Is It Too Late to Go to Medical School? The Benefits (and Challenges) of Being a Nontraditional Applicant

If you’ve wondered whether you have a shot at enrolling in medical school after you’ve been out of college for an extended time, learn from a Noodle Expert why you may be just the type of candidate medical schools are looking for today.

As a medical school admissions counselor, one of the most common concerns I hear from older, nontraditional medical school applicants is the fear that their application will not be taken as seriously by medical schools as those of their younger counterparts who entered immediately after completing their undergraduate studies. This misperception could not be further from the truth.

The Strengths of Nontraditional Applicants

Several medical school admissions committee members we spoke to pointed out a recent trend: Medical schools actually now prefer nontraditional applicants — that is, those who have either taken a few years off between their undergraduate studies and medical school or who have changed careers in order to pursue medicine.

The Benefits of Maturity and Experience

Many of these same admissions officers commented that nontraditional students bring an unparalleled level of maturity and perspective to an incoming medical school class, enriching the medical education of their younger peers. Nontraditional applicants have diverse life experiences to draw from and often have compelling reasons for leaving successful careers to pursue medical education. These two factors were cited as major advantages by admissions committee members. Moreover, many committee members appreciated the fact that a higher percentage of nontraditional students enter primary care, an area of medicine that currently has the greatest shortage of doctors.

Recently, I’ve also noticed that the nontraditional applicants I work with land a far higher number of medical school interviews than their traditional peers. Admissions committees in these professional programs want to build a varied incoming class, and diversity of life experience and perspective are attributes they value highly. In our experience, the higher-ranked the medical school, the more likely it is to favor nontraditional applicants who have done something substantial or interesting with their lives prior to applying.

The Power of Time in the Workplace

One nontraditional applicant I worked with was Alice. She had studied biomedical engineering as an undergraduate and completed her premed requirements, but was still unsure whether to pursue medical research or enter medical school. Alice had taken a demanding course load in college and graduated with a lower GPA than many medical school applicants from her class. While she had a very high MCAT score, she struggled to gain admission to an allopathic (or M.D.) medical school. She decided to take a few years off after college to work as a research scientist at Amgen, where she put her laboratory and research background to good use. Alice later reapplied to medical school after working for a few years and was accepted to several programs, many of which expressed interest in her time at Amgen, as well as her maturity and perspective.

The Strength of a Career Change

Jaron came to me as a successful corporate attorney in his 30’s, with an established career and a family to support. He had tired of the grind of corporate law and had recently begun volunteering at a local emergency room once a week. Jaron said he had never felt as alive as when watching doctors at work in the ER, and that he had finally found his true calling. He ended up receiving a large number of interviews from top medical schools that were impressed by his successful career as a lawyer and his genuine passion for pursuing medicine. He was ultimately accepted to several top medical schools, and there’s no question that his previous career as a corporate attorney coupled with his passion for this new path made him stand out from the applicant pool.

The Challenges for Nontraditional Applicants

Of course, with opportunities also come some difficulties. Medical schools may look favorably upon nontraditional applicants, but there are still hurdles to overcome that traditional applicants do not face.

Prerequisites

To start with, many nontraditional applicants have not completed all of the required premed courses, including a year each of chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and biology. Many of the students I work with complete a post-baccalaureate program in order to fulfill these requirements. I also recommend that nontraditional applicants continue to show an interest in medicine through medically-related volunteer work in hospitals or clinics while they are preparing to apply to medical school.

Perception

Nontraditional applicants, particularly those who are changing careers for the third or fourth time, may also face the perception that they are not fully committed to a career in medicine. These concerns must be compellingly addressed in the applicant’s personal statement, and, more importantly, during the interviews.

Finances

A further complication that many nontraditional applicants face is how to finance a medical school education while also supporting a family. Most medical school students accrue substantial debt while pursuing their education. Moreover, if a nontraditional student is married, medical schools will expect the student’s spouse to contribute financially to tuition and expenses. Students — and spouses — need to be fully committed to making a range of sacrifices when embarking on a career in medicine. That said, the ROI of medical school usually makes the early financial sacrifices worthwhile.

A medical school education requires serious commitment, both financially and personally. A career as a physician isn’t one to pursue lightly — but the prospects for candidates who are applying to medical school after a period away from college have never been better.

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