June 15, 2020 3:59 PM

What to Know About Applying to Medical School as a “Nontraditional”

A University of Michigan Medical School student shares in-depth advice for applicants, ranging from the MCAT and prereqs to how they can highlight unique life experiences and career journeys.

Doctor holding child in surgical gear
Michelle Benedict exploring her surgical passions as a pre-med on a reconstructive surgery medical mission with Rotaplast in Chittagong, Bangladesh in 2019. Photo provided by Benedict.

A “nontraditional” medical school applicant.

What does that even mean? First, it implies that there’s a “traditional” medical school applicant, which is probably accurate. The vision we have in our minds of this “traditional” applicant is that they have come straight from undergrad with some form of a premedical-related science degree. Maybe we imagine they have other similarities in common, such as their race, gender and socioeconomic status.

Why this is important to deconstruct is that the essence of nontraditional can mean many different things, but it has one common root — diversity. Whether it’s demographic, psychographic or cognitive, this term can be found on almost every medical school landing page. And while there is an allure to being included in the new nontraditional group, there is also risk. A major theme nontraditional applicants will have to repeatedly address on the interview trail is essentially, “How do we know you’re really dedicated to medicine? And can you handle the rigors of it? And what will you bring to make our educational environment (and ultimately) medicine better for it?”

As a nontraditional student who successfully navigated the medical school admissions process, I hope to help you explore those questions to find your own answers and future successes.

If a medical school applicant is older than is typical among aspiring physicians, what advice would you give them? 

Your “nontraditional” background is an asset, not a liability.

You have had more time to cultivate your interests, demonstrate competence, and often have a stronger “sense of self” and real world resilience. If you have come to know deeply that medicine is your calling, you should absolutely pursue it.

Ask yourself, what is unique about my journey or perspective that directly relates to how I plan to move medicine and health care forward? Being able to articulate this uniqueness with “show rather than tell” examples, while simultaneously demonstrating your commitment to medicine, will make you a very compelling candidate. Nontraditional students sometimes feel self-conscious that they’re perceived as less competitive than those who have been on one track since the beginning. But life, medicine and self-identity are rarely linear, and so it’s important to see yourself not as a train switching tracks, but rather a train gaining speed and momentum, as one of my mentors put it so eloquently.

If you’ve been out of college for a while (or even if you haven’t), what advice do you have for how to prepare for the MCAT exam? 

Learn the content: Make sure you have taken as many of the prerequisite science classes as possible that the MCAT will test on, like physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and sociology. If you haven’t completed them all before the exam, like me, there are a plethora of resources to identify the highest yield subjects and teach yourself. The best resource is the MCAT prep material and sample tests created by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

Study the content: Studying comes after learning, but not all study methods are created equal. It can be easy to watch YouTube videos on what worked for one person but that can consume a lot of time trying different things with low outcomes. A pivotal turning point for me in my studying, and something that has saved me in medical school, was learning my own learning styles and then preparing with strategies most effective for me. There are free online assessments you can take or resources many college counselors can offer.

1. Prepare for the marathon: The MCAT is about eight hours long, so just knowing the content isn’t good enough; you need to build the mental endurance to recall information under a time-pressured environment for a sustained amount of time. It’s critical to take practice MCAT exams, ideally written by the real MCAT writers at the AAMC, and see how long you can test before your mind “hits a wall.”

Note what helps you regroup and keep going (like taking a quick stretch or deep breaths) and what is maybe hurting your physical endurance (perhaps a caffeine crash). This should be your own personal reflection that you keep tinkering with until you have optimized your body and mind for the endurance of the day, while executing as little “new inputs” as possible.

SEE ALSO: Gap Years Before Med School: How 4 Michigan Students Did It

2. Reflect and grow: Critical to getting better is auditing your own thinking. After each practice exam you should go question by question and ask, “if I got this right, what led me to the right answer?” and “if I got this wrong, what led me to the wrong answer?”. You’ll start to see your blind spots that need attention and also your natural intuitions. I still do this in medical school and learn new things about how I absorb different types of content one way vs. another. I turned this into a list of about 50 things I could mentally reference when I was stuck on a question.

You’ll also likely have moments when you get a less-than-amazing practice score and that can feel consuming, so it’s important to have what I call a “Bounce-back Strategy” when your mood tanks, which it will. Maybe you watch your favorite TEDTalk on Gratitude and go for a swim. Perhaps you buy yourself flowers and write a thank you letter to someone who has always supported you. Having a plan for the storm will help it pass sooner. A negative mindset is like infertile soil, it’s not very fruitful conditions for learning long term, in my experience.

How can you fulfill medical school prerequisites if you didn’t already do so during undergrad?

First, create a list of the courses you need based on the schools you want to apply to (it will be on their website). For most schools the science prereqs will be: one year physics, one year biology, one year inorganic chemistry, one year organic chemistry. A small minority will additionally require biochemistry and/or genetics. Many schools will allow you to apply as long as these courses are planned for completion before matriculation. The chemistry is sequential, which means if you have neither course that puts you at least two years out so factor this into your timing as probably the “critical path.”

"But life, medicine and self-identity are rarely linear, and so it’s important to see yourself not as a train switching tracks, but rather a train gaining speed and momentum...""
Michelle Benedict, University of Michigan Medical Student

Then you need to find these courses. Some people find a post baccalaureate program that will hit all these requirements. If you work full-time like I did, though, and can’t enroll in a full-time postbac program, you can “collect” these classes from colleges in your area. Depending on your location, you may have an undergraduate institution close by that will allow you to enroll as some type of “lifelong learner” to take the courses there without formal degree plans from their institution.

Another option, and what I did, is to find the courses scattered around different junior colleges in the area. This was the only way for me to meet the requirements by taking them around my full-time work schedule (early in the morning, late at night, on weekends). Some people worry that will “look bad” but when asked on the interview trail, it was a source of pride for me to explain that if I had to manage multiple schedules and travel hundreds of miles at odd hours to take these courses to pursue my medical dreams then that was exactly what I was going to do. I think most schools ended up seeing it as proof of commitment.

Where can they find assistance and guidance during the medical school application process? 

First, the AAMC is the absolute best resource and starting place to create a list of critical deliverables for your primary application, such as your undergrad transcripts, MCAT scores, personal statement, extracurricular activities and letters of recommendations, as well as dates when the primary application, secondary application, MCAT/CASPR, interview timeframes and commit dates are due.

Second, having a pre-health advisor and mentors are key for maximizing your responses. If you don’t have a pre-health advisor like I didn’t, you can request one from National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions (volunteer.advisor@naahp.org) and get matched with an advisor who has volunteered to help nontraditional students. My advisor, Gina Camello at the University of Southern California, was critical in helping me wrap my head around the process, requirements and refining my personal statement through many, many drafts (Thank you, Gina!). Other mentors who were critical came from my involvement with the American Medical Women’s Association. So many physicians who charted this path before me have been so generous with their time and wisdom on how to be successful in getting into medical school and beyond.

What should you keep in mind about the medical school application timeline? 

It seems like a long time, but there’s much to do and gather. The best thing you can do is get organized and know what needs to be completed by when and give yourself lots of buffer time. Things like getting official transcripts sent can take much longer than you anticipate. If you’re going to ask for letters of recommendations from specific individuals, give them enough time and information to be successful in helping you. I studied for the MCAT for eight months. It took six months of drafts before my personal statement was succinct enough to be worthy of application, and I had considered myself a prolific writer before this.

A high quality application takes a lot of time and introspection so make sure you get highly organized and give yourself enough time to complete things because there’s no shortage of stories of people who dropped out of the application process because it was coming down to the wire for submitting items, and the pressure was too much.

What can you do to highlight the ways in which your life experiences make you a strong candidate for medical school? 

I think it’s important to find out what about your life experience is unique, what’s your “differentiator,” and how does that apply to what your vision is for your future medical career.

Admissions teams highlight repeatedly that applicants who really know themselves on this level and can “show don’t tell” stand out as the most serious candidates. This means having specific life stories and examples ready that can back up the points you want to illustrate. Anyone can say “yes, I am resilient,” but having a real world scenario where you proved that will be taken much more seriously. If you are a nontraditional candidate, by linear time definition alone, you may have an advantage in having had more opportunities to attain these skills and experiences.

What should you consider when deciding whether medical school would be worthwhile, and how should time, family and financial commitments play into your evaluation of whether the medical career path is a viable option? 

There’s a common quote in medicine that if you can see yourself being happy doing anything else, you should do that instead. I completely agree.

Medical school is hard: mentally, physically, emotionally. But there is a Nietsche quote that, “He who has a why […] can bear almost any how.” And I think this is true for medicine. Your “why” has to be so strong to be able to keep you going through a profession that requires so much from you. For a while I had this dream but thought I was “too late” or “too old now.” I was reminded by Earl Nightingale that time passes anyway, you may as well be doing what you love. I knew that at the end of my life if I didn’t try I would deeply regret it because I know I have something very important to contribute to medicine. I also was held back for a while thinking that committing to medicine would mean sacrificing family and going into financial debt. However, so many mentors (especially through the American Medical Women’s Association) reinforced that many successful physicians also have rich family lives.

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My calling for medicine had grown so loud that when I was finally ready to apply I was willing to give up any amount of time, family or money to see this through. As it turns out, you don’t have to be this extreme. I’ve learned that life is a great balancing act and with the right strategies, planning and preparation you can have all the things!

How can you explain to admissions officers why you decided to enter medical school later, and what can you do to illustrate the career journey that brought you to this point?

There are many jobs that “help people” so that is not enough of a reason for any admissions officer to feel confident about a candidate. You need to articulate specifically why you want to be a physician vs. another role.

This is why it’s important to spend some volunteer time shadowing or on medical missions so you can really be sure this life is for you. A good format to answer “why medicine” in conversation or your personal statement that I was exposed to is to break it down into: 1. When your interest was piqued about medicine; 2. The further development of that interest; 3. Your final commitment point.

When you apply later in life, admissions teams want to make sure you’ve given this tremendous thought and that your diverse life experiences have informed the natural culmination to this decision.

How can you get relevant recommendation letters if it’s been a while since college?

First, applicants should know what the requirements are from different schools because some will want science professors, some will want non-science, etc. These are key to know and identify as early as possible, especially if you will need to (re)build these relationships.

If you have spent a majority of your time in a professional career or other venture, you should absolutely consider getting letters from people in these spheres. I had letters that covered career, volunteer work, science instructors and longtime mentors. If you have been out of school for a while and your letters are as diverse as your experience, that’s also okay! I would also try to identify people who can speak to a range of your attributes that you’d like to demonstrate. Maybe your director at work can speak to your innovative qualities, your volunteer manager can reflect on your ability to execute, your science teacher can reflect (beyond your science aptitude) on your teamwork with classmates, etc.

What types of nontraditional medical school applicants tend to be especially competitive? 

In my humble opinion from observing the process, what is competitive to one school is a liability for another. What that means is that certain schools want to be known for certain values and have curriculum, opportunities and faculty who represent those interests. The most important thing is fit, not to win them all. For example, with my technology background and vision for the future of technology/medicine, not all medical schools valued or had support for that direction and that’s okay. For me, good “fit” meant being at an institution that valued diversity, inclusion and pioneering new health technology, which is exactly what I found at the University of Michigan. Other schools may have seen my background and thought “what can we offer someone who is passionate about technology if we don’t really invest in that for our students or faculty?”.

A great way to know if a school is going to want to invest in you and the uniqueness you bring is to do research on the projects their faculty are involved in because I think it shows what the institution values. If your dreams are surgical and a majority of their projects are mostly around primary care, no matter how eloquently you describe being inspired by the graceful gesticulations of reconstructive surgery, it may not be a match.

The other positive tip about researching projects at the institution is that perhaps you find a lab or team you want to work with if accepted, and at the interview you can speak more concretely about that particular school and your plans. That shows admissions that you will hit the ground running if admitted and have done research about their school that makes them feel that their institution is really special to you and not just a “copy, paste, change name, someone please accept me.” You are going to spend the next four plus years at this institution so it’s very important that you have done enough research about the school to know that you actually want to go and could be successful and contribute there.

What kinds of pre-med life experiences are especially attractive to medical schools?

Again, sort of depends on the school and what they value. Forward-thinking, tech-inclined schools will be excited about your passion for and experience with new technology or methods. Rural schools may be more impressed with your experience on topics that affect their patient populations more severely, like health care access or perhaps substance abuse. It can be a good idea to see what kinds of things the school gets research funding for because that may tell you what traits they care most about.

SEE ALSO: Reality Checks: Michigan Medical School Students Open Up

As a general blanket statement, most schools will highlight research, diversity and service. I think ultimately, though, the pre-med life experiences that ends up being most attractive are ones that are: unique (so you will have a different perspective to share), altruistic (so you are internally, mission driven) and authentic (which shows you are introspective and resilient).