The pharmacy career of the future overflows with opportunities. Aside from maintaining a strong base in retail work, pharmacists are also moving into doctor’s offices, have long-standing roles in hospital settings, and are highly integrated in the collaborative, team-based health care model of the future. It’s a career that requires a variety of hard and soft skills and begins with specialized education.
And when considering pharmacy school, there are some things you should know.
What professors say about Pharmacy Admissions
First, you should think about what kind of program would make you feel most comfortable. Rebecca Falter ’07, Pharm.D., associate professor of pharmacy practice at Shenandoah University Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy in Winchester, Virginia, offers a few thoughts to consider as you investigate programs:
- If you want a more personalized experience or more direct access to faculty, then focus on smaller programs (80-110 students/class). If this is more your style, ask if the faculty have an “open door policy,” which means that faculty are more open to students dropping by their office without a scheduled appointment
- Visit potential programs – before it’s time to submit an application – during Open Houses, so you can get a feel for the campus culture and what a program has to offer
- Many programs lean towards having more involvement, but the degree can vary
- Ask how many pharmacy student organizations are established and how active are the students involved (i.e. are activities held every few months or every few weeks)?
- 0-6-year programs: enrolled right out of HS; do not usually provide a bachelor of science degree
- 3-year programs: quick-paced, courses scheduled year-round (i.e. no summer breaks). Most still have same total tuition cost, but you’ll graduate and enter the workforce a year early
- 4-year programs: most commonly seen. Some require a bachelor of science degree, others just require specific pre-req classes
- Consider asking, for any program, if remediation plans are in place to keep you on track for graduation if circumstances may cause you to fall behind in your studies
- If post-graduate opportunities are something you may be interested in, see if the program has any current affiliations with local residency/fellowship programs
- Ask what the recent “match-rate” is for students applying for residency programs
What students say about Pharmacy Admissions
“See if you can find a good mentor, who’s been there and can help you navigate the process, and tell you, first-hand, what to do,” added Katelyn M. Sanders ‘11, Pharm. D., adjunct instructor of pharmacy practice at Shenandoah University’s Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy and the pharmacy manager at Rite Aid in Strasburg, Virginia.
Whether you earn a bachelor’s degree and then apply to pharmacy school, or only take required prerequisite courses at any accredited college or university, Sanders said you’ll need to take the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) entrance exam, which covers subjects like biology, math, chemistry, writing and reading comprehension.
If your scores make the grade, it’s time to apply to pharmacy schools online through the Pharmacy Schools Application Service (PharmCAS). Each school has different requirements, Sanders noted, which extend to the kinds of additional materials (such as letters of recommendations) requested of applicants.
“Most programs will require an onsite interview after review of your application packet,” Falter said. “The interview style can vary from individual to group interviews.”
While interviewers are looking for people with strong math and science backgrounds, that’s not all they’re seeking, according to Sanders. They want people who can communicate well, and use those skills to both analyze situations quickly and work with patients of all kinds – everyone from people who are illiterate or don’t speak English to those who are elderly or have limited experience with health care situations. They’re also looking for people with empathy, who can relate to others well and contribute to the greater good.
In order to learn more about potential students, interviewers ask situational analysis-type questions, Sanders said. They’ll encourage you to talk about a time when you worked with a team to come up with a creative solution to a problem, for example. The method allows interviewers to learn more about you through your descriptions of your experiences.
Pharmacy interview tips from Pharmacy students
- “Be professional. Professional in how you dress. Professional in how you act. Professional in your responses.”
- Read up on pharmacy as a career. “Make sure that you understand where pharmacy is going.” Know about hot-button topics in pharmacy.
- Be prepared to honestly answer why pharmacy work appeals to you. Focusing on the money, or on the fact you didn’t want to go to medical school won’t impress. However, if you note that it’s an ever-changing field with exciting options (that you’ve investigated), you could stand out.
- Brush up on your writing skills. You may be asked to submit an essay, so you need to express yourself well.
- Ask someone to ask you interview questions of any type. Many interviewees are dogged by nerves. Squelch that nervousness by improving your general interview skills.
- Seek out leadership and volunteer opportunities. But don’t pile them on. Focus on something that you really care about and make it meaningful. “Experiences are one thing. Meaningful experiences are something different.”
- Clean up your curriculum vitae (CV). If you say you helped with research, be prepared to answer questions about it. Don’t expect the CV to stand on its own.
- “Be ready to sell yourself.” Reveal what will make you a standout graduate one day. “Don’t overanalyze a question.” Just let your personality shine through.
However, the interview isn’t just about what the pharmacy school wants to learn about you. It’s also an opportunity for you to discover what kind of school is the best fit for you. “You’re spending an awful lot of money to go to pharmacy school,” Sanders said, and you go to a school where you feel comfortable. “Think of it as a dual-interview environment,” Sanders said.
Sanders, a Shenandoah alumna, recalled her pharmacy school interview experiences at a large public university and Shenandoah. For her, the interview at the larger school felt like an interrogation and the atmosphere was somewhat cold. At Shenandoah, from the moment she walked into the Health Professions Building on the campus of Winchester Medical Center, which houses the pharmacy school, she received a warm welcome.
For Sanders, Shenandoah was a better fit for the kind of career she hoped to pursue. She also concurrently earned her MBA at Shenandoah, which offers a dual Pharm.D./MBA degree. “It taught me a way to think,” she said, referring to her MBA education, and one that has helped her negotiate the business side of retail pharmacy.
When you’re in an interview, Sanders suggests that as you undergo the interview process, you should look for a schools that are:
- Forward thinking. Pharmacy is a rapidly changing field where pharmacists are filling new roles within the health care team as baby boomers age. You need to find a school that’s already anticipating what the profession will be like in 5, 10, or 15 years.
- Make sure the school is focusing on expanded physical assessment skills. The changing needs mean that pharmacists will need to listen to heart and lung sounds, instead of just take blood pressures and prick fingers to monitor how patients respond to medication.
- Find out what role the study of genomics plays in a program. Genomics is a huge, growing area. In some cases already, a pharmacist can know right off the bat whether a drug is going to work, based on a patient’s genetic profile. Happily for Sanders, Shenandoah has been in the forefront in the study of pharmacogenomics.
- Decide whether you want to study in an environment where a professor knows your name, or in a larger, less personalized setting. Sanders said in her classes at Shenandoah, she felt as if she was being taught by her colleagues. She nurtures the same environment, noting that she tells her students, “I’m training you to work beside me.”
- If you’re interested in research, find out how much access you’ll have to doing research on a student level.
It’s amazing what you can do with a career in pharmacy, added Shenandoah’s Chair and Professor of Pharmacy Practice Dawn E. Havrda, Pharm. D. Students can work in retail/community pharmacy settings, hospitals, in research, as administrators and more. One Shenandoah alumna is a sports pharmacist for Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates, and other alumni work for the Food and Drug Administration. It’s good to have a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit in pharmacy, as you consider all the available career paths within the field.
In most areas of pharmacy practice, the same skills are valued: critical thinking and empathy, compassion and advocacy for the people you serve, and for the profession as a whole.
Pharmacy has transitioned from being a drug-centered profession to one in which pharmacists think about treatment in terms of “is it right for the patient?” It’s the kind of work, in a retail setting, where you encounter real people with real needs. Sanders said it’s one where a 85-year-old man can come into your pharmacy, carrying a bag of medicines and a question: “Honey can you help me?” When you help, he calls you a life saver, gives you a hug, and exclaims, “What would I do without you folks?”
It’s one in which people say, “Thank you for just caring. And listening,” Sanders said.
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