Not every medical school applicant is a fresh–faced college undergraduate who has spent the past four years in a lab.
More and more people are applying to medical school later in life, perhaps after starting a family or pursuing another career. For these nontraditional applicants, going to medical school may seem as daunting as climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. It might not be easy, but it is definitely doable.
Here are a few things to consider before beginning the climb.
All medical schools require a minimum level of science preparation that includes approximately one year each of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry and physics. Many universities offer post-baccalaureate programs for students who need to fulfill pre–med requirements. Post-bacc programs vary in cost, duration and selectivity of admissions. Even if you fulfilled these requirements in college, taking a refresher course in biology or chemistry can strengthen your application. Most medical schools advise nontraditional applicants to demonstrate success in recent coursework. And your professors and advisors from these programs can be among your pool of prospective recommenders.
Nontraditional applicants must work hard to prove that their choice to attend medical school is a thoroughly considered one. Even if your resume is impressive in other areas, you should add some medical-related volunteer work to show that you're committed to medicine and understand what practicing it is really like. Look into volunteer programs at health clinics, or find a part-time position as an EMT or nurse's aid.
Despite recognizing the value of nontraditional students, admissions committees may be skeptical of applicants embarking on their second or third career. You can address this concern in your essays and interviews by being very specific about how your life experiences have led you to pursue medicine. And remember, even the most exciting and unique older applicant must have a competitive GPA and MCAT score.
For students returning to school after several years in the workforce, medical school will be an adjustment. The staggering amount of work will jar adults who aren't in the habit of spending their weekends in cram sessions and study groups. Needless to say, your new schedule can also be hard on friends, spouses, children—anyone used to seeing you on a regular basis. You should sit down with your partner or family to plan how you'll manage the medical school lifestyle.
Research what accommodations your prospective schools make for nontraditional applicants and how many older students are enrolled. If you have a spouse and/or children, ask to be put in contact with students in similar situations. Many medical schools have begun to develop support programs for families of nontraditional students.
The cost of a medical education is daunting for students of any age. That said, nontraditional students often have higher living expenses associated with off-campus living, dependents, debt and other financial responsibilities. If you are married, medical schools will expect your spouse to contribute to the extent that he or she can. You should also keep in mind that a history of bad credit or defaulting on your undergraduate student loans can render you ineligible for low-interest educational loans. If you have a bad credit history, you may want to put off applying for a few years while you rebuild your status.
We don't need to tell you that medical school is a serious—and time-consuming—commitment. It may take one or two years of basic science courses (and MCAT prep) before you can even apply. Then you face a minimum of seven years of medical school and residency.
Nontraditional applicants should think carefully about their financial and family obligations. Don't jump in until you're sure that you want a life in medicine. If you are sure, then the sacrifices will be worth it