Getting into medical school is a long and difficult challenge, even more so for nontraditional applicants. You may be concerned about facing a disadvantage compared to a traditional applicant. But keep in mind that medical schools are accepting more nontraditional students– the average age of first-year medical students is increasing and a higher percentage of students majored in a non-scientific topic. No matter how many years it has been since you graduated college, your nontraditional background is an asset that makes you a unique and more well-rounded applicant. You will stand out from the crowd. Medical schools value nontraditional applicants because you bring diversity to their entering class. Of course as a nontraditional applicant you will face different challenges in your application process. You may have to take or retake premed classes, you have to take the MCAT, you have to seek out medical-related experiences, and you have to find relevant people to write letters of recommendation. It can feel very daunting to achieve all this as a nontraditional medical school applicant, so check out our top 10 tips:
Even if it takes longer, don’t apply until you are absolutely ready to apply. Be super patient. It is far more important for you to put a stronger application forward then to apply to medical school sooner with fewer “gap years.” Take all the time you need to gain a breadth of experience in the medical field, including research, medical or clinical work or volunteering, shadowing, and more.
As a nontraditional applicant you may have had to overcome extra hurdles that affected your grades or MCAT scores. If there is a reason that you struggled in college, were delayed in applying, or other factors that were a challenge in your application, tell your story. Considering sharing this even if your struggles are very personal– did you survive an abusive relationship? struggle with your mental health? Survive cancer? If you share this in your personal statement, medical school application committees will be able to understand why those aspects of your application were affected. More importantly, they will get a fully rounded picture of your strengths and the challenges you have survived. Make sure to talk to a premed advisor when disclosing challenges you faced that may be considered more controversial or put you at risk.
If you last took premed classes a while ago, the MCAT is the most recent measure of your academic performance on your application. Post baccalaureate programs’ grading can vary between schools, so application committees often place more emphasis for students with a post-bacc as well. Although waiting another cycle to apply can be anxiety-provoking, it is much better than taking the MCAT before you are ready and having a lower score on your application. If taking the MCAT while working full-time, start your MCAT studying sooner rather than later because you will have fewer hours to study each day. Try to do some practice questions during your breaks at work, and if possible try to save vacation time to take off closer to your exam for full-time studying.
Consider a post baccalaureate program or classes at a local college. Even if you took all the premed classes when you graduated college, consider taking another class or two to strengthen your application, as many medical schools look for success in recent coursework.
It can be difficult to attain clinical and research experience when you are not a student and/or when you work in an unrelated field. Medical jobs such as medical assistant, home health aide, EMT, and medical scribe are often accepting of people without much industry experience and are a great way to gain insight into the healthcare industry. If you want to volunteer instead of working, seek out your local hospitals. Research and shadowing experiences are also important. Try searching for topics you are interested in on Pubmed and contacting study authors to learn more, or reaching out to researchers at universities near you. Most professors are happy to hear from medical school applicants interested in health research. Ask if they have any need for volunteers or job opportunities. Try to get on as many abstracts and research papers as you can.
Medical schools will not judge you for applying later, they just want to see how your life experience has brought you to their school. In your personal statement, explain any challenges in a way that demonstrates your personal growth and what you have overcome using positive examples. Our team of editors are happy to help you accomplish this via brainstorming sessions and essay editing. Most importantly, show the admissions committee how these experiences have made you committed to a career in medicine and well-prepared to succeed in medical school and as a physician.
As a nontraditional student, your non-academic letter(s) of recommendation provides a valuable opportunity for the admissions committee to get to know you outside of the realm of a traditional medical student. Some medical schools like to see a letter of recommendation from your original college, if you graduated a long time ago, in addition to recommendations from recent professors. Even if it has been a long time since college, reach out to your professors from your original college for letters of recommendation.
If you were obligated to not work due to family or personal issues, make sure you explain this in your application. Remember that your personal history makes you stand out and will bring diversity to a medical school. It’s ok if you had to take care of a child or family member, or if you were struggling with a significant illness and could not work. Use these points to strengthen your commitment to medicine in your personal statement.
Lean into your unique strengths as a nontraditional applicant. Do you have a background in finance, education, public health, or journalism? Your experiences give you a unique perspective and motivation for pursuing medicine. Emphasize them in your personal statement, and you will stand out from the crowd!
Look for schools that will appreciate your experiences and perspective as a non-traditional applicant. For example, some schools accept more students with a diversity of backgrounds, or have a higher average age of matriculants. Seek out schools that emphasize a holistic approach to medicine and education. Finally, search for schools whose values match with your unique skill set and experiences and whose philosophy attracts you. With your extra experiences as a nontraditional applicant, you will have a lot to talk about on interview day!
As a nontraditional applicant, your path to medical school is not a detriment–it will make you a stronger applicant. Your journey to medicine and your perspective are unique, which schools value. You may have more professional experience, skill sets, personal growth, and maturity than a traditional applicant. Your skills from non-healthcare experiences make you more adaptable as a medical student and future clinician. Additionally, your reasons for applying to medical school are very compelling because you spent more time applying and may have even changed careers. The strongest applications are those that are authentic, unique, and demonstrate commitment to becoming a physician— all features that you exhibit strongly as a non-traditional applicant.