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, attending graduate school, or pursuing another career. Here are our expert tips for navigating med school admissions as a non-traditional applicant.
If you are an older applicant wondering just how the application process treats nontraditional students, keep in mind that medical schools today admit a wide variety of applicants with special talents and backgrounds. Their aim is to bring true diversity to the average modern entering class of medical school students, making the word “nontraditional” less relevant. Students often take a year or two off from academics for other pursuits, stay an extra year at their undergraduate university to obtain more education, or work a while before applying. Some even take extended time off to raise a family, or switch careers after trying other professions.
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.
Post bacc programs can also be helpful for nontraditional students who have lost contact with some of their professors and need med school recommendation letters. Post-bacc recs shouldn’t completely replace faculty letters from your undergraduate institution, though. If it’s been a while, make sure you set up an appointment with your potential recommender so that you can catch them up on your career and medical school goals (come prepared with a resume and copy of your personal statement!). Some schools will even accept letters from your employment as a replacement for one academic letter.
As a nontraditional applicant, you have unique experiences and skills. These will help you differentiate yourself from other applicants and can be an important strength. Your job is to prove that your 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 personal statement and interviews by being very specific about how your life experiences have led you to pursue medicine.
A competitive MCAT score is important for all applicants but may be especially so for non-traditional ones. Over the years, colleges and universities have made changes to grading scales and curricular requirements. Therefore, your GPA might not be comparable to that if someone who graduated from the same school more recently. Grades in post-bacc courses are important, but there is wide variation in grading policies between regular undergraduate courses and those same courses within post-bacc programs. The benefit of the MCAT is that it is standardized, supposedly allowing admissions committee to compare the aptitude of people with different backgrounds. Take an MCAT practice test to guage your strengths and weaknesses before choosing the right MCAT prep option for you.
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.
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