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.
Some non-traditional 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. 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.
In 2013, 18 of the 288 students accepted to the University of British Columbia’s medical school were non-science, non-engineering, and non-public health. At McMaster for the Class of 2017, 26 students of the 206 accepted students had non-traditional academic backgrounds. These numbers vary year to year, but you can be assured that medical schools are hunting for non-traditional students that can adapt and thrive in medical training.
Mature students may be traditional or non-traditional.
Whichever field you’ve come from, you are an adult learner. At the University of British Colombia, 44 percent of the 2013 entering class was over 24. At McMaster University, approximately nine percent of the Class of 2017 was over 26 years old. McMaster and the University of Calgary have historically been more welcoming to mature students, but the larger Canadian institutions, like UBC and the University of Toronto, accept much higher proportions of mature students. 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 channelling 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 these 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.
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.
To your success,