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Apply with confidence

A page within Pre-Health Student Resource Center

Check out the Graduate School Prep Pack, developed by AACCS/Pre-Health Center staff for in-depth tips on successfully applying to graduate programs! 

Am I ready?

Am I ready?

Do not apply just because you feel you are supposed to. It takes a lot of work to go through a health professions application process. For some students, that process can get in the way of necessary GPA improvements, increases in relevant experiences, and the development of strong relationships with letter writers/references. If you are rushing to get ready to apply, you are more likely to make mistakes and potentially apply later in the application cycle - either of which may severely hurt your chances of admission.

Planned "gap years" and post-bacc programs are becoming increasingly common, as they are an opportunity to increase your profile for admission. See the alternative pathways page to learn about some potential options.

Ask yourself:

  • How does my GPA stack up?
    • Do your research on programs' websites, contact department representatives and admissions
    • Look at association websites that list admitted students statistics (ex. recent AAMC average MD GPA = 3.6; recent AACOM average DO GPA = 3.45)
    • Browse forums, such as to look for students' stories that match your own, and where they successfully matriculated
    • Learn how GPAs change (sometimes only slightly) with each new semester by entering expected grades into a GPA calculator - for example, "what happens to my GPA if I get all A's next year?"
  • How prepared am I to take the required exams?
    • Each test has its own website with basic information (ex. GRE); association websites will have information related to your profession (ex. AAMC's MCAT info)
    • What is your timeline for studying and practicing? Students will often take tests in the winter or spring break before they apply
  • How much have I learned about/experienced the profession?
    • What have I seen? What have I done? Who have I met?
  • How much research have I done to decide on where to apply?
  • How strong will my recommendations be?
    • This process takes time! You need to find opportunities to get to know faculty and professionals that can recommend you
  • How well do I know any related centralized application services?
    • AMCAS, PTCAS, CASPA, and more - there might just be a centralized website where you can apply to most schools in a given profession; if not, the process will go through the individual program's website (ex. UWL's OT program used to NOT participate in OTCAS - it does as of the 2018-2019 cycle)
Selecting graduate programs

Selecting graduate programs

Deciding which programs to apply to requires time, organization, and critical thinking. Applications are expensive, so while it is good to apply to multiple programs, you should make sure your list is realistic and well-thought out. Have a few schools that are preferred (highly competitive but realistic) and a few schools where you exceed their average student profile. You will need a system for decision-making and organizing your target schools.

Use our "Pre-Health Organizer", a downloadable Excel spreadsheet, to help you start organizing your programs of interest (plus your prerequisite coursework and experience hours). 

Many professions have a centralized website where you can browse programs and apply, usually called a Centralized Application Service. This is the case for physical therapy programs, medical schools, and many more (see our section on application processes to learn more). For other professions, there are "association" or "council" websites that list accredited programs - the PAEA site lists Physician Assistant programs, for example. has links to sites for additional career paths as well. Within each profession that you might be exploring or planning to apply, look under the "Academic Requirements" section. is a great site if your search for graduate programs is more broad. You might even learn about a graduate program you weren't familiar with - for example, a student interested in pharmacy might learn that there are "pharmaceutical sciences" graduate programs, which would be more likely to take a student toward a industry research career. 

Having a list of programs is a start. From there, you need to develop criteria for deciding where to apply. Below are some common factors to take into account; however, you should only use this as a start. Use each program's website, along with any related association websites, to answer each of the following, plus any additional factors you are considering.

  • Location. Do not limit yourself to just one state, and think of moving somewhere new as part of the adventure.
  • Application due dates. If the schools you are applying to have "rolling" admission, get your applications in as early as possible (the due date is basically meaningless); if "non-rolling", you should still plan to apply early, but it is less vital. If you are unsure whether a program does rolling admissions, simply call or email them. All programs list some sort of contact info on their websites. 
  • Test requirements. Some programs don't require any test at all. Some programs will accept multiple tests, giving you flexibility to apply to both med school and pharmacy school, for example. Still others will require one specific test (GRE, MCAT, PCAT, DAT, etc.). See our section on tests in the tabs above.
  • Average GPA/test scores. Most programs will list their average GPA somewhere on their website, but you can often contact the program to get a range of GPAs of their most recently admitted class. This can help you to understand how you stack up.
  • Outstanding pre-requisites. What classes do you still need to take and by what date?
  • Letters of recommendation. How many are required, and from whom?
  • Experience requirements. Do they require a certain number of hours of patient care experience (this is common for PA programs, for example)?
  • Tuition cost. This can sometimes vary wildly between programs. While graduate school will increase your earnings, especially in the health professions, you should still be mindful of cost. 

The best way to organize all of this tends to be in a spreadsheet (see our example here), using Excel. Each "factor" is a column, each school is a row. Use color-coding to denote areas that need attention. For example, you may need an additional class for a given program. You can then use your spreadsheet to organize your application process. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • When did you submit your application?
  • Have you sent your test scores?
  • Have your letter writers submitted?
  • Do you have any secondary or supplemental materials to submit?
  • What have you heard back from the program?


Getting letters of recommendation

Getting a strong letter of recommendation

It's not as simple as asking nicely. A strong letter comes from a person who knows you and trusts your ability to succeed. Usually, you will have an academic or professional relationship with the writer - not necessarily personal. Keep these tips in mind as you seek letters:

Make a positive impression early in your college career. Participate in class, and go to office hours to improve your understanding of the material. Look for opportunities to be a teaching or research assistant. Avoid groveling for grades or complaining. You can never be sure who might turn out to be a great reference later on. 

Learn the rules on who can be a letter writer. Most graduate programs have guidelines for who can write your letters - it might be two professors and a healthcare professional from the field, for example. 

Ask your letter writers well ahead of time. It may seem like a simple thing to write a letter. However, most faculty have work stacked up at any given time, and won't be able to skip over it to write your letter. It's best to ask a few months before you would need the letter, then ask what the best timeline would be for them - they may, for example, want a reminder a month later. 

Start with an email that asks whether they are willing to write you a strong letter. Then, offer to follow up with more info in person or via email, whichever they prefer.

Make sure the letter writer is clear on guidelines. Some professions actually require standardized "forms" rather than a letter. Avoid wasting your letter writer's time by having them write a letter, only to find out that they have a character limit, or some other formatting discrepancy. 

Offer them any additional info that might be helpful. This might include a resume, application essay/personal statement, obstacles you have faced, red flags that might show up, etc.

Always thank your letter writers and keep them informed!

Preparing for tests (GRE, MCAT, DAT, etc.)

Content exams by professional track*

  • Pre-Athletic Training - GRE
  • Pre-Chiropractic N/A
  • Pre-Clinical Exercise Physiology - GRE (sometimes)
  • Pre-Dentistry - DAT
  • Pre-Genetic Counseling - GRE
  • Pre-Law - LSAT
  • Pre-Medicine - MCAT
  • Pre-Occupational Therapy - GRE
  • Pre-Optometry - OAT
  • Pre-Pharmacy - PCAT (phasing out in 2024)
  • Pre-Physical Therapy - GRE
  • Pre-Physician Assistant - GRE (UWL and UW-Madison require CASPR but not GRE)
  • Pre-Veterinary Studies - GRE

* each professional path and program varies in whether a certain entrance exam is required; consult association websites and the specific programs to which you plan to apply

Situational Judgment Tests (SJTs)

There are several varieties of this type of "test", which attempts to measure an applicant's professionalism and ability to make good ethical decisions. CASPer is very common, and cuts across professional tracks. Some med schools are using AAMC's "Preview" exam instead.

Preparing for tests/exams

Test preparation is about both content and strategy development. So, making flash cards might be only one part of your preparation. You also need to take practice exams, listen to podcasts, read blogs, and ask students who have taken the exams for tips and strategies. Join study groups to keep yourself on pace.

Look at available test dates, along with what else you have going on during the time period leading up to test day. Create a weekly study plan that will give you enough time to prepare.

Study group

Many of the resources below give away free resources/tests to entice you to buy their more expensive products. Start with the free stuff and see if it’s worth a purchase.

Minimizing stress

Is your study schedule realistic, in terms of number of hours you can dedicate per week, given your other commitments? Have you planned breaks to de-stress and re-energize? Exercise, healthy eating, and good sleep will be important in order to stay engaged while studying. 

When you are feeling exhausted, check out the Relaxation Room in the Counseling & Testing Center, 2106 Centennial. Reclining lounge chairs, blankets, pillows, earplugs, all in a private, quiet, calm, low-light space. Any UWL student can use this room without an appointment. Take a time-out, a break, or even a nap.

Available Monday-Friday, 8:00 AM-4:30 PM (appts can be made if you want to hold a time.)

Learning the application process

Many health professions programs use centralized websites to collect and manage applications, while others have application processes that are individualized to the school. However, you can usually find an "association" or "council" website for a given profession that provides information on programs that are accredited. Ex. Genetic Counseling programs at ACGC website.

Learn about Centralized Application Services

Overview of CAS's (via NAAHP)

Athletic Training - ATCAS

Chiropractic - individual to each school

Dental - AADSAS


  • Allopathic Medicine (MD) - AMCAS
  • Osteopathic Medicine (DO) - AACOMAS
  • Podiatric Medicine - AACPMAS

Occupational Therapy - OTCAS

Pharmacy - PharmCAS

Physical Therapy - PTCAS

Physician Assistant - CASPA

Public Health (Graduate) - SOPHAS

Learn about undergraduate applications at UWL:

Radiation Therapy

Nuclear Medicine Technology 

Clinical Lab Science

Therapeutic Recreation 

Exercise and Sport Science

Writing essays/personal statements

Have a process

Set a due date

  • Make it realistic - recognize that your final draft may be radically different from your first rough draft
  • Plan to apply as early as possible, not simply "by the deadline"

Schedule times to work

  • With coursework, involvement, testing, work, etc. it's easy to let your essay fall low on your to-do list
  • Plan to work several hours per week leading up to your deadline

Set meetings with support people

  • Ask them ahead of time if they would be willing to support you
  • See section below on finding support people

Brainstorm ideas

  • Brainstorming is not editing - anything you think of can be included initially
  • The Pre-Health Center and Writing Center will host personal statement workshops during Fall and Spring - plan to attend!

Start writing based on your brainstorm

  • Flesh out your initial ideas - again, avoid being too critical of your ideas just yet
  • Develop your system - for some, this early draft might be a list of bullets in a Word document; color-coding might work for others; still others might use pencil and paper

Flesh out each of your ideas

  • Back up each idea with necessary details and support
  • For example, one of your bullets might say "My experience as a lab technician has helped prepare me for dentistry" - back that up by asking yourself, what do I mean, and how do I know this is true?

Organize your ideas

  • Combine ideas that are similar and/or might be too simple on their own
  • Subtract anything that is redundant or doesn't paint your unique picture
  • Figure out what's missing, and add it
  • Begin to move parts - put your best and most interesting ideas in the earlier paragraphs

Edit the overall structure; make note of any themes

Start to write your introduction and conclusion based on your themes

Identify supports

Reach out to the Writing Center, Career Services, faculty, and any healthcare mentors you might have for support as you prepare, write, and revise your essay. Do not make the mistake of leaning on one person as your go-to for the direction and editing of your essays. The different advice you might get from different support people will only help you refine how you think about YOUR essay.  

Overall, do not be afraid to ask for support. This will be a long process and you will need all the help you can get!


Use your experiences to highlight your:

  • Related skills - what makes a great doctor, PA, PT, etc.?
  • Interests/goals - do you want to specialize, and why?
  • Values - how has what you deem important changed?
  • Knowledge - what have you seen within the profession, what have you heard, and how have you processed the information?

Show them who you are:

  • You're a good writer and thinker
  • You're human; more than an application/GPA/test score
  • You've faced failure/obstacles and overcome/improved
  • You're mature and self-aware
  • An asset to their next incoming class!

Be concise, but use specific (even vivid) examples as evidence

  • This makes your essay unique, more interesting to read
  • Also makes you more memorable 



  • Grab the reader's attention with an opening that’s indirectly tied to your experiences and goals
  • Be sure to introduce the purpose of the essay, and hint at topics you’ll cover
  • It is sometimes best to write your intro last!

Body paragraphs (details and support):

  • Follow the suggestions in the "Have a process" section above
  • Within each paragraph, make an argument that addresses the prompt
  • Support each argument by providing concrete and relevant examples, taken from your experiences
  • While editing, make sure you provide clear transitions and connections throughout the essay


  • The final part of your essay brings your theme to a close
  • Reiterate your interest in the particular profession and/or program/institution, if applicable
  • This is an opportunity to look to the future - you might mention lofty goals, possible future interests
Preparing to interview

Formats and components

Often, an "interview day" won't seem to revolve around you at all. You will spend time with other candidates, learn about the program/campus, take tours, and more. Understand that your behaviors and interactions are being evaluated even between scheduled activities. However, interview days always contain some form of "interview" - some examples:

  • Long-form - the most traditional format, where a faculty member might ask you questions for a longer period of time
  • Committee/panel - questions will be asked by a group of decision-makers, made up of faculty, students, and professionals from clinical sites
  • Group - you may be asked questions while other candidates are in the room with you
  • On-site essays - interviewers know that you spent a lot of time editing your essays with others; this is their chance to see how you organize your thoughts under pressure
  • MMI - the multiple mini interview is the most dynamic type of interview; you will have several shorter "interviews" with different people, with each varying in format; one might be an individual conversation with an interviewer, another an observed activity with another candidate, still another a group discussion of an ethical question; this format allows you to reset between each interview, plus show your unique strengths throughout the interview day
  • Informal - lunches, dinners, even drinks at the end of an interview day are all an opportunity to stand out (positively or negatively); be careful to avoid your phone, politics, heavy drinking, or anything else that would reflect negatively on your character
  • Video - helpful to practice using Big Interview or even Skype/FaceTime with friends or family members
  • Recorded video - a way for programs to pre-screen candidates' professionalism, non-verbal communication skills, and ability to think on their feet

Questions you should be prepared to answer

Interviews are designed to see how you respond when you are not fully prepared, and each school/program will ask different questions in different ways. However, below you will see some common themes; note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and some of these question types will overlap!

  • Questions about you - can you please tell us about yourself?
  • Strength questions - why should we choose you? 
  • Weakness questions - what are some areas where you need to improve?
  • Negative topics - how do you tend to handle failure? what would you do if you didn't get in?
  • Profession-related - why do you want to be a ___? what are your specialty interests?
  • School-related - why would you choose our program/school? where else have you applied?
  • Scenario questions - what would you do if...?
  • Ethics questions - should healthcare be a human right?
  • Behavior-based questions - tell us about a time when...
  • Talk with a career advisor about how to approach each of these and then practice!

Possible questions to ask them

The questions you ask them will show the type of thinker you are, and will show how serious you take the decision of where to attend graduate school. Their answers will help you to make that decision if you are offered seats at multiple schools!

  • Good questions can come directly from the research you've done on their program - for example, if you read about a unique program they offer, you might ask how it works
  • Ask about what matters to you - for example, if you care about campus involvement and leadership, you might ask if there are opportunities for graduate students to help undergraduate students be more successful
  • Try to gain perspective on their students (successes and challenges), their faculty (strengths, levels of support, teaching philosophy), the clinical sites (advantages, depth/length of partnerships), etc.
  • Think about audience for each question - you may end up asking different questions when talking with faculty, current students, or people from clinical sites
  • Prepare questions ahead of time, and come up with questions during the interview day as well - this shows that you are both prepared and a curious, critical thinker

Ways to prepare

Preparation starts early - you need to become comfortable with professional communication, and can do this by attending events and talking with advisors, faculty, employer representatives, and healthcare professionals. The goal is to find a balance between sounding too stiff and too casual, and developing that balance can take time. Once you have submitted your application, however, it's time to formally prepare.

  • Take notes as you're preparing for an interview, but be careful not to script out your answers
  • Attend mock interview events offered through the Pre-Health Center
  • Career Services offers interview preparation by appointment - a great way to learn about interviews or get feedback on your responses and strategies; you can also ask your career advisor for a padfolio
  • Big Interview, which is available to UWL students, allows you to choose interview questions, practice answering, and watch videos of your responses
  • Get yourself organized - know where you need to go, where to park, and (if possible) who you might be talking with
  • Immediately prior to the interview, get yourself in a good place - talk to a friend or family member that you know will help build you up; do something that tends to put you in a good mood; review your notes and ideas, but avoid over-preparing; accept that nerves, for most people, will be part of the interview day


  • Send a thank you note to your interviewers - email is usually ok and sometimes preferred, plus it gets there in a hurry; some interviewers really value a hand-written note
  • Update the people that helped you prepare!
Alternative pathways

If your current path doesn't feel like a fit, or might not work out, consider alternative career paths

Financing graduate school

Financing graduate or medical schools can feel overwhelming. Medical school can cost you in excess of $250k, excluding living expenses. The same can be said for dental, pharmacy, and optometry schools. UWL's PA program is an obvious value, but many other PA programs can cost upwards of $100k total, without living expenses included. So, it's understandable to be concerned!

However, there are opportunities for financial support. Below are some links to get you started:

Advising Appointment

Need help with your graduate/medical school personal statement, resume, or preparing for an interview? Make an appointment with a career advisor for individualized support.

All career advisors work with pre-health students!