Thursday, November 11, 2010

Choosing and getting into MPH programs: Part 4: Getting in

This is Part 4 in my series about choosing, getting into, and getting funded by MPH programs.
(Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here.) Sorry this is taking me a gazillion years to get through. I was planning to finish the last piece in one installment. But in the interests of forward motion, I decided to go ahead and post what I have written at the moment (the "getting in" section) and then work on finishing the last bit ("getting funded") soon (soon, I promise!)

Getting in
I promise this will seem relevant in a minute: When I was an undergraduate, I worked for three years as a tour guide and general admissions office helper. I also sometimes assessed students' writing or art submissions and wrote up summaries for their admissions files. My senior year, I also got to start doing interviews of prospective students - those interviews also went into their admissions files. I had friends who worked at the admissions office as admissions counselors, and I had friends who read files as alumni readers. I knew a fair amount about what went into the admissions process.

I also belonged to an online forum for students, and every year prospective students would post asking for advice about how to get into the school. And all the current students would confidently post back information that was just plain wrong, or at best misguided. They would say things like "Your grades don't matter as long as you're passionate about something!" when in fact, the admissions office was busy turning away passionate kids who had transcripts full of Cs. Because the current students had gotten in themselves, they thought they understood why and how the admissions office made the decisions it did and how it would view other people...but really, a lot of them had no clue.

I tell you all this in order to say that as much as I want to give you advice about getting into graduate school based on my own experience and the experiences of the people I see around me, I won't. Because I've never been part of a public health graduate admissions process, and I might be wasting your time and telling you the wrong things.

Instead the advice I will give you is exactly what I used to post on that message board when I saw misinformation: Admissions officers are not shy. The admissions process may not be easily discernible, but it is not a secret either. They are not trying to hide their process from you. While they probably won't be willing to give you percentage odds on your personal chances, they can tell you what they're looking for and whether or not you fit it.

Informed by my undergraduate experience, when it came time for me to apply to grad school I sat down with multiple grad school admissions officers, as well as professors and/or other people from the departments I was applying to who participated in the admissions process. I said, "Here is my resume, here is my transcript, here are my interests. Is there anything I can do to strengthen my application to your school?" This is a nicer way of saying "Do I have a chance?" and also a way that enables you to, in fact, find ways to strengthen your application before you apply.

It's easy to make assumptions about what a program might want - they'll want their applicants to have classes in biology, or to have volunteered at a clinic, or to have worked abroad for at least a year, or to have X score on the GRE, etc. etc. But you don't actually know until you ask, and if you don't ask you could be setting yourself up for a lot of stress and effort wasted on one set of things, when you should have been focusing on others.

For example, I was stressing about how my (somewhat diverse) work/volunteer experiences would add up in the minds of admissions committees. When more than one told me "Yes, we consider that the work you've done fulfills our experience requirement", that put my mind at ease that I didn't need to try to shove anything more onto my resume before I applied. On the other hand, one of my top choice schools told me that because I had no undergraduate math courses (save one statistics course), they would want to see a good GRE math score - so I studied the crap out of that section.

And when I finally applied, I could feel confident that I had done absolutely everything I could to put together strong applications - because I had talked to the people who would be reading them.

So once again: don't assume what programs want, and don't take my advice, or any other random person's advice, about getting in. Go to the source(s), and ask*. Just call, find out who reads applications/coordinates the admissions process, and make an appointment (phone or in-person). It really is that simple. (P.S. As far as I'm concerned, this applies to all schools, all admissions processes, everywhere. Ask!!)

*Tip: One easy-access way to do this, and to scope out programs in general, is to get a student pass for the American Public Health Association annual conference's Public Health Expo. They have a whole section of schools/programs of public health exhibiting there. For the past few years, on one day of the conference, they've been offering students/prospective students free admission to the Expo room. So if you're in the vicinity of the APHA conference then check it out. I do NOT encourage you to buy a conference registration just to go to this, unless you are independently wealthy.

Questions to ask when you talk to them:

  • This is my educational background and my transcript. This is my work/volunteer background and my resume. What can I do to strengthen my application?

  • What are average/minimum GRE scores that you look for? How important are standardized test scores in the admissions process?

  • Do you have minimum work/experience requirements? Does what I've done so far fulfill them?

  • What do you look for the personal statement to cover?

  • Does it help to speak with professors? (Usually the answer is yes!) How would you suggest I find faculty in my interest areas/make contact with them?

  • What percentage of applicants did you admit last year? The year before?

  • What is a mistake you see applicants make frequently, and what could I do to avoid it?

The only other thing I'll say about getting in: I find that people applying to public health school are often anxious. They are anxious about getting in. I remember being pretty anxious too. I met with admissions staff, with professors, studied for the GRE, revised my personal statement a thousand times, not to mention my resume, and re-read my transcript with a critical eye (not that there was much I could do about it). And in the end, I got in at plenty enough places to boost my ego, and to have a good range of choices.

I wish the world was beating down the doors of public health. The truth is, it isn't a lucrative career and (given that nobody knows what it is!) it's not incredibly prestigious either. There are certainly competitive programs out there, but the insanity does not reach the level that most people accustom themselves to for undergraduate applications.

I say this not to make you feel overconfident (and then write me angry e-mails when you don't get admitted) because yes, people are rejected from MPH programs every year (I was also one of them - it's not like I got accepted everywhere). By all means, work very hard on your applications, but I will say that I think I spent too much time worrying about getting in, and not enough time worrying about how to get funding and where I should actually go. Then, once I was admitted, I kind of had to scramble to figure things out. A little bit of confidence that you will have options can help you prepare for what you'll do once you find out exactly what those options are. Again, just because you can get into a particular program doesn't mean you should do it!


JMT said...

Rebecca, thanks for doing this series! The timing has coincided pretty exactly with my own process - not sure if you intended to do that that based on general admissions season or if it was coincidental. I learned last week I got into the program I applied to - yay!

Would you consider an episode about how to make the most of your time in an MPH program or something along those lines?

Rebecca said...

I wish I could say the timing was intentional, but in truth I meant to finish it months ago! Still, I'm glad it's syncing up :-)

Congratulations on your acceptance!!! That's a good idea for making the most of your time, maybe I'll add it as an encore piece once I wrap this up.

Anonymous said...

I found this on a bing search, and it has been so helpful! I'm graduating in Spring 2012 and hoping to start an MPH program that fall. No one in my family has gone to grad school, and no one at my university seems to know much about the public health admissions process, so I've been tearing my hair out trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing. If you have any more resources or advice you think would be helpful, feel free to e-mail me at Thanks so much for posting this!

Michelle said...

Rebecca, this is a wonderful series. Very very helpful, and definitely an impetus for thought. Thank you.