A Guide to Postbaccalaureate Programs

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 28, 2021

The postbacc builds on a bachelor's degree, preparing students interested in health-related professional degree programs to potentially become stronger applicants.

A woman wearing a hijab, a white lab coat, and a stethoscope sits using a laptop.

What is a postbaccalaureate program? 

Postbaccalaureate—or postbacc—programs are designed for students who have earned their bachelor’s degree and are interested in applying to medical school or another type of healthcare-related professional degree program. Given how competitive those programs can be, students typically use the postbacc to become stronger applicants.  

While the postbaccalaureate builds on a bachelor’s education, it’s not a substitute for a graduate or professional degree, such as a master’s, doctorate (PhD), or medical degree (MD). Rather, it’s meant to be transitional, helping students prepare for the next phase of their education.  

Who is a postbaccalaureate for? 

Professional degree students

Postbaccalaureate programs are often associated with med school, but students interested in becoming dentists, veterinarians, pharmacists, and optometrists, among other types of healthcare professionals, might also find them useful.  

Research degree students

Students who are interested in attending a doctoral program in biological, biomedical, or behavioral sciences research typically use a postbaccalaureate research education program (PREP) before applying.    

Reasons for attending a postbaccalaureate program

1. To change health careers

Students, in some instances, may not have earned enough science credits during their undergraduate studies to apply to an advanced healthcare program. Perhaps they: 

  • Became interested in med school near the end of their undergraduate degree

  • Decided to shift their focus from one health profession to another 

  • Discovered they wanted to pursue a professional degree long after graduating 

Whatever the reason, these career changers need to take additional core science classes to qualify for a professional degree program. 

2. To become a stronger applicant 

Medical schools tend to be competitive. For the 2020-2021 school year, 53,030 students applied to medical school in the US but only 22,239 were admitted [1]. 

Both a student’s GPA and their entrance exam score—MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), DAT (Dental Admission Test), or GRE (Graduate Record Exam)—are important factors on a med school application. Enrolling in a postbaccalaureate program can help record enhancers improve their undergraduate GPA, gain access to helpful entrance exam resources, and stand out as an applicant. 

3. To use a gap year proactively 

Given that med school takes an average of four years to complete, many students choose to take a gap year between earning their bachelor’s degree and applying to a professional degree program. 

Students who don’t plan on applying right away can attend a postbacc to stay competitive.   

What are the benefits of a postbaccalaureate program? 

Although the postbacc is not a requirement before applying to med school or any other type of professional degree program, it does offer many benefits. 

  • Hone your foundational scientific training: You’ll take classes and labs in biology, chemistry, and physics, among other core science competencies, helping prepare you for the advanced science classes you’ll take in your professional degree program.

  • Enhance your GPA: If your undergraduate GPA isn’t as strong as you’d like it to be, taking additional science classes as part of the postbaccalaureate can enhance it (depending on how well you do), which can help strengthen your application.  

  • Access entrance exam resources: Whether you need to take the MCAT for the first time or you’re interested in retaking it, you can access an array of training resources or discounted practice tests through a postbacc program, which can help you achieve a higher score for your application.  

  • Take advance of flexible scheduling: If you need to work or you’re interested in completing a postbacc at a more leisurely pace, you can take advantage of the two-year option, which allows you to complete the postbacc on a part-time basis. 

  • Apply for a composite letter of recommendation: You can request a composite letter of recommendation, which is usually available for students who meet their program’s GPA requirements, and can be used as one of your letters of recommendation when applying to your professional degree program. 

Postbacc programs: Costs and requirements 

Costs 

The cost of a postbacc program varies by institution. Annual costs in the US typically range between $20,000 and $60,000 for tuition alone, and do not factor in additional fees like books, housing, and travel expenses.  

Universities may offer financial aid for postbacc students, and US citizens and certain eligible non-citizens may be able to apply for federal financial aid, citing the postbacc as a “fifth year undergraduate/other undergraduate” [2]. In that case, make sure to take note of any borrowing limits, though. If you’ve already taken out loans for your undergraduate degree, you may be eligible for less. 

If you’re interested in applying to a postbaccalaureate program, make sure to speak with each institution's financial advisor to review and understand your options. 

Read more: How to Pay for Grad School: 8 Ways 

Time to completion 

Generally students who attend full-time can complete a postbacc in one year, while those who attend part-time can complete it in two years. 

Prerequisites for admittance 

Typically, students must hold a bachelor’s degree and meet the program’s minimum GPA requirement. They may also need to supply letters of recommendation and a resume. Make sure you review each program’s application requirements so you can gather the necessary materials. 

Which postbaccalaureate program is best for me? 

Focus of the program

Postbacc programs typically enroll students who are career changers or record enhancers. The difference is important. 

  • Career changers tend to take core science classes, like biology and organic chemistry. 

  • Since record enhancers have most likely fulfilled their core science requirements during their undergraduate studies, they have the opportunity to take advanced science classes.  

Review each postbacc program’s description, and make sure it fits your needs. For example, if a postbacc problem is only geared toward career changers, then record enhancers likely won’t gain what they need from it.  

In-person vs. online classes

While some postbacc programs offer a portion of the curriculum online, which can provide greater flexibility for working students, there are sometimes in-person lab requirements associated with science classes.  

Tip: Not sure where to start looking for postbacc programs? The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) offers a robust list of postbaccalaureate premedical programs based in the US [3].

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Postbacc programs vs. special master’s programs

A special master’s program (SMP) also prepares students for a professional degree program, but it features graduate-level work designed for premed students. Here’s how else it differs from the postbacc. 

  • GPA: Whereas a postbaccalaureate can help a student raise their undergraduate GPA, a special master’s program counts as an additional, or graduate-level, GPA. It does not replace an undergraduate GPA, but it can supplement it, especially if you do well.  

  • Curriculum: SMPs tend to go beyond the postbacc’s required science classes and expose students to rigorous medical coursework—often completed alongside current medical students.  

  • Graduate-level degree: A postbacc is not a degree but a preparatory program, while a special master’s program confers a master’s degree.   

Postbacc or SMP: Which is right for me?

If you need to improve your undergraduate GPA and raise your entrance exam score, the postbacc may be the best choice to ready your professional degree program application.

If you have a strong undergraduate GPA and you're looking to advance your knowledge of medicine then an SMP may be the best choice for you.

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Getting started

If you'd like to explore your options before deciding whether you want to attend a postbacc program or begin applying directly to professional degree programs, there are numerous foundational medical courses available on Coursera. Look over How to Prepare for Medical School, which brings together courses and specializations from leading universities, such as Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Pennsylvania

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Article sources 

1. American Association of Medical Colleges. “2020 Facts, https://www.aamc.org/media/37816/download.” Accessed October 20, 2021. 

2. FAFSA. “Student’s Grade Level in College, 2020-2021, https://fafsa.ed.gov/fotw2021/help/fahelp61.htm.” Accessed October 21, 2021. 

3. American Association of Medical Colleges. "Postbaccalaureate Premedical Programs, https://mec.aamc.org/postbac/#/index." Accessed October 21, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 28, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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