Although it’s never too late to switch paths and pursue a career in medicine, there are some things you need to consider before taking the leap. Here’s everything you need to know about getting into medical school as a non-traditional student.
- Traditional vs Non-Traditional Students
- Understanding the Pathway Ahead of You
- Medical School Prerequisites
- GPA & MCAT
- Building a Compelling Narrative
Traditional vs Non-Traditional Students
Let’s start by defining some terminology.
When you think of a traditional medical school applicant, the image probably comes to mind of a bright-eyed premed in their early 20s. They probably started college immediately after high school, pursued their undergraduate degree in biology or chemistry, and did well in their classes. They participated in a variety of extracurriculars including research, volunteer work, and physician shadowing, achieved a decent score on their MCAT, and applied to medical school at the end of their third or fourth year of college. This is the “traditional” pathway to medical school and most medical school applicants you’ll encounter will more or less look like this.
On the other hand, non-traditional students are all of the other premeds that don’t fit into this typical mold. That being said, the specific definition of what constitutes a non-traditional student can vary depending on who you ask. Most people would probably agree that anyone who pursued a different career before deciding to switch to medicine would be non-traditional. On the other hand, some medical schools consider premed students who have taken any time off between undergrad and applying to medical school to be non-traditional. Regardless, what is important to understand is that there are many different types of students, each with their own unique pathways to medicine, that may be considered “non-traditional.”
You could be a premed doing a post-bacc program after college to improve your GPA before applying to medical school. You could be a software engineer in your 30s looking for a new career and a new challenge. Or you could even be like Michael Butler who recently graduated from medical school at the age of 62 after over 3 decades of working in engineering and finance.
Although it’s relatively straightforward to tell first-year college students what they should do to get into medical school, the pathway for non-traditional students is often less clear. Here’s what you need to consider.
Understanding the Pathway Ahead of You
First, you should thoroughly educate yourself about the path to becoming a doctor before deciding to pursue medicine. Although having a passion for helping others and a desire to study medicine is important for any aspiring doctor, there are numerous other factors that you need to consider.
The pathway to becoming a doctor is long and arduous. It requires substantial dedication and sacrifice, so it’s critical to understand what you’re committing to upfront. To become a doctor in the U.S., you must earn a bachelor’s degree and complete all the required medical school prerequisites. After that, you must complete 4 years of medical school followed by 3-7 years of residency. For those interested in more specialized fields of medicine, there are also various options for fellowships after residency which last 1-3 years. When you tally it up, it generally takes between 11 and 14 years to become a doctor in the United States.
In addition to the substantial time commitment, you also need to understand the financial implications of pursuing a career in medicine. Due to the rigors of medical education in the United States, most schools prohibit students from working during medical school. This means that a large percentage of students are reliant on loans to support them through their medical education.
In 2022, the average cost of medical school tuition was approximately $55,000 per year which equates to about $220,000 over four years of medical school. It should come as no surprise then that the average medical student graduates with approximately $242,000 of debt and ultimately pays between $365,000 and $440,000 for their student loans plus interest.
Medical School Prerequisites
Once you’ve decided that a career in medicine is right for you, the first step is to earn your bachelor’s degree and complete your medical school prerequisites. Most medical schools require at least 2 semesters of biology with lab, 2 semesters of general chemistry with lab, 2 semesters of organic chemistry with lab, 2 semesters of physics with lab, one semester of biochemistry, and 2 semesters of English. Some schools have additional requirements, however, so you’ll need to check the specific schools you’re interested in.
It should be noted that some of these courses come with their own prerequisites. For instance, with chemistry, you will often need to complete two semesters of general chemistry before you can take organic chemistry and then two semesters of organic chemistry before you can take biochemistry.
If you’re currently in college or are coming from another career that didn’t require you to get a bachelor’s degree, this is where you will need to start. You’ll need to complete all of these prerequisites as well as any other requirements necessary to earn your bachelor’s degree.
If you’ve already graduated with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, your best option is often a post-baccalaureate program – commonly referred to as a “post-bacc”. These are certificate programs that allow you to take the courses required for medical school. They can last anywhere from 9 months to 3 years depending on your speed and the prerequisites you’ve already completed. Some post-bacc programs are even affiliated with medical schools and offer the opportunity to apply for medical school linkage allowing you to start right after you complete your premed requirements.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that some schools have expiration dates on your prerequisite coursework. So if you earned your bachelor’s degree a decade ago, you may have to retake some of your classes.
GPA & MCAT
After figuring out which prerequisites to take, the next factors to consider are your “hard metrics” – namely your GPA and MCAT.
Although you’re more than just letters and numbers on a piece of paper, the reality is that your GPA and MCAT score are still incredibly important in medical school admissions. During the most recent 2022-2023 medical school application cycle, the average MD matriculant had a GPA of 3.75 and MCAT of 512 and the average DO matriculant had a GPA of 3.56 and MCAT of 505. The data are clear. On average, students with higher GPAs and MCAT scores matriculate into medical school at higher rates compared to students with lower GPAs and MCAT scores.
If you’re starting your prerequisites from scratch, you’ll need to make sure you do well and achieve the highest GPA possible. This is also a great time to dial in your study strategies so that by the time you take the MCAT you’ll be well prepared.
On the other hand, if you’ve already completed your bachelor’s degree but your GPA is not where it needs to be, you may want to consider retaking courses or completing a post-bacc program to bolster your application.
Regardless, it’s important to consider your GPA and MCAT when planning out your approach as a non-traditional student. Depending on your starting point, you may need to set aside additional time to improve these metrics – even if you’ve already completed all of your prerequisites.
Once you’ve considered your hard requirements for medical school, your next consideration should be your extracurriculars.
Depending on your experiences before pursuing medicine, you may already have a substantial leg up on traditional students. For instance, if you were working in the medical field as an EMT, paramedic, or nurse, you will have substantially more clinical experience than many other premeds.
Regardless of your background, your extracurriculars are a chance for you to demonstrate your commitment to medicine – which is incredibly important as a non-traditional student. Because you’re coming from another career path, you’ll need to demonstrate to admissions committees that you understand what it means to be a doctor and the rigors of training ahead of you.
Getting experience volunteering in the clinical setting, shadowing physicians, and performing research are key to demonstrating your dedication to medicine. These experiences will also help you build relationships with physicians and professors who may write you letters of recommendation when you ultimately apply to medical school.
Building a Compelling Narrative
This brings me to my last point which is to build a compelling narrative for your medical school application.
Although this is an important consideration for any medical school applicant, it’s arguably even more important for non-traditional students. As a non-traditional student, your unique pathway to medicine can help or hurt you depending on how you frame it.
On the one hand, admissions committees are used to seeing premeds who followed the traditional, cookie-cutter approach to their medical school application. Students like these are a dime a dozen which often makes it difficult for them to stand out. On the other hand, it’s far less common to see students who have lived completely different lives or pursued other interests before deciding on a career in medicine. Leaning into this aspect of your application can help you stand out from the crowd and show admissions committees that you bring unique experiences and a fresh perspective to the table.
That being said, coming from a non-traditional pathway can also hurt your chances. One of the reasons that medical school is so competitive is that schools want to make sure they’re choosing students who will be able to handle the academic rigors of medical school and residency. They want students who are committed and will see their goal of becoming a doctor through to the end.
If you already had a successful, high-paying career before medicine, medical schools may question your dedication. After all, you already chose a different career in the past, so you need to convey what’s changed and why medicine is the career for you.
Furthermore, medical school and residency are long and challenging, so having an easy fallback plan can make you seem like a flight risk. You need to show medical schools that you’re committed to medicine and won’t fall back on your previous career when the going gets tough.
These are important considerations when crafting your medical school application and there is no single, right way to approach them. Instead, how you frame your previous experiences will vary depending on you, your strengths, and your unique pathway to medicine. That being said, navigating the nuances of crafting a narrative that serves you instead of hurts you can be incredibly challenging. But at Med School Insiders, we’re here to help.
Our team of top-performing doctors has years of experience serving on actual admissions committees at top medical schools and will help you craft a compelling application and cohesive narrative that presents you in the best light possible. We know exactly what medical schools are looking for because we’ve been on the other side of the table.
We pride ourselves on a systematic and tailored approach that takes every student’s unique circumstances and starting point into account. You can rest assured that you’ll never receive a cookie-cutter plan. Whether you’re traditional or non-traditional, you’ll get a customized plan built just for you.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out our piece on How to Get into Medical School with a Low GPA.