When considering candidates for admission, professional schools evaluate applicants on the basis of the following set of criteria:

  1. Metrics (grades and standardized test scores): Is this person academically ready for a rigorous, graduate-level science curriculum?
  2. Clinical Experience: Is this person making an educated career choice?
  3. Interpersonal Skills and Commitment to Service: Does this person's activity history demonstrate a long-term commitment to serving others, including those of diverse backgrounds? Furthermore, have they developed excellent interpersonal skills?
  4. Intellectual Curiosity and Problem-Solving Skills: How has this person gone above-and-beyond academic requirements to demonstrate their love of learning and intellectual problem-solving? 

Read on for advice in each of these categories of preparation. For a deeper dive into these topics, return to the in-depth video series for new students (step 3). Our Pre-Application Workshop videos are also available for those who are preparing to apply to professional school in the coming year.

Metrics

Academic Preparation: Rule #1

You should be earning semester GPAs of 3.5 or above (all As and Bs, with more As than Bs), as a full-time student, for at least the three consecutive semesters that lead up to the time when you submit your application to professional school. In each of those semesters, you should take one or two science courses, with at least one accompanying lab.

Academic Preparation: Rule #2

It is ideal if you can complete at least 1-2 additional upper-division science electives beyond the prerequisites before you submit your professional school application. Potential elective courses to consider include Human Anatomy (with cadaver lab), Human Physiology, and Immunology.

Prepare for your Standardized Test

If you are preparing for a field that requires applicants to take a standardized test, be sure to allocate an appropriate amount of time to standardized test prep (total of ~150 hours for GRE prep, ~300+ hours for MCAT, DAT, OAT, PCAT, and PA-CAT prep). Refer to our Standardized Test page for more detailed advice on this topic.

Clinical Experience

Direct Patient Interaction

Prior to making a commitment to the education needed to embark on a career in clinical health care, you should get experience working in health care settings to confirm your career choice. Successful applicants to professional school typically have spent one year or more working/volunteering on a weekly basis in a patient-interaction role in a clinical setting by the time they submit their professional school applications. The aims of this type of experience are to develop a fully informed understanding of the profession you seek to enter and to start to develop your own bedside manner when interacting with sick or injured patients. Typical patient-interaction roles for pre-health students include the following: 

  • Volunteer role in a hospital, clinic, or hospice program:
    • This approach is a common first step, as volunteer positions do not require formal training and the weekly time commitment is fairly low (typically ~4 hours/week). If you are interested in finding a position of this sort, do a web search to find the contact information of the volunteer coordinator of the facility where you would like to volunteer. Here in the Boulder area, we've found that Boulder Community Health tends to have relatively few volunteer positions available, whereas other nearby hospitals (Longmont United, Good Samaritan, and Avista) generally have more volunteer positions available. Aim to find a position that allows you to interact directly with patients in a truly clinical setting in the hospital (in the Emergency Department, for example, not the Welcome Desk or gift shop).
  • Clinic assistant:
    • Although there is such a thing as medical assistant certification programs, it is fairly common for clinics to hire post-baccalaureate pre-health students without that certification; they simply provide on-the-job training. This type of work would allow you to interact directly, in a hands-on role, with many patients per day in a clinic. Many CEprehealth students have found work as clinic assistants in primary care, dermatology, otolaryngology, dental, veterinary, physical therapy, and optometry clinics in the local area. 
  • CNA (Certified Nurse Aide): 
    • This is a hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves job that allows you to serve patients in a direct and caring way. Most CNAs work in long-term care facilities (or provide in-home care), which means they get to develop real relationships with the patients they serve. This position requires hard -- and, at times dirty -- work. That said, if you become a CNA and carry out your work in a way that respects each patient's humanity, you'll not only provide a bright spot in your patients' days but also will continually develop your bedside manner while providing abundant evidence of your dedication to compassionate patient care. There are LOTS of local CNA jobs available, but the quality of those positions can vary widely. This can be a good part-time paid option. You can complete CNA certification at a community college, technical school, and at some assisted living facilities. Here in the Boulder area, a popular CNA training center is Compass Nursing Arts. Be forewarned: training courses cost several hundred dollars and the pay is relatively low. 
  • Home health aide or personal care attendant (through an agency or private party).
    • This type of work is similar to that of a CNA, in a home-care setting. Most agencies and private parties will provide on-the-job training. Pre-health students choosing this type of experience should supplement it with volunteer or work experience in a hospital or clinic so that they are exposed to the type of work environment they will be in as a future clinician.
  • EMT: Work on an ambulance or as an emergency department technician 
    • This position can be a great fit for pre-health students who are drawn to fast-paced, dynamic work. You would need to complete an EMT training course (which costs more than CNA training). Potential downsides: Depending on where you hope to work, it may be hard as a newly minted EMT to find an ambulance job, and ED tech jobs may require overnight shifts.
  • Phlebotomist: 
    • In this position, you would get lots of practice at setting people at ease when they are afraid of needles. Potential downside: You only spend a very short period of time with each patient, so the nature of the work may not be as rewarding as some of the other positions on this list. Note: Some hospitals provide on-the-job training. 
  • Volunteer doula at Denver Health:
    • If you are interested in supporting laboring women, Denver Health has a program that provides doula training for volunteers who commit to a certain period of service after completing their training. The idea is to provide doulas for laboring women who wouldn't be able to afford one on their own. (For women without health insurance, paying for an epidural may not be an option; having a trained support person who is there to coach them and provide comfort measures makes an enormous difference in their experience of labor.)
  • Psychiatric Care Technician: Some residential mental health institutions will provide on-the-job training.
Clinical Shadowing

We recommend that post-baccalaureate pre-health students shadow a minimum of four clinicians for one full day each. We recommend the following assortment of shadowing experiences:

  • Primary care clinician in your desired field
  • Medical specialist in your desired field
  • Surgical specialist in your desired field
  • At least one other type of clinician in a related field

Alternatively, some pre-health students become medical scribes in a hospital's Emergency Department. Several hospitals in the Denver Metro area will provide on-the-job training for medical scribes. As a scribe, your role would be to follow a given physician throughout their shift and document all of their interactions with patients. You generally are partnered with a different physician each day, thereby witnessing many different physicians' approaches to caring for their patients and also seeing how a given physician adapts their approach to different patients.

For more information on shadowing, refer to this Guidelines for Shadowing document.

Interpersonal Skills/Commitment to Service to Others

History of Service to Others

Health care is a service profession. To prepare for the interpersonal demands of the job you are seeking, you should seek out experiences now that will allow you to interact with all kinds of people, especially people who are very different from you. We strongly encourage all pre-health students to devote at least a couple of hours per week to a long-term volunteer role that puts them in a position to offer direct service to others, particularly those who find themselves grappling with profoundly difficult life circumstances. Examples include volunteering as a Victim's Assistant for the Boulder Sheriff's Office, with the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, as a needle exchange volunteer in a harm reduction clinic, as a tutor for disadvantaged kids, as a sports coach for athletes with developmental or physical disabilities, etc. CU Boulder's Volunteer Resource Center can help you find a meaningful volunteer position.

If you are pursuing a doctoral-level clinical career, be aware that professional schools will also assess your potential for serving as an effective leader in that role. If you have not yet served in a formal leadership role, look for opportunities to gain leadership experience now. Examples include serving as a teaching assistant, a coach, a student group/club leader, a church group leader, a wilderness trip leader, etc. We also encourage our students to do some independent reading on the subject of leadership styles so they are familiar with useful vocabulary to describe their personal leadership style.

Intellectual Curiosity/Research Experience

Getting Involved in Research

As a future clinician, your job will require you to use strong critical thinking skills on the job and to remain committed to lifelong learning. Getting involved in an independent study project or other research is a great way to demonstrate that you not only enjoy learning new things but also that you find it satisfying to apply what you learn. If you would like to get involved in research at CU Boulder, here is the approach we recommend to get your foot in the door (you may watch a full video presentation on this topic; the password is CEprehealth):

  1. Start by poking around the research pages for the labs on campus. The two departments that tend to be most open to hiring nontraditional pre-health students as volunteer undergraduate research assistants are Psychology and Neuroscience and Integrative Physiology. (Often, the research section of the departmental website takes you to a landing page for a given professor's lab. Be sure to click through to the research group's full-fledged website.)
  2. Once you've identified 2-4 research groups that are doing work that especially interests you, do this:
    1. Read a bit more about their work. Read the info on their website, but once you've identified a few research groups that especially interest you, go a bit deeper: pull up ~3 of their recent articles and read the Abstracts, Introductions, and Discussions of those papers.
    2. Each research group's website should have a webpage that explains how you can inquire about a potential volunteer research position. Follow those instructions. 
      1. They are likely to ask you to explain why you are interested in research in their lab. Keep your message succinct but specific. Identify yourself as an adult career-changer, say a little about your background, and explain why you are excited to learn more about the specific research they are doing in that group (as informed by the reading you just did).
  3. Most labs are looking for a year-long commitment of at least 8 h/wk. (That's because it takes time to train a new person; if they train you, they'd like you to stick around and to keep a consistent schedule so your work is truly helping them progress.) 
    1. If you are going to volunteer in a lab, do your very best to make sure you can attend that research group's lab meetings or journal club meetings every time they are held. Doing so can give you tremendous insight into best practices in experimental design, statistical approaches, interpretation of data, and presenting scientific findings ... and that set of insights is precisely the reason why it's so valuable for future clinicians to gain research experience.
      1. Lab meetings: At each meeting, one of the researchers in the group (it could be an undergrad, a grad student, or a post-doc) will share their current work with the rest of the group, and then the group will offer feedback and suggestions. 
      2. Journal Club meetings: Attendees will be directed to read a primary research article in advance. Then, the group will come together to critique the experimental design and the authors' interpretations of the results, as well as to discuss implications for their own work.

A few tips:

  • Some labs have a volunteer interest form for you to fill out. Others direct you to email a contact person in the lab. Either way, it is (unfortunately) fairly common for your first inquiry to go unanswered. Put a reminder in your calendar to send a polite follow-up via email a week later.
  • If there is a lab that is doing work that really interests you but they don't have any volunteer openings at the moment, ask if they might consider letting you sit in on lab meetings or journal club meetings. That's easier for them to say "yes" to because they don't have to train you or save work for you to do; they're holding those meetings already. This can be a great way to get your foot in the door; you'll start to learn more about their work and will get to know some of the people in the group. Then, if you're liking it and they like you, you'd be an obvious person for them to offer a future volunteer position to.
  • If you start going to lab meetings or journal club meetings, be ready to feel like they are speaking Greek. That's totally okay and normal. You probably won't follow the conversation very well at first but do your best, writing down any vocab words or concepts that you need to look up at home. If you can tolerate that discomfort at first, you WILL get better and better at understanding what they are talking about ... and then it will start to get very interesting!