If you have been out of school for several years and are thinking of pursuing a medical education, you have a challenging but not impossible path ahead of you. Although the average age of entering medical students is usually around 24-25 years of age, there are always a few older students in any given class.
If you are just now trying to figure out what you should be doing to be a competitive applicant in the future, we recommend that, first and foremost, you schedule an appointment with a pre-med advisor here at UM or at a school in your geographical proximity to map out your timeline and strategy. Please keep in mind that regardless of any past stellar academic record or professional achievement, you will still be required to have appropriate pre-medical coursework, competitive GPA and MCAT scores under your belt and health related experiences to support your (newly found) career interest. Whether you enroll in a formal postbaccalaureate program to efficiently cover the necessary pre-medical requirements, or develop a plan for a more independent approach to the coursework, this step alone may take you anywhere from a couple to several years of study. Be sure to cultivate strong relationships with your instructors since these individuals will be eventually the authors of your academic reference letters.
As you complete or refresh your academic coursework, it will also be crucial for you to spend time in health care settings (hospitals, clinics, hospices, nursing homes, etc.) to test your career interest and to demonstrate your commitment to the medical profession. These multiple goals can be particularly challenging if you are also trying to earn a living for you and possibly, your dependents. Yet, you need to be able to demonstrate your academic prowess and commitment to the profession to be a a competitive applicant.
As you gear up to apply, remember:
- Do not make excuses or apologize for your "late" application: It's O.K. Many practicing physicians did not find medicine or were able to respond to its call until later in life. However, be prepared to explain in your essays and in your interviews "why medicine now" and "why not back then".
- Be judicious in picking your reference givers. If you completed your pre-requisite work recently, those instructors should be great sources for your academic letters. For non academic letters, coach employers as needed to write reference letters that fit the occasion. You do not need a recommendation for another job. You need an endorsement about your suitability for medical education and practice. A good place to start is to make a list of the skills (analytical ability, communication, problem solving...) and personal traits and characteristics (maturity, compassion, dedication....) that make a good physician and try to identify writers who can specifically comment about you in relation to those skills and traits. Most likely, each one of your writers will only be able to comment on a few of those skills and characteristics; which is fine, because it will be the totality of your reference letters that will paint a more complete picture of who you are and what you bring.
- Put a lot of thought into your personal statement and other application essays. A common mistake in non-traditional applicants' essays is that often too much space and energies are wasted trying to explain why they no longer wish to continue to do what they are doing, instead of providing enough information about why they want to pursue medicine now. Your goal is to illustrate more why you are walking toward medicine than why you are moving/running away from something else (although some basic information about your decision-making process and elements that are no longer satisfying in your current career should obviously be included).
- Finally, apply carefully and broadly. Although occasionally geographical limitations seem to increase proportionally with applicants' age, most individuals cannot afford to apply to just one or two schools, no matter how convenient or desirable those schools might be. In fact, the competitiveness of the medical school application process requires as much flexibility as applicants' individual circumstances may reasonably allow.
The National Society for Nontraditional Premedical & Medical Students ia a great resource if your path to medicine is not the traditional "high school to college to medical school" and the OPM annual conference is worth attending.
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.
Do med schools prefer traditional students over non-traditional students?
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.
Our Top Tips for Non-Traditional Applicants
1. Strengthen Your Application with Post–Bacc Training
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.
2. Get Great Letters of Recommendation
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.
3. Show Off Your Unique Skills
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.
4. Make Time for MCAT Prep
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.
5. Curate a Smart Application List
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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