Will earning a master’s degree in public health help me get into med school?

BY Sydney LakeApril 25, 2022, 1:22 PM
Scott Suleski with Sign Design & Sales attaches a new sign on the Tufts University building in Boston, as seen in December 2019. (Photo by David L. Ryan—The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Medical school applications hit an all-time high in 2021, and the Covid-19 pandemic is likely among the driving factors that explains why. In 2021, more than 62,000 people applied to medical school—a 17.8% jump from the previous year, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

But more applicants equals more competition. The 2021 application year also saw an overall acceptance rate to medical school of just 6.3%, according to statistics reported by Accepted, an admissions consultancy. 

Applying to medical school has always been competitive, but with so many more applicants and fewer spots for admission, future doctors are trying to get a leg up on their peers. Some aspiring medical students are first earning a master’s degree in public health (MPH) to give themselves a competitive edge in the admissions process. 

Fortune sat down with Herman “Flash” Gordon, a former professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, where he chaired the admissions committee, to find out whether earning an MPH degree paves a smoother path into medical school. Gordon now serves as an admissions adviser at Accepted to medical school applicants.

Fortune: Why is earning an MPH valuable?

Gordon: We had a number of MPH graduates and I really enjoyed teaching them. And I think it’s because an MPH teaches students to see the big picture. This is becoming more and more important in American medicine—this concept of treating the whole patient. It has lots of historical roots, but it’s becoming mainstream I’d say during the last decade. 

And so the MPH students come in and they instantly think about the living conditions, the community, all of these other considerations that go beyond just treating the symptoms. And it’s really healthy to do that.

The way that modern medical education works is there’s a lot of group learning, and so having those MPH students as part of your class helps to teach the other students this way of thinking about medicine. Public health is public. It’s [about] trying to see the whole picture of the community, but even so, it helps to have that view in treating the individual patient. So it works at both levels, and I think that that’s something that throughout medicine is trying to be taught to students today. So I am personally very in favor of recruiting MPH students into med school.

There are some programs, like the University of Miami, where they’re offering combined MD [doctor of medicine] and MPH degrees, and it’s just a four-year program. You get an MPH alongside your MD—you don’t spend any extra time doing it. I think that speaks to this desire to have that kind of thinking in practice in doctors. 

Fortune: Will earning an MPH help you get into med school?

Gordon: To a certain extent that can work. It really depends on the person. I wouldn’t tell someone, ‘Oh just go get an MPH to help you get into med school.’ It’s if it makes sense for you. If this is something that you want to make part of your longer-term career, then absolutely it will be a benefit to you as a doctor in the future, and along the way it’s walking the talk. 

If you’re going to talk about desiring to participate in public health as part of your career in your application, then there you go. You’ve got the credentials to say that with the MPH. But if it’s checking off a box and figuring, ‘Oh this is a quick path into med school,’ I would not recommend it. 

Fortune: But aren’t med school admissions so much more competitive now since COVID-19?

Gordon: Yes—it’s definitely more competitive. There are more people applying. I don’t see more people earning an MPH, but that may just be because there’s only so many MPH positions. It’s the same amount of students going through.

I’ve always seen MPH students on their way to med school. Some students have deliberately chosen to do an MPH before even applying to med school. They’ve said, ‘This is something that I want to be part of my career.’ [People] go into medicine with the desire to be part of public health and global health.

Back to competitiveness—there are more medical schools opening, so there are more slots that are becoming available, but there’s just a lot more students applying. One thing I’ve noticed is that is seems like there’s more emphasis on metrics than there has been in the past. So the AAMC has tried to get med schools to have minimum metric requirements for medicine, and once students have met those move onto other attributes.

There’s a list of about a dozen attributes—including metrics—which they encourage med schools to use in accepting students into their classes. What I’m seeing is that those metrics have to be pretty good. That’s like an MCAT of at least 510, a GPA in science of at least 3.6—those are pretty high standards. And I think they’re higher than they were a few years ago. I have hypotheses about why that’s happening, but that’s what I’m seeing. 

Say you have an undergraduate science GPA of 3.4—which isn’t shabby, but it’s not up there with what’s happening in terms of med school admission—then it behooves you to do a post-baccalaureate program. It could be an MPH, it could be a general master’s program, it could be a specific master’s program that has a lot of pre-med attributes to it. There’s all these different ways to go. What med schools want to see out of that is the student’s capability for medical school. 

Fortune: How do I ‘sell’ my MPH degree in my med school application?

Gordon: You have to have a story that goes with this along with validation from letters from the faculty in the post-bac program comparing you to their med students in their programs. You can’t just go to one of these programs and say, ‘I’m going to get into med school now.’ It has to be part of a unified effort. Admissions committees are really good at spotting box-checkers. 

[Earning an MPH] should be an essential part of their personal statement. It should basically be a mission statement and talk about the path that the applicant has experienced: This is where my motivations came from, this is what led me to be interested in public health, this is what I got out of it, this is what I want to do with it. They have to articulate the story. They want to present themselves in a way that makes sense to the admissions committee. Ideally, they want the admissions committee to read their statement and nod their heads up and down. That’s the objective in putting your personal statement together. 

For someone who has gone through the effort of getting an MPH, they need to explain that story—it’s a major part of their path. 

Fortune: What is your advice to med school applicants who earned an MPH?

Gordon: Admissions committees are always impressed by walking the talk. So if you have opportunities while you’re getting your MPH to put it into practice, then go do it. There are lots of opportunities and I would encourage students to look for those. Look for ways that you can apply what you’ve learned to help people overcome their challenges. That’s what admissions committees are looking for.

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