Strategies for Applying as a Non-Traditional Medical School Applicant

Padya Paramita

Strategies for Applying as a Non-Traditional Medical School Applicant 

Whether you’ve taken a few years off between college and applying to medical school or you decided after settling into another career that you wish to be a physician instead, you find yourself as a non-traditional medical school applicant. As a result, you might feel like you’re at a disadvantage if you don’t have the support of a pre-med advisor or think your experience doesn’t match up with more typical applicants. Don’t get too overwhelmed - it’s not uncommon for applicants to switch to medicine later down the line, and this can work to your advantage. But given the cutthroat med school admissions process, like all candidates, you have your work cut out for you.

Deciding to apply to medical school mid-career or after a few years at another job can be a big decision. With the application process more intense than ever, the question is, how do you use your non-traditional status to help you stand out? In order to help you successfully strategize your application, I have outlined who qualifies as a non-traditional medical school applicant, how admissions officers view such students, and strategies to solidify your candidacy.

Who is a Non-Traditional Medical School Applicant?

Before we dive into the approach, you need to familiarize yourself with the term “non-traditional medical school applicant” and determine whether it applies to you. According to Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, non-traditional applicants are “defined as those who have taken two or more years off between undergraduate studies and matriculation to medical school.” The University of Michigan Medical School, on the other hand, defines them as “career changers, non-science majors, post-bac graduates, military veterans, and Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers.” As taking 1-2 years off before medical school has become more and more common, non-traditional applicants generally fall under the following categories:  

  • Older applicants - The average age of medical school students is 24. If you’re in your late 20s or early 30s, you qualify as a non-traditional medical school applicant. Even if you had always been interested in medicine, you might have taken more than a couple of years off to travel or try out other careers. Your job may have be connected to medicine. For example, you could have worked at a research lab for over six years. Since you’ll have more in-depth experience than other candidates in the pool, you’ll still count as non-traditional.
  • Recent Graduates Who Weren’t Pre-Med - You might still be a year or two out of college but have only recently made up your mind to attend medical school. Your experiences could include a journalism degree and a job at a newspaper, or an economics degree and experience working at an investment bank. Either way, you don’t have pre-med experience under your belt. In such cases, you are a non-traditional applicant.
  • Career Changers - Another kind of non-traditional applicant is someone who is far older and more established in their career in a non-medical profession, such as a chef or a fashion designer. You might have had a sudden revelation that you’re actually not as invested in your current profession and instead want to be a physician. Unsurprisingly, you are not a typical candidate that medical school admissions committee members come across every day!

How Admissions Committees View Non-Traditional Applicants

You may be wondering whether being a non-traditional medical school applicant puts you at an automatic disadvantage. The answer is no - you’re more than encouraged to still apply. Harvard, for example, says that it “welcomes applications from non-traditional students, such as those who have an established career, have a partner, spouse, or family, or have been out of school for two years or longer.” If you’ve fulfilled all of the course requirements, taken the MCAT, found the time to gain research and clinical experience, and written a compelling personal statement, you would give yourself a fair chance as you enter the applicant pool. 

Medical schools are actively looking to create dynamic classes. They seek people with different backgrounds, so that everyone doesn’t bring the same perspective. Being a non-traditional candidate can really be a positive at a time when admissions committees are making a concerted effort to admit people with varied experiences. 

Non-Traditional Applicants: Examples From Specific Schools

The medical school process is a holistic one. No institution will look at your age or one part of your resumé and immediately cross you out. Since schools receive applications from people of all backgrounds, certain requirements are made more accessible to everyone too. For instance, requirements for letters of recommendation are more flexible for non-traditional applicants. Don’t stress about not having access to a pre-med advisor. Note how different programs frame letters of recommendation requirements.

Cornell University (Weill) - Letters of evaluation play a crucial role in the committee's assessment of your application. Those who know you well personally should write these letters.

University of Michigan Medical School: Your recommenders can be any individuals who can objectively assess your personal qualities such as integrity and ethics; reliability and dependability; social, interpersonal and teamwork skills; resilience and adaptability; altruism; and a desire to learn.

University of Colorado School of Medicine: We require three to five letters; letters can come from a faculty member, clinical experience, research experience, or a current job as the letter transmits cogent information about the applicant’s work. Obtaining a letter from the employer who you are working with during the application year is highly recommended. Evidence of various achievements in a post-college experience is considered a valuable addition to other letters that also may be part of your file.

All of these instructions are worded in a way that allows you to skip using a pre-med advisor, and find people who know you well and can write the most supportive letters on your behalf. Even schools that usually prefer professors would allow you to make an exception, but you might have to elaborate. For example, Emory School of Medicine states, “If your letters are submitted by three individual letter writers rather than your school’s Pre-Health or Pre-Medical Committee, you will be asked on the Emory Supplemental Application to explain why you are not submitting a Committee letter.”

Furthermore, medical schools usually welcome students who might not have majored in biology or chemistry. Some even include the data for different majors in their admitted class profile. Members of the first-year class at Northwestern have 51 different undergraduate majors, 36.7% of the entering class at UChicago have taken 2+ gap years, and 45% of students who have recently started medical school at the University of Pittsburgh were non-science majors. 

You won’t be alone in applying as a non-traditional medical school applicant. But what you will have to do is approach your application process strategically so that you can convince the admissions committees that you’re a strong fit for their MD programs. 

Strategies for Applying as a Non-Traditional Medical School Applicant

It’s time to think about using your background as a non-traditional applicant to your advantage. Once you’ve decided that medicine is what you wish to pursue, here are some ways to best prepare your profile to ensure you present the best version of yourself: 

Get Courses and MCAT Out of the Way

If you’ve made up your mind about a medical career recently, chances are, you’re a few courses short of meeting the prerequisites required by medical schools. Once you’ve decided that this is the career path for you, you should waste no time dedicating yourself to enrolling in post-bac science courses and studying for the MCAT. This way, you won’t have to save the academic components for the last minute. If you’re not happy with your MCAT score the first time, you can focus on your problem areas and retake the test.

Choose Your School List Wisely

Once you have your new GPA and your MCAT score, it’s time to think about your school list. As a non-traditional medical school applicant, there are a couple of factors you need to keep in mind when deciding where to apply. The first is that the MCAT and GPA for admitted students (which any applicant should take note of) in order to make sure you keep enough programs on your list where your numbers match the median. 

It might be a good idea to make sure that the institutions on your list have historically accepted non-traditional students. Take the time to conduct research on your choices - does it specify diversity in the educational background of students? Do you resonate with the school’s mention statement? If you’re able to, visit campuses and ask students and faculty members how the school has generally perceived non-traditional students.

Gain Clinical Experience

You need to show the admissions committee that you’re not just ready to change your career path on paper. To ensure that you’ve immersed yourself in the more practical side of things, you should get clinical experiences on your resumé. This can not only portray your desire to work with patients and in medical settings, but can help you understand whether you’re truly happy surrounding yourself with patients and physicians.

Clinical experience includes anything that will expose you to patients and working with doctors – you could consider jobs as an EMT or emergency room scribe. If a position volunteering at hospitals or conducting clinical research with a professor allows you exposure to patients, these are meaningful ways to engage in your love for medicine. You can also shadow a doctor to get a sense of what their daily schedule is like. 

Use Your Personal Statement Wisely

One of the most significant ways in which you can take advantage of your status as a non-traditional medical school applicant is through the personal statement. Since your personal statement should convey your story and interest in medicine, your atypical background will allow you to put a unique spin on it.

You need to be careful when writing your personal statement, however. Yes, you should definitely discuss your other accomplishments, but avoid showing excessive devotion to it in a way that leaves the admissions committee members with doubts about your love for medicine. On the flipside, don’t be tempted to put down your current career path even though you do want a change. Try not to be negative about where you are – focus instead on why medicine is where you want to be.

Your essay needs to demonstrate a clear trajectory of why and how you ended up applying to medical school. Use the skills you picked up in your previous career or job to exemplify why they can help you become a great physician. It’s also key that you emphasize why you believe that pursuing medicine is your calling, and why you’ve decided to apply now. You’ve got a long road ahead of you – admissions committees want to understand why now is the best time to apply, and grasp your dedication to the whole path.

When you’re a non-traditional medical school applicant, you might feel like you’ve got a lot more obstacles to overcome than the typical candidate. But, since the medical school admissions process is holistic, don’t stress yourself about the disadvantages and instead leverage your unique background to highlight why you can bring a special perspective to the classroom. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get all your components together. Good luck!

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