Competition is strong for entrance into professional and graduate school programs in healthcare. Schools look for evidence of intellectual ability, understanding of the profession based on direct shadowing and clinical experience, a commitment to service, and personal qualities appropriate to the profession. Since required academic coursework is challenging and professional demands are high, students need to regularly assess their original career goals.
Students pursuing most clinical health professions, including medicine and dentistry, should expect to complete the following science sequences, at a minimum:
A full year of General Chemistry with labs
A full year of General Biology with labs, plus at least two additional quarters of advanced Biology
Two to three quarters of Organic Chemistry with labs, depending on the professional school requirement
At least one quarter of Biochemistry
A full year of introductory Physics with lab (either Algebra or Calculus-based)
To understand required and recommended course prerequisites, students should consult the catalogs and websites of their intended professional and graduate programs. Although most medical, dental, optometry, pharmacy, and veterinary schools typically require mostly identical science sequences, many recommend or require additional coursework, which may include Anatomy, Calculus, Microbiology, Physiology, Psychology, Sociology, and Statistics. Requirements vary more significantly in other health professions like Physicians Assistant, Physical Therapy, and Occupational Therapy. Students should regularly consult with their major academic advisor and the Pre-Health advisor to create an academic plan incorporating appropriate prerequisite coursework.
Pre-Health students can expect to start the application process for health professions graduate school at least a year in advance of anticipated matriculation. Most schools require nationally standardized exams that draw on your academic background and analytical skills. These exams are often taken over a year before you expect to enroll in a professional school in the health sciences, so planning the timing of required science courses is important. The required standardized tests such as the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), Dental Admission Test (DAT), Graduate Record Exam (GRE), Optometry Admission Test (OAT), and Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) are administered by appointment with an outside professional testing service. When students apply, health professions schools will ask students to provide transcripts, a personal statement outlining motivations, a list of professional experiences, and individual letters of recommendation, in addition to the standardized test scores.
As with any career or professional interest, you should research and consider all your options, get experience, and spend some time reflecting on your strengths, weaknesses, and motivations.
Below are some of the primary questions to consider as you evaluate your options as a future health care professional.
Although this may seem like a basic question, it is one that you will come back to repeatedly. You will frequently be asked this question within your application materials, admissions interviews, informal discussions, and personal reflections. Put some thought into your response and try to go beyond "I want to help people." Helping people is an excellent reason but may not provide you with sustained focus and motivation to reach your ultimate goal.
Whether you decide on a major or career, self-reflection and self-assessment are significant parts of the process. You are highly encouraged to keep a journal to document these reflections. Over time you may see trends in your strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and challenges. Start journaling early! Freshman year is not too early to start.
Most health professions require training and certification beyond a baccalaureate (undergraduate) degree. For example, medicine (allopathic, osteopathic, or podiatric) generally requires four years in medical school plus one to eight more years of internship/residency, depending on what area of medicine you choose. Likewise, training in dentistry, optometry, and veterinary medicine generally takes four years beyond your baccalaureate degree. In addition, some people choose to spend additional time in specialty training beyond professional school.
Training for pharmacy, physical therapy, physician assistant, and nursing varies significantly. For example, you might earn an Associate's degree in nursing at a community college, continue to complete a Bachelor's Degree, and take an additional two to three years to complete a Master's to become a nurse practitioner. Physicians assistant programs generally require prerequisite college courses for entry and healthcare-related experiences, which may take additional time to complete. Programs vary from school to school in physical therapy and pharmacy. In both areas, programs have been changing from baccalaureate levels and requiring students to earn graduate degrees to be licensed in the profession.
Students are encouraged to research the expected timelines related to professional programs, training, and education.
Professional and graduate school tuition varies significantly, like undergraduate tuition at public and private schools. The Association of American Medical Colleges maintains information on the average cost and debt load for public and private medical school education (Association of American Medical Colleges).
Very little scholarship money is available for medical school, so most medical school students take out loans. Financial aid officers at the medical schools encourage prospective students to keep their debt loads down as much as possible before coming to medical school and to restrain their use of credit cards for optional spending so that their credit record is good when it comes time to borrow money for medical schools. Students will need a good credit score to secure private loans.
If you are a resident of a western state, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, or WICHE, may be helpful. This program helps residents of thirteen western states, including Alaska and Hawaii, obtain professional training that is not available to them in their home states, usually paying reduced or resident tuition with their home states paying a support fee to the admitting schools. For example, there are no optometry schools in Washington state, so Washington state residents may qualify for reduced tuition to attend optometry schools in Oregon and California. Each state determines the fields and number of students they will support. You need to consult with your state's certifying officer to find out the opportunities available to you. Since there are limits on the number of students each state will support, it is to your advantage to consult EARLY! Plan to talk with the certifying officer no later than early summer of the year preceding the one you want to enroll in professional school.
A few other scholarship and loan payback options are available for consideration:
These services have recruiters in the Seattle area who can talk with you about such programs.
Being strong in math and science is critical to success as a Pre-Health student. Having a solid GPA and good test scores are important as well. However, academic achievements alone will not lead you to your desired health profession. Admissions officers and employers are looking for well-rounded applicants. Some areas to consider:
Look at each of these areas and reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. Continue to build on your strengths and create a plan to address deficiencies.
General Health Professions Resources
If you are interested in volunteering at a local hospital or clinic, the best way to get involved is to contact the agency directly for instructions on how to get started. Most hospitals have a step-by-step process on how to get involved.
The Bailey-Boushay House is a skilled nursing facility for AIDS patients in the Madison Valley area which is an affiliated with Virginia Mason and takes volunteers.
Several of our graduates have served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps for one or two years before going on to medical school, and have felt it was a great opportunity to learn more about health care needs in the community as well as to express their desire to be of help to others.