Special Master’s Program vs Post Baccalaureate – Which one is right for you?

by winnell

The path to becoming a physician will present its challenges with a lot of ups and downs. I personally struggled to gain admissions to medical school on my first attempt. Fortunately, I was given a second chance after completing a Special Master’s Program. The program showed me that I was more than just an MCAT score. It showed me that I was more than prepared for the challenge of medical school courses. Today, I am just a few months away from graduating medical school and I couldn’t be any happier.

I was a non traditional student who created my makeshift post baccalaureate degree on my own terms due to my full time career. Afterwards, my MCAT defeat led me to an alternative route. My goal came to life and I was able to complete the Special Masters Programs with linkage to medical schoolsComprehensive knowledge about current trends, requirements, and experiences should be on you to do list to research every opportunity available to you. Getting into your desired medical school requires competitive MCAT scores, strong GPA, strong extracurricular experiences, and most importantly a burning passion to save lives.

Pathways to Medical School

There are several ways to enter medical school. Some students prefer:

– Following the conventional pathway of completing a 4-year degree program.

– Investing your gap year to pursue extracurricular activities such as research, shadowing physicians, and volunteering to help enhance your application in lieu of low GPA  or MCAT scores.

– Some enroll themselves into direct medical programs such as BA/MD or BS/MD.

– However, it is mandatory for every student to take the MCAT exam (except those who showed their extraordinary capabilities and got direct admission to medical colleges from certain bridge programs provided to undergraduate students linked here).


Apart from the above mentioned, opting for special master’s programs (SMP) or post baccalaureate programs could also help you in improving your chances of getting admission into medical schools.

Before applying to special master’s programs, be sure to research its usefulness for your career path. It can be helpful for students in need of the following:

– Strengthening your science GPA and preparing you for the rigor of medical school

– For those reapplying to medical school

– For those in need of a plan B after scoring poorly on the MCAT

This article will provide comprehensive information about Special Master’s Programs along with its benefits and disadvantages.

What are Special Master’s Programs?

Special Master’s Programs (SMPs) provide you the opportunity to increase your chances of getting enrolled in medical or professional schools.

These programs also help in obtaining necessary experience for your medical school application. Along with boosting your preparedness for medical schools, you will also benefit from enhancing your GPA, medical experience, and research acumen when possible.

Some SMP curriculums are comprised of programs associated with graduate, Ph.D., and professional schools such as medical, dental school and podiatry schools.

There are several special masters and post-baccalaureate programs that offer linkages to medical schools. Upon meeting necessary requirements, some programs offer assured admission or interviews to these affiliated professional schools.

What distinguishes SMPs from Post-baccalaureate Programs?

SMPs and post-baccalaureate programs are both pathways to improve your academic profile for medical school. The choice of enrolling in each differs for students depending upon their needs.

SMPs are graduate degrees, suitable for undergraduate students who have taken prequistes and may have been rejected to medical school and want a chance to show admissions committees that they are prepared to take medical school level courses despite a lower undergraduate GPA or lower MCAT score.

On the other hand, post-baccalaureate programs are not full degrees but rather certificate programs. These programs allow students to complete the required courses needed to gain admissions to medical school. Post baccalaureate programs are attractive to non science students to be able  enhance their academic profile and are great for are career changers to complete courses in an organized fashion.

What are Post-baccalaureate Research Education Programs (PREP)?

Many students opt for PREP because these programs enhance skills and knowledge to practice translational research. This would be the best choice for MD-PhD students or other medical professions requiring research. Under expert observation, students perform various research activities and participate in several professional and educational programs to strengthen their skills.

PREP programs can be pursued in the following three formats:

  1. Post-baccalaureate Research Education Programs (PREP)as mentioned earlier, these programs helps in boosting student’s research skills to have a strong grip on academic and practical knowledge for PhD, MD-PhD, and various other research-related medical programs. Various PREP participating institutes help students in achieving their goals.

3. Non-NIH Post-baccalaureate Research Programs are organized by medical centers. It’s an extendable training of 1 to 2 years in formats that differ among the individual programs. For more information, visit individual academic centers.

How to determine which Special Master’s Program Is Right for You?

All special master’s programs and post-baccalaureate programs focus on three designations:

Academic enhancers (AE) are planned for pre-health students to help them to elevate their overall GPA by reentering related prerequisite courses or other science-related pre-med courses. However, it is advisable to ensure if such courses are necessary based upon your current transcripts.

Career changers (CC) are those students who have a non-science backgrounds and want to enter the medical profession.

Educationally/economically disadvantaged (EED) programs provide an opportunity to become a competitive applicant for medical/professional schools. This program increases diversity in the medical workforce and provides equal opportunity to disadvantaged students.

How long are Masters Degree under Special Masters Programs?

Special Masters Programs provide students with several types of masters’ degrees. The two basic types of SMPs are based upon students’ interest level:

–  Thesis Track: It is a 2-year course that includes first-year curriculum concentrated coursework and the second year designated for research work.

– Non- thesis Track: This type of degree usually entails 1-year for completion.

Every course is unique and differs depending on the program curriculum, and has the ability to build a strong foundation to prepare for professional/medical school. SMP degrees include but are not limited to:

  • Masters in Physiology
  • Masters in Biomedical Sciences
  • Masters in Biological and Physical Sciences
  • Masters in Medical Sciences

What are the application requirements for a Special Master’s Program?

Application Process and Requirements

There is not one application processing website for Special Master’s Program’s as there is for medical school admissions. Just like other educational programs, one has to apply electronically via the admissions instructions provided by each graduate college or university.

Many SMPs require an MCAT score but the cutoff is usually very low. However, to be considered for the majority of SMPs, a GPA of at least 3.0 is mandatory. The majority of Post baccalaureate programs do not require an MCAT score and have lower GPA cutoffs.

For more clarification, every program has its own application checklist according to the program. For instance, Special master’s program in physiology from Georgetown University laid down a detailed application checklist on their website described below:

Academic Background

SMP educational requirements and medical school requisites are the same. The following mentioned subjects are recommended for a SMP:

  • Biology (1-year course study)
  • Physics (1-year course study)
  • Chemistry (2 years, which includes general chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry)
  • English
  • Social or Behavioral Sciences
  • Mathematics


It is mandatory to submit transcripts from every educational institution which you have attended. Make sure that the submitted transcripts aren’t unofficial copies.

In the case of Canada and American Institutions – Transcripts from your previous school should be sent directly to the school in which are planning to enroll.

In the case of institutes outside Canada and America – Original copies of transcript are mandatory for enrollment purposes, secondly, it should be in official or certified English language.

Curriculum Vitae (CV)

SMP candidates are required to submit a CV just as other medical school students. In the CV, it is mandatory to summarize your clinical and volunteer experiences, certifications, awards, publications, career prospects, and lastly any important information which may have a visible impact on your qualification. Your intention of getting into the medical field should be clearly stated on the CV.

Personal Statement

The personal statement should be part of your application which is generally the same as the medical school personal statement.

  • Do’s

The following mentioned points are the main requirements of your personal statement in the SMP program:

– As per your personal statement should be 5,300 characters to match AMCAS.

– Your intent of joining the particular SMP program should be clear.

– Your aspirations should be clearly mentioned in the statement.

– Outline your strengths, weaknesses, experiences whether volunteer or clinical along with your career plan.

– Don’t forget to mention any leadership,  research, and volunteer work done previously

  • Don’ts 

The following mentioned points are should be avoided in your personal statement in the SMP program:

– Avoid grammatical and spelling mistakes.

– Avoid using quotes and pointless clichés

– Avoid mentioning unrelated extra curriculum activities

– Avoid excessive word limit

Letters of Recommendation

A professor or professional who can assess your academic performance, research work, and clinical experiences can prepare your letter of recommendation.

You should inform your letter writer well in advance, preferably one to three months. It is advisable to clearly state your future career plan and intent so that he or she can write an exceptional letter of recommendation.

Consider the following steps while preparing a letter of recommendation:

  • Every program asks for a different number of the recommendation letters, so make sure to consult with your desired school administrators. Normally, require 3 letters of recommendation are required.
  • The means of submitting the letter is very important. This is usually processed electronically.
  • I personally used Interfolio to request and submit letters. Always waive access to letters written. You will be required to submit the email address of your writer in the program’s application system. Your writer will be informed to upload the letters on behalf of you.


SMPs can be expensive, so prepare to budget accordingly. Some programs offer financial aid in addition to scholarships and fellowship opportunities.

Both private and public school offers SMPs in the US. There is a difference in tuition fees in private and public schools which is stated below:

Private School Tuition in the US Public School Tuition in the US
Do not distinguish between in-state and out-of-state students. There is a difference between in-state and out-of-state students.
Tuition fees for both in-state and out-of-state students are the same Tuition fees for in-state are comparatively lower because they are residents of the state.
The majority of SMPs cost nearly US $ 25,000 per year US $ 5000 to US $ 15,000 per year, depending upon the region

Moreover, in-state students are more likely to get financial aid and scholarship. It is always advisable to check the admissions website for a detailed tuition fee structure.

Apart from the above mentioned basic requirements, there are additional requirements mentioned below that should also be considered while choosing the right SMP.

Linkage with Medical Schools

Linkage is a formal agreement between SMPs and Postbac programs to enable top performing students to expedite the application process in terms of visiting linked medical schools and offering a unique admissions enhancing opportunity.

The whole purpose of the Special Master’s Program is to ultimately gain admission into medical school. For those looking to increase their chances of getting into medical school, it is important to consider programs that have linkage options available. Linkages differ in their offerings. Many linkages offer students who achieve a certain GPA in their SMP to interview at medical schools and some offer immediate admission.

As an example, here is a list of participating schools that allow special opportunities for Johns Hopkins post baccalaureate students:

Application Support for Medical School

In addition to GPA enhacing, SMPs include medical school application support regarding professional advice, MCAT exam preparation, and medical school interview preparation.

The majority of SMPs offer counseling faculty about potential career prospects and optons. A good example of that would be Tufts University, where students can enhance their medical school applications by attending premedical workshops.

Advantages of SMPs

Affiliation/linkage with Medical Schools 

This is the biggest advantage and often attracts medical school aspirants to opt for SMPs. There are several SMPs that are affiliated with a specific medical schools. If students meet every requirement after completion of the SMP, it would ensure conditional acceptance to a medical school. However, before selecting an affiliated medical school, some factors like location, acceptance rate, tuition fees, and status should be taken into consideration.

Remember, an admission into an SMP isn’t 100% assurance of admission to medical school. There are terms and conditions with every program so do your research. Your participation in the master’s program, however, is 100% advantageous for you in the medical school admission process.

Build Connections with Professionals

Many SMPs have affiliations with medical schools which provide an opportunity for students to build a strong connection with administration and medical professionals. This helps to clarify any questions about their career prospects. Advisors and faculty can act as mentors in clinical experiences, extracurricular and even research

Helpful in Attaining Research Opportunities

SMPs provide practical knowledge of various scientific research projects. If you have opted into a thesis-based program, there are greater chances of getting research opportunities and publications. As mentioned earlier, research experience is a basic necessity to build a strong application that aligns with your interests

Flexible Schedule

Compared to undergraduate degrees and medical schools, SMPs tend to have much more of a flexible schedule. It is probably not best to work full time to maximize your study time and increase GPA but part time work may be feasible depending on how well you time manage. Moreover, there may provide entry-level research jobs to on-campus students.

Enhances your GPA

Since AMCAS and AACOMAS evaluates undergraduate and graduate’s GPA independently, choosing SMP enhances your opportunity to accelerate your academic profile while taking upper level courses.

Spares your time for MCAT Test Preparation

Many students have taken the MCAT once, twice or three times or more and use SMPs to bypass having to take it again. It can also be useful for those who plan to retake but need an upper level science refresher to help them study more efficiently for the MCAT and prepare for medical school As mentioned above, there several SMPs that may even support you in MCAT exam preparation.

Disadvantages of SMPs


SMPs without a doubt are expensive. As most sacrifices in medicine, you will surely accrue some debt but the outcome is surely worth it if this is your goal.

Doesn’t Assure GPA Enhancement

Admissions into an SMP is not medical school entirely, but it is is comparable in many aspects. The rigor of SMPs is quite substantial and the coursework should not be taken lightly. Thus, always evaluate every possible option before stepping into a Special Master’s Program.


Since it is a costly and time-consuming process, students often find themselves under tremendous pressure to achieve success within the short time period.

Now, you’ve been provided with the ultimate guide on deciding whether a Special Master’s Program is right for you. You have also been provided with the alternative of Post baccalaureate programs. I hope that you will take this information and make an informed decision that will land you in the medical school of your dreams.

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