How to Win the Admissions Game: An Online Guide for Healthcare Students

Understand the timeline, gather tips, and read expert advice on healthcare education program admissions

MEET THE EXPERT

Rebecca Newman
Rebecca Newman

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Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and writer, specializing in eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She works as a clinical supervisor and psychotherapist for an academic hospital system in Philadelphia.

Each spring, high school seniors and transfer students across the country apply to college programs. For students pursuing a healthcare education, this time can be especially stressful. There’s keeping your grades up, researching programs, taking exams, writing essays, and gathering multiple letters of recommendation. It may seem like a lot, but there are a few simple steps you can take to make the entire pre-college experience far more successful. If you’re an aspiring medical assistant, CNA, OTA, or if you’re interested in any of today’s top healthcare careers, learn how to put your best foot forward and beat the admissions game.

School Admissions vs. Program Admissions: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to healthcare education, getting admitted to your school of choice is only half the battle. Once you’re in, you need to apply to a specific degree program, too. The admissions criteria for the college often differs from that of the program you’re hoping to get into, and it’s typical that once you are admitted to the school, you need to go through an entirely separate admissions process for your major. Students interested in studying healthcare should pay close attention to both the general admissions and program admissions when researching colleges. Let’s start with a more detailed look at the school level.

School Admissions: Key Steps to Success

College applications may seem lengthy and cumbersome, and, well, at times they are. You need to collect and coordinate materials from multiple sources and then send everything to any number of schools across the U.S. (and beyond). To keep things as simple as possible and to make your admissions journey as painless as we can, we’ve compiled some go-to techniques to use throughout. Keep these in mind as you get ready for college.

Create a Common App account…early

The Common App is an electronic platform that allows you to apply to ~900 colleges across the U.S. The best news is, you only have to fill out basic requirements (name, address, extracurricular activities, etc.) once. And, many of the materials you send to schools can be delivered via the platform. Although this can make the application process easier, it’s not something you can do last-minute. Create your Common App account and start the process before your senior year. Or, if you’re a transfer student, do so at least a year before you want to enroll. This runway can be critical if you plan to travel before the school year, or if you have technical issues that require time to fix.

Know your deadlines…and organize around them

Each school has a unique set of application requirements. This means they may ask for different materials and have different deadlines regarding their submission. For every school to which you plan to apply, list out each requirement, its deadline, exactly what you need to do, and the method by which you plan to deliver it. Knowing when everything is due should give you ample time to compile what you need. Some people work better with calendars, others with detailed lists. Whichever you prefer, list everything out and keep it visible.

Submit all transcripts and test scores…early

Schools will specify whether or not they need official or unofficial transcripts with your application. Whether you are requesting high school or undergraduate transcripts, be sure to give the appropriate office enough time to handle your request. The same goes for testing centers such as ETS. While your test scores may be available to you electronically and sent fairly easily, mistakes happen. Request that scores be sent at least 4-6 weeks before the deadline. This gives you the chance to follow up with a school to make sure they arrived.

Attend orientation…and make the most of it

Both on-campus and distance learners usually have the option to attend an orientation on campus. After you receive acceptance to a school, find out when their scheduled orientation is set for and mark the date on your calendar so you’re sure not to forget. While you’re at the school’s orientation, obtain a student ID, meet your future peers, converse with your new professors, and get a feel for the campus.

Research your desired program…and talk to people

After checking the above tasks off your list, start researching the application process for your specific healthcare education program. In addition to knowing what you need and when you need it, talk to a professor or a program representative to see if it makes sense to apply right away, or if you should wait until you’ve completed pre-requisites and built up a stronger application. If possible, talk to students in the program already to see if they have any friendly advice.

Program Admissions: Step by Step

You’ve cleared the first hurdle on the road to an allied health degree, yet before you can enroll in the classes you need to earn it, you’ll have to be accepted into the program. While school admissions and program admissions often overlap, knowing what’s expected of you is key.

Know program admissions requirements…in detail

Your grades, test scores, and prereqs helped gain you admission to the school, but your healthcare program may have more specific requirements. Your program may require a certain GPA for your past math and science classes, or they may ask that you have a set number of volunteer or work hours in healthcare. Take the time to properly research exactly what your program requires. Start by checking out the department’s website for key (and potentially overlooked) details. If you still have questions, contact the program’s department directly.

Take program prerequisites…early

Some programs require incoming students to possess a particular course history for admissions consideration. If you take these courses ahead of time, it can streamline your education process in your desired healthcare program. These courses are usually general education or introductory-level classes. Many students choose to take these particular courses at other schools or online as a way to save on tuition. Additionally, applicants who already possess all of the prerequisite courses may be stronger candidates for admission because they’ve shown that they’re already working toward the requirements for a particular healthcare degree.

Gather letters of recommendation…from the right people

Your program may also ask you to submit letters of recommendation with your application. Although you may have sent in recommendation letters with your original application to the school, try to find new people who can vouch for you in specific areas of study, such as math, science, or anything related to health. If you have any volunteer or work experience in healthcare, even if it isn’t directly related to the program you’re hoping to enter, ask your supervisors to write about your experience. Gathering letters from both academic and personal references is the best way to make yourself standout among other applicants. The people you ask to provide these letters should be able to speak to the quality of your character as well as your work ethic in addition to making an argument for why you would be a good addition to a healthcare program. Recommenders should highlight your strengths as they pertain to a particular major

Submit your application…after a peer review

Once you’ve complied all the required documents for your healthcare program application, take a last look over the final product. Ask a friend, family member, or better yet, a student who has already been admitted to the program, to proofread your application before submitting it. A second pair of eyes might catch errors that you’ve missed along the way and they can also offer their advice on how you can improve the application.

Interview with program leaders

You may need to participate in an admissions interview with program leaders or professors from your prospective department. Whether online or in-person, these interviews give the admissions committee the opportunity to get to know you better and to help them decide whether or not you’d be a good fit. For extra tips on interviewing, check out the do’s and don’ts section below.

Admissions Requirements by Program

Below, we break down the average admissions requirements for a variety of popular undergraduate healthcare education programs by degree level. When reading through the tables below, keep in mind that these are only average requirements and researching the exact admissions criteria for your dream school is still important. While these tables provide a good idea of what may be expected of you, knowing the specific requirements for your healthcare program is the only way to ensure you’re prepared for admissions.

CNA

Certificate
GPA2.5 or higher
ExamsACCUPLACER Reading Score: 237 or above ACCUPLACER Quantitative Reasoning Score: 237 or above 
Common PrereqsMTH 088
OtherCriminal background check, proof of immunizations, TB test  

Dental Assistant

GPA
Exams
Prereqs
Other
Certificate
2.0 or higher
Accuplacer
ENG 101, MTH 100
Proof of immunizations, physical exam, TB test, criminal background check
Associate Degree
2.0 or higher
Accuplacer
ENG 101, MTH 100
Proof of immunizations, physical exam, TB test, criminal background check

Dental Hygiene

GPA
Exams
Prereqs
Interviews
Observations Hours
Certificate
2.5 or higher
Accuplacer
n/a
n/a
n/a
Associate Degree
2.5 or higher
Accuplacer or ACT/SAT
Lab biology, Lab Chemistry, Algebra, Humanities
n/a
n/a
Bachelor’s Degree
2.5-3.0 or higher
ACT/SAT
Statistics, Nutrition, Psychology, Computer Applications, Humanities
Common
20 hours

EMT

Certificate
PrereqsCurrent CPR certification
OtherProof of medical insurance, physical exam, background check, immunizations, 18 years of age or older, high school diploma or GED

Healthcare Administration

GPA
Exams
Prereqs
Associate Degree
2.5 or higher
n/a
n/a
Bachelor’s Degree
3.0 or higher
ACT/SAT
n/a

Health Science

GPA
Exams
Prereqs
Associate Degree
2.5 or higher
n/a
n/a
Bachelor’s Degree
2.0-2.5 or higher
ACT/SAT
Physical and Life Sciences, English, Humanities, Algebra

Medical Assistant

GPA
Exams
Prereqs
Interviews
Certificate
2.0-2.5 or higher
ACT/SAT
Survey of Anatomy and Physiology
n/a
Associate Degree
2.5 or higher
ACT/SAT, Accuplacer
Algebra, Geometry, Biology, Chemistry
Common

Medical Billing & Coding

GPA
Exams
Prereqs
Certificate
2.5 or higher
ACT/SAT, Accuplacer
n/a
Associate Degree
2.0-2.5 or higher
ACT/SAT, Accuplacer
English, Mathematics, Natural and Social Sciences, Communications

Paramedic

GPA
Exams
Prereqs
Interviews
Certificate
2.0 or higher
ACT/SAT
Anatomy and Physiology
n/a
Associate Degree
2.5 or higher
ACT/SAT, Accuplacer
Anatomy and Physiology
n/a
Bachelor’s Degree
2.5-3.0 or higher
ACT/SAT
Human Structures and Functions, Anatomy and Physiology
Common

Occupational Therapy Assistant

Associate Degree
GPA2.0 or higher
ExamsACT/SAT
PrereqsCommon

Public Health

GPA
Exams
Certificate
2.5-3.0 or higher
n/a
Associate Degree
3.0 or higher
ACT/SAT

Physical Therapy Assistant

Associate Degree
GPA2.0 or higher
ExamsACT/SAT, Accuplacer
PrereqsMathematics, English, Biology
InterviewsCommon
Observation Hours20-40 hours

Radiology Tech

GPA
Exams
Prereqs
Interviews
Observations Hours
Associate Degree
2.5 or higher
ACT/SAT
Science, Mathematics, English
n/a
5-10 hours
Bachelor’s Degree
2.5 or higher
ACT/SAT
Science, Mathematics, English
Common
5-10 hours

Surgical Tech

GPA
Exams
Prereqs
Certificate
2.0 or higher
ACT/SAT
n/a
Associate Degree
2.0 or higher
ACT/SAT
English Composition, Medical Terminology, Human Anatomy and Physiology, Mathematics

Ultrasound Tech

GPA
Exams
Prereqs
Interviews
Observations Hours
Certificate
2.5 or higher
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
Associate Degree
2.5-2.75 or higher
ACT/SAT
Applied Statistics, Algebra, College Writing
n/a
5 hours
Bachelor’s Degree
2.5-2.75 or higher
ACT/SAT
Physics, Mathematics, English
Common
40 hours

Vet Tech

GPA
Exams
Prereqs
Interviews
Observations Hours
Associate Degree
2.5 or higher
ACT/SAT
Reading, Composition, Mathematics
Common
20 hours
Bachelor’s Degree
2.5 or higher
ACT/SAT
Reading, Composition, Mathematics
Common
30-50 hours

Admissions Interview Do’s & Don’ts

Some healthcare education programs require an interview with teachers and/or other staff members as part of the application process. Interviews give you a chance to showcase your enthusiasm for your major and to explain why you think a particular program is a good fit for your personal and academic needs. This list of do’s and don’ts offers some useful tips so you can make the best impression and improve your chances of acceptance.

Do’s

  • Sell yourself
    Your admissions interview is your opportunity to shine, especially if your GPA and test scores aren’t at the top of the class. Sell yourself, without bragging, by clearly explaining to the admissions interviewer why you think you’d contribute to their program. And don’t be afraid to give concrete examples. If you’re applying to nursing school, explain a time when you came to someone’s aid without hesitation. Sometimes the little stuff can go a long way.
  • Prepare to ask questions of your own
    It’s quite common in interviews of all types for the interviewer to ask if the interviewee has any questions of their own. By preparing a short list of thoughtful questions about your perspective healthcare program, you show the interviewers that you’ve done your homework and have thought critically about whether you’d be a contributing member of their particular student body
  • Get to know professors beforehand
    This especially applies for associate and bachelor’s degree-seekers. Academic departments are shaped by the strengths of the professors and staff. Demonstrating an understanding of those who work in the department and how your interests overlap with theirs is a good method for showing your interest in a program and overall professionalism.
  • Practice, practice, practice
    Being a good interviewee takes practice and you should take every opportunity to work on your responses, tone of voice, mannerisms, and prepared questions. It can be helpful to practice with a friend and video record the mock interview so you can evaluate your performance afterward.
  • Show excitement and be thankful
    Interviewers take time out of their busy schedule to conduct interviews. You should try your best to show that you are thankful for their time and that you are excited to have the opportunity to speak with them in-person. An additional way to show that you appreciate their time is to send a follow-up email after the interview and thank them for the meeting.

Don’ts

  • Don’t assume they know your history
    Don’t assume that interviewers know much about you simply because they’ve read your application. Go in fresh and ready to explain your interest in a program, and don’t be afraid to reiterate points that are already included in your resume, cover letter, or recommendation letters.
  • Don’t worry
    One of the best ways to you enter an interview confidently is to trust your level of preparation. If you’ve given yourself an ample amount of time to prepare for an interview, trust in the fact that you’ve done your homework and made your best effort to prepare. For many students, this is the best way to reduce worry and remain calm.
  • Don’t be late
    Showing up late for an interview sends a bad signal to the interviewer or admissions committee. Do your best to plan ahead, work out travel logistics, and arrive at least 10 minutes early.
  • Don’t try to be someone other than you
    When under pressure, some students feel like they need to present a “better” version of themselves, or to be someone else entirely in order to impress an interviewer. Remember that you were selected for an interview based on your own admissions materials, which only represents you and your academic achievements.
  • Try not to exaggerate, ramble, or carry-on
    Sometimes we let nerves take over and can quickly find ourselves over-extending our answers to interview questions. While practicing for your interview, work on responding with clear and concise answers while avoiding lengthy personal anecdotes or extraneous information.

Admissions Tips for Transfer Students

Transfer students looking to gain admission into a new college will have more hurdles to clear on their road to admittance that traditional students, but with the right resources and advice, transferring your healthcare program doesn’t need to be a nightmare. Below we provide four transfer tips that will help students maneuver through the challenges of transferring schools with ease.

1

Meet with a transfers officer

Schedule an appointment with your college’s designated transfers officer or an admissions advisor who specializes in helping transfer students. They will evaluate your transcripts and can tell you which of courses satisfy required credits in your new program. They can also provide you with useful tips on which classes to pursue when you enroll and how to take full advantage of all financial aid and academic opportunities presented by the new program.

2

Show that you’ve completed prerequisite courses

As a transfer student, your healthcare education program may expect you to possess the credits needed to satisfy the prerequisite requirements. These core courses cover topics from English and history to statistics and anatomy and usually transfer seamlessly from school-to-school. Possessing these prerequisites credits shows admissions committees that you are well on your way to earning a degree and can handle the workload and responsibility of a college education.

3

Demonstrate a strong GPA

A strong GPA is one of the best defenses against admissions rejection. As you explore healthcare program as a potential transfer student, take note of the minimum GPA required by your program. If you don’t feel confident with your grade point average, see if you can retake courses that you did less than great in the first time around. This will not only raise your GPA, but will show admissions officers that you’re willing to work hard to earn your education.

4

Submit new letters of recommendation from current professors

As a transfer student, you may have already collected and sent off letters of recommendation to your original school, but if you really want to bolster your new application, gathering new recommendations is key. Ask your current professors to write your new letters of recommendation, vouching for your aptitude and work ethic in your most recent courses. This will indicate to admissions officers that you’ve made a good impression with your most recent teachers and have been able to garner their support in the short amount of time you’ve been studying with them.

How to Improve Your Odds of Acceptance

A strong college application includes more than just a high GPA and impressive test scores. Students who really want their application to stand out among the crowd can take a few extra steps along the way to improve their odds of acceptance into their dream program. Let’s break down how make your application that much more impressive.

Schedule an Appointment with Your Admissions Counselor

Admissions counselors often know a program and what it takes to gain acceptance better than anybody. Go online or call your school’s admission office and schedule a time to meet with your program’s admission counselor. These counselors will give you expert advice on how to strengthen your application and better your chances of acceptance. Make sure you schedule your appointment well in advance of the admissions dealing so you have an appropriate amount of time to heed their advice. Giving yourself a couple months of leave time also allows you to ask follow-up questions or schedule a second meeting if necessary.

Volunteer

Volunteering can strengthen your application and improve your odds of gaining admission to virtually any healthcare program. Look for volunteer positions in hospitals, clinics, or other healthcare organizations that need help. Even if you find a position that isn’t exactly related to your desired career, volunteering will show admissions officers that you care about helping people and are motivated to peruse your future profession.
Volunteer work also shows that you are both actively seeking new knowledge to sharpen your skills. For more information on volunteer opportunities for healthcare students, take a look at our volunteer guide.

Work Experience

Although work experience isn’t typically required for admittance into undergraduate healthcare programs, it’s another excellent want to make your application shine. Search through online job boards for entry-level positions working in hospitals, clinics, or anywhere that you gain experience working with healthcare professionals. Showing the admissions committee that you have work experience in the field can greatly improve your chances of gaining admission. Similar to volunteer experience in healthcare, an actual position in the field proves that you’ve had hands-on, documented time in a hospital, clinic, or healthcare facility of some kind.

Admissions Advice from the Experts

Our expert, Rebecca Newman, offers some excellent advice for future students in healthcare looking to put their best foot forward during the application process. Rebecca, a Psychiatric Social Worker at Thomas Jefferson University Physicians Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, provides individual psychotherapy in Philadelphia, PA. She specializes in working with eating disorders, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, grief and loss, LGBTQIA+ topics, trauma, and adjustment to life changes.

Rebecca Newman

Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and writer, specializing in eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She works as a clinical supervisor and psychotherapist for an academic hospital system in Philadelphia.

Question 1: I got accepted into the college but not the program, what now?

First, experience your disappointment; it can be really discouraging to come so close to a goal but to not quite make it and feeling upset is completely normal. Once you’ve felt all the feelings, consider whether this school is still desirable for you without your chosen program. If so, think about other programs within the school and whether they’re a good fit for you. If the program is competitive, other students have probably had the same experience in the past. You should ask the program advisor about whether students can re-apply for acceptance in that program once matriculated, and if so, ask about the acceptance rate for internal students applying for admission. Look at the other programs to which you have been accepted at other institutions and consider whether that program will meet your needs and help you towards your career goals. It may be better to have a sure thing at another institution than to risk a “maybe” at one where you were more excited, but may never be able to complete the program you desire.

I don’t have a competitive GPA based on what the school is looking for, should I still apply?

Depending on the type of program to which you’re applying, grades and scores may not be a good predictor of how you’ll be as a practitioner, but rather, things like good assessments and bedside manner are more valuable. In those cases, programs will sometimes consider a combination of grades and relevant experience as candidacy for admission. Often, the minimum GPA and test scores that are provided to ensure that you can handle the academic rigor of the program and are based on their experiences with which scores have tended to indicate that a student will succeed in the university setting. However, grades and scores are not always helpful, as some people are poor test-takers or their grades don’t reflect their aptitude for a career in healthcare. In those cases, make sure you have strong recommendation letters from people who know you and your work well enough to vouch for you. Finally, a situation like this would be an occasion to prioritize an on-campus or alumni interview to breathe some life into your application and for the institution to get to know you “off the page.”

Do you have any advice for transfer students who are looking to switch institutions to pursue a healthcare degree, in terms of putting their best foot forward in an application?

Be clear about your intention to focus on a healthcare degree at your desired institution and reflect thoughtfully on why you made the decision to previously attend your current university. Even if you are having a negative experience, speak about it diplomatically and focus on what attracts you to your desired institution – is it the close attention from faculty? New research facilities? Community or campus culture? Be specific about the factors that have contributed to your decision to submit this application while expressing some gratitude for your current institution as a place for you to begin your academic journey. Speaking ill of another institution is not a good idea; you may think that you’re complimenting the school to which you’re applying, but actually, most programs will read that as disrespectful and fear that you may speak that way of them someday. Throughout your application, circle back to your passion about your chosen pursuit and why it’s so meaningful to you to make this change at this point in your studies.

What is a personal anecdote from your application/admissions process that you’d like to share?

When I was applying to schools as an undergraduate, I had a very specific academic trajectory in mind and was seeking schools with that particular program. I applied to a broad geographic spread of colleges, but many of them were fairly similar in size and feel, although I did challenge myself to apply to a highly selective university, where I believed I had a very small chance of admission. I completed an alumni interview in my area, which had gone well, and I didn’t think much of it until I received a very fat envelope in the mail in March (it actually said “Official Fat Letter” on the exterior of the envelope). While I had already mailed a hand-written thank you note to my interviewer (which you should absolutely always do!), I called him to let him know the outcome, and he told me that of all the students he interviewed that year, he advocated for me the most strongly, and was pleased to hear that I was accepted. While I ultimately attended another institution for unrelated reasons, it was a great example of how meeting a candidate and having their personality shine through has an effect on an otherwise unlikely outcome.

If a prospective healthcare student is considering multiple schools, what do you think is the best way to rank their options.

When applying, ask your guidance counselor or advisor about programs that are a good fit for you academically and based on what you’re seeking. For example, some healthcare programs might be geared towards students continuing towards advanced degrees or a more academic practice, but you might be looking to earn a terminal degree and to get out in the workforce. Identify what you’re seeking and based on admissions data, make a thoughtful list about which schools are reaches, good fits, and safety options for you.

After you’ve received admissions decisions, making a real-life choice about a school is a multifaceted process. First, school is about education, and making sure you are getting the best education possible for your investment is a very significant part of this decision. However, we do not make decisions in a vacuum, and things like geography, finances, and campus life should all be factors as you look at the landscape. If you are evaluating multiple schools that are on a similar academic tier, look for elements that are important to you or make your attendance viable based on things like travel cost or scholarships. Your top choice in the end may not be the most rigorous or prestigious program, but might be the one that has the most components of what you’re seeking in a program