There are several kinds of postbac programs designed to serve the needs of premed students. Some programs aim to enhance students’ previous college records while others are for those who did not focus on science at the undergraduate level.  There are also programs designed for groups underrepresented in the medical profession, and programs for those who are economically or educationally disadvantaged.

In recent years, postbac programs have proliferated across the country. In the database of postbac programs maintained by the Association of American Medical Colleges (services.aamc.org/postbac), a total of 143 programs are indexed:  88 are record-enhancing; 84 are career-changing; 46 are designed for underrepresented individuals; and 30 are for the disadvantaged. Clearly, there is some overlap between programs; some serve a dual purpose.

As a result of the various kinds of programs and the overlap between some, it can be confusing for prospective postbac students to figure out what is most important to look for in a program to help narrow down their options.  It is vital to ensure that the program you are considering offers real benefits, no matter the kind of postbac program that is appropriate for your needs.  Here are the most important elements to seek out when considering different programs, based on my experience directing two different postbac programs and guiding students through the medical school admission process for the past 20 years.

Good Academics and MCAT Preparation = Success Rates

The academic preparation you receive is by far the most important element of any program.  Whether you will be enrolling in basic, introductory science classes-as in the career-changer programs-or in upper-level courses-offered by the record-enhancing programs-you should make sure that the courses you take would not only prepare you for medical school but also equip you to do well on the MCAT.  For all of these programs, no matter the type, the end goal for students is medical school admission.  To get into medical school you need to perform well in your courses and do well on the MCAT.  The classes should do double duty; they should give you the content you need and also give you the opportunity to prove yourself and perform well. The program should also offer MCAT preparation since it is a key component of the med school admission process.

The program’s track record of getting people into medical school is, of course, enormously important. You want the postbac program in which you enroll to help you achieve the result you want: med school admission.  The program’s success rate is a good measure of students’ capability of performing well in the classes and on the MCAT, resulting in med school admission.  If the program’s track record is not published, ask specifically about its success rate in getting students into medical school.

Class Format: Mixed with Undergraduates or Separate

Postbac programs offer classes in two formats:  classes mixed with undergraduates or classes exclusively for postbac students. By default, the classes with undergraduates are larger, with usually a majority of undergrads. These courses are often graded on a curve.  Classes for postbac students are often smaller; the grading scale can vary depending on the institution and the professor teaching the class.  There are pros and cons to each format, depending on your learning style and goals. Do you want to prove yourself by taking regular premed classes with undergraduates?  Or would you prefer to be in a smaller setting among only postbac students, all with a similar focus?  Determine your learning style and what kind of grading scheme suits you, and you will be able to select the format which you prefer. Find out whether the classes offered in the programs you are considering are mixed with undergraduates or only for postbac students. When you visit various programs ask the students about the class format and whether it is productive and conducive to learning.

Academic Support

It is important to assess the academic support services in place at the programs you are considering.  The postbac year is challenging and students often encounter difficulty in their coursework at some point or another.  It is in your best interest to know if there is a safety net in place if you run into academic challenges. Does the program itself offer free tutoring services, in either group or individual formats? Or is tutoring provided through the undergraduate academic advising office?  If so, is tutoring readily available or on a first-come, first-serve basis?  These are important questions to ask. Ensure that your chance of success is maximized by the programmatic structure and sources of academic support that buttress students.

Advising

Getting through the medical school application process is complicated. When looking at various programs, make sure that the program director and advising staff have ample experience with the medical school admission process.  While a proven track record for the program speaks for itself, along with testaments from former students, you should be given ample opportunity to interact with current and former students in order to ask questions about the advising process directly from those who are receiving it. Bear in mind that current students haven’t yet gone through the med school application process; the most salient information about the advising services in any program comes from alumni who have completed the med school application process. Former students will share with you detailed information about the advising offered and whether it helped them both navigate the medical school application process and get into medical school.

You should also consider the student: advisor ratio in programs you are considering. Is the program small enough that you will get personalized advising and guidance?  Remember that the program director will be your greatest advocate in the medical school application process. It is important that she or he has enough advising time to understand you and your goals, and be able to advocate for you with validity.  Is the advising structure formal, with one or two structured individual sessions per semester?  Or is advising dispensed on a more informal, drop-in basis, as needed?  Does the program offer special events featuring medical school admissions deans with whom you can interact and learn about various schools?  To help you understand some of the challenges and rewards of the medical profession, are there topics of interest covered in meetings designed specifically for postbac students?  These are important questions to ask to ensure that you know what to expect after enrollment. Be sure to get a good sense of the advising opportunities each program provides, in addition to the basic elements of the academic requirements you need, along with MCAT preparation.

Medical Experience

It’s likely that you will have some medical experience prior to enrolling in a postbac program.  After all, you need clinical experience to test out and confirm your impulse to pursue a career in medicine.  It is vital to keep engaged with the medical profession as you go through your postbac courses.  You need to prove to the med schools your continuing commitment, and being engaged in clinical care helps keep you focused on your end goal amidst the stress of a heavy load of courses. Postbac programs should help hook you into the medical community in the area. They should have formal arrangements with local clinics or hospitals that allow you to immediately engage in clinical work.  Some programs will also offer opportunities to conduct research. Is there a mechanism in place whereby you can assess the opportunities in the area and connect with practitioners?  Do these practitioners have enough prior experience guiding students that they provide good mentoring?  Does the program provide ways for you to gauge one experience vs. another to see which might be the best fit for you?  Talking with current and former students is an excellent way to figure out how the program connects you to clinical or research opportunities in the region.  Program staff should be an excellent source to direct you to the best sites for your needs.  Program directors should also have a comprehensive understanding of the various medical sites in order to properly guide students to the best setting to expand their view of the medical profession.

Letters

The letters written on your behalf when you apply to medical school are enormously important.  These letters attest to your work ethic, academic capabilities, character, and personality traits, among other elements.  They round you out as an applicant, fleshing you into a “real” person; they help the med schools picture you as a viable candidate. As such, the letters can help you progress from the applicant stage to the interview and acceptance stages in the med school admission process.

It is important to assess the letter process in place at the programs you are considering.  Usually the program director will write the premed letter but in some programs the faculty will take precedence.  Prior to enrollment you should know who will be in charge of your premed letter.  Whether it’s the program director or a faculty member, you should assess the kinds of opportunities the letter writers will have to get to know you. Will they, in the end, know you well enough to paint an accurate picture of you with their words?

In addition to the letter from the program director or faculty chair, you will also need additional letters from science faculty. Are the classes small enough that the faculty will be able to differentiate you from other students?  Will they get a sense of you through individual meetings or office hours?  Or will you have more interactions with teaching assistants than with professors?  Again, you should ask current and former students about the opportunities they have to distinguish themselves in both the advising and academic arenas at the programs you’re considering; doing so will help you assess the strength and accuracy of the letters that will be written on your behalf.

Community

Going through a postbac program can be enormously challenging. For career-changer students the courses are compressed into a short time frame and students are generally encountering science for the first time. It takes a great deal of stamina and energy to complete all of the premed courses in a year, especially when the material is new and difficult. Having a strong community to help you persevere is helpful. Relying on your peers for moral and social support is beneficial and often helps students weather difficult phases. The same is true for record-enhancing and other programs: having peers to rely on and turn to when the going gets rough is vital.  Having supportive fellow students to help one another, sharing study skills and tips, is vital.  Ask current and former students about the sense of community at the programs you are considering. What do the director and program staff members do to help build community and create a supportive environment?  In the end, though, no matter the efforts of the program, its students build the community.  Asking students about the atmosphere will help you assess whether students are competitive with one another or supportive, thereby fostering and celebrating one another’s successes.

Finally, Ask Students!

While program directors can provide useful information, there is no greater source of information than the students themselves. Students will provide valuable information as to the caliber of the classes and professors, the difficulty level, the nature of the environment, and whether they are satisfied with the program as a whole. Students will also tell you if professors are more focused on their research than on teaching premed classes, and if the classes are too large for meaningful interactions. Students will answer your questions about the academics, advising, letters, MCAT preparation, medical opportunities, and community. They will help you determine whether a particular postbac program is a good fit for you and your needs.

While there are many factors to consider when choosing a postbac program, these are the most important. Other factors may come into play depending on your circumstances. But these are the starting points for weighing one program against another and ultimately choosing the one that will help you reach your goal of getting into medical school and becoming a physician.

About the Author

Liza Thompson, M.Ed. is the former director of both the Johns Hopkins and Goucher Postbaccalaureate Premedical Programs. She now provides medical school and post-bac program admissions consulting to clients through Thompson Advising, at www.thompsonadvising.com. She can be reached at liza@thompsonadvising.com.