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What are special masters programs?

Do special masters programs increase your competitiveness for medical school?

Are special masters programs worth the cost?

Is a special masters program right for you?

Stick around. We are going to answer these questions and more.

As always with the articles here at Apply with Success, I add my own perspective as someone who has reviewed and evaluated thousands of medical school applications.

What Are Special Masters Programs?

two special masters program students, male and female in front of their laptops

A special masters program (SMP) consists of graduate-level courses designed to show academic competitiveness for medical school.

What does this mean? What is meant by academic competitiveness?

Let’s turn to what the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) says about SMPs. According to the AAMC, SMPs serve as “a chance to strengthen your transcript and knowledge base before you apply to medical school.” The AAMC goes on to explain that SMPs “can be a good bridge between completing your undergraduate studies and entering medical school.”

Special masters programs allow students the opportunity to show preparedness in areas like academics, research, and related skills competencies.

So, does any of this mean SMPs increase an applicant’s competitiveness for medical school?

Do SMPs Increase Competitiveness for Medical School?

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Let’s explore this question.

The first point to note is that special masters programs do not fix low undergraduate GPAs. Special masters programs consist of graduate level courses and do not impact the undergraduate GPA.

If SMPs do not allow applicants to increase their undergraduate GPAs, what is the point?

Here are some of the top reasons SMPs can increase an applicants competitiveness for medical school:

How SMPs Increase Competitiveness for Medical School

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  • SMPs are an opportunity to demonstrate strong academic performance in classes often found in medical school curriculum.
    • SMPs do not impact the undergraduate GPA, but this may actually be advantageous.
      • A graduate academic record is like a fresh start, a clean slate.
      • Since an undergraduate degree is 120 credit hours (or more), it takes a lot of additional courses with good performance to make a noticeable change in an overall GPA.
  • Some SMPs are affiliated with medical schools and allow students to interact with key faculty.
      • Having the support of a professor from the medical school where you are applying falls under the heading of ‘good things.’
  • Some medical schools even guarantee interviews for students in an affiliated SMP.
    • As long as any minimum requirements are met, such as GPA thresholds.
  • SMPs typically offer opportunities to build skills in research and clinical practice.
    • Many applicants have difficulty finding quality experiences in key areas such a medicine and research.
      • SMPs can be a means of accessing these kinds of experiences. 

How SMPs Do Not Increase Competitiveness for Medical School

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Now, let’s go through each of the pros listed above and take a look at some of the potential downsides.

  • Pro: SMPs are an opportunity to demonstrate strong academic performance in medical school curriculum.
    • Downside(s): For students who already have better than average undergraduate grades, more good grades, even at the graduate level, may not be the best use of time or money.
      • In other words, the time spent in an SMP could be put towards full or part-time work, service, or other activities that could make a bigger impact on your overall competitiveness.
  • Pro: Some medical schools guarantee interviews to students in an affiliated SMP.
    • Downside(s): While SMP students could have the opportunity to interview at the corresponding medical school, they will still be held to the same admissions standards as every other (non-SMP) applicant. 
    • There is no bonus or extra credit awarded to SMP students.
      • At many medical schools, more SMP students are denied admission than accepted.
  • Pro: Many SMPs offer opportunities to build research and clinical skills.
    • Downside(s): While SMPs do offer opportunities to get involved outside of the classroom, full or part-time medical and research experiences are typically not possible.
      • Because SMP students spend most of their time on academics, their Work/Activities section of the medical school application may suffer during that year.

Is a Special Masters Program Right for You?

sketch of confused guy

Special masters programs are understandably appealing. SMPs solidify a game plan. “If I take these steps and complete these tasks, I will be that much closer to my dream of becoming a doctor.” However, having evaluated thousands of medical school applicants, in most cases, I do not recommend SMPs.

While SMPs can improve your chances of getting into medical school, there are likely better uses of time and money.

Cost

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Special masters programs are expensive. This is one of the first points to consider when deciding whether an SMP is right for you.

The AAMC maintains a list of SMPs. At the time of this article, the AAMC’s list includes 173 SMPs. Browsing the list, it looks like (on average) SMPs at private universities are around $56,000. SMPs at public schools average $25,000. Keep in mind that program prices do not factor in cost of living or loss of income.

Here is the link in case you want to browse the AAMC’s list of SMP programs.

 

Fit

With the high cost of special masters programs, it is important to make sure that the investment worth it.

So, how do you determine whether someone is a good fit for a special masters program?

Let’s start by taking a look at the table below.

table of medical school acceptances by MCAT and GPA

This table comes from the AAMC. It displays acceptance rates to medical schools during the 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20 admissions cycles.

This table shows the number of applicants accepted to one or more medical schools by GPA and MCAT.

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GPA

Looking at the table, we can see that applicants with undergraduate GPAs of 3.80 and higher, and MCAT scores of 510-513 had a 74.9% acceptance rate to one or more medical schools. Remaining in the same MCAT column and dropping down in GPA range to 3.60-3.79, we see that applicants with 510-513 MCATs drop in acceptance rate by about 10% (64.6%). Once more, if we stay in the same MCAT column of 510-513 and decrease our GPA to 3.40-3.59, the acceptance rate drops about 13% to 50.9%.

Now repeat the exercise but change columns instead of rows.

icon of student taking the MCAT for medical school
MCAT

Starting with 510-513 MCATs and 3.80 or better GPA we are back to a 74.9% acceptance rate. Remaining in the same GPA row, let’s decrease our MCAT to 506-509. Now our acceptance rate is 62.1%. Let’s repeat this exercise again. With our 3.80+ GPA and now a 502-505 MCAT, our acceptance rate is 47.9%. One more time, staying in the 3.80+ row, if our MCAT is between 498-501, now our acceptance rate has plummeted to 30.8%. We can see by looking at this table that the MCAT impacts acceptance rates more than GPA.

Using the table above, you can see how GPA and MCAT impact medical school acceptance rates. If you have not yet taken the MCAT or completed your undergraduate studies, use your best guess to determine where you currently fall on the table. Take a few practice MCAT exams. Check out the AAMC’s free resources for MCAT prep.   

If your MCAT is lower than you would like and you have the ability to study and retake the exam, start there. If, after looking at the table it looks like your GPA is hurting your anticipated medical school acceptance rate, a special masters program might be worth it. Keep in mind that even if your GPA is lower than you would like, an SMP still might not be the best use of your time and money.

The Ideal Special Masters Student

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The ideal SMP candidate is someone who wants to show academic improvement, but already has strong experiences for the AMCAS Work/Activities section.

Do not underestimate the importance of other sections in the AMCAS primary application, in particular, the Work/Activities section. 

If you are average or below average in the Work/Activities section, spending a year in an SMPL might not be the right decision. Make sure you are still going to be able to gain experience in key areas like service and medicine. SMP students must still compete with applicants who spend the year in a hospital, clinic, school, shelter, etc.

It is worth stating again, SMP students should already have strong experiences, or a way to get them.

For more on the AMCAS Work/Activities section, check out my article on holistic review.

 

Tips for Anyone Considering an SMP

  • If you are thinking about a special masters program, make sure you already have a strong set of experiences to report in the AMCAS primary application.
  • Have a plan for how you will earn top grades.
    • SMPs are an opportunity to show your academic capability at the graduate/medical level.
    • A 3.0 (or even a 3.5) in an SMP is not the way to get into medical school.
  • Make sure there are opportunities to continue gaining experience, especially in any areas where you are light on hours. Look for opportunities to volunteer at a clinic, conduct research, and serve disadvantaged populations.
  • Look for SMPs that have relationships with particular medical schools. Many SMPs ensure that all students (at least those in good standing) receive a medical school interview.

Conclusion

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Special masters programs are understandably appealing. They solidify a game plan.
 
“If I take these steps and complete these tasks, I will be that much closer to by dream of becoming a doctor.”
 
By now it should be clear that SMPs are not a panacea. Do not look at special masters programs as a guaranteed path to medical school. SMPs are not an alternative to in-depth experiences.
 
In most cases, the time spent in a special masters program could be better spent in clinical work, teaching, or serving a population in need.
So, before committing to an SMP, make sure you are a good fit for such a program. 
 
This leads to my top tip.

My Number One Tip

If your goal is to get into medical school, start with a review of your current competitiveness. Find someone qualified to assess your preparation. Don’t wait until you are months away from applying to medical school. Do this as early as possible so you have time to act on the information that comes out of your assessment.
 
If you would like to learn more, feel free to contact me. Whether you are ready to get started, or not yet sure where to begin, send me a message.
 
Don’t wait until you are ready to apply to medical school to find out that you still have work to do.

I hope this article has been helpful.

I wish you the best in all your aspirations.

Sincerely,

Adam Lowrance, PhD
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Let me know in the comment section if you found this article helpful.  Where are you in the process? Are you applying to medical schools this cycle, or thinking about doing so in the future?

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Adam Lowrance, PhD

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