and preparation.

In this case, assuming one has taken all of the pre-requisite classes and has a competitive GPA, one needs clinical experience.

  • What is your level of awareness about medicine as a career?
  • Could you carry on a meaningful conversation with an admissions officer about the career of medicine?
  • Can you demonstrate that you understand what you are getting into, that you are committing to work with sick people for the rest of your life?

It usually takes some time to put together a package to demonstrate that you are convinced of your decision about this chosen career.

Furthermore, there are processes, including the Health Professions Evaluation Committee that is required if a committee letter needs be written on your behalf.

The truth is that one needs to develop a plan to be competitive and then exercise the plan. Too often, there is a rush to finish and in the end the student is not competitive. The issue here is to be competitive. Time and finishing are no longer the most important variables if one is truly sincere about gaining admission.

Do I have to work with HPA to be a competitive applicant? 

Medical schools and other health professional schools will want to know why you did not work with the Director and HPA on campus. Not to do so invites an opinion that one is not a team player and that one looks for shortcuts to success. This reflects negatively on one's character. The real question is, “Why would you not want to work with HPA?” The office exists to promote your success. We are not gatekeepers. It is not our job to decide who gets in and who does not get in. Our job is to promote our students. However, if the director and other pre-health advisors do not know you, then it is difficult and almost impossible to write a letter on your behalf.

Should I take AP credit for courses to get ahead in college? 

Taking AP courses in high school is one thing, accepting the credit is another. There are many variables to consider when answering this question.

For example, the most critical aspect of doing well in college is the ability to adapt quickly to a college campus – making the transition period. The secret is to find ways to reduce the size of the university and find/create a group of people with whom one can interact and to whom one has access for moral support. If one accepts the AP credit and then steps into upper division classes, there are few/no individuals with whom one can interact. Furthermore, these are sophomores, they know the system, the professor, they have their own study groups; the other students on your hall probably are not in this class, so the feelings of being an outsider and being alone are very pervasive and detrimental to one’s development.

Secondly, there is no quality credit for an AP grade. Consider the situation where one accepts AP credit for freshman biology and advances into Cell and Molecular Biology and Microbiology the first semester on campus. If one makes Bs in these courses that is great! It might have been that one could have made an A in these classes if they had taken Freshman Biology their first year and then taken the above courses the first semester of the sophomore year! Besides, if the AP scores were valid, then one should be able to earn A’s their first year in the Freshman Biology course. When it comes time to complete the primary application to medical school, the AP credit has no value and one must use the B’s in the upper division classes. However, if one had taken freshman biology and then the upper division classes, one could be looking at four biology classes with A’s which do have quality credit value!

In general, medical and dental schools will accept whatever the university accepts for graduation. Hence, these professional schools will accept AP credit. However, using the AP credit for advancement at the undergraduate level may be shortsighted in the long run in terms of developing a competitive application.

If one does accept AP credit, the general rule is to take one or two additional courses at the upper division level to demonstrate that the AP credit was not a fluke.

Dental schools tend to have stricter policies in some cases regarding AP credits. It is important to check school websites for their specific policies early, in case additional coursework is needed.

I am a “non-traditional” student in that I graduated some years ago from Virginia Tech (or I graduated from another university and I am in Blacksburg working at Company XYZ) and I want to go to apply to health professional school. What do I need to do to begin the journey?

To start on this journey, one needs to schedule an appointment with the HPA. What needs to be demonstrated is evidence that the sudden interest in a medical career is not a fanciful decision. There needs to be evidence that this decision is based on accumulated experiences. Too often, non-traditional students become tired or bored with their present job and are looking about for a new career area – and so why not medicine? But how long will it be before the person is bored with medicine and is off looking for yet another career?

The pathway to health professional school is very clear, but it is not easy. One of the tasks is to demonstrate commitment and it takes time to build a record that says a career in the health profession is what one really wants to do with his or her life.

Frequent questions about experiences

What if my parents are physicians or dentists?

Professional schools want assurance that your motivation to have such a career is your own and you have not been pressured to do so. Consequently, you must demonstrate through your experiences that you have confirmed that this career path is for you and no-one else. 

Is it important to do undergraduate research?

It is important to do undergraduate research if participating in research is important to you. Having undergraduate research on one's transcript is not an issue UNLESS one is thinking about an MD/PhD program. In this case, undergraduate research would be essential. If you do decide to pursue interests in undergraduate research, do not be surprised if one is asked about the research that one did and why.

How do I gain access to medical facilities for clinical experience?

Gaining clinical experience (through shadowing, volunteering, missions, or actual employment) is critical not only to show a thorough understanding of selected healthcare areas but to also reassure the applicant of their suitability for their chosen field. The first thing to do is present oneself professionally. 

  • Cover all the tattoos, 
  • Get rid of the extra body jewelry/armor (in the nose, tongue, lips, eyebrows, the six or so pins in the ears, and cover the belly button),
  • Get the smell of cigarette smoke off your breath and clothes, and
  • Make sure that you are well groomed and hygienically presentable (take a bath and put on some deodorant!).

You are seeking admission to a profession where public perception is very important. You are not the center of the universe any longer; it is about one's patients and what they think about one's professional ability. If one wants to be a professional, dress like one. This idea seems to be self-evident, but it is not apparent to many students.

Secondly, seek volunteer offices at local hospitals, free clinics, nursing homes, retirement homes, shelters, etc. Again, do not call and ask about volunteering or send emails. Show up in person and present yourself as a young professional. Be prepared to be able to converse with the volunteer coordinator and explain why the position is important to you; fill out the application legibly, especially so they can get in touch with you should a position materialize. Many hospitals have training programs that you will have to go through in order for you to have credentials and be able to work in the medical environment. But one's first impression will go a long way in paving the way for an invitation to participate in the training program.

Thirdly, consider taking a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) class or complete a radiology certification program (the latter is an excellent way to gain a presence in dentist offices). These programs are often offered at the high school level or in community colleges. Most medical clinics have strict guidelines about who can be in the environment and around patients for liability reasons. These guidelines limit students gaining access to the clinical environment, and hence the much-needed clinical experience. Certification in a medically-related field, such as CNA or radiology, ensures that you have credentials to work in a medical environment and be around patients. Many physicians are reluctant to allow you to shadow them for the same reasons. 

Regardless of the way you chose – the key is to diversify your clinical experiences and if possible attempt to gain experience in different areas of health care from a private care setting (primary and specialty care), emergency medicine, indigent care, international health care, etc.

Why is community service essential?

Community service demonstrates that you have the personal attributes desired in a health care professional. By placing yourself in situations where you are serving people in need, it shows that you are caring, compassionate, responsive, etc. The kind of community service you pursue can vary widely; ideally, you should be intensely involved with people in need over a period of time long enough so that you may have an impact.

Is it favorable to be involved in campus organizations?

Significant and substantiated involvement in campus organizations signifies an investment in your community. Acquiring leadership roles in this way is seen favorably by admissions committees.

Frequent questions about application

When do I apply?

You should apply when you are the most competitive which can be your either your junior, or senior year or even after you graduate from Virginia Tech! Most students apply to their chosen health professional programs during the summer of their junior year for admission the following year. The HPA will host Application Information Sessions throughout the year where interested applicants will be given information about timelines for applying to their programs.

When are the application services open?

Most of the application services open their electronic submission services between May and July for input of data. AMCAS, AACOMAS and AADSAS typically open the first of May for keying data and for submission by the first of June. Applicants are encouraged to submit their transcripts to these services as soon as spring grades are posted. Applications should be submitted no later than July 15th and between June 1 and 15th if at all possible (based on school requirements or early acceptance applicants). The other application services open from July through August.

What documents/information do I need to fill out the application?

  1. Personal history of accomplishments (supporting your academic record with a listing of clinical, service and social/community service work), and finally 
  2. A personal statement which highlights an applicant's strengths and personality
  3. Official transcripts from all institutions of study, 
  4. Admission test scores, 
  5. Letters of recommendation and review committee evaluation (depending on the graduate program)

What is meant by rolling versus non-rolling admissions?

Most health professions schools use a rolling admissions procedure. Applications are screened in the order in which they are completed. Interviews are offered and conducted, decisions are made at weekly or bi-monthly meetings of the admission committee, and notices mailed, beginning as early as October 15th. Thus, successful applicants interviewed in September and October may have already received letters of acceptance by a November 15th deadline for receipt of applications.

Experience has shown that as the class builds in size, the committee is more likely to offer a wait list position rather than an acceptance. A few medical schools use non-rolling admissions. Examples include Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Penn and Duke, offer acceptances only after completing interviews with all candidates and send out their first acceptance letters in late February or early March. However, even for non-rolling admissions schools, an early application may give you a better chance at acceptance.

What if I am not accepted?

Realize that competition for acceptance to health care graduate programs is extremely fierce, and that depending on the overall strength of your application, you need to consider your options if you are not accepted in your first attempt. The primary question is to address your willingness to reapply with the understanding that although rejection can be painful it should also be viewed as simply a year out of your life compared with the rest of your career. “Gap years” can provide an excellent opportunity to address any weaknesses in applications, to simply bolster your application, take a break from academics, or to even save for your continued education.

If you find yourself facing a re-application year, contact HPA for an advising appointment.

Some items to consider prior to your appointment:

  • If your overall GPA is weak, then consider post-baccalaureate coursework at the 300/400 or graduate course level. These grades will provide a separate post-baccalaureate GPA in the application.
  • Consider repeating science and pre-requisite courses where Ds and C minuses were earned.
  • If you have limited science background (i.e. non-science undergraduate major), you might want to consider a post-baccalaureate program for medical pre-requisites.
  • If your clinical areas are weak, consider obtaining a licensure as an emergency medical technician, a CNA, a phlebotomist, etc., and securing employment or even volunteering after the certification.
  • Expand and diversify your clinical experiences.
  • Although it is often harder to acquire service experience after graduation, if you are weak in the service and leadership area, use the internet as well as the many resources online through HPA to discover and participate in community and international service work.