Pre-medical and pre-health post-baccalaureate programs: Overview and key considerations
February 9, 2021
Introduction to post-baccalaureate programs
If you are a student who is considering a career in medicine or another health profession, such as veterinary medicine, pharmacy, or dentistry, you have likely heard of the phrase “post-baccalaureate program” or “post-bacc” at some point throughout your academic journey.
So, what exactly is a post-baccalaureate program, and how do you determine whether it is an appropriate option for you to attain your educational and career goals? And if you do want to enroll in a post-baccalaureate program, how do you know which one is best for you?
This article answers these questions. The first section provides an overview of pre-medical and pre-health post-baccalaureate programs in the United States, including their main purpose, a brief history explaining why they were established, and the main types of post-baccalaureate programs that exist today. The second part of this article then addresses several key considerations for deciding whether a post-baccalaureate program is a good option for you, and if so, how do you select the best program to achieve your career goals.
Post-baccalaureate programs in the United States: an overview
At the most basic level, post-baccalaureate programs are specialized academic programs for students who have already earned a baccalaureate degree (i.e., undergraduate or bachelor’s degree).
These programs are typically 1–2 years in length, and are specifically designed to help students increase their chances of being admitted into graduate school or professional school by providing them an opportunity to strengthen their application for admission.
There are post-baccalaureate programs geared towards a variety of academic disciplines and careers, including law, medicine, and many other professional and graduate-level studies. There are also some research-intensive or research-oriented science post-baccalaureate programs for students pursuing a career as either a physician scientist or Ph.D.-level research scientist.
However, among the most common types of post-baccalaureate programs in the U.S. are those specifically designed for pre-medicine and pre-health professions. Applicants to these programs typically wish to improve their academic credentials or fulfill prerequisite coursework before applying to medical or health professions schools.
Brief history and current state of post-baccalaureate programs
Pre-medicine and pre-health post-baccalaureate programs in the U.S. date back to the 1970s. These initial post-baccalaureate programs were developed to increase diversity in the physician workforce and among healthcare providers. They were designed to increase opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from minority populations underrepresented in medicine and healthcare (Gillum, 2020).
Since their introduction, these programs have become a key component in the educational pipeline for our nation’s physicians and healthcare professionals. In the last 12 years alone, the number of post-baccalaureate programs in the U.S. has tripled, increasing from less than 100 in 2009 to more than 279 in 2021, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
Consistent with this rapid increase in the number of post-baccalaureate programs is the proportion of medical school and health professions school matriculants who completed a post-baccalaureate program beforehand (Association of American Medical Colleges, 2018). These trends indicate that each year there are more and more students utilizing post-baccalaureate programs on their paths to a career in medicine or one of the other health professions.
Two main types of post-baccalaureate programs
In the broadest sense, pre-medical and pre-health post-baccalaureate programs in the U.S. fall into 1 of 2 main categories: career-changer programs and academic record-enhancer programs (Baffi-Dugan, 2014). Some post-baccalaureate programs, which are also called hybrid programs, integrate features from both categories. As their names suggest, each type of program is tailored for a different kind of student. Specific details about these 2 types of post-baccalaureate programs are provided below.
Career-changer post-baccalaureate programs
Career-changer post-baccalaureate programs are designed to offer students, who are changing careers or who lack prerequisite undergraduate science coursework, the opportunity to complete these required courses in an accelerated and focused manner. The vast majority these students earned an undergraduate degree in a non-science major and need to complete undergraduate core science prerequisite coursework required for admission to health professions school.
Many of these students started off in a different career and decided to pursue a career in the health professions later on in life. Most post-baccalaureate programs that fall under this career-changer category are formal programs with a structured curriculum that includes undergraduate upper-level science coursework to fulfill prerequisites for health professions school (Baffi-Dugan, 2014).
Academic record-enhancer post-baccalaureate programs
Academic record-enhancer post-baccalaureate programs are designed to offer students the opportunity to improve and enhance their academic record and credentials. Some of these programs offer this opportunity through undergraduate upper-level science coursework, whereas others offer this opportunity through graduate-level coursework with a professional certificate or master’s degree awarded upon completion.
Academic record-enhancer post-baccalaureate programs are generally less structured than career-changer post-baccalaureate programs. They mainly benefit students who either have a low undergraduate science GPA or some other deficiency in their academic background that is preventing them from being accepted into medical or health professions schools. Successfully completing one of these post-baccalaureate programs can demonstrate to admissions committees that, although you may have earned poor grades during your undergraduate education, you have since developed the personal growth and maturation that will enable you to succeed in health professions school and further on into your career as a healthcare provider.
Additionally, some academic record-enhancer post-baccalaureate programs are specifically designed for economically and/or educationally disadvantaged students and minority students from population groups that are underrepresented in the health professions, for example racial and ethnic minorities, as well as students from rural or medically underserved communities.
Key considerations for selecting a post-baccalaureate program
Identifying and selecting the perfect post-baccalaureate program for your particular background and situation can be a daunting task due to the vast number of programs available and the high degree of variation in components among programs. In this section, the most important factors to consider during this process are listed and explained to help you in your decision-making process.
First and foremost, it is important that you choose a post-baccalaureate program that is appropriate for your personal and academic needs. As described above, the 2 main types of post-baccalaureate programs are academic record-enhancer programs and career-changer programs.
When sorting through and researching different post-baccalaureate programs, make sure that you are considering these 2 types of programs and selecting ones that are relevant to your academic background and career goals. Furthermore, note which type of health professions school (e.g., medical school, veterinary school, dental school, etc.), if any, each program is specifically geared towards or if there is a broader focus on preparing students for any of the many health professions.
Cost: tuition and financial aid
Cost is undoubtedly on nearly every student’s mind when comparing options for education. Cost may be even more important for comparing post-baccalaureate programs because most are expensive. Merely factoring in annual tuition and program fees, most post-baccalaureate programs cost between $20,000 and $40,000 per year (Wu, 2016). Thus, when you add together tuition and fees for potentially multiple years, as well as cost of living and other expenses, you could be looking at a very high total cost of attendance for certain post-baccalaureate programs.
One important aspect that will likely pertain to whether you can afford a post-baccalaureate program is whether the program offers students the option to use federal financial aid through Federal Direct Loans administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Many post-baccalaureate programs for which a degree is not granted upon completion (e.g., programs that offer only undergraduate upper-level science coursework and programs that confer a graduate-level certificate, wherein both you will be classified as a “non-degree-seeking student”) are ineligible to participate in federal student loan programs. As such, students do not have the option to pay for tuition and fees using Federal Direct Loans. Therefore, it is important that you research both institution-specific policies and federal guidelines prior to submitting your application so you can determine which options you have for paying for the program and so you can manage your student loan debt.
Another important thing to note is that an alternative to federal student loans are private student loans, which may be easier to obtain as a non-degree-seeking student. However, private student loans often have higher interest rates and come without loan forgiveness options.
Other aspects of cost that you should consider when researching post-baccalaureate programs is the availability of institution-specific or program-specific scholarships, whether the post-baccalaureate program is at a private or public institution, and whether you qualify for in-state tuition or discounted out-of-state tuition via reciprocity agreements with nearby states.
Coursework level: undergraduate vs. graduate certificate vs. graduate degree
Post-baccalaureate programs vary in the level and type of coursework they offer. Some programs, including the career-changer programs, offer only undergraduate upper-level science coursework in an intensive manner and are thus non-degree-granting. Other programs offer graduate level coursework and may be non-certificate/degree-granting or may award a graduate certificate or graduate degree (master’s degree) upon completion.
The graduate-level post-baccalaureate programs also vary in the coursework that they offer. Some programs, known as “special master’s programs,” are Master of Science (M.S.) degree programs in a particular field of the medical sciences. These post-baccalaureate programs are designed for students who have already completed undergraduate core science courses. These programs grant an M.S. degree in biomedical sciences, physiology, or toxicology, and some specifically incorporate first-year medical school or health professions coursework into the curriculum to allow their students to take courses alongside medical or health professions students.
Furthermore, there are other graduate-level post-baccalaureate programs that offer a graduate or professional certificate. These programs generally incorporate graduate-level science coursework but come without the high credit requirements that M.S. degree-granting programs often have (Baffi-Dugan, 2014). Be sure to consider the level of coursework each program offers and which level is most suitable for you.
Curriculum: structured vs. unstructured
Related to the level and type of coursework offered by post-baccalaureate programs is the format of the curriculum. Post-baccalaureate programs generally fall into 1 of 2 categories: those with a structured curriculum, and those with an unstructured or individualized curriculum.
Career-changer post-baccalaureate programs that offer undergraduate core science prerequisite coursework in an accelerated manner generally have a highly structured curriculum with little room for individualizing course selection. However, many of the graduate-level programs are less structured and offer students flexibility in tailoring the curriculum.
Important to consider when weighing your options is that post-baccalaureate programs with a highly structured curriculum generally admit students via cohorts, meaning that you will be taking classes and advancing through the program with the same students, together as a group, rather than independently navigating through the program by yourself. There are advantages and disadvantages to both being in a cohort and independently progressing through the program, so it is important to note your learning style and which scenario is most likely to help you succeed.
Professional school affiliation/collaborative agreement
Certain post-baccalaureate programs have a formal collaborative agreement or direct affiliation with the medical school or a health professions school within the same institution. This can guarantee students who successfully complete the program either an interview, or in rare cases, admission or early admission. Although these post-baccalaureate programs are highly desirable, they are also highly selective and likely will require a certain GPA and standardized test score as prerequisites for admission.
Pursuing one of these programs, which are also called “linkage” post-baccalaureate programs, is particularly advantageous for students who have a preference for attending the specific health professions school that the post-baccalaureate program is affiliated with. These linkage post-baccalaureate programs offer promising benefits upon completion, but you should first assess your academic background, personal preferences, and other aspects of your situation before deciding to pursue one.
Although the admissions requirements for all post-baccalaureate programs include having earned an undergraduate degree, there are several other admissions requirements that can vary between programs. For example, some post-baccalaureate programs require applicants to have previously completed science prerequisite coursework and/or lab components, whereas some require that you have no previous core science coursework.
Furthermore, some programs accept only students with citizenship status in the U.S., whereas others accept foreign students and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students (i.e., undocumented students). Other admissions criteria can include minimum scores for standardized tests, such as the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), Graduate Record Examination General Test (GRE), Dental Admission Test (DAT), Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT).
Finally, some post-baccalaureate programs require applicants to have previously applied to a health professions school and been unsuccessful.
Other factors to consider
- Program duration and timeline
Most programs take 1–2 years to complete, but there are some that are as quick as 9 months and others that last as long as 3 years. Also keep in mind whether the program requires full-time commitment or if there are opportunities to complete it on a part-time basis. This is relevant for students who wish to maintain full-time employment while completing a post-baccalaureate program. The most important thing to remember is that you want to find a post-baccalaureate program that fits the timeline of your personal agenda, for instance when you plan to apply to and medical or health professions school.
- Extracurricular offerings and opportunities
Post-baccalaureate programs may offer extracurricular opportunities, including research, volunteering, and healthcare provider shadowing programs. Likewise, some programs may provide opportunities for students to network with faculty or alumni of the program. All of these are important for your health professions school application and career development. Perhaps the most important thing within this category to consider is whether the program offers pre-health advising and the ability to receive a composite letter of recommendation from a pre-health committee. A composite letter of recommendation can attest to your potential for success in a career as a health professional, and hence is an essential aspect of your application (MedEdits, 2020).
- Standardized test preparation
Some post-baccalaureate programs specifically incorporate courses or other structured methods for preparing students to take the MCAT, GRE, DAT, or PCAT standardized tests. This is for students who have previously scored low and need to improve their score to become a more competitive applicant.
- Application components
Most post-baccalaureate programs require that you submit an application for admission, answers to essay questions or a personal statement, letters of recommendation, undergraduate academic transcripts, and other application components. Some programs participate in the Post-baccalaureate Centralized Application Service (PostbacCAS), which allows applicants to submit a single application to multiple participating post-baccalaureate programs. Additionally, it is important to research the application fees that programs charge prior to going through the trouble of filling out the application, as these fees vary among different programs and can add up if you apply to multiple programs.
- Format: on-campus/in-person vs. online
Although few in number, there are some fully online post-baccalaureate programs. These programs offer flexibility to students who are unable to relocate. Furthermore, several programs have, at least temporarily, moved to an online format to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. Be sure to contact the admissions offices of specific post-baccalaureate programs of interest to obtain information on the format they are using for coursework during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hopefully this article gave you a basic idea of what post-baccalaureate programs are and how they may be able to help you achieve your goals. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you should view it as an investment in yourself and the long-term career goals you are working hard to attain. A post-baccalaureate program is ultimately a stepping stone in your path to achieving these goals. Therefore, it should be treated as such.
If becoming a physician, veterinarian, dentist, physical therapist, or other advanced practice healthcare provider is your vocation and patient care is something for which you have intense passion, then spending the time, effort, and money on a 1–2-year post-baccalaureate program is a relatively small price to pay. Be confident in the decisions you make along your journey into a health professions career, and may you have the best of luck as you strive to achieve your goals.