Let’s face it: applying to medical school is grueling.
Every step of the process, from completing pre-medical courses and obtaining clinical experience to studying for and taking the MCAT, requires time, focus and a strong sense of self-direction. Without even contemplating the statistical uncertainty of getting accepted to medical school, this process can be daunting. Moreover, some doctors have known their whole lives that they would go to medical school, while others have traveled a more circumferential route to putting on their stethoscopes and white coats. For the “non-traditional” applicant, the path to medical school can be even more challenging to identify.
As a “non-traditional” applicant myself, I personally understand this uncertainty. But after navigating my own application process and speaking with my community at my own school, I’m happy to confirm that there is a place for many types of people in medical school. In fact, medical schools recognize the need to make their classes more diverse and more representative of the patient population. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine described this movement as a “holistic review” process. Still, there are some key strategies a “non-traditional” applicant can implement in order to increase their chances of getting into medical school.
First things first: what is a “non-traditional” medical student?
Historically, medical school admissions have been guided by what they considered to be the best predictors of success in medical school: performance in biologic and physical science curricula and performance on the MCAT. As a result, traditional applicants to medical schools have majored in the sciences, accumulated ample research experience in the basic sciences, and are applying to medical school while still in an undergraduate program.
What about all of those folks who did not always know that they wanted to be a doctor? There are those who desire a career change and discover medical school after being a journalist for six years, or a teacher, or a sex-education specialist. There are others who thought they might go to medical school but wanted to travel the world first or focus on literature in college. These applicants, those who did not take the most direct road to medical school, are lovingly deemed the “late bloomer” or “non-traditional” applicant.
Should I even apply to medical school if I am a “non-traditional” applicant?
Taking a year or two off between college and medical school to complete research or gain more clinical experience has become more the norm than the exception. In fact, many pre-medical councilors encourage their students to take a “gap year.” In putting this post together, I came across countless anecdotes from practicing physicians about their detours, self-doubts, and roadblocks to medical school, residency and beyond. A “gap year” before applying to medical school can provide the time and space for valuable growth and discoveries to happen.
For many “non-traditional” applicants, their circumferential route to medical school is exactly what makes them such wonderful candidates. In my own experience, majoring in English made me a more confident writer. The two years that I then spent teaching at a boarding school in South Africa provided me with an opportunity to volunteer in an emergency room, to grow confident in both public speaking and mentorship, and to consider what kind of doctor I hoped to become.
So what challenges do “non-traditional” applicants face when applying to medical school?
“Non-traditional applicants” still do face some unique challenges. Here is my checklist for applying as a “non-traditional” student:
1. Understand the requirements of applying to medical school.
As a “non-traditional applicant,” there might be requirements that you need to make up. Identify where your gaps are. And this might vary between different medical schools! The best way to approach this task is to check out admissions requirements from a few top allopathic medical schools, middle tier allopathic programs, and D.O. schools. This way, you can prioritize the experiences or classes you are missing.
You might be okay with the classes you have under your belt, especially since some schools (like Stanford) no longer have specific requirements and have opted to follow a competency-based approach. Alternatively, you might need to complete all of pre-med. That’s okay too! There are many post-bac programs with amazing records for getting students into medical schools. And if you’re only missing a few courses, you can complete these through a post-bac program or you can do an one-off course. For example, I completed Physics at Columbia University over one summer to stay on track to apply to medical school. This can be done at any age and any stage in life.
2. Accumulate clinical experience.
There are a wide array of experiences that are valuable for medical school and the eventual practice of medicine. As a doctor, you are a teacher, a researcher, a leader, and a team player. Moreover, medicine is as much about relationships as it is about scientific rigor. All of this is important. So, your experiences as a “non-traditional” applicant can be rich in that regard.
Experience in a clinical setting remains equally significant. This is both for meeting application requirements and for you, the applicant, to know what your life would look like as a doctor. This is an important moment to lean heavily on and be creative with your network to find experiences. Cold-calling and emailing doctors that seem interesting to you can also be a successful approach.
3. Take the MCAT.
One aspect unique to the “non-traditional” applicant is the timing of your MCAT testing. If you are a “non-traditional” student, make sure your MCAT is no more than two years old. If you have not taken the MCAT yet, carving out time to study when you have been out of school for a while can be difficult. I highly recommend getting a tutor and making a strict study plan. You don’t have to study for an entire year; you can certainly tackle this part of the process within a few months. Find a system to create space and study smart.
4. Make your school list work for you.
There are many amazing medical schools. But it is important to find out if you are a good fit for a school and if a school is a good fit for you. Go beyond reading school websites and reach out directly to programs so you can connect with current students. Use these contacts to find out how your life and values align with the school. Do you have kids? Ask these contacts how many of their classmates had families and what that was like for them. If you had another job before medical school, find out if there are other students with similar backgrounds. Reaching out directly to schools and students will help you figure out if an amazing school is actually amazing for you.
5. Obtain strong recommendation letters.
Depending on how far out from school you are, it can become harder to get recommendation letters from your undergraduate program. Not to worry: employers and mentors after you graduate are great sources of recommendation letters, as they’re able to reflect the wide range of life experiences you have had. Moreover, the skills that you have learned from having a job requiring that you work with clients, meet deadlines, or work on a team, are the same qualities that will make you a great doctor.
When you reach out to teachers you have not seen in many years, make sure to share with them your personal mission statement for medical school. Help them speak thoughtfully about you by giving them information about who you are now, and why you would be a good candidate for medical school.
6. Use the personal statement to your advantage.
This is where the “non-traditional” student truly shines. The best personal statements reflect a strong sense of purpose and curiosity. Here, the “non-traditional” student has a slightly different story to tell. They’re not just answering, “Why medical school?” They also get to answer, “What changed?” and “Why are you giving up your current work to go to medical school?” Statements answering these questions are quite compelling, and certainly a change of pace for admissions staff.
This is also an opportunity to alleviate core concerns about the “non-traditional” student. The admissions staff want to know that you can keep up with the rigors of medical school after you’ve potentially been away from academia for a few years. Alternatively, they might think you are not as committed to this path. Be thoughtful about how you can head-off these concerns when you choose the stories you tell in your personal statement and secondaries.
7. Surround yourself with the right people and get a tutor.
If you are going to medical school for the right reasons, your meandering experiences are an asset. If you do not see that yet, that is okay: let a tutor help you, and surround yourself with people that pump you up. There is a lot of negativity surrounding medical school applications, and this negativity will only increase your self-doubt throughout the process. Protect yourself from negativity and judgement. Hold on to the activities and people that let you see yourself in the best possible light.
The joys of being a “non-traditional” applicant:
I was an English major and was only partially sure that I wanted to go to medical school throughout college. The time I spent teaching between college and medical school allowed me to travel and be playful. I cultivated a strong sense of wanting to work with underserved and at-risk populations, and my experiences teaching and working in an emergency room in South Africa inspired me to focus on global health throughout medical school. Being a “non-traditional” applicant helps you hone in on what is most important to you as a person, which then helps you see what is most important to you as a medical professional.
At the end of the day, give yourself credit. As one of my teaching mentors would say: If one day you show up to class and the projector is broken, you left the book at home, and you forgot your lesson plan, those kids would still learn something because they are spending an hour with you. And you are enough. The same goes for applying to medical school. Once you have put the work into getting all the pieces in place, at the end of the day, you are enough.