The case for being a “non-traditional” medical school applicant

Posted by Margaret on 3/30/16 9:30 AM


Applying for medical school can be a very intimidating process. There’s no hiding the fact that it is an incredibly competitive process. Your professors and advisors likely have strong feelings about exactly what your CV should look like, exactly what courses you should take and in what order, and what your MCAT score should be.

 I was lucky enough to have an advisor that believed that not all medical school applicants need to look alike. He counseled me that there was more than one path that led to medical school. He said it was okay if I didn’t take biology lab until senior year and he encouraged me to explore my interests in ethics and anthropology. I conducted research not in the laboratory, but in a homeless shelter for people with mental illnesses, interviewing clients about their experiences.

I have no doubt that this made me a stronger applicant. Of course, if your passion is neuroscience or cellular biology, by all means, stick with it! But if you want to go to medical school and are worried that you’ll be a bad applicant because you love your sociology courses more than your biology labs, know that there’s more than one path to medical school.


Of course, having interests outside of the basic sciences doesn’t change the fact that medical school admissions officers are going to be looking closely at your MCAT score and your performance in those pesky prerequisite classes. But, based off my experience, once you’ve proven you’ve got the potential to do well in science classes, that’s enough.

No one asked me in my medical school interviews why I hadn’t taken more upper level biology or chemistry courses. They didn’t ask me why I hadn’t spent more time in the lab. Instead, they wanted to hear about the hours I spent working in a community health clinic and about the class I took on “science-in-the-theatre.” They asked about my experience researching the history of schizophrenia and my work on health policy.

Now a medical student, I’m very grateful for my background in the humanities and social sciences. Not only did it make me a more interesting medical school applicant, it has also given me skills that have helped me succeed in medical school. I think about health and disease not just as processes that occur at the individual level, but also across populations. I know that health and disease are driven not only molecules and enzymes, but also by broader social and political trends. This allows me to ask questions not just about the biochemistry of diabetes for example, but also about what’s driving the massive increase in Type II diabetes across the United States. I know that our health is defined not just by our genetics, but also by social class, race, ethnicity, gender, and even zip code. This means I’m not satisfied when treatments and cures are discussed that only get at the molecular level.  

My years of reading novels and poetry also aid me when I’m talking to patients, whether trying to get to the bottom of their chief complaint, or just sharing in their pain, uncertainty or hope. In my short story literature class in college I spent a semester gaining an appreciation for power of narrative in its varied forms and also enhancing my own ability to understand another’s emotional experience. I draw on both those skills when drawing out a patient’s understory – trying to understand the events that led them to show up at the emergency room this morning with severe abdominal pain for example. That work requires the patience and perspective and emotional intelligence to get at the patient’s whole story. They don’t teach you that in chemistry class.


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MD/PhD Admissions: An FAQ

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