Public Health

About Public Health

Public Health focuses on preventive care for populations rather than curative care for individuals. Public Health comprises 5 core areas including Behavioral and Social Science, Biostatistics, Environmental Health, Epidemiology, and Health Policy Management. However, the field has expanded dramatically in the past 10 years with subspecialties emerging around intersections of these areas with health equity and education. People with degrees in public health work for academic institutions, state, local, and federal governments, non-profit (and for-profit!) organizations and health agencies and hospitals.

Combined Degree Programs

Many areas of healthcare now offer combined degrees with public health including medicine, dentistry, physical therapy, occupational therapy, physician assistant training, nursing, and more! The rise of dual degree programs reflects the knowledge that individual health is influenced by the social, economic, environmental and political fabric in which that person lives and these factors occur at the population level. In short, we can’t treat the person without understanding where they come from. 

Dual degree programs are usually accelerated, and compress two years of work into one year. Schools achieve this in different ways: some schools add one year onto the end of your degree, while others build it into your curriculum. 

Explore Your Interest in Public Health

Shadowing & Informational Interviewing

An excellent way to explore your interest in public health is by talking to people in public health. Check out the faculty page at UW-SMPH and contact people doing work you find interesting and ask for a 20 minute Zoom chat!


Graduate programs look for applicants who demonstrate a sustained commitment to serving others. Learn more about opportunities to volunteer in clinical and non-clinical settings.


Getting a job is a great way to learn about the practical aspects of the field and confirm that this work is something you enjoy! The CPHA newsletter and Instagram are great ways to find summer programs and internships. The newsletter from the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) also has great information on public health and opportunities for students!

Preparing for a Program in Public Health

Public Health programs use a process called holistic review to weigh personal factors, academic preparation, and professional experience when reviewing an applicant’s “readiness” for graduate school. Put together, these create a picture of you as a whole person. 

In addition to having a clear motivation for the field,shadowing, experience in clinical and community settings, and hobbies and interests, are common admissions factors for public health programs. You may also need to take the GRE depending on the program. Unlike other health professions, there isn’t a list of required courses, though there are courses that are recommended. 

Requirements vary from school to school, so it’s always necessary to consult program websites. Unlike other health professions, there isn’t an exhaustive list of required courses, though there are courses that are recommended.  Pre-requisite courses may include:

Public Health Required Coursework

TopicCredits/SemestersUW-Madison Courses
Public or Global Health3-4 credits in public healthPH 370 - Intro to Public Health
NS 203- Intro to Global Health
NS 379 - Epidemiology

*See the Global Health Major or certificate for options!
Math4-5 credits or 1 semester calculus if considering a quantitative field like Biostatistics or Epidemiology

3 credits or 1 semester
*More stats is helpful if you are considering Biostatistics or Epidemiology
Select one option:

Stats 301
Stats 371
An introductory stats course in your major department
Programming (optional)3-6 credits or 1-2 semesters if you are considering Biostatistics or EpidemiologyCS 200 and 220
Humanities and Social ScienceVaries widely across programs!
Courses in topics that teach about systems, cultures, and institutions such as psychology, economics, political science, history, education, etc.

Graduate programs in public health look for applicants who demonstrate a sustained commitment to serving others in community settings, specifically related to public health. This may be through volunteering, internships, or paid experience. Remember, public health is a broad topic so working with individuals around an issue that has community impact is relevant to your application! Some examples include gun violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, breastfeeding, cancer screenings, mental health, awareness campaigns just to name a few!

Explore Volunteer Opportunities

Research is an important way to develop skills that help you hone your capacity to learn and begin to contribute to the generation of new knowledge in fields of inquiry. Working in a research lab also gives you the opportunity to cultivate relationships with faculty who can serve as letter writers when you apply to a graduate program.

Explore Research Opportunities

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is required by some, but not all, MPH programs. The GRE is not a content exam meaning you do not need specific classes to take it. The GRE evaluates your writing, reasoning, and basic quantitative reasoning skills. Enroll in CPHA’s Applying to Health Professions self-paced course to learn more about the GRE.

What is the GRE?

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized content exam designed to assess verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills. The GRE is an adaptive exam meaning that the difficulty of the questions you see are based on the number of correct responses you provide. Raw scores are scaled on a range of 130-170 for the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections and 0-6 for the written section. 

  • Verbal Reasoning (27 items) asks you to analyze and draw conclusions from discourse; reason from incomplete data; identify author’s assumptions and/or perspective; understand multiple levels of meaning, summarize text; understand the meaning of individual words, and relationships among words and among concepts.
  • Quantitative Reasoning (27 items) includes algebra, data analysis, quantitative comparison, probability, statistics, and math word problems.
  • Analytical Writing requires you to provide a focused response and assesses the clarity, focus, relevance, and your command of English of that response. 

GRE Exam Overview

SectionNumber of QuestionsTime Allotted
Analytical WritingAnalyze an issue or task30 minutes
Verbal ReasoningSection 1: 12 Questions
Section 2: 15 Questions
Section 1: 18 minutes
Section 2: 23 minutes
Quantitative ReasoningSection 1: 12 Questions
Section 2: 15 Questions
Section 1: 21 minutes
Section 2: 26 minutes
Total Content Time4 hours, 20 minutes
Total Test Time3 hours, 35 minutes

The Analytical Writing section will always be first. The Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections may appear in any order after the Analytical Writing section. Section 1 of the verbal and quantitative reasoning section provide the baseline for the difficulty of questions you see in section 2.

GRE Timelines

After completing the GRE, you get an unofficial score and will receive an official score within a month. Since the GRE is not a content-based exam and scores are valid for 5 years, you can take the exam when it suits you. Many students choose to prepare and take the exam during the summer a year before they apply. The GRE is offered year-round at ETS testing sites across the country so finding a test date typically is not a problem. 

Studying for the GRE

There isn’t one “right” way to do well on the GRE, but people who are successful do these things:

  • Assess yourself! You need to be honest with yourself about:
    • Your attention span and the breaks you need
    • Your test stress – you will need longer to prepare if you have high test stress
    • The types of resources that work for you. It’s okay to try new study techniques and tools, but you cannot use all of them. If you convince yourself that you must complete everything in one section before you can move on, you will not make progress. 
  • Carve out regular time to study. You must build this into your schedule. If you study during the regular semester, treat the GRE like a class and block time for it! 
    • If you have low test stress (exams are your superpower!), carve out 10-12 hrs/week over 4-6 weeks
    • If you have normal test stress, carve out 10-12 hrs/week over 8-12 weeks
    • If you have high test stress, carve out 10-12 hours/week over 16-20 weeks
  • You might take a course if you know you need the structure of a course and want some tutoring that often comes with it. However, you do not need a course to do well on the GRE  if you can structure your time. 
  • Practice reading online so you get faster at reading passages; refresh math through pre-calc
  • Take practice exams! Taking a practice exam before you start studying shows you your strengths and weaknesses and allows you to prioritize content. 
  • The module “Prepare for the GRE” on “Applying to Health Professions” has more information on study plans, resources, and tips. Enroll in CPHA’s Applying to Health Professions course – it’s free!

Application Process

You can look for graduate programs in public health through the Program Finder on ASPPH . Many graduate programs in public health use a central application called SOPHAS, similar to the Common App, to collect biographical information, academic information, experience, and letters of recommendation in one place for schools to review. Most schools have an early deadline in December; if they do interviews, they would be in February or March. If you are accepted to a program, you can often attend second-look weekends to meet faculty and students and schools (and applicants) finalize their decisions in March/April. You usually begin your program in August. The application process takes a full year!

Learn more about Applying

Mariana Quinn Headshot

Mariana Quinn, MPH, B.S. ’19

What does public health mean to you?

To me, public health means that everyone, no matter who you are or where you live, has the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible. A healthy life isn’t only about diet and exercise, but also the social and mental well-being, such as the neighborhood you live in and what your social network support looks like.

C. Nickel, MPH, B.S. ‘20

What resources or next steps would you suggest to people who want to learn more about public health careers?

Experiment, explore, and get involved in your community! Many of the experiences that I’ve taken part in I’ve found by being active in my local community and finding organizations that work to improve the lives of community members. Try out a variety of classes and find ways to connect them to health, get involved in volunteering and student orgs, talk to the people around you (other students, your professors, people you volunteer with, etc), and reach out to people on LinkedIn.