Discover the differences between and how to get accepted to common healthcare admissions tracks [Show Summary]
Accepted consultant Dr. Valerie Wherley has an impressive and extensive background in pre-health, having advised thousands of students to acceptance at their dream schools and programs. In this highly informative podcast interview, she distinguishes the differences between common healthcare admissions tracks and shares how to craft a compelling application for each one.
Interview with Dr. Valerie Wherley, Accepted admissions consultant and former post-bac program director & pre-health advisor [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 499th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for tuning in. We have lots of resources, articles, guides, and podcast episodes that can help you get accepted to the graduate healthcare programs of your choice. Go to accepted.com/healthcare to explore the library of free resources there.
Today is all about healthcare, and our guest is Dr. Valerie Wherley, an Accepted consultant. Dr. Wherley earned her BS and MS at the University of Maine in Kinesiology and her Ph.D. in Higher Education/Higher Education Administration from the University of Connecticut. Over the last 20 years, she has served as the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Career Development at William Beaumont School of Medicine, Director of the Pre-Health Post-bac Certification program at Sacred Heart University, and the Director of Pre-health Advisement Sacred Heart University.
In those roles, and before joining Accepted earlier this year, she advised thousands of students in the following pre-health tracks: pre-med, pre-PA, pre-vet, pre-dental, pre-pharmacy, pre-PT, pre-OT, pre-accelerated nursing, and pre-optometry as well as applicants to master’s programs in Exercise Science, Biomedical Sciences, Occupational Therapy, Speech-Language Pathology, Athletic Training, Public Health, and Applied Nutrition.
Let’s tap into that amazingly broad and notable experience.
What should all applicants in healthcare fields have if they want to apply successfully? What are the common requirements? [2:27]
Great question. As you said, I have worked with a variety of pre-health fields during the time I worked at Sacred Heart and at the Beaumont School of Medicine. The commonality that students need to have in their academics is a demonstration of mastery of those prerequisite courses. They need a very strong academic transcript and whatever those prerequisite courses are for their intended path. Typically, that’s the sciences. A lot of those pre-health tracks have common courses such as biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and anatomy, with some nuances depending on the track. There’s just no way around saying you have to demonstrate competency and mastery of those foundational concepts on your academic transcript. You have to be strong there.
From an experience perspective, my suggestion is to demonstrate that you have exposure to your intended career path. Exposure comes from observing, shadowing, and interviewing the people who are doing the work you want to be doing in the future. It’s not enough if you have a family member who has said to you, “You’ll make a great dentist one day,” that’s lovely. However, you have to have been in the trenches seeing the work and still know that it is your calling. You can demonstrate that in your personal statement and in your interview when you are applying to graduate school.
Is shadowing enough? [4:31]
Shadowing is the first place to start. When I worked with undergraduate students, I always said shadowing is step one to really see if this is the place where you want to be. Shadowing is a great place to understand what you do and what you don’t like. I would have pre-PT students, for example, who would shadow a physical therapist for a few weeks and walk away from that experience and say, “That’s absolutely what I could see myself doing,” or just as importantly, “I cannot see myself doing that. It’s not the scope of practice that I thought it was.” That’s the importance of shadowing.
Then we move into more in-depth experiences such as a semester-long internship or externship or some of those paid clinical experiences that are critically important to particular pre-health paths. It might not be direct patient care, but it still qualifies as healthcare experience.
What should DO applicants do differently or have that isn’t necessary for MD applicants? [6:05]
MD and DO applicants should prepare somewhat similarly in terms of academics and core experiential things such as clinical experiences, but DO applicants need to understand some of the basic principles of practicing in a DO way and what the DO education offers.
The DO education usually offers about 200 hours of this piece called osteopathic manipulative treatment, which is not offered in a traditional MD curriculum. In a DO interview, applicants may be asked the question, “Do you know what this is? Are you prepared for this piece of your education? What does this mean to you? Are you prepared to put this into practice in your DO career?” DO applicants certainly want to be aware of what that piece of their curriculum looks like.
Also, they should know what the DO philosophy is. The DO practicing philosophy takes into account a holistic view of the human and patient and also really talks to patient care with a prevention point of view that MDs may or may not encompass.
The other thing that seems to be a critical component is having a letter of recommendation from a DO as part of your overall application package. You’re going to secure one of those letters if you’ve done some shadowing, had an internship, or if you have a long-term working relationship with a DO who can write you a really strong letter of support.
Physician assistant programs are becoming increasingly competitive. What are those programs looking for that’s different from MD and DO programs? [8:03]
A physician assistant usually has some nuances in terms of their prerequisites that are different. My pre-PA students are usually always required to take A&P I and II. More PA schools are requiring students to take medical terminology. There are some nuances in those prerequisites. PA schools are expecting students to walk in the door with some acquired clinical skills, and that is because the PA curriculum is short. Once PA students start school it is very fast-paced. The learning environment moves quickly and they’re in those clinical settings fast.
PA students are expected to come in the door with some foundational clinical skills. Those are required by what’s considered direct patient contact hours. To be a competitive candidate, most PA schools are requiring documented direct patient contact hours. The requirement will vary by school, some require 250 and some require 2,000. You’re going to be a competitive applicant if you have documented direct patient contact hours and you will acquire those by having some kind of license or certification, such as an EMT, an MA, or a CNA. That takes time. It’s a real exercise in time management and organization to balance school and getting these patient contact hours done.
Do you think a gap year might be advisable for many PA applicants? [9:47]
A lot of the applicants that I worked with at my university did take a gap year in order to finish and acquire enough of those patient contact hours in order to be competitive. I think a critical mistake is applying to PA school before a student is ready or when they’re just meeting those minimum required hours that are posted on a school’s website. My recommendation is always to look at that minimum number of required hours and try to double it. That’s the point when you are really getting into the competitive area.
What’s different about how dental applicants should prepare in comparison to MD or PA applicants? [10:33]
Dental school applicants will take their admission exam known as the DAT, which is different than the MCAT and the GRE.
I should have mentioned that for PA students, they’re developing a new standardized test out there called the PA-CAT which is coming down the pike now. There are 11 schools out there requiring the PA-CAT. There are other schools out there that are calling it optional. I think we are going to see more and more schools adopting the PA-CAT in the future.
My pre-dental students are preparing for the DAT exam that can be taken at the end of their junior year after most of the prerequisites are done, particularly organic chemistry. Dental experience is of utmost importance. You’ll want to have some experience working as a dental tech and certainly in a dental office where you’re shadowing a dentist. Dental specialties are really good experiences as well like shadowing an orthodontist or somebody who works with an older population doing denture work.
Another suggestion is to join a pre-dental club on campus. If you are a traditional undergraduate student, it would offer you some volunteer experiences in the community like teaching an elementary school about oral hygiene and how to floss and brush. That looks wonderful on an application.
What’s really critically important to my pre-dental students is this thing known as manual dexterity. When you think about being a dentist and working in patients’ mouths, that’s a very tiny space, and you have to be able to demonstrate that in some fashion, you have worked on your manual dexterity skills prior to going to dental school. Students get really creative when they demonstrate this. They talk about their ability to knit or crochet or do woodworking or paint or draw or play a musical instrument. Anything like that speaking to your manual dexterity skills looks great on your application.
How should physical therapy applicants prepare? [13:02]
To be a competitive physical therapy candidate, you need to show observation and shadowing in a variety of physical therapy clinics and outpatient and inpatient settings and have your hours documented. Most physical therapy schools have some type of log to submit at the time of application where your hours will be verified by your supervising physical therapist. Whether you have shadowed or observed for five hours or 100 hours, you will have a physical therapist who will vouch for you not only by signing that log but hopefully by also submitting a letter of recommendation. It really is about observing physical therapists who have a wide scope of practice in a variety of disciplines like a pediatric physical therapist, a geriatric physical therapist, and a physical therapist who works with traumatic brain injuries. The more the better. When you go in for those interviews, you can speak to the variety of PT practice that is out there beyond what we typically think of as just sport-related PT.
How does an application to veterinarian school differ from the other applications? [14:55]
My pre-vet students hold a special place in my heart because my dad is a large animal veterinarian. He graduated from Cornell University and has been practicing for as long as I can remember.
In order to be a competitive veterinary medicine student or applicant, it is about having strong prerequisites. More and more vet schools are shying away from requiring the GRE. For students out there who say, “I am not a good standardized test taker,” that is good news for them.
Demonstration of a variety of shadowing and clinical experiences is of utmost importance. When I talk to my pre-vet students, I talk about getting exposure in four different categories of animal experience: small animal, large animal, aquatic animal, and exotic animal. If you can demonstrate that you have had experience and exposure in those four domains, that will show a holistic portfolio on your application. It is hard to do, especially depending on where you live regionally. If you do not live near a zoo or an aquarium, it can be really challenging. If you’re a traditional undergraduate student, connecting with a faculty member who could connect you maybe with an internship that maybe would require some summer travel would be of utmost importance.
If it’s absolutely impossible for you to get experience in one of those four categories, then my second tier is that school choice becomes critically important. When you’re applying to vet school, match the experience on your resume with what those vet schools have to offer in terms of what their specialty areas are. What do their faculty specialize in? What are their clinical experiences? That school choice should really match. There are schools out there that have great exotic animal programs. If you have a lot of exotic animal experience, that should be a really good match. You can talk about that in your personal statement. If you have no exotic animal experience, that school might not be the best choice or fit for you.
What recommendations do you have for applicants interested in a Master’s of Public Health? [18:32]
I’m finding a lot of students are interested in a Master’s of Public Health for a variety of reasons. I think being interested in the general population or public policy or simply what’s going on in our communities is sparking an interest in this particular program. It’s also a really interesting choice for students during a gap year. I’m finding some pre-med students or some pre-PA students acquiring an MPH during their gap year, not only for their own personal interest but also to become more competitive applicants.
However you’re doing this, or whatever your motivation, to become a competitive applicant, there are two avenues you should really think about. First of all, most MPH programs out there are going to ask you to write a statement of purpose. What is your driving motivation to get this Master’s of Public Health? A statement of purpose should really tell an admissions committee why they should give you a seat in the program. It should be really well-written.
The second piece is thinking about what concentration or track you might be interested in within the MPH program. Public health is so big and there are so many opportunities. If you look at a particular public health program, they will typically offer between five to eight concentration areas, which is where you hang your hat. Some examples of those might be a focus on health promotion, environmental health, occupational health and wellness, epidemiology, biostatistics or public policy, just to name a few. So really research an area or a track that you think could meet your career objective or goal so that you could write about it and say to an admissions committee, “I’m really interested in public policy and here is why.” Those two writing pieces will help make your application rise to the top.
Who should do a formal post-bac program and who can do an informal one? [22:19]
I had the pleasure of being the Director of the Pre-Health Postbac Certificate Program at Sacred Heart University and worked with some wonderful students through that program, not the least of which were military veterans coming back and going back to school. They were a wonderful group of post-bac students. In my post-bac program, I had two general categories of students: students that I would call career changers and students I would call academic enhancers.
Students who are career changers coming to a post-bac program are students who did not study anything scientifically related as an undergrad and have decided to completely change their career for one reason or another. Maybe they feel a calling to medicine and now need to get all of their prerequisites done in order to move on to the next phase of their new career. These students need to do a complete and formal post-bac program, from biology to organic chemistry and beyond. My program was two years long, and students also acquired clinical experiences and research experiences along the way. At the end of our post-bac program, they would get a certificate of completion and a fully vetted academic transcript, which looks really nice on a graduate school application.
Students who are academic enhancers may have completed a science-related undergraduate program but did not perform to the best of their ability the first time around and need to come into a post-bac program to take a second crack at some of these courses. Now, students could take a few courses if they just needed to retake a few specific ones. Or they can redo the entire complement of classes which shows programs, “I’m a new student now with these new skills. Watch me now.”
How can applicants in healthcare programs differentiate themselves in an authentic way? [25:31]
Great question. I’ve thought of a few ways that students can differentiate themselves to ensure that they are not looking like everybody else.
My first answer is to show longitudinal commitment. If you are an applicant who is doing community service for a day and doing research for a week and doing a leadership role for a month, doing a lot of very short-term items will look like you are checking a box. The students who have longitudinal commitment really stand out. You get to choose what and where that looks like. It could be to your church or your synagogue or volunteer experience at a soup kitchen. Notice I’m not mentioning clinical work here, I’m talking about longitudinal commitment. It can be Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, but it has to be long-term. That really differentiates you as an applicant because it shows commitment, resolve, and resilience. It shows all of these really wonderful qualities about who you are.
The second thing is a diversity of interests. Applicants to any of these pre-health programs will have to take science classes. On some level, you must be interested in science, patient care, and helping people. That’s pretty common. A diversity of interest is really wonderful to read about from an admissions committee perspective. If you play the trumpet, surf, knit, write poetry, or anything else, that’s very wonderful to read about because that shows that you have interests outside of patient care and you have the ability to have a work-life balance. It shows you can potentially talk to patients about something else besides their ailments and that you can connect with patients in the future on a real human level. Showing your diversity of interests is another way to stand out.
And the third thing I would say is leadership. In whatever way you can manifest leadership, talk about how it has changed you and what skills you have cultivated as a result of that leadership. Don’t just tell it like a resume item. Really show it and talk about it.
What are some common mistakes that applicants make that you’ve seen over the years? [29:10]
I caution applicants against predetermining their specialty at the time of application. I think it’s okay for students to talk about what they may be interested in. If you are an applicant who has shadowed a lot of surgeries and you think you might want to go into a surgical specialty, that is okay. But I do not think an application should be so forward-facing as to be predetermined and locked into a specialty area. When I was working at the medical school, I certainly saw students’ thoughts on specialty areas change from the beginning of year three, which is the start of clinical rotations, to the end of year three, which is the end of clinical rotations because a light bulb moment happened and a student went from surgery to OB/GYN and then declared OB/GYN at the end of year three.
More importantly, admissions committees, regardless of your pre-health track, want to know that if you are getting a seat in their program, you are coming in with an open mind. When you go into clinical rotations, whether it’s inpatient or outpatient or psych or dermatology, you’ll be there with an open mind and open heart and willing to listen and hear and absorb every single piece of information. It shows that you’re not so closed off, that you are only concerned about one specialty area because you’re locked in.
Another common mistake is applying before somebody is truly their most competitive self. That’s the kindest way to say it. Don’t apply before you’re really ready academically, from a clinical perspective, with the strongest letters of recommendation, and with the strongest test scores. I know applicants are eager to get into the application cycle. That’s a very exciting time in your academic career but you also want to put together your most competitive application. If it means waiting a year, that is in everybody’s best interest.
The third thing I would say is applicants not being selective, discerning, or data-driven about school choice and school fit. I do think that time and thoughtful intention about where you are applying, why you are applying, doing some research on the mission statement of a school, the faculty that are at that school, and what that school stands for is a really important process. How does the school fit with you as an applicant, your background, what you’ve done, and what you hope to do in the future? I think that really matters. Some applicants will cast a very wide net and just sort of think, “I’ll go wherever somebody gets me a seat.” You really want to be happy at the school where you are and fit with a peer group and a community where you can do some really good in-depth learning. I think school choice and school fit are a big part of this puzzle.
What do you wish I would’ve asked you? [33:24]
I think my final point is about mock interviews. In my opinion, mock interviews are so important.
Once you get your application in, and you’re in that application cycle, and you get the wonderful news that you have been invited for an interview, you should practice, practice, practice. A mock interview with a consultant, somebody who’s been doing this work for a while, is such a good use of time to prepare yourself in the most professional way.
It’s helpful not only to see how are you appearing on camera but to practice the different types of interview formats and types of questions that you could be asked, from general questions to pre-health specific questions to the more difficult questions like situational judgment questions to ethics-based questions. Those are really tough. Getting this practice also makes sure that you are phrasing your answers in the most professional way. I can’t recommend mock interviews highly enough.
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