Becoming a Competitive Applicant

male and female medical students walking down a hallway

Becoming a competitive applicant for health professions programs certainly involves doing well in your coursework. But health professions programs want more than academic automatons. It is important to think of your application as a whole – where the sum of each part makes up the whole story you want to tell. Developing maturity, initiative, self-awareness, and gaining experiences that speak to why you want to pursue a career in a health profession are all equally as important as your grades.

Read through each of the tabs to learn more about the various aspects of the application to health professions programs. The best prepared applicants will take advantage of the variety of services provided by Pre-Health Advising. Questions are expected! Read through our frequently asked questions or contact a pre-health advisor if you do not find an answer to your question.

Components of an Application

Each tab discusses one general area of an application to health professions programs. It is important to have an application that is equally strong in all areas.

When admission committees look at your academic record they are really looking at a few different things:

  • Course Work: Here they are looking at whether you have you completed the prerequisites for the health profession program you are applying to and whether you went beyond the minimum requirements. Some health professions, particularly medicine, like to see at least one to two semesters in which you have taken more than one math/science course at the same time. It is expected that in most semesters, students carry an academic load of 14-18 credits.
  • Overall GPA: Your overall grade point average (GPA) consists of all classes that you have taken at the undergraduate level. This includes any repeated coursework as well as any coursework not taken at UIC. Students can calculate their own GPA using a GPA calculator.
  • Science GPA: Almost all health professions programs separate out a “science” GPA. This can be calculated differently depending on the health profession program, but in general incorporates biology, chemistry, and physics coursework. In some cases, such as medicine, math is also included. Students can calculate their own science GPA by inputting only science coursework into a GPA calculator. Typically all attempts at a course are included in this GPA.
  • Grade Trend(s): Ideally your grades will start out strong in your collegiate career and remain that way throughout your time. However, health professions know that students are not perfect. If you struggled a bit as you started in college, focus on improving your record as a strong upward grade trend can be beneficial. Professional schools would prefer to see a consistent academic record or improvement rather than a slowly decreasing GPA over time. If you have concerns about your record, make an appointment to speak with a pre-health advisor.

Each Health Profession Program has its own set of standardized tests. It is important to make sure that you have the coursework expected for the exam prior to taking it. Leaving enough time to study for the exam is also important. You should not take a standardized test for practice as all scores may be available to health professions programs. It is better to take commercially available practice tests available for that purpose. Students with a declared educational goal can find handouts on various MCAT and DAT prep options in the Pre-Health Blackboard page.

Health Profession Program Standardized Test
Dentistry DAT
Medicine (MD and DO) MCAT
Nursing TEAS (for some)
Occupational Therapy GRE
Optometry OAT
Pharmacy PCAT
Physical Therapy GRE
Physician Assistant GRE
Podiatry MCAT
Veterinary Medicine GRE

Gaining experience for a health profession career is important, but goes beyond just checking off boxes. Instead of thinking “what do I need to get in?” ask yourself “what do I need to do to become the best ___ I can be?” It is helpful to engage in experiences that are personally valuable and interesting to you and that will help you grow and mature as a future health care professional.

The quality of your experiences is far more important than the quantity. Often times spending a longer period of time doing one thing continuously will allow you to grow and learn more than doing multiple things for short periods of time. A sincere, consistent, and active history of involvement is important in the admissions process, and the ability to articulate your experiences later on will be very valuable. If you do not have an answer to the question “why did you get involved in X” other than “I thought it would look good for my application” it may be time to either find a new activity or do some reflection on what you are learning from the experience.

Health Related Experiences & Shadowing

These experiences are important because they help you demonstrate your motivation for pursuing your intended professional program, your dedication to the field, and commitment to others. These experiences also help you gain a better understanding of the field and observe a typical day in that profession as well as the personal commitments and sacrifices professionals make. Think about what you have gained from your experiences that has helped you understand the profession, patients, and yourself.

Non-Health Care Related Activities

Just as important as health care experiences, these opportunities allow you to gain valuable skills that would make you a successful health care provider. For example, experiences in community service help demonstrate your commitment to serving others as well as the ability to work with those that are different from you. Different types of involvements could include: community service, research, leadership positions such as a teaching assistant, tutor, student organizations, or employment.

As you decide to pursue various experiences, make sure you reflect upon what you are learning, the responsibilities you have within the experience, and what skills and character traits you are personally developing. How might the experience contribute to your motivation to pursue the professional program?

All health professions programs require a personal statement as a part of the application. The prompt for the personal statement will vary by program, but they all share a common desire to learn more about an applicant and their interest in that particular health profession.

Some prompts are more specific and some more open ended. In all cases, it is important to show (not tell) admission committees about yourself and your interest. This can be done through the use of anecdotes or specific experiences. In many cases, these examples will be health related, but they do not have to be. To show your compassion, you may wish to use an anecdote about a volunteer experience. To show leadership, perhaps you use an example from work or a student organization.

Pre-health advisors offer Personal Statement workshops for students preparing their application. In addition, Pre-Health Advising also offers a personal statement review service for applicants.

Letters of recommendation are vital to your application. All health professions programs require them, the only variable is how many. You will find that you need to submit a minimum of 2-3 letters of recommendation for any health profession program. There are many individuals or sources that you could ask for a letter of recommendation. The following are a few of the most common areas pre-health advisors get asked about.

  • Academic Letters: Typically at least one letter is required from an academic source (ideally someone who taught you in a college level course). Every health profession has their own standards for this, so be sure to read through the instructions in the application. Some will require multiple academic letters or will want one from specific subjects.
  • Practitioner Letters: Many health professions programs would like to see a letter from a practitioner in that field.
  • Friends and Family: Applicants often want to include letters of recommendation from friends or family because they feel that these individuals know them best. That may be true! However, your family and friends are often biased when it comes to you. Most health professions programs immediately disregard these letters because the source is not able to provide insight into you as a student in the classroom or as a someone involved in the field.

There are more to letters of recommendation and how to get good letters of recommendation than most individuals think! Pre-Health Advising is happy to offer a three-part Letters of Recommendation webinar series for students. A Credential Letter is also available for applicants.