Frequently Asked Questions

Health Professions @ ESF

Frequently Asked Questions - and Answers!

What should be my major? Most applicants to health professions schools have majored in a science discipline. However, a science major is not a requirement to apply: health professions schools accept applications from a variety of undergraduate majors ranging across the scientific disciplines: even the humanities.

You should keep in mind, however, that all the health professions schools require that you take a certain minimum of science courses. See this FAQ for more details about this.

What courses should I take? Unfortunately, there is no single answer to this question, because the various professional schools have different requirements and expectations.

At a minimum, nearly all health professions schools require the following:

  • One year of general biology
  • One year of inorganic chemistry
  • One year of physics (need not be calculus-based)
  • One year of mathematics (sometimes specified as two semesters of calculus)
  • One year of organic chemistry
  • One year of English
  • One year of social sciences and/or humanities

Many veterinary schools have requirements above and beyond this minimum to apply. The Cornell vet school, for example, also requires a semester each of biochemistry and microbiology.

Keep in mind that these are the courses required to apply. It is a different question entirely what courses should be taken during your undergraduate career. Generally, your choice of classes should be guided by preparation for the MCAT or GRE. This FAQ gives more details about this. At a minimum, however, you should plan on taking coursework in biochemistry, microbiology, anatomy (comparative vertebrate anatomy), and physiology (cell physiology and general or animal physiology).

When should I take the MCAT or GRE? If you are hoping to matriculate in a professional school the year after you graduate, you should take these exams in the spring of your Junior year. If you plan to do a gap year after you graduate, you should take the MCAT or GRE in the spring two years before you hope to matriculate. Taking the exam early also gives you a bit of a cushion in case you decide to take the exam again.

You should know, however, that many health-professions schools will only accept results from examinations taken at certain times. Always, check your intended school's specific requirements.

What should be my GPA? You need to be aware of a sobering reality: admission to a health professions school is a highly competitive process. This means, of course, that these schools will draw candidates from the high end of the GPA range. Consider these statistics. The most common GPA for applicants admitted to medical schools nationwide, for example, is 3.75. At Upstate Medical University, the median overall GPA for accepted applicants is around 3.65 (3.57 for the science GPA). Nationally, only half the applicants with an overall GPA of about 3.60 are admitted to medical school. This means, of course, that your chances of admission only reach 50% if your GPA is 3.6 or better. If your GPA is less than that, you face an uphill struggle. It is not an impossible struggle--American medical schools have been known to accept applicants with undergraduate GPAs as low as 2.25--but it will be a struggle nevertheless, and you will have to plan your preparation and credentials to make a persuasive case that, despite your GPA, you are still a suitable candidate for the health professions.

On the other side, it also must be said that a high undergraduate GPA is no guarantee of acceptance to a health professions school: among medical school applicants with 4.00 GPAs, only about a third are actually admitted. See the next FAQ and this FAQ for more information about this.

What do admissions committees look for? Admissions committees are not necessarily looking for intellectual superstars or academic grinds: this is why even a perfect GPA of 4.00 will not guarantee admission. Admissions committees, not surprisingly, look for candidates who will be successful practitioners of the profession. There are numerous factors that enter into their judgments on who will, or who will not, be a worthy candidate. Generally, these break down to five criteria:
  • Personal characteristics: The health professions are service professions, and successful practitioners must be of good character and integrity. Admissions committees will look for evidence of this, which may include psychological maturity, self-discipline, good judgment, compassion and concern for helping others, reliability and dependability, intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm, resilience, a sense of accountability, leadership, and tangible experience in the profession. Generally, disciplinary actions during your undergraduate career will weigh heavily against you.
  • Academic ability: The health professions require people who can master large quantities of complex information, and who can keep up to date with new developments in their fields. You can look upon your undergraduate career as being largely a demonstration of your ability to do this. Admissions committees will look to grades, credit hours carried per semester, whether coursework is reasonably distributed among the sciences and other disciplines, numbers of incompletes and withdrawals, need for remediation (i.e. taking courses over), how long you took to complete your degree, and so forth. You should keep in mind that admissions committees have seen every trick in the book to "game" the system: tricks like boosting GPA by taking easy courses, or light loads will cut little ice.
  • Performance on standardized exams: The MCAT or the GRE is your demonstration that you have mastered the body of material that your undergraduate career has comprised, and that you can recall it on demand. Sometimes, a high score on these tests can mitigate a low GPA, but it can work the other way, too: low scores can undermine an otherwise strong GPA. See this FAQ for more information about these tests.
  • Letters of recommendation: These letters represent personal testimony from professionals and others in a position to comment on your character, capabilities and suitability to become a respected practitioner of the profession. They should be garnered from professors and professionals who can attest to these attributes. Internships are an especially effective way to develop strong letters of recommendations from professional practitioners. See these FAQs here, here, here and here.
  • Interview: The interview, if one is granted, is your opportunity to demonstrate "in the flesh" that you are a suitable candidate for admission. Interviews can cover a host of topics, ranging from your poise and professionalism, to your motivation and desire to pursue the profession, to your personal experiences, to your future plans.
What are my options at ESF? Pre-health professions students at ESF are commonly enrolled in one of four programs:

All these programs enable students to meet the minimum requirements for applying to health professions schools, although meeting them requires more careful planning for some majors than others. The ENB degree, for example, requires only one semester of organic chemistry: most health professions schools require two semesters. The bottom line is this: students must consult with BOTH their academic advisors and the health professions advisor to ensure they meet the requirements both for their chosen degree and for applying to their chosen professional school.

One more piece of advice: your choice of a program should be based primarily upon what interests you, rather than what will "get you in" to a professional school (see "Should I have a plan B?"). That said, your choice of program should also consider which one enables you to build your credentials most effectively. Look carefully at the respective curricula and ask questions like:

  • How many unencumbered electives are there?
  • Are the courses I need required for the major or will I have to burn elective credits to take them?
  • Will my summers be free to pursue activities like internships, research experiences, and other classes that are essential to building a strong application?

The best way to answer these questions is to consult the curricular outlines available in the College catalog, and to speak with an advisor.

When do I have to decide on a major? At ESF, you can change majors at any time, but the change becomes more difficult the further along you are.

The most common curricula at ESF for health professions students are virtually identical in the freshman year, so there's no need to make a decision then.

They are also very similar in the sophomore year, although they are not identical. You don't need to commit to a curriculum if you are a sophomore, but some careful planning is required in choosing your classes. Your advisor can help you with this.

By your Junior year, you should be set on your major. Once you are a Junior, switches between majors become more difficult, and you may need to take an extra semester or year to complete your new requirements.

Should it worry me that ESF is not a "pre-med" school? Probably not. Admissions committees base their decisions on a variety of criteria (see this FAQ), and there is little evidence that a designated "pre-health" program gives prospective students any advantage. Surprisingly, students coming out of designated "pre-med" programs have among the lowest rates of admission to medical school. Conversely, applicants from "non-traditional" programs have fairly high rates of admission, probably because students from unusual backgrounds "stand out from the crowd." This could actually give ESF students an edge over more traditional "pre-med" or "pre-vet" applicants: There is growing interest in the health professions in emergence of new diseases, epidemiology, natural pharmaceuticals, and environmental medicine, all with significant connections to the ESF's mission. Indeed, ESF students may stand out especially brightly.
What is on the MCAT and GRE exams? The MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) consists of four parts:
  • Physical Sciences
  • Biological Sciences
  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Writing Sample

Detailed coverage of the subject matter, including practice exams, is available at the MCAT page of the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) web site.

Most vet schools require only the General GRE (Graduate Record Exam). The General GRE consists of three parts:

  • Analytical Writing
  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Quantitative Reasoning

Detailed coverage of the subject matter, including practice exams, is available at the GRE page of the Educational Testing Service web site.

What represents a good MCAT score? Like the GPA, there is no "good" MCAT score: individuals with low MCAT scores gain admission to medical school, while some candidates with very high scores are not accepted. The most common total numeric score for admitted applicants is 26-28. Applicants with a total numeric score of 27 are as likely to be accepted as rejected.
What is HPAP? HPAP is Syracuse University's Health Professions Advisory Program. ESF uses HPAP to provide many services to our pre-health professions students, including counseling, sponsoring of the Pre-Med and Pre-Vet clubs, hosting workshops and seminars, applications services, help with internships and letters of recommendation, and providing a committee letter with the application. They also have their own page of FAQs, which would be worth a visit.
When should I register with HPAP, and how? It's never too early. Early registration with HPAP and participation in the workshops they offer can give you a great advantage, not least because you will be on top of your planning from the get-go: even if you are a freshman, you should be registered with HPAP. Pay them a visit at 312 Hall of Languages on the SU campus.
What is a "committee letter"? The "committee letter" is intended to be an endorsement of your application by a recognized health professions advisory program. Its purpose is to provide an overview and summary of your strengths and weaknesses as a candidate for admission to professional school. It is intended to complement and supplement your academic credentials, your letters of recommendation and the quality and breadth of your professional experiences like internships.

Presently, the "committee letter" for ESF students is written by a group of SU faculty, as part of the applications service provided by HPAP. You have to apply to HPAP for sponsorship for a committee letter to be written for you. Apply to HPAP early! (See this FAQ) You can read more about applying for HPAP sponsorship here. Being accepted for sponsorship does not guarantee you a committee letter: you have to qualify for one, based upon your grades and other aspects of your academic credentials. The committee letter also includes a rating based upon several criteria. You can read more about these here.

Do I need a committee letter? It's not required, but it doesn't hurt. Keep in mind that admissions committees must make choices from a pool of among very highly qualified candidates. If your application includes a committee letter, and if its rating is favorable, it may give you a slight edge over applicants with similar qualifications, but that do not have a committee letter. If you do not have a committee letter, or if the letter is not favorable, you must rely on recommendations from faculty and health professionals who can write about your qualifications and make strong recommendations for your admission.

Committee letters are generally thought to be more important for applications to medical school than vet school.

Do I need to go through HPAP to apply to med school or vet school? No. Most professional schools will accept applications from individuals, although HPAP can help you in the applications process in a variety of ways.

Medical schools generally accept applications through AMCAS (American Medical College Applications Service). AMCAS will accept applications from individuals or institutions. If you apply as an individual, you will have to manage your credentials and letters of recommendation yourself, and there will be no committee letter to accompany your application.

Veterinary schools are more likely to accept applications from individuals.

In all instances, you should familiarize yourself with the applications procedures for the schools to which you intend to apply. HPAP can help you in this, as can the Pre-health Coordinator.

Do I need to do internships? No, but why on Earth wouldn't you? These experiences can give you vital insights into the way your profession works and how you would fit into it. They can often garner you valuable letters of recommendation from practicing professionals. And if all that isn't enough, admissions committees look very closely at an applicant's experiences in professional settings.
What kinds of internships are there? Internships can be either formal, undertaken for credit or as part of an organized internship program, or informal, undertaken in agreement with a practicing professional on an ad hoc basis. Both can be extremely valuable. Some curricula at ESF have a formal requirement that you do an internship. ESF also has formal requirements and paperwork that must be filled out for credit-bearing internships. These can be found on ESF's internship web page.
Where can I find internship opportunities? Internship opportunities abound, but you do have to work to find them.

One way is to avail yourself of the resources of ESF and HPAP: both maintain web pages and clearing houses for internship opportunities that arise. ESF's internship page is here.

There is also the old-fashioned way: arrange on your own an internship with a physician or veterinarian. Most practitioners were interns themselves at one time, and are usually pleased to be a mentor themselves if asked.

How many internships should I do? There's no magic number, but remember this. You do not undertake internships to "get" yourself into medical school/vet school. You undertake internships as opportunities for your own intellectual growth. Looked at in this way, the answer to this question is quite simple. It's never too early to start growing intellectually: there's nothing wrong with starting before your freshman year. And it's not possible to intellectually grow too much: there's nothing wrong with doing internships throughout your undergraduate career.
Should I have a Plan B? Absolutely. Remember that even very highly qualified candidates are turned down for admission. Remember also that your undergraduate career is a golden opportunity for growth and exploration: take full advantage of it. As you explore other fields, what starts as a Plan B often matures into a primary career goal.
What about ESF's joint programs with Upstate Medical University (UMU)? ESF and UMU have several joint programs that ESF students can take advantage of. In a nutshell, students accepted into UMU's Early Assurance and Early Admissions programs can come to ESF for part or all of their their undergraduate careers. Students must apply to UMU for these programs.

In addition, ESF students can participate in UMU's 3+3 program for the Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. More details are here and in this FAQ.

What is Early Admission? Early Assurance? Early Admission/Early Assurance programs are intended to remove some of the uncertainties that attend applying to health professions and medical school. These programs are geared to highly qualified and highly motivated applicants, and have fairly demanding requirements for admission, including evidence of consistently high academic performance and demonstration of volunteer/internship experiences that show "commitment to the profession." They are not meant for students who are "still exploring."

Generally, students apply to an Early Admission program as high school seniors. Early Assurance programs are geared to the highly motivated college freshman. ESF has agreements with UMU for both Early Admission and Early Assurance. Students must apply to UMU for admission to these programs.

How does the 3+3 Doctor of Physical Therapy program work? Students spend their first three years (seven semesters) at ESF, then transfer to UMU for another three years (nine semesters). Courses taken the first year at UMU complete the requirements for the ESF degree. Like the Early Assurance and Early Admissions programs, ESF students must apply to UMU for admission. The home page for the UMU DPT program can be found here.

ESF students can participate in the 3+3 DPT program from one of two majors: Environmental Biology, or the Health & Environment option in the Environmental Science degree. As is always the case, participation in this program involves careful academic planning: you should work closely with your academic advisor.

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