The secret to success in applying to public health programs is understanding what motivates admissions officials at US schools of public health. All of them want to rise in the (really useless, but really influential) US News and World Report (aka Useless News and World Distort) standings, or to stay at the top if that is where they are lucky enough to be. Here are the most recent (2011) rankings: http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-health-schools/public-health-rankings (note that Harvard is not #1…) I don’t think these rankings are very accurate, or even very useful, but I do admit that almost everyone uses them and thinks they’re important, so I’ve reluctantly drunk the Coolaid (but only a small sip!), and am writing to help you understand the system and make it work for you.
These rankings are based on the opinions of other schools of public health, and on certain metrics. Here’s a link to a vague description of the process: http://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/articles/2013/03/11/methodology-best-health-schools-rankings
One of the main metrics used in creating rankings is the “yield” – the percentage of students who are offered a place and actually take it up. Having a low yield indicates a school might be in the “safety school” category – many of the people admitted went someplace better. A high yield means everyone wanted to go there and jumped for joy and immediately said “yes” when they got their acceptance letter! To keep their “yield” high, schools will make a judgment as to whether you’ll actually come if accepted. Ironically, this means that there’s actually a possibility that you are a really strong student, but if you don’t convince the school that you’ll accept a place if offered one, you’ll be waitlisted! (if you think this may have happened to you, you can always call the school and ask whether there’s any chance you’ll be admitted later – making that call and showing strong interest may tip the balance over for them). The SOPHAS application asks what other schools you’re applying to – to be honest, if you’re setting your sights high, and a school thinks you might get into that other high falutin’ place you’ve listed, and waitlists you as a result, you might be better off leaving this section blank.
I’ve served on the admissions committees at two top public health schools on two continents. Here are some tips for how to write a really good application, and especially to convince a school that they are the one for you and why they will “yield” you if accepted:
1. Know the school – what are the faculty doing that interests you? Whose research is of interest, who has expertise in a country you are interested in, and so on. You can use the web to do this really easily so there’s no excuse not to do your research; previous generations had no such facility, so take advantage of it to impress the committee.
Make the case in your essay why you absolutely have to attend that school, and why you want that department. And why that particular program within that department, if such a thing exists, is the exact one for you. Obviously you need to customize the essay for EACH school you are attending – one size definitely does not fit all here. Don’t be lazy and try to just write one version of your essay – admissions committee members are quick to pick it up. And I shouldn’t need to say this, but unfortunately I do: Nothing turns off an admissions committee member more than a reference to another school in the applicant’s essay (and you’d be surprised how often that happens!) “I’m really looking forward to attending Binghamton University” (ooops – he meant Boston but at least it begins with a “B”…) Basic proofreading isn’t that hard, folks. Failure to do it means you’re just sloppy – at this, and probably at other things too. Fail.
Do you have any particular ties to the region or city? Relatives? Visited and loved it? It’s even more powerful if you visited the school, sat in on a class, met with faculty and admissions officials, etc. You actually took the time and spent the money to come for a visit – that weighs heavily in your favor. Obviously not everyone can do this but you might be surprised at how different the “feel” is between schools, and between the reception you get when you ask to visit and sit in on a class. You’re going to be spending a lot of money on this degree – you might as well invest some time and money up front to make sure the fit is good and you like the people and the place!
2. Own up to your own past performance: If there are problems with your CV or your transcript, own up to them. The committee often looks to see whether the “upper” division (i.e. junior and senior year) GPA is better than the “lower” division GPA, i.e. if your performance improved over time. If you started out slow but your grades got better, that’s a good sign (as long as it wasn’t all ballroom dancing and jogging). If you got a D, or had a bad semester, don’t pretend as if it didn’t happen. If you persisted, and took the course again and improved your D to a B, point that out in case they miss it. Explain why the D or the bad semester happened — and convince the committee why it won’t happen again. Maybe you’re one of those who arrived at university under-prepared to live and work on your own, but now you’ve matured and you get it – why not say so right up front? Maybe it took you a while to even discover that public health existed as a discipline – again, say so right up front. Maybe you were headed to medical school (or so you thought) but Orgo sank you, or you realized the fit was not a good one, or it was your parents more than you who really wanted you to do medicine – again, say so, and say why you now think PH is the way to go. PH schools don’t want to fill their ranks with wannabe doctors, but with people with a real commitment to public health. Make sure you understand what that really entails.
3. Make sure your essay is really, really good. Make sure it’s really clear why you want to study public health. Tailor it not only to the school you want to attend – each one individually – but also to the department to which you are applying. Don’t talk about loving surgery if you’re applying to study public health. Opinions differ, but it’s probably not too wise to indicate that you view a public health degree as a stepping stone to medical school – and it’s not clear how med schools view an MPH degree. Some will think it’s great; some will think you wasted a lot of time and money. Some who offer the MD/MPH combo will wonder why you didn’t do it with them. I personally wish all medical doctors had also studied public health (and taken it seriously, instead of viewing it as a distraction from their “real” studies of medicine) but I think I may be in the minority. If med school is really where you want to go, you’re probably better off in a graduate medical sciences program than in public health school.
How honest should you be about personal life history and challenges? This is a tricky one – you run the risk that one or two persons on the committee are turned off by your story, but on the other hand you want to be true to yourself. Maybe you can take the stance that if they don’t want me with my own personal history including warts, then I don’t want to go there. And if you feel you “over-shared” and were penalized by being denied admission, you can apply again later and leave that part out. I personally feel that people who have “walked the walk” with an incarcerated parent, for example, are especially valuable in the public health field since they know the issues better than someone who has lived a nice protected suburban lifestyle, but you can’t count on everyone feeling that way. I think we’re well past the time when an LGBTQ applicant might be less favorably considered, but I do live in the northeast in the first state to legalize gay marriage, so I admit to living in a nice gay-friendly bubble.
4. Show you can write. Faculty members hate having to struggle through poorly written reports and papers, and they want to teach their discipline, not writing – most of them don’t really know how to teach writing, anyway. One way to show this is to do well in the analytical writing part of the GRE. It’s pretty tricky to do well on this – and practice makes better, if not perfect here. It’s a specific kind of writing, under a severe time constraint (30 mins each for two essays on a topic they propose). It’s a skill which you’ll need to practice if you want a good AW score. If you don’t type well or fast, it might be worth expending some energy to learn basic typing, so that you don’t waste valuable minutes (of your paltry allocation of 30) hunting and pecking. Also having a few good upper level courses which required writing can help. If you attach a writing sample, please make sure it’s a good one! Yikes, you wouldn’t believe what people sometimes submit as an example of their “best” writing. So sad, too bad.
5. Prepare for the GRE: As one person from the testing industry commented, “To walk into this test unprepared, to sit down [and take it] having never done it before is suicide.” He really meant to say “career suicide” but you get the point – it’s not something you can just sit down and succeed on at the first try. Here is a link to some good tips: http://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/articles/2012/04/30/test-prep-6-tips-for-gre-success
6. Finally, make sure you’ve got good references. Make sure the people you put down as references have been asked, and have not just agreed but are happy to write you a reference. Make sure they know you well enough to write a decent reference. Don’t use your family friend or a fellow student (I know, duh, why do I need to say this? Well, I do!)
On the SOPHAS applications, referees are asked to rate you on the following criteria (on a scale of 1-5, from “superior” to “below average” or “not observed”:
- Oral Communication
- Written Communication
- Interpersonal Relations
- Quantitative Ability
- Promise as Public Health
- Overall Intellectual Ability
They are then asked to check a box on their overall recommendation:
- I highly recommend this applicant with enthusiasm
- I recommend this applicant with confidence
- I recommend this applicant
- I recommend this applicant, but with some reservations
- I am not able to recommend this applicant
You want to make sure they know you well enough and are happy with your performance so that they can check all the right boxes for you.
Those are a few tips and tricks for you – I hope you have a great career, whether or not you finally choose public health! Please feel free to comment if you have something to contribute.