Learn how to use your non traditional background to your advantage as a medical school applicant
Part 1: Introduction
Applying to medical school is a notoriously grueling process. Even for those who never wavered on their path to becoming a doctor—taking all the right classes as an undergrad, shadowing physicians at clinics, participating in groundbreaking research, and acing the MCAT—putting together a competitive application is challenging in the face of some frightening odds. For those who didn’t follow the “conventional” path, the odds can seem even more intimidating.
But in fact, non traditional medical school applicants are matriculating in greater numbers than ever before. People are also waiting longer to apply to medical school than in years past, with the average applicant age currently hovering at around 24. The truth is, when using the right strategies, applicants of almost any age can get into a top-ranking medical school and thrive.
This guide will cover the basics of applying to medical school with a non traditional background. We’ll examine how schools view non traditional med school applicants, and how you can impress admissions committees with experiences from off the beaten path.
Part 2: Who is considered a non traditional medical school applicant?
To answer this question, we need to ask another question: who are traditional med school applicants?
A traditional med school applicant is anyone who aims to attend medical school soon after completing their undergraduate program. They are aware of the med school application requirements throughout college and plan accordingly. They take the required science courses, and devote time outside of the classroom to extracurricular activities that admissions committees like to see.
These types of students may apply to med schools in the spring and summer before their senior year of college so they can begin medical school immediately after graduation. Therefore, they tend to be between 20 and 23 years old.
But taking a gap year between college and medical school is becoming an increasingly common practice. Without the constraints of a college course load, applicants may use this time to buckle down and study for the MCAT or gain additional experience in a clinical setting. By now, gap years are conventional enough that applicants who take one or two of them are still considered traditional.
A non traditional med school applicant is, simply put, anyone who bucks these trends. There are no strict definitions for what counts as “non traditional,” but these applicants tend to fit into two categories, which we’ll call “lane-changers” and “career-changers.”
Lane-changers are college students and recent graduates who did not intend to apply to medical school and therefore, did not devote their undergraduate coursework or free time to fulfilling med school application requirements. After some reflection, however, they’ve decided that they want to pursue a career in medicine. Some examples of applicants who would qualify as lane-changers:
Jamie graduated a year ago with a degree in English, though he took a few science classes for fun. He now works as a magazine editor, but has always felt most fulfilled by his volunteer gig at a local clinic.
Rena is a college junior majoring in math. She always assumed she’d be a math professor, but she’s increasingly inspired by the subject matter and hands-on aspects of the health science classes she’s taken.
Emmanuel started college intending to go to medical school, but switched to a theater major halfway through. Now, two years after graduation, he wants to return to his original dream.
Magali just graduated with a major in business and a minor in psychology. She was surprised when, toward the end of college, she became much more invested in her minor than her major—specifically, she’s drawn to face-to-face client interaction and neuroscience.
Career-changers are people who have been out of college and in the workforce for at least several years. They might have jobs in the medical field, or they might be doing something completely unrelated. They’re committed to applying to medical school at this juncture in their lives, but it will be a major transition for them. Some examples of applicants who qualify as career-changers:
Emma is a 32-year-old registered nurse. Although she loves her job, she wants to gain a deeper understanding of the conditions she encounters on a daily basis, and merge her compassion for her patients with a greater role in their care.
Omar is a 28-year-old editorial manager at a nonprofit whose mission is to eliminate homelessness. He majored in public health, but has mostly worked in advertising and copywriting since college.
Carmen is a 25-year-old marketing associate. She’s a little familiar with the business side of hospitals, but since her mother suffered a heart attack a few years ago, she’s been volunteering at a noninvasive cardiology laboratory.
Paulina is a 37-year-old Army veteran who now works at a nonprofit, helping fellow veterans navigate civilian life. Having witnessed the devastating effects of untreated mental and physical illness in this population, she yearns to help them as a physician.
Of course, not every non traditional applicant’s story is the same. But if your path to medical school is in any way non traditional, this guide is for you.
Part 3: Preparing to apply as a non traditional student: a checklist
Ask yourself key questions
Applying to medical school as a non traditional student will necessitate major life changes. It’s crucial that you gauge your readiness by asking yourself:
Why is applying to medical school the best course of action for me at this time in my life? Why didn’t I make this change before now, and why do I want to make it now, rather than later?
Am I fully willing to reorient my life around this pursuit? Am I certain that earning a medical degree is a top priority for me?
Am I mentally and emotionally equipped to deal with the pressures of the application process and the rigors of medical school?
Can I afford the various costs associated with this process (preparing to apply, applying to schools, interviewing with schools, and ultimately, covering medical school tuition)? What is my plan for tackling the practical and financial hardships of this change? If this application cycle doesn’t pan out for me, am I prepared to reapply to med school?
Your personal statement should, quite literally, answer those first three groups of questions.
Get familiar with medical school application requirements
As a non traditional applicant, you won’t have spent the bulk of your time as an undergrad preparing for med school applications. You might even be wondering what a basic application looks like. To familiarize yourself with the components of a med school application, you can consult this AAMC guide.
Gain clinical experience
A competitive med school application will reference clinical experience. For traditional applicants, this often takes the form of shadowing a physician and/or working in a clinical setting. The experience doesn’t have to take up all of your time, but it should be recent, frequent, and sustained enough for the applicant to really get a feel for the medical environment.
As a non traditional applicant, you may even have more relevant experience than a traditional one, especially if your first career was in the medical field. But if you haven’t had much contact with patients, now’s the time to arrange for some. Don’t limit yourself just to shadowing, either—AAMC lists some alternatives that can be just as valuable, from participating in hospice care to working as an EMT.
Complete your coursework
Whether you’re mapping out your own schedule at a local college or you got into a structured post bacc program, it’s time to take those science courses and hone your study habits. We recommend taking these classes as closely together as possible, rather than over a several year period, especially if you haven’t taken the MCAT yet. This will help keep concepts fresh in your mind before the test and show admissions committees that you’re serious about this pursuit.
Take the MCAT
Once you have your coursework and fresh GPA in hand, make a responsible MCAT study timeline and stick to it. You’ll want to devote several months to studying, unless your post bacc program included an MCAT-preparation component.
It’s important to take the MCAT after you’ve completed your coursework, so that you’re not filling in rudimentary gaps in your knowledge while studying for the test. You should also try to take the MCAT in the same academic year that you plan to apply to medical schools—schools prefer recent results, and most won’t accept results that are more than a couple years old.
AMCAS begins submitting applications to medical schools in June, so we recommend taking the MCAT by the end of May at the latest in order to enter the application cycle when it begins. If you take it later, you could be hurting your chances at schools that have rolling admissions.
(Further reading: What MCAT Score Do You Need to Get Into Medical School?)
Develop your school list
You know your GPA and MCAT scores, you’ve accumulated many hours of clinical experience, and it’s time to start developing your list of schools. There are many important considerations to make when choosing medical schools to apply to, including where you want to live for the next four years, the cost of tuition, and your odds of admission.
But, you’ll also want to examine the relative friendliness of each prospective school toward non traditional applicants. Does the school welcome people with a wide variety of backgrounds? Does it explicitly mention diversity in its materials? Do your experiences relate to the school’s particular mission or emphasis? Focus on schools that emphasize a holistic approach to applications, a diverse student body, and a philosophy that resonates with your goals.
Many non traditional applicants fear that applying to medical school “late in the game” puts them at a disadvantage. They worry that admissions committees will take one look at their age, or the fact that they spent a large amount of time invested in another field, and question their commitment to medicine.
But it’s important to remember that med school applications are being judged much more holistically, these days. Committees aren’t just looking at your scores and coursework; they’re also assessing your ability to contribute to both the intellectual and social enrichment of the entering class.
Why? Because medical schools want and actively seek to create a diverse student body. Just as you’d want to be treated in a hospital with doctors of various backgrounds and specialties, medical schools want to train students from all walks of life. Many top-ranked schools explicitly welcome non traditional applicants to apply on their web pages. For example, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine boasts that 17 percent of its newest class had an undergraduate major that wasn’t a science, and Harvard Medical School says 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.”
Admittedly, there are stereotypes associated with being a non traditional med school applicant. Admissions committees may have the following concerns, and it’s worth being aware of them as you begin the process:
Non traditional medical students may have a harder time adjusting to the rigor of medical school than students who have recently been immersed in a similarly rigorous college environment.
Non traditional medical students may find it more difficult to socialize and form connections with their colleagues due to gaps in age and life priorities.
Non traditional medical students may be wishy-washy about their commitment to med school—after all, they’ve been willing to leave their “first choice” of career or field of study at least once already. How can an admissions committee be certain that the applicant is right about their vocation this time around?
You’ll want to target these concerns by disproving them in your application wherever you can, using positive examples that confirm your readiness for medical school at this point in your life.
Overall, though, it’s safe to say that medical schools value the unique set of experiences non traditional applicants bring to the table—if you put in the work to make your application stand out, your non-linear path to medical school won’t count against you, and can even work in your favor.
Put another way: do medical schools go “easier” or “harder” on non traditional applicants when sifting through applications? The answer can depend on the school as well as the application components being considered.
GPA & MCAT Scores
Your GPA and MCAT score are the foundation of your medical school application, and the higher your numbers the better. And, just as with traditional applicants, a not-so-impressive number has to be balanced out by other eye-catching aspects of your application.
While some schools—like Michigan State—are prepared for the possibility that accepting non traditional students might affect their average GPA and MCAT, most schools don’t want to make exceptions.
As a non traditional student, don’t assume that you’re fated to perform worse on these tests than a traditional applicant. The data suggest that non traditional applicants are capable of scoring as well as traditional ones: at Boston University School of Medicine, as the percentage of non traditional matriculants rose after the school adopted a holistic application review process, the GPA and MCAT averages of the school did not dip at all.
A final note: you can’t predict exactly how a medical school will judge your GPA. Some put more emphasis on the grades you earned for the most recent 20–32 hours of science credits you’ve taken, while others consider a bigger snapshot. So, if you’re worried about lower grades that you received earlier in school, then your goal should be to demonstrate an upward trend.
Letters of Recommendation
Non traditional applicants may have a difficult time acquiring committee letters or individual letters of recommendation from their undergraduate institutions. Medical schools know this! They often encourage non traditional students to get letters of recommendation from a varied network of sources that reflect diverse life experiences, ranging from employers and mentors to the pre med course instructors from post-baccalaureate programs.
The specific requirements for sourcing your letters will differ by school, so make sure you pay attention to what each one wants. Baylor College of Medicine, for example, specifies that if you’ve been out of college and working for a year or more, one of your letters must be from a direct supervisor, whereas the second and third letters must be from current or former professors.
On the other hand, the University of Michigan Medical School says 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.”
The takeaway? You’ll most likely still need to ask some professors for letters, but this is an arena where schools give non traditional applicants a little more flexibility.
As with any recommendation process, it’s wise to let your letter-writers in on your “angle.” Give them a chance to read your personal statement in advance of writing, and make clear to them how you’re telling the story of your lane change or career change. This is crucial for people writing outside of the medical field—they need to bolster the narrative you’re offering in your essays.
Medical schools notice when an applicant has completed some or all of their required coursework outside of their undergraduate institution. Non traditional applicants may be enrolled in an official post bacc program (check out the AAMC’s list here), or they may be taking the “DIY” approach by enrolling in the individual college classes they need.
Medical schools usually say that they require applicants to have taken science courses at a “community college level,” so taking courses outside of a private university will not automatically disqualify you. But doing so might make admissions committees wonder if you’re ready for the stressful course loads in medical school, especially if your post bacc progress was spread out over longer periods of time.
If you need to complete a fair amount of coursework before applying, we recommend post bacc programs designed for med school applicants. If you’ve lost touch with your professors from undergrad, post bacc programs provide wonderful opportunities to develop relationships with professors who can write strong letters of recommendation. Recent letters attesting to your potential as a med school student can be highly effective if you’ve been out of school for several years, or if your grades in college were not as strong as the grades you earned in the post bacc program.
Much of our advice for writing a strong “traditional” personal statement also applies to non traditional personal statements. Throughout your essay, you should be highlighting experiences in which you exhibited the qualities of a superb physician.
However, as a non traditional applicant, you also have to address the elephants in the room—the potential pitfalls that medical schools associate with lane- and career-changers.
A strong non traditional personal statement should prove three fundamental things: that the timing is right, that you’re committed, and that you’re capable.
Remember Paulina, the career-changer from our sample list of applicants? We’ll use her experiences to track the process of building a non traditional personal statement, keeping these three goals in mind.
In their personal statements, traditional applicants have to answer the question, “Why is medical school right for me?”
Non traditional applicants have to answer, “Why is medical school right for me, right now?”
Paulina spent nearly a decade in the Army, including several deployments, and then, began life as a civilian by assisting her fellow veterans. Without downplaying the importance of those roles, she’ll need to express that they’ve led her to pursue a new (but related!) one. The implicit question is, Why not stay in your old profession?
Initially, Paulina had a few stories to choose from for her statement: the time when her sister’s appendix burst, the time when a Private collapsed in front of her due to unknown causes, the speech that she gave upon her retirement from the military, and her trip to see a veteran, Kathleen, who suffers from combat-related mental illness. All of these stories had something to do with her attraction to medicine—but only the latter two had something to do with her transition to the medical field.
Paulina helped her sister with her burst appendix when they were both children. It happened before she joined the Army, and before she crystallized her medical ambitions. It’s evidence of exposure to medicine, but it’s not a necessary component of her decision to switch tracks. Likewise, the story of the Private collapsing does not bear immediately on Paulina’s journey from the Army to medical school. Although she felt helpless in the moment and wished she could do more, she remained in the Army and reached many other milestones before she was medically discharged.
Her retirement speech, on the other hand, is a great place to start. It presents medical schools with the question they most want answered: what is she going to do now, and why? That leads Paulina to talk about how her first priority is to help military personnel in need of care. Kathleen’s story continues this trend, and is the clear catalyst for Paulina’s decision to earn a medical degree.
Your personal statement needs to show that your transition to pre med status is both intuitive and essential for you at this time. It’s important to think of your old focus as a launchpad or a series of stepping-stones that led to this moment, instead of as a separate part of your past.
You don’t want your enthusiasm for your old job or focus to overshadow your enthusiasm for medicine. You should always be connecting your “old life” to this current ambition. That way, you’re assuring admissions committees that you won’t be a flip-flopper later—you’ve settled on medical school as your utmost priority, your true calling.
Paulina’s essay originally gave a very detailed view of her past. Although she did consistently reference her desire to help those in need, that desire was seemingly being met by a variety of positions:
Whether leading a crisis intervention team or leading soldiers, I have engaged with people on the worst days of their lives. I am elated each time I am able to quell a crisis and relish the human interaction with those who are relentlessly battling medical ailments … While I was operating daily in my core functional area as a law enforcement officer, I was able to satiate my aspiration to ease suffering in other platforms.
Why commit to medical school if these positions were providing fulfillment? After several rounds of editing, Paulina arrives at a stronger approach, cutting these sentences and emphasizing that becoming a doctor is the only route for her:
My four years helping veterans like Kathleen confirmed what I had known for some time: Serving as a physician is the best way for me to help service members and veterans, particularly when it comes to mental health care, substance abuse, and suicide.
Paulina also makes the wise decision not to dwell on the hopelessness she experienced when she was medically discharged. Although this was certainly an unexpected and difficult development for her, too much time spent on the emotional fallout might make medical school seem like a consolation prize, rather than something she’s excited about.
At first, her opening paragraph contained these sentences:
Five years ago, I found myself unwillingly standing behind a podium, staring into the too-bright late afternoon sun… It was the worst day of my life—I was just 31 and had not planned to give this speech for another 20 years.
Her final draft softens these emotions:
Five years ago, I found myself standing behind a podium, staring into the too-bright late afternoon sun… After 14 years of service in the Army, I was being medically discharged. I hadn’t planned to give this speech for another two decades.
The second version cuts “unwillingly” and the “worst day of my life.” We get that her discharge was a big disruption, but we’re primed to ask what she’ll do next. The development doesn’t feel ruinous—it’s the beginning of a new story, and the focus is on the future.
Finally, you want schools to know that you can handle everything that they’ll throw at you. That includes long nights of studying, tough classes, and the emotional stress of dealing with both patient care and feedback from your supervisors. Many non traditional applicants haven’t been in an academic environment for a while, so they have to cite other instances in which they were able to function under lots of pressure.
Paulina’s time in the Army certainly highlights how she can excel in high-stress situations. What else can she do to prove her capability? Her non-profit work and her encounter with Kathleen, seem like good places to look for opportunities. It’s the job she had most recently, and it leads directly into her application process.
Crucially, she’ll also address her academic preparation in supplemental and secondary applications.
In an early draft, Paulina began and ended Kathleen’s story with these lines:
Serving veterans in the non-profit world ignites a fire in me to become a medical practitioner.
Meeting Kathleen further prompted me to evaluate my goals, career, and life.
These are vague, and don’t give us a glimpse into the hardships of her non-profit job or what she did after evaluating her goals, career, and life. Here are the revisions:
In my role working with a non-profit that empowers veterans to thrive in life, I met hundreds of veterans like Kathleen, many in emotional crisis, referred to us by a concerned family member.”
I’ve spent the last year filling in the gaps in my education to prepare myself for medical school.
These lines get much more specific, and speak to Paulina’s capabilities in both caretaking and academic settings.
Of course, you’ll also have to sprinkle your statement with evidence of desirable character traits in a physician. These help to further underline your capability—you’re showing schools that you’ve cultivated the qualities they’re looking for.
Paulina does this in many ways. Her empathy is on full display when she talks about Kathleen, and near the end, she’s able to connect her non traditional background with a nuanced and personalized view towards patient care:
Because I, like the patients I will be treating, am a product of many life experiences, I know I can practice the kind of healthcare the military system most needs: an integrated, patient-centered, empathic practice.
Now that you’ve seen snippets of her process, take a look at Paulina’s final draft below.
Personal Statement Example (Paulina’s Final Draft)
Five years ago, I found myself standing behind a podium, staring into the too-bright late afternoon sun glistening off the surface of the Hudson River. I began my speech, sweating in my Army uniform. I was accustomed to speaking in front of people—I’d addressed 4,500 service members in formation; coached nervous athletes, even faced terrifying warlords in Afghanistan. I was not sweating that day because of the audience—250 familiar faces of family, friends, colleagues and cadets. I was sweating because this was my retirement date. At 32, after 14 years of service in the Army, I was being medically discharged. I hadn’t planned to give this speech for another two decades.
I touched on highlights of my career: serving a three-year tour in Germany, participating in training missions in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, leading troops into combat in Afghanistan, turning civilians into soldiers in Missouri, running Hostage Negotiation Trainings, teaching cadets at West Point, and learning from soldiers and mentors along the way. I concluded by vowing to continue a lifetime of service to my country and its service members.
But how would I do that as a civilian?
I had a few hypotheses—I was already concerned about the fates and mental health of veterans reentering society. Working on these issues for the next five years would bring me close to the military medical system, where I hope to spend the rest of my career.
Almost four years after retiring, I found myself walking up the driveway of an Army combat veteran named Kathleen. In my role working with a non-profit that empowers veterans to thrive in life, I had met hundreds of veterans like Kathleen, many in emotional crisis, referred to us by a concerned family member. Most had specific needs—how do I process my Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) disability claims?; others’ requirements were more abstract—they sought fellowship or camaraderie. Kathleen had come to us seeking help on a legal matter.
I’d seen a lot in my time doing this work, including veterans holding weapons or under the influence of drugs. But Kathleen’s distress was worse than anything I’d seen in over three years. She was malnourished, and unkempt. Her clothes were soiled and she appeared to be living alone. Kathleen, a sexual assault survivor now dealing with suicidal ideations, was facing mental health issues in part because of her time in the military. Seeing her messy home and solitary existence broke my heart. How could anyone live like this? She explained that her psychiatrist had her under suicide watch, but had failed to notify her family.
I exhausted all my resources to help Kathleen—deescalating her anxiety and staying with her until emergency services arrived—but this went beyond a level of care I could provide. Today, Kathleen is making excellent progress with a new psychiatrist; our organization served the purpose it could, connecting Kathleen to mental health assistance and legal services. But I’ve seen how complex the military healthcare ecosystem is, and how many holes there are in this crucial world. My four years helping veterans like Kathleen confirmed what I had known for some time: Serving as a physician is the best way for me to help service members and veterans, particularly when it comes to mental health care, substance abuse, and suicide. That’s why I’ve spent the last year filling in the gaps in my education to prepare myself for medical school.
It’s an exciting time for the military health care system, where the country’s largest provider of mental health services, the DVA, can lead the health industry in treatment innovation for Post Traumatic Stress and other mental health conditions. I know from my time in the Army the importance of physicians who can treat the whole person, and the constellation of experiences that lead to health problems as a service member. Because I, like the patients I will be treating, am a product of many life experiences, I know I can practice the kind of healthcare the military system most needs: an integrated, patient-centered, empathic practice.
In my current work, I combine community resources and partnerships with the individual veteran’s strengths to build cohesive healing; in other words, I must listen to the individual veteran, sometimes for hours on end, and understand the larger system into which they fit. But manpower is scarce—and most physicians can’t spend the kind of time I could as a volunteer. This year, a report conducted by the Government Accountability Office stated one-third of medical specialties were below 80 percent required strength in the Army, Air Force, and Navy. That means the system needs physicians—and the patients and their families deserve physicians who intuitively understand their experiences.
I have witnessed too many veterans battling physical and mental demons to stably re-enter society. Their efforts have shown me where my service is most needed. I may never wear a military uniform again, but the patients I hope to serve will. I belong by their side.
Whether you’ve taken the traditional path or a more circuitous route, applying to medical school is a daunting journey. Hopefully this guide has convinced you that non traditional med school applicants not only have a fair shot at getting in, but because of their experience, they are valuable assets to the medical profession. If you’re sure that being a physician is the right choice for you, you can use your unique background to help you in the medical school admissions process and beyond in your career as a physician.