Applying as a non-traditional medical school applicant can feel intimidating, but medicine is a profession that rewards mature, thoughtful, and independent people. Whether you're applying to the hardest or easiest medical schools to get into, your application as a mature or non-traditional student can not only succeed but excel in some really unique and meaningful ways. In this blog, we'll cover the basics of getting in as a non-traditional medical school applicant and offer some tips on how to utilize your uniqueness to make your application stand out.


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What is a Non Traditional Medical School Applicant?

We can start by defining "traditional" and then elaborating on the non-traditional. When it comes to how long it takes to become a doctor, in most cases, a traditional medical school applicant is simply a student who has taken the most direct path to medicine: high school to university to medical school, with essentially no space between these stages. Traditional applicants generally don't take breaks except for, maybe, a gap year between finishing their undergraduate degree and beginning medical school. It's the classic idea of the student who knows what they want to do and seeks it out with virtually no distraction or deviation. As a result, traditional medical school applicants skew toward the younger side, anywhere from 20 to 24 years of age in most cases. 

Traditional applicants also decide early on that their chosen path is medicine, and plan both their academic and extracurricular activities around this goal. For the most keenly focused traditional applicants, their time as an undergraduate is viewed almost entirely as preparation for medical school, choosing a science-heavy or even pre-med degree program and elective courses that best prepare them for a DO or MD program. 

Conversely, a non-traditional medical school applicant has followed basically any other path except this one. Some medical schools consider applicants to be non-traditional simply if they've taken 2 or more years off between undergrad and med school instead of the near-standard 1 gap year. But there's a wide range of non-traditional paths to medicine, and so many types of non-traditional applicants. These include mature (i.e., older than 25 or so) applicants, applicants with science backgrounds who have pursued non-medical fields, and even applicants without science backgrounds entirely. 

Some non-traditional medical students have changed careers, sometimes in their 30s, 40s, or even 50s. Non-traditional applicants in this category have often completed other undergraduate and even graduate studies, or have had a career in a non-medical profession, and only later have decided to become a physician. The point really is that the term non-traditional is a pretty big umbrella, and covers a huge variety of medical school applicants, even if it doesn't apply to the majority of applicants. It's important to understand how the basic categories of non-traditional applicants are viewed, and how their differences can be utilized as strengths in making application materials like your medical school personal statement stand out.

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3 Types of Non-Traditional Medical School Applicants

Although there will be some especially unique cases that fall outside this schema, for the most part, there are three main categories of non-traditional medical school applicants: Arts & Humanities or Non-Science Applicants; Non-Traditional Applicants with Science Degrees; and Mature Applicants.

Arts & Humanities Medical School Applicants

Although they’re often viewed as mutually exclusive, there is a long history of overlap between the humanities and medicine. William Carlos Williams, one of the towering figures of early Modernist poetry, was a practicing physician his entire life, and wrote many of his drafts and notes on his prescription pad. The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov used his earnings as a writer to fund his attendance of medical school, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—famous for the Sherlock Holmes novels—published dozens of papers on medicine throughout his life as well. You don't have to be a hall-of-fame novelist to make the switch to medicine though—you simply need to be a careful planner.

Many non-traditional applicants coming from an arts & humanities background have had their eye on a career in medicine from the beginning of their university studies, and simply chose to follow a non-premed undergraduate education. If you’re in this category, you likely slotted in science courses alongside your political science, philosophy, or economics courses so that you met the medical school pre-requisite courses needed by most schools, and simultaneously prepared to get a good MCAT score

Ideally, you would have taken the MCAT in second year and re-written it again if needed. Your background in reading and analysis—whether literary texts or more theoretical material—will greatly help you in the MCAT's Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section in particular. You'll still want to utilize a good MCAT CARS strategy while studying, which would include plenty of CARS practice questions, but the content on this part of the test will for the most part be familiar and intuitive thanks you your humanities background. 

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, as well as adding important perspective to discussion and group work. Your arts and science training allows you to think broadly and systematically, and rely on first principles to understand—not just memorize—the material. You are, however, likely new to concepts like ‘problem-based learning’ but can adapt over time.

Regardless of how well you may have integrated science coursework during your largely non-scientific undergrad years, you still stand a chance at getting into medical school as a non-traditional applicant. It may take some extra work, but as we’ll discuss in a moment, it’s not too daunting if your passion is strong.

Tips for how to get into medical school as a non-traditional applicant:

Non-Traditional Students with Science Degrees

Deciding to pursue medicine near the end of an undergraduate science degree is common to the point of making this category of non-traditional applicant nearly traditional. Many students, after years of studying a science, find the prospects of a career in medicine attractive and meaningful. If this is you, you should start by asking yourself a critically important question: why do you want to be a doctor? 

Your answer to this, whether in preparation for a medical school interview question or to simply understand yourself better, must be convincing, purposeful, and detailed. It's an 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 when you’re feeling battered by your MCAT study schedule, you need to truly know why you’re putting yourself through the trouble. 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. 

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If you’re coming from a purely academic science background, your medical school resume may not clearly indicate 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 assistant opportunities that demonstrate empathy, critical thinking, ability to learn in a clinical setting, and professionalism. In addition to the right type of volunteering, you should also find out exactly how many volunteering hours for medical school you should have. Because your prior academic work may not scream “destined for medicine” to admissions committees, it’s vital to utilize these other application materials to communicate that idea as best you can.

You should not, however, focus all of your energy on trying to be like traditional students. Your individual story and path to medicine 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-traditional medical school students varies from year to year, you can rest assured that medical schools are indeed hunting for non-traditional students that can adapt and thrive in medical training. Having a strong science background, even if it’s not explicitly oriented toward medicine, can be very helpful in this regard, and is often viewed with great interest by admissions committees.

Mature Students

Students applying to medical school after a career change, or after the age of 30 or 40, can often feel uniquely out of place. As the AAMC notes, in the last decade only 1143 students over the age of 40 matriculated to U.S. medical schools, comprising just 0.3% of the total 375,188 total matriculants. As such, non-traditional students in the "mature" category are often the only such students in their cohort, and this can be isolating and anxiety-inducing—at first.

What mature applicants have on their side is experience. If you're 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, AMCAS work and activities section, medical school secondary essays, and, if you’re invited, interview skills to illustrate your integrity, experience, and adaptability. 

Like the other types of non-traditional students, you must be able to explain why you want to be a doctor, but in your case particular attention must be paid to why your current career is not satisfying. For example, maybe you’ve been working in policy development and are starving for an opportunity to help people more directly. Or perhaps years of cubicle life have exposed a desire to work face-to-face with people, or into a career that demands lifelong learning. In any of these cases, medicine could be a perfect match, and it’s imperative that you utilize all the non-quantitative aspects of your application to convey this sense of purpose.

Are you searching to the right school as a non-traditional applicant? Check out how MSAR can help:

How Can I Get Accepted as a Non-Traditional Applicant?

If you’re an applicant with one of the above profiles, you absolutely 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 AMCAS, AACOMAS, TMDSAS, or OMSAS applications, 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.

In addition to the more malleable aspects of your application, it’s important to consider some important aspects of the more concrete elements like coursework, exams, and shadowing/volunteering.

Coursework

You obviously can't travel back in time to change your undergraduate coursework, but if you're not quite out of your BA or BSc program, it's imperative to add in courses from content areas relevant to medicine. Some medical schools have prerequisite courses, of course, and in that case you should aim to take those specific courses. The AAMC's MSAR database is a fantastic resource for finding out admissions criteria such as prereqs. Many schools will choose to present lists like this in terms of recommended coursework rather than hard requirements, but if you're coming from a non-traditional path you'll want to check every "recommended" box that you can to increase your chances of getting an interview. 

As a mature student, a student from a non-science background, or simply someone who's taken more than a single gap year before applying, it may be good to take courses in recommended content areas so long as you can do well in them. Having recent Bs or Cs on your academic record would be much worse than a high GPA with some content blind spots. In any case, if you need to take additional courses, make sure they're worth the time and effort for the specific schools to which you plan to apply. Additionally, if you have taken medical school prereqs more than a few years ago you’ll want to check their expiration date. Some schools don’t accept prerequisites from more than 5 years prior to application.

If you've completed some or all of the required coursework for medical school that's a great first step, but how competitive are your grades? Our medical school chance predictor can help you determine your chances 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. If you find out that your GPA isn't overly competitive, it's probably a good idea to boost it by retaking some courses if you can. If for any reason you're stuck with a lower GPA and can't do anything about it before applying, consider looking into strategies for getting into medical school with a low GPA. 

MCAT

If you’re a mature student who took the MCAT before the test was reformatted in 2015, you’ll definitely want to take it again. If you’ve taken it since then, consider how your MCAT score fits into the overall strength of your application. For instance, if your MCAT performance is on the lower end of your desired schools’ median accepted scores, you should definitely consider retaking it, even if your GPA is strong. Similarly, if your GPA is lackluster it may benefit you to work with an MCAT tutor and retake the test to offset, to some small extent, your GPA. There aren’t many hard rules for MCAT retesting, but in general retesting should be seen as a drastic decision, and unless your current score is especially low or your GPA is middling, you should probably avoid it.

On the other hand, if you haven’t taken the MCAT at all yet, spend as much time possible crafting a MCAT study plan, scheduling your test date optimally and chomping through as many practice questions on the physics, biology, and CARS sections as possible. If you feel your non-traditional application has some weak spots, having a stellar MCAT score can go a long way toward allaying admissions committees’ concerns, so if you’re taking it for the first time, do everything you can to knock it out of the park.

Check out our failproof MCAT CARS strategy:

Shadowing Experience

Shadowing is one of the most beneficial activities you can undertake prior to medical school. Shadowing a physician not only shows to admissions committees that you're committed and interested in the profession, but it can, and should, help you better understand the day-to-day realities of being a doctor. If you haven't shadowed a someone, spend some time learning how to ask to shadow a doctor. It's not very complicated, and most doctors have taken on a shadow at least once before, but it's good to perfect your approach and know what you're in for during your day/s.

Some non traditional applicants have planned for the possibility of applying to medicine later on, and have therefore obtained shadowing experience already. This is great, and even if it's been a few years, most admissions committees will still value your having undertaken the experience. That being said, if your shadowing experiences were more than 3 or 4 years ago, you may want to arrange more shadowing before applying to show continued engagement and interest. Keep in mind that traditional applicants will have undergone shadowing very recently, and so you want to appear as currently engaged with the field as they are, at least to the best of your ability.

Medically-Relevant Extracurriculars

Regardless of which type non-traditional applicant you are, your extracurriculars are hugely important. Clinical experience is of course the gold standard here, with volunteering in medically-oriented roles like hospice care, retirement homes, or other explicitly medical settings being best. Other forms of community service can work very well too though, like volunteering in shelters, food banks, and even adoption centers if you're interested in pediatrics. Teaching in any capacity can be helpful too, and while it's best if your TA or other roles were in science classes, having a successful record in any pedagogical role is great to include on your application.  

Reference Letters

Lastly, many non-traditional students wonder who should be their referees for reference letters. Especially if you’re a mature student who’s been away from the classroom for more than 5 years, if may feel difficult to determine who you should ask to write for you. However, most medical schools require references based on your circumstances. You should begin by reaching out to the schools to which you’re applying and ask what kind of references they prefer. For example, if you are still in undergrad, you will need to submit letters from faculty. If you’re coming from the military, med schools will most likely ask your commanding officer for a reference. If you’ve been in the workforce for years, a letter from a supervisor is best, and so on. The point is that these letters are meant to reflect your life and experiences up to date as best as possible, so chasing down an instructor you had 20 years ago isn’t necessary.

Conclusion

Although your road to medicine is windier than the average traditional medical school applicant, applying as a mature student, coming from a non-science background, or simply changing to pursue medicine at the last minute of your undergrad years is not a roadblock. Rather, you should feel confident that your uniqueness, given the right preparation and supporting materials, is an asset. And above all else, let your passion and excitement motivate you! Pursuing a career in medicine is challenging in any context, but especially so if you’ve been moving in a different direction for a while prior. Focus on why you want to do this, and use that emotional engagement to get through whatever additional steps you need to take. 

FAQs

1. Are there specific medical schools that are explicitly friendlier to non-traditional applicants?

Not so much in the U.S., though schools in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico are sometimes considered friendlier to non-traditional applicants. In Canada, however, McMaster and the University of Calgary have historically welcomed mature students, as well as the bigger institutions like UBC and the University of Toronto

2. Is there an age cutoff for mature students?

Nope! At least not explicitly or publicly. People in their 60s have attended medical school—it’s really about how strong your application is and how clearly you can explain your desire to become a medical professional. On the other hand, an M.D. isn’t the end of the road for becoming a doctor, and residencies can range from 3 years to nearly a decade in some cases. Be realistic with your energy levels and commitment to undertaking such a huge shift in career if you’re approaching your golden years, but by all means don’t think of your age as a barrier, no matter what it is. It just means you may have to work harder.

3. Is the MCAT more important than GPA for non-traditional students?

No, and in fact the two are considered in conjunction with one another in many cases. In general, low MCAT scores and low GPAs are each usually a dealbreaker for admissions committees, but if either one is on the edge of acceptability, doing incredibly well in the other can sometimes help. In short, do as well as you can in both regards and don’t count on one to offset the other.

4. I took the MCAT before the new version was introduced, do I need to retake it before applying to medical school?

Yes! Absolutely. Since the test changed significantly since then most, if not all, medical schools won’t consider scores from the old test. 

5. My undergraduate degree isn’t in a science and I don’t have much science coursework. Can I still get into medical school?

It’s possible but, sadly, unlikely. Medicine is rooted in sciences, biology foremost among them, so if this is your situation then you’ll want to find out the most important prereqs or recommended courses for your designated schools and perform well in them. This may be difficult, and if you’ve been out of school for a while it may be downright painful to get back into the swing of things. But medical school will, after all, require even more coursework in the sciences, so if you can’t pass intro to biochemistry you won’t really have a shot at performing well in med school—and admissions committees will likely not invite you to try. The bottom line is that you need a significant understanding of sciences to do well as a medical professional, so as long as you can show this—even with a BFA in Renaissance Drama—you stand a great shot of getting in.

6. My letters of recommendation are written by non-science faculty. Is this a problem?

Far more important than the vocation of the person writing your letter is their context in your life. Most schools want letters from people who can attest to your experience and abilities in the present, and while that maybe an instructor in the sciences it is ultimately secondary to the recentness of your relationship. 

7. Are certain types of non-traditional medical school applicants more competitive than others?

Generally, no. The particularities of each student matter far more than broad categorical generalizations. For instance, a student with lots of chemistry and biology experience, but with abysmal MCAT scores, will likely fare worse than a student with a degree in jazz and an impeccable GPA and MCAT. As always, focus on your strengths and minimize your weaknesses, and try to avoid psyching yourself out needlessly. So many variables and factors go into admissions decisions that, past a certain point, you have to simply put your best foot forward and create a stellar application. 

8. Is clinical experience more important than shadowing experience for non-traditional applicants?

In general no, but if you’ve already got some shadowing hours on your application then consider at least trying to arrange some clinical time if possible to present a more diverse and balanced application. Volunteering is great for this, especially as a hospice or EMT volunteer. Both of these options are fairly accessible to non-traditional applicants with little to no medical background, and show a clear commitment to helping others in sometimes extremely difficult situations. Your total amount of shadowing hours for medical school matters, but the quality of shadowing and volunteering experiences matters far more. 

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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