Medicine is a profession that rewards mature, thoughtful, and independent people. While it may be a longer, windier road, entering medicine from a non-science background or as a mature learner, or both, enriches the lives of the learner and those of the student body.
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Most medical school applicants are considered traditional if they have taken the standard pathway to medicine; highschool to university to medical school. These type of applicants generally don't take breaks in between, with the exception of a gap year before medical school which is common enough that it's still considered traditional. Conversely, a non traditional medical school applicant refers to anyone who arrives to medicine by taking a different pathway. Some medical schools consider non traditional applicants to be anyone who has taken 2 or more years off in between university and medical school. Other than applicants who have taken breaks, there are many other different forms of non traditional applicants. These include mature applicants, applicants with science backgrounds but who pursued a different field and even applicants without science backgrounds. Some non traditional medical students are those who changed careers completely. They completed their undergraduate studies, had a career in a specific profession, and then switched careers completely in order to become a physician. Others non traditional students simply decided a little bit later than most that they wanted to pursue medicine.
Some non-traditional medical students - by which we mean students from the arts and humanities - have their eye on a career in medicine from the beginning of their university studies. If you are in this category, you may have slotted in science courses alongside your political science, western civilization, music, or economic courses so that you met the pre-requisite courses needed by some schools, and simultaneously prepared for the the MCAT. Ideally, you would have taken the MCAT in second year and re-written it again if needed. You would have also volunteered in medicine-related fields and attained extraordinary grades. There is probably also ample evidence on your resume that you are committed to medicine. People with your academic profile are found in every medical school on the continent and contribute significantly to the texture of the class. Your arts and science training allows you to think broadly and systematically and rely on first principles to understand, and not just memorize, the material. You are, however, likely new to concepts like ‘problem-based learning’ but can adapt over time.
Other non-traditional students decide near the end of university that they are interested in medicine. If this is you, you have one top job when applying to medical school. You must be able to answer this question: Why do you want to be a doctor? You must answer with conviction, purpose and detail. This is the most important question for two reasons. First and foremost, knowing why you want to be a doctor is in itself a source of motivation. On those tough days where you are wading through new topics in an MCAT prep course and everyone else is way ahead of you, you need to know why you are putting yourself through the effort. It is worth it, but only if you know why you want to be a doctor. Second, if you know why you want to be a doctor, you can target your volunteer and extra-curricular efforts to fit with your story in a cohesive, sensical way. Your resume may have nothing that indicates a desire to work with people, an interest in physiology or pharmacology or even experience with hands-on skills. But, if you have strong grades, good MCAT scores and a clear narrative for a medical career, you may have a decent shot at acceptance. You should spend time finding volunteer and research opportunities that demonstrate empathy, critical thinking, ability to learn in a clinical setting, and professionalism. Check out our blog to find out how many volunteering hours for medical school you should have. Review the Essential Skills and Abilities Required for the Study of Medicine from the Council of Ontario Faculties of Medicine to support your efforts here. You should not, however, focus all of your energy on trying to be like the traditional students in every way. Your story matters when admissions committees are trying to figure out if you fit at their school. Highlight that your story is unique but buttress it with authentic efforts to demonstrate your commitment to the field. While the number of accepted non traditonal medical school students varies from year to year, you can be assured that medical schools are hunting for non-traditional students that can adapt and thrive in medical training.
In Canada for example, McMaster and the University of Calgary have historically been welcoming to mature students. The larger Canadian institutions, like UBC and the University of Toronto, accept much higher proportions of mature students than some of the smaller universities. If you are a mature student, your strengths lie in experiential learning, possibly even self-directed graduate studies, and knowing what it’s like to have a career. This makes you much more like your everyday patient than many other applicants. Mature students, however, should know that the algorithms to determine admissions don’t technically capture “life experience” in an obvious way. You need to focus on channeling your experience into stellar personal statements, CASPer writing (if you are applying to McMaster) and, if you are invited, interview skills that illustrate your integrity, experience, and adaptability. Like the non-traditional students, you must be able to explain why you want to be a doctor but with particular attention to why your current career is not satisfying. For example, maybe you have been working in policy development. You are starving for an opportunity to help people solve problems, want to work one-on-one with people and desire a chance for lifelong learning. Medicine could be a perfect match.
If you are an applicant with one of the above profiles, you have a chance to get accepted to medical school. However, you cannot just submit an application and hope for the best. Spending significant time thinking through your narrative, planning ways to strengthen your CV, and understanding more about what makes an ideal doctor is important. Even if you came from a high-ranking career in another discipline, you probably need support in planning your application. Time and effort up front can help you avoid the classic mistakes of mature and non-traditional students and improve your chances of acceptance.
If you have completed some or all of the required coursework for medical school that's a great first step, but how competitive are your grades? Have a look at our medical school chance predictor to see what your chances are of getting into medical school with your current GPA and MCAT score. Each school will have different required coursework for their program so make sure you check and take all necessary courses if you haven't already completed them. It's best to take these courses as close together as possible so everything stays fresh in your mind, especially if you also need to take or re-take the MCAT. If you find out that your GPA isn't overly competitive, it's probably a good idea to re-take some courses to boost your overall score. Review our blog to find out how to get into medical school with a low GPA.
Some medical schools are still accepting the old MCAT, while others will only accept a recent MCAT score so it's important to check the school's program requirements. If you took the MCAT years ago, it's likely that you'll have to re-write it to meet the school's requirements. Be sure you schedule your MCAT after you've completed your premed coursework as most of what will be on the MCAT will be covered in these courses.
Some non traditional applicants planned for the possibility of applying to medicine later on and have therefore obtained shadowing experience already. If you don't fall into that category, you'll need to work on gaining shadowing experience, not only to gain a better understanding of the profession, but also to help you truly determine if medicine is the right path for you. Our blog will give you tips on how to ask to shadow a doctor.
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About the author:
Dr. Ashley Faye White is currently a rural medicine resident at McMaster University and a senior admissions expert at BeMo. She has an M.D. from McMaster medical school and had navigated her way into med school as a non-traditional applicant.
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