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BY Peter Olsen-PhillipsApril 25, 2022, 1:22 PM
A general view of The Johns Hopkins University, as seen in March 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Master’s degree programs in public health have seen a boom in interest in recent years. From 1992 to 2016, the number of applications to graduate public health programs grew more than fourfold. And that explosion of interest shows no signs of slowing down, thanks to a convergence of factors linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As news coverage has increasingly put public health officials in the limelight, many universities are simultaneously increasing their online course offerings and dropping previous standardized testing requirements. All of those factors have served to increase the size of the applicant pool. From March 2020 to March 2021, the number of applicants to graduate-level public health programs grew 40%, from 17,353 to 24,176.
The changing admissions landscape means that applicants to online master’s degree programs in public health (MPH) need to put forth a well-rounded resume and a visionary personal statement to stand out from the crowd.
“We look at applicants in a very holistic way, which means that not only are we looking at their academic background, but we are looking at their work experience,” says Moose Alperin, the director of the executive MPH program at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “We’re looking for a personal statement and their ability to tell a compelling story of what has led them to this point in time where they want to pursue a public health degree, and what are they hoping to do with that public health degree?”
Online master’s degree programs in public health offer students the chance to learn from leading practitioners in their field, network with other students and take part in substantive research opportunities in a challenging academic environment. Here are three tips experts say will help you maximize your chance of acceptance to top programs.
1. Demonstrate applicable experience in your application
Many top MPH programs require some relevant academic or professional experience. These requirements vary by both institution and specific degree, so potential applicants should perform their due diligence ahead of time to ensure that their background fits the specific prerequisites of the program.
At Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, students in the part-time program—which can be completed online, in-person, or in a mixture of the two—must have at least two years of postbaccalaureate experience working in a health-related field, as well as coursework in biology, math and a health-related science (or a second biology course).
Don’t assume that this means only doctors and nurses need apply, however. Students accepted into the program come with a diverse range of backgrounds, says Marie Diener-West, chair of the MPH program “It could be somebody who’s [been] working in a lab for two years that’s health related. It could be a returned Peace Corps volunteer who was in a country working as a health educator, so that could include maternal education. It could include sex education for adolescents.”
Because relevant health experience is “broadly defined,” this requirement is less constricting than it may appear, Diener-West explains. “It’s just that they have had tangible experience that dovetails with health.”
As for the required coursework for Johns Hopkins’ program, accepted students are required to complete the prerequisite courses before matriculation, but that doesn’t mean students who didn’t take a biology or math course during their undergraduate years are out of luck.
“It could be that somebody actually gets through undergraduate without an intro biology course,” Diener-West tells Fortune. “And we just require if they apply and haven’t had it, that they take an intro bio course before they matriculate.”
Similarly, the executive MPH at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health requires students to have relevant work experience—at least three years in this case—though also with some leniency in definition. The school’s hybrid online and in-person program is designed for working professionals, and experience can take many forms.
So long as there’s overlap with the skills needed to be a successful public health student and a compelling story connecting these experiences to your future goals within the field, there are a variety of positions that would qualify, according to Zelda Ray, the associate director of academic programs at Emory’s executive MPH program.
She shares a recent example: “We have a student right now who majored in business and he works for a major motor vehicle company,” says Ray. “He spoke to the track director and they talked about how that experience could be brought in and ultimately, he decided to apply.”
As part of the application process, the student was “able to explain to us why the MPH was a great fit for him”—and that ultimately landed him a spot in the program, Ray notes. “He’s one of our best students and he’s coming from finance.”
2. Stand out from the crowd
An ability to connect your past experiences to future goals within public health and your chosen specialization is among the key points that Marie Diener-West looks for in an application.
In addition to a compelling personal statement that demonstrates an understanding of the degree and connects your background to your career goals, stand-out applicants are able to demonstrate “they actually have a history of taking initiative and showing some leadership,” she says.
“Often our applicants are ones who have done something unusual in their careers. They’ve founded a non-governmental organization, or they’re working on a job, but on the side, they’ve created some sort of volunteer activity,” she explains. “Those who take initiative are ones that dwe really think will become public health leaders in the future.”
Further, top applicants include strong letters of recommendation from past professors or employers who know them well and can attest to their strengths and goals, Diener-West says. “We want to see those letters of recommendations that say, you know, this is one of the top 5%, top 1% I’ve ever seen and that they’re able to substantiate why they’re saying that.”
3. Decide whether or not to include GRE scores
In rounding out your application, it may be tempting to include as much information as possible, including scores on the GRE test. However, because many schools have waived requirements to submit these scores, you should generally only include them if they are exceptionally high—or if they demonstrate aptitude in a subject that’s important for your specialization and you do not have another way to demonstrate that skillset.
The danger of including scores is that they may hurt your chances if they’re not up to par.
“I would say there are probably some times we wish we didn’t see the GRE,” says Alperin. “Because it is somebody that has quantitative ability, but on that standardized test, they haven’t performed well.”
With questions around standardized testing, determining whether your job experience will be considered relevant, crafting your personal statement and others, it’s important to remember that the admissions team at your prospective institution can be a helpful resource for putting together a well-rounded application.
“We’re here to help them from the beginning,” adds Ray. “And we also offer webinars, helping prospective [students] create a strong application. So, I would definitely recommend that if they’re interested in our program to never hesitate to reach out to us.”
See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in public health programs, business analytics programs, data science programs, and part-time, executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.