Is a Post Bacc Program Right for You?

So you’ve decided to go to medical school but you don’t have all the required classes or the grades. Don’t worry, you’re not alone! Every year, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) distributes a survey to matriculating first year medical students and ask about everything from demographics to premedical experiences. Here are some interesting findings from the 2020 survey as it relates to students who do not enter medical school directly from undergrad:

  • 16.2% of first year students were over the age of 26
  • 7.9% reported deciding to study medicine after completion of a bachelor’s degree and 1.7% after an advanced degree
  • 7.4% of students participated in a non-degree post bacc program to strengthen academic skills
  • 7.7% of students participated in a non-degree post bacc program to complete the premedical required courses
  • 8.3% were five or more years out from undergrad

I check 4 of those 5 boxes: I started medical school at 29, decided to pursue medical school while I was completing my Master of Public Health, went to a post bacc program to complete my pre-reqs, and graduated from undergrad 7 years before my first year of medical school.

If you’re ready to start “the journey” to medical school, the next step is figuring out how to complete all of the requirements or boost that science GPA. There are different types of post bacc programs and each fulfill a different need for applicants. The AAMC actually has a database of all the programs that you can sort and filter for various needs. In this post, I’ll go into detail on three of the most common routes to medical school after college: career changer programs, academic record enhancer programs, and a DIY option. Keep reading for some good questions to ask post bacc programs to figure out which one(s) are right for you!

Career Changer Program

This will likely be the longest explanation on types of programs simply because it’s my own personal experience, but that doesn’t mean the other options aren’t as valuable or less likely to get you to medical school!

A post bacc geared towards career changers are typically one or two years long and will make sure you take the basic course requirements like biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics (all with a lab component). Some programs will also include biochemistry and other electives like anatomy, depending on the length of the program. As the name suggests, nearly everyone in the program will be science-naive — a lot of career changer programs put a limit on how many undergraduate science courses they will accept on your transcript, so be sure to do your research on each programs website. I was a political science major with one chemistry course on my record, so I didn’t have any issue applying to this type of program.

Life experiences aside, I enjoyed the level playing field between when it came to science know-how. Some students decide during undergrad that they want to go into medicine but don’t have time to complete the courses before graduation and others (like me) have a career first and then find a path to medicine. Some programs will have a more competitive atmosphere, but I think a big benefit of a career changer post bacc is that everyone is starting from scratch, which creates a more collaborative community out of necessity. Unless you are naturally gifted in the sciences, it is HARD to figure out how to study and you will need and want help. In my one-year program, we took up to four courses at a time and I would not have made it through without my classmates and study group.

In my opinion, the number one reason to go the career changer route is the advising. Other types of programs will have this as well (more on the below), but the learning curve for career changers is *steep* in more ways than one. It’s not only the course material, it’s the entire process. There are a million questions as part of the medical school application process — “when do I take the MCAT, what is a good score, what are my chances at XYZ school, how many schools do I need to apply to, what should my personal statement say, what extracurriculars do I need?” And as someone with no family members or friends in the medical field, I felt like I was flying blind. My program directors were instrumental in helping me navigate the process during my year in the program and the following year when I was applying.

Another benefit of a career changer program is that they recognize that most students will not have significant experiences in the medical field and will help you find shadowing, research, volunteer opportunities, and mentors. A two year program will give you more time to get the experiences you need and want for your application, plus more time to space out the classes. But a one year program is definitely doable and you can still find pockets of time for experiences outside of class, it’s really up to your time management skills. Lastly, a good number of post bacc programs have a “linkage” to one or more medical schools – you apply while you are still in the post bacc and can be granted a conditional acceptance to the medical school that becomes binding if you meet their GPA and MCAT requirements. I wrote about the pros and cons of linkage programs here!

Academic Enhancer Program

This type of post bacc serves a few different needs. You could have finished undergrad with all of your pre-requisite courses but don’t have the best grades. Maybe you want to boost your science GPA or take a few more relevant-to-medicine courses before applying to medical school. Perhaps you’ve already gone through the application process, have been unsuccessful, and are looking for a way to show schools how committed you are and get that science GPA up a bit at the same time.

A good number of academic enhancer post bacc’s are master’s degrees programs – Master of Science in Applied Anatomy, Master of Biomedical Sciences, Medical Master’s Program, etc. But you’ll also find non-degree and undergraduate level programs that can satisfy your academic needs. If you have a decent GPA, you can also look into Special Master’s post bacc programs, where you often take medical school courses and are graded relative to the medical students. Some programs even hold a certain number of seats in their medical school class for students in the Special Master’s program who perform well and meet certain standards. This is similar to the linkage programs found at a number of career changer post bacc programs.

DIY Post Bacc

For someone willing to take more time or unable to make a formal program work financially or logistically, a DIY post bacc is a great option. You can enroll in one or two courses each semester at a university, state or community college. This option also gives more flexibility in scheduling and a student could continue to work at the same time. While some students in the more intensive career changer and record enhancer programs do have jobs, it is not very common as the time commitment for class in a short period of time is significant. The DIY option also allows for more time to get clinical and and other extracurricular experience. While there is no set order in which you need to take the classes aside from taking the lower level course before the upper level, you will need to devote some time to looking at the course catalog to determine if everything will work sequentially – for example, is biology 101 offered in the fall with biology 201 offered in the spring? Or are they both only offered each fall? It would surprise me if popular science course are only taught once a year, but it’s possible depending on the school. And don’t forget that you’ll need to take the lab component too, which some schools might include in your course registration or it might be a separate class to schedule. This option will take the longest for most students and does not come with formal advising from a program director, but is often significantly more affordable.

Questions to Ask a Post Bacc Program

  • Is there a linkage program? How many students have successfully linked in recent years?
  • Is there MCAT support available (i.e. Kaplan course, private tutoring)? How have past students done on the MCAT?
  • Do you offer advising? What type of support is available?
  • Is the course schedule set or is there flexibility in what students can take?
  • Are the courses taught only to post bacc students or are undergrads in the class too?
  • How would you describe the post bacc student community?
  • Is there academic support/tutoring?
  • Can I talk with a current student or recent graduate?
  • What is required for a committee letter of recommendation for my medical school application?
  • How much is tuition? What financial support is available? How do students usually pay for the program?
  • What do you look for in applicants that lead to success in your program?
  • What is the timeline from program matriculation to starting medical school?

From personal experience, I can tell you this is not an easy road to medical school – not that one really exists – but it can certainly be a successful and fulfilling one. Good luck!

You can read more posts from me about post bacc programs here.

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