Friday, July 18, 2014

Post-Bacc, SMP, or Another Degree: What's the Best Choice?

If you’re a non-traditional student who has been out of school for a while, or you are looking to bring up a low undergraduate GPA, then you’ll need to explore all your options for becoming the most competitive applicant possible. There are many options available to prove to schools that you will be able to handle the heavily course load that comes with medical school. The following will be a discussion of some of these options, so that you can best decide what will work best for your situation.

Post-Baccalaureate Coursework

A popular choice among many non-traditional students is to take undergraduate courses as a non-degree seeking student. This is commonly referred to as a post-bacc. Most medical schools will count these courses as part of the overall undergraduate GPA, so this could be a good way to boost your GPA. This method is also particularly useful if you were a non-science major during college, because it can be used to take all the required science pre-requisites in addition to increasing your science GPA. The science GPA is weighed most heavily by medical schools, so if you do decide to go the route of taking post-bacc coursework, make sure that it mostly consists of science coursework. Also, if you a non-traditional student who already has an undergraduate degree in the basic sciences, pursuing a post-bacc will only be beneficial if you take upper-level advanced science courses.

For some students, pursuing a post-bacc might not be as beneficial. If you already have an undergraduate degree with over 130 hours, taking more classes may do very little to increase your overall GPA. Also, as a non-degree seeking student, you will not be eligible for any federal financial aid, so you will have to either pay out-of-pocket or take out private student loans. When the high interest-rates associated with private loans and course fees are taken into account, this can prove to be a very costly path. (Note: There are now some post-bacc programs that offer federal financial aid, so make sure you ask the school you plan on attending about this.)

Special Masters Programs

Another great option for proving that you can handle the heavy course load of medical school is a special masters program (SMP). These programs typically last between 1-2 years, and they generally cover advanced science coursework. A few SMPs are linked to medical schools, and as a student you will be taking the same classes as first-year medical students. Some of these programs also take place at medical schools, and allow you to take the courses right alongside current medical students. This is an excellent way to prove that you can handle medical school, and if you are interested in attending the medical school of the program you attend, then it is also a great way to network and get to know the professors. Furthermore, these programs are also covered by federal financial aid.

The only downside with SMPs (and pretty much any program) is that if you do not do well it can greatly diminish your chances of gaining an acceptance into medical school. SMPs are also a popular choice among many pre-medical students looking to increase their GPAs, so acceptance into some of the programs could be very competitive. Also, while there are many SMPs throughout the United States, there may not be one in your area. This may mean that you will have to relocate to pursue the program, and this may not be feasible for some non-traditional students.

A Second Bachelors Degree

Some students decide to getting a second degree is a better option for them. A second bachelors degree is probably most beneficial to students who previously obtained a non-science degree and previously did not perform as well. In this case, a second bachelors degree would not only give them a science GPA to work with, but it would also work to increase their non-science GPA as well.

Unfortunately, pursuing a second bachelor’s degree can prove to be very costly out of all the options due to the fact that you will essentially be paying for another four years of school. If you’re a non-traditional student who has been out of school for more than a decade, this might not seem like a bad choice, but this commitment does not come with a guaranteed acceptance into medical school and it will take longer to complete than all of the other options listed here. If you have been in the workforce for a while, and you’re looking to get an advance in your career as a plan B option, another bachelors degree just might not be useful as most companies require a masters degree or higher in order to climb up the ladder.

A Masters Degree (or higher)

Obtaining a graduate degree is another viable choice for making yourself a competitive applicant, but unfortunately it is not a common path for pre-medical students. Obtaining a masters degree was the path I chose to take in order to boost my competitiveness as an applicant, and it is what I credit to my acceptance into medical school. Typically it only takes 1-2 years to complete these programs, and a thesis-based program is not required if your only goal is to go onto medical school.

Some non-traditional students are career-changers, so they might already have a graduate degree when they decide to apply to medical school. If the degree is recent, then it may help boost your chances of gaining an acceptance, but in some cases you may still have to have current coursework that will prove your ability to medical schools. Also, if medical school is your main goal, then you will have to seek out programs that do not require the added time of completing a thesis. For non-traditional students who have more advanced graduate degrees, such as a PhD, there are medical schools with pathway programs specifically for non-traditional students of this type, so please do your homework.

So What’s the Best Choice?

Whenever somebody asks me this question, my response is almost always “whatever works best for you.” You have to decide how much money and time you want to invest in pursuing an alternate path, and it will also be important to take into account your current lifestyle. Ultimately, the decision rests on you, but I hope this post will help you make the most informative decision. 


  1. Nice detailed post. The post bacc program that I was accepted into actually does offer stafford loans. But, I maxed out on my student loans so I cannot get anymore stafford loans. But, there are lots of Post Bacc programs that are now offering out stafford loans. Just wanted to share that.

    1. Thanks for letting me know! I was mostly referring to the do-it-yourself post baccs, and had completely forgot that there are full programs now. I'll make the correction now.

  2. Hi Dr. Ward. Did you take the GRE exam in order to apply to medical school or did you just submit your MCAT scores for applying to the masters graduate program? I am unsure of applying to graduate school or the postbacc. Why did you chose to major in Biochemistry for the masters program instead of a masters in public health.

    1. I did not need the GRE for my masters program. I believe I just needed my MCAT scores (although that might not have been a's been a while). It was easier for me to do a graduate program because no amount of postbacc hours would have helped to offset my GPA and I needed the financial aid that a full program offers. Hope this helps!

    2. Hello Dr. Ward! Reading about your amazing story now made me think of a question. I am on the same boat as you once were (currently finishing undergrad with a ~2.4 cGPA). Nowadays, there are GPA requirements to get into a masters program. Did you have to go through an interview process to explain your GPA to get into a masters program or were there not any GPA requirements when you applied for graduate school?

    3. Hello Daniza! My masters program had a GPA requirement that I did not meet, but they allowed me into the program on a probationary status. Basically it meant I had to pay for a full semester out-of-pocket without financial aid and do well. After I received A's in both classes (full time is only 6 hours in graduate school), they accepted me as a full matriculant.

  3. I am a graduating senior who will earn a degree in Medical Technology. I am interested in attending Medical School however I need to complete one more semester of organic chemistry and once more semester of physics. As well as my overall gpa is a 3.0 meaning my science gpa is not that great. What would you suggest be best for me?

    1. Focus on doing great in your last semester and make sure you prepare for and do well on the MCAT. Wishing you the best of luck!

  4. Thanks for writing such a good article, I stumbled onto your blog and read a few post. I like your style of writing. live22auto


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