Hang out on the internet long enough wondering how to get into med school and you’re bound to hear about “Special Masters Programs.” You may be wondering what they are and who they’re for. We initially addressed post-baccalaureate programs, as those seem to be a better fit for the majority of transitioning veterans. With that caveat, SMPs exist for very good reasons and may in fact be the perfect fit for you, dear reader. If you’ve been confused about their exact niche and how it may fit with your plans, read on for Vet2MD’s take.

What They Are

Special masters programs are one- to two year-long graduate certificate or degree programs (e.g. “M.S. Biomedical Sciences” or “MS in Physiology”) with a heavy dose of science and medical coursework. Much like post-baccs, they exist to help people who would otherwise struggle to gain admission to med school prove they have what it takes to keep pace in that tough academic environment. Many also include an element of MCAT and/or GPA improvement. Some, especially those that are two years long, will include a heavy dose of research and may even require a thesis. A plurality of them – at a minimum – include a strong dose of actual MS1 medical school curriculum in their first year. Oftentimes the SMP students will take their classes alongside the medical school population, and will often be graded according to the same standards and included on “the curve.” Strong performance allows SMP students to clearly demonstrate they have the chops to keep pace with already-admitted medical students. In some cases, particularly where the SMP has a linkage program (either directly to the same university’s medical school or to an affiliated school) this may even allow an SMP graduate to bypass select elements of their MS1 curriculum after they are admitted.

Unlike post-baccs, the majority of SMPs will require their prospective students to have already completed the essential pre-requisites for medical school (a full year each of Chemistry, Orgo, Pysics, Bio, etc. if we haven’t already beat that into you). They will also be expected to have taken the MCAT already, and generally to receive a “good enough” score. In other words, though it’s tough to put hard numbers to this, it should be high enough that it’s believable the prospect can raise it into the same general range as most others accepted into med school after another year of taking hard science courses. Also unlike post-baccs, most SMPs are fully accredited graduate programs, so even though they still won’t have many scholarships available (they’re major money makers for universities) they will be eligible for federal student loans. That means less funding out of pocket or at unreasonably high interest rates. (Note – and this is confusing – some SMPs are titled “Post Baccalaureate Premedical Programs” even though they’re graduate-level coursework. Do your homework!)

Who Are They For?

Special Masters Programs exist for a small subset of the overall population interested in going to medical school. Much like their post-bacc counterparts, they can be an excellent fit for career changers who have decided to pursue a new calling. They generally appeal less to new graduates fresh out of undergrad, though that certainly isn’t a hard rule. They are often a good way to demonstrate the ability to take graduate-level medicine and science courses and do well, but since the courses won’t lift a student’s undergraduate average they may not be the ideal fit for people looking to raise their GPA. SMPs fit a niche group of applicants, essentially those who are just on the cusp of having competitive application packets. In other words, if you were unsuccessful in your first 1-2 application cycles or have some sort of detracting factor (low GPA, MCAT, lack of extracurriculars, etc) that is preventing you from being admitted to med school, but are otherwise so close to meeting those criteria that they can be boosted by just one additional year of school, then an SMP may be an excellent next step. Do understand, however, that SMP’s are motivated to only accept people with a strong chance of being admitted to med school, as they need to report continued high acceptance rates.

In other words, if you’re considering going to an SMP you may already be more competitive for admission to med school than you think. There are lots of different ways to think about who’s the right fit for these programs. If you’ve already missed being accepted into MD and DO programs for one or two cycles despite continued positive feedback you are probably a good candidate for an SMP. If you’re frustrated at not already making progress toward your overarching life goal of becoming a doctor, you may be a good candidate. If you’re giving serious consideration to applying to Caribbean med schools but are holding back due to some reservations, you may be a good candidate. Only you can ultimately decide whether you’re a good fit, but if the above criteria – or others we haven’t brought up that are ancillary – apply to you in one form or another, you may want to give Special Masters Programs some serious consideration.

With all that said, there are lots of reasons NOT to attend an SMP. Particularly if you’re a non-traditional veteran candidate who has already completed a post-bacc program, an SMP is yet another year of accumulating high tuition in return for an uncertain reward. Many SMPs are certificate-granting only, so there’s not a great fall back position if you still don’t get accepted to a med school after attendance. And no SMP can actually guarantee your acceptance to a med school, no matter how excellent their track record of placement has been to date. If you’ve reached the point of serious consideration of an SMP you should probably ensure you have a fallback plan in place, such as going on to a Ph.D. in science-focused discipline.

What to Expect

There are dozens of SMPs in the U.S., each one has their own unique approach, and there’s no real regulation of the term, so it’s hard to write blanket statements about what you should expect once you finally arrive. In some programs you’ll be taking practically the full course load of a first year medical student. In other programs you’ll be doing much more theoretical – yet still rigorous – hard science coursework, perhaps with a heavy dose of research. Some programs will have the med school component in their first year, then a research component in the second, ultimately leading to a thesis-driven M.S. degree. There are excellent resources out there to find SMPs, such as the comprehensive list of post-bacc programs found at the AAMC website (be forewarned, they’ve changed this URL often over the past several years – Google is your friend here). You need to do your own leg work when deciding which programs are the right fit given your background and preferences (e.g. geographical, program-focus, degree granted, etc.). Give the available programs a hard look and figure out which do and don’t fit your personal criteria. Then do some more research to find out what it’s actually like to attend those schools (culture, demographics, etc). It’s not a fun, easy answer but hey – welcome to applying to medical school! 🙂

The Bottom Line

The ultimate goal of course is to be admitted to med school, and – as we’ve already stated – even a good GPA at a top-tier SMP is not a guarantee of making it in. The unfortunate thing about the state of medical education is that there are ultimately more fully-qualified candidates than there are spots at med schools, and good candidates slip through the cracks every year. However, the best SMPs have excellent programs to help you set tough but realistic goals, attain them, and then explain to medical school admissions committees why you are now a fully-qualified candidate. Much like a good post-bacc program, the best SMPs are highly structured and will assist you throughout your time in the program. At the end of the day they must do their absolute best to place as many of their students as possible in med school, as otherwise they’ll lose prestige and thus qualified applicants, creating a self-destructive cycle. In other words, the best programs are invested in your success almost as much as you are. If you attend an SMP, be sure to use every possible resource to ensure you are doing a great job of preparing yourself for med school, and ultimately your chances of acceptance will be much higher. Best of luck, and as always feel free to ask specific questions in the comments.

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