Getting into med school is tough. But what are your chances like if you’re a nontraditional applicant? We’ll walk you through everything you need to know about applying to med school as a nontraditional applicant and tips to help you get accepted.
Getting accepted into medical school is a long and difficult journey. The road to medical school for nontraditional applicants can be even more daunting. After all, if less than half of all medical school applicants successfully matriculate, is it worth it for nontraditional applicants to overcome certain shortcomings and apply?
If you’re a nontraditional medical school applicant, the odds are not stacked against you. Don’t let your nontraditional background stop you from applying to medical school—you can bridge the gap with hard work and preparation. Read on to learn more!
You are considered a nontraditional medical applicant if you didn’t follow the traditional path that leads to becoming a doctor. Traditional medical applicants generally know early on that they want to be doctors and plan accordingly.
Traditional applicants take undergraduate science coursework, participate in the right extracurricular activities, and prepare for the MCAT. In short, traditional applicants take the most direct path to medical school, without deviation, except those who take a gap year between university and med school.
A nontraditional medical applicant is anyone who has followed any other path to medical school. Here are the most common qualities of a nontraditional student:
The nontraditional path to med school can even give you an advantage; read on to learn how admissions committees will view you as an applicant.
You may be concerned that applying to med school as a nontraditional applicant puts you at a disadvantage. Compared to traditional applicants who check all the boxes, this is a legitimate concern. However, there are benefits and challenges to being a nontraditional medical applicant, and it’s crucial to assess them objectively to increase your chances of acceptance.
There are numerous benefits to being a nontraditional med school applicant.
Admissions committees review candidates holistically. While grades and test scores are essential, they do not measure other selection factors. Other factors show who you are, your achievements outside the classroom, the impact you’ve had on your community, and your potential as a future leader in healthcare.
A unique background sets you apart from other candidates. Due to the competitive nature of GPAs and MCAT scores, admissions officers evaluate other selection factors such as
As a nontraditional applicant, you benefit from your well-rounded background. You can use your background to appeal to admissions officers. Think about transferable skills and elaborate upon them.
For example, if you spent a year abroad teaching English in a refugee shelter, you could use this experience to demonstrate your:
These are all desirable qualities of a leading physician.
If you are older than the average entering class, you benefit from more experience. Reframe your professional, academic, and extracurricular achievements to demonstrate how they make you a strong medical candidate.
For example, perhaps you were a non-profit social worker advocating for vulnerable children. You can discuss your experiences with children and how they led to you wanting to become a pediatrician.
As an undergrad, Pierre-Wright majored in English literature and used her skills to teach poetry and work with people affected by Hurricane Katrina. This transformative experience led to her passion for healthcare. Her story is just one example of how medicine can benefit from practitioners who come from all walks of life.
As a nontraditional medical applicant, you will diversify the profession. Medical schools are always trying to diversify their class with students from different backgrounds, such as:
Take a look at Harvard Medical School’s diversity statement:
“Harvard Medical School is committed to convening and nurturing a diverse community of individuals dedicated to promoting excellence and leadership in medicine and science through education, research, clinical care and service. Our unique perspectives, talents, experiences and contributions as HMS students, trainees, faculty, staff and administrators are the foundation and drivers of our excellence.”
Your nontraditional path adds diversity and brings valuable perspectives to the program. It’s important to analyze your experiences and explain how they prepared you for med school.
Despite the advantages, you must be aware of the challenges you may face in the admissions process.
As a nontraditional applicant, you might be missing some med school core requirements. You will need to take the MCAT: most schools have a minimum required MCAT score. Aim to get the highest score possible to gain a competitive edge over other candidates.
Most medical schools also require a minimum GPA. Strive to achieve the highest GPA possible. Many medical schools also require completing science-related prerequisites.
Every school has its own specific guidelines. To ensure you’re on the right track to fill gaps in your education or experience, you can browse different medical schools’ websites and make a list of admissions requirements for every program to which you’d like to apply.
These experiences are usually hands-on training and professional opportunities such as physician shadowing, clinical experience, or research. It’s important to identify these gaps and commit to gaining these experiences.
If you want to get an idea of your med school admissions chances as nontraditional medical applicant, use our med school chance predictor tool below!
Now that you know the benefits and challenges you face, there are actionable steps you can take to maximize your chances of getting accepted to the medical school of your dreams.
Every medical school has specific course requirements regarding prerequisites, including lab work. For example, you may need to take several classes in areas like:
Please carefully review medical school websites to ensure you follow the requirements.
You will need to take the MCAT (or retake it to get a higher score). You should consider the following factors of success to maximize your score:
The MCAT is one of the most important parts of your med school application.
The strongest applicants have a combination of medical-related experiences. Generally, these experiences include:
It is imperative to gain relevant experiences and network with supervisors, colleagues, and peers. This will also help you to secure strong letters of recommendation.
It’s vital to secure strong letters of recommendation for your application. These should come from people who know you and your work thoroughly and can vouch for your excellent candidacy as a medical student. Good recommenders include:
Letters of recommendation showcase your best qualities, accomplishments, and skills, so it’s important to be mindful of who you ask to be your letter writers. It can be challenging to get nontraditional medical student letters of recommendation from professors (especially if you’ve been out of school for a long time), so evaluate what schools want from you first.
Your greatest asset as a nontraditional applicant is your unique background. You can showcase your background in your application, like in the personal statement and AMCAS work and activities section. Reflect on your diverse experiences, then write compelling narratives about how they will be useful in medicine.
Because you are a nontraditional medical applicant, reaching out to admissions consultants for nontraditional students can help you receive guidance and feedback throughout the application process. A polished application shows you’re a competitive applicant. Because your traditional peers had more time to prepare, submitting refined applications is imperative.
Applying to med school as a nontraditional applicant means you'll write a nontraditional personal statement. Med school applications require these statements so admissions committees can understand why you want to become a physician.
As a nontraditional applicant, your personal statement won't look like those of students who've known they wanted to become doctors their entire lives. However, you can add a unique spin to your essay using your background. Your personal statement should:
If you're a mature applicant, Dr. Demicha Rankin, an associate dean for admissions at Ohio State University College of Medicine, says not to let anxiety stop you from applying. "If that's your dream, there's no point in putting it on hold. Life is about helping others (and) trying to make a difference. And if there is a void in your current profession, I would say go for it,” she said.
Although you may feel disadvantaged as a nontraditional med school student, your experiences make your story even more unique. Ensure you highlight your love for medicine and what inspired you to change your path, demonstrate you have the skills and qualities to handle med school's rigorous curriculum, and that you're committed to your new path.
All medical schools accept students with backgrounds considered nontraditional. However, some schools are more open to nontraditional applicants than others.
For example, John Hopkins School of Medicine boasts a low 7% acceptance rate, but recent data shows that 14% of the matriculants were nontraditional applicants.
The school states that these applicants "have distinguished themselves further by demonstrating leadership qualities, a commitment to service, a passion for medicine and a range of additional personal qualities that are indicative of successful students and physicians." JHU is one of the best medical schools for nontraditional students.
Nontraditional medical student success stories aren't difficult to come by. For example, Alex was admitted to Stanford University School of Medicine after graduating college and working in technology for two years. Even with little clinical and research experience, he leaned into his passions and related them to the medical field, leading to his acceptance.
Source: Stanford Medical School
Michelle Benedict, a nontraditional medical student at UMichigan Medical School, urges you to remember that your background is an asset. She understands some students may feel that they're perceived as less competitive.
"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," she said. Remember, your nontraditional status can add value and differentiation to the schools you want to attend.
To apply as a nontraditional medical school applicant, you will follow the same application procedures as traditional applicants. There are three pathways:
If you want to become an MD, apply to allopathic schools. Allopathic schools make up the majority of medical schools in the United States. If you want to become a DO, apply to osteopathic schools. Applying to medical school for nontraditional applicants is essentially the same as their traditional peers.
If you still have questions about what being a nontraditional applicant means for you, these FAQs will provide the answers.
Getting into medical school can be tough. Focus on building a competitive application to boost your chances. Polishing your application, achieving a high MCAT score, and gaining relevant experience are essential.
You can, but you must complete science-related prerequisites. You should aim to complete your science coursework with a competitive GPA to boost your application.
There is no age cut-off to attend medical school, so you can definitely apply as a mature student. However, you should be realistic about your goals. Medical school is a commitment of at least four years. Your required residency after medical school is at least three more years.
A nontraditional applicant for med school can be someone who:
You’re considered a nontraditional applicant if you fit in any of these categories.
Among the best med schools for nontraditional students are John Hopkins and Harvard. John Hopkins accepts many nontraditional students, and Harvard’s selection criteria reference that it’s a nontraditional applicant-friendly school.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you are paid for your medical experience or extracurriculars. Volunteering is a perfectly acceptable method of gaining relevant experience. Admissions committees like to see candidates who serve their communities. However, you should double-check the requirements before applying.
As a nontraditional applicant, you’d be an asset to the increasingly diverse med school landscape. Because med schools review candidates holistically, you can have an edge over other applicants with your different background and perspectives.
Remember to reaffirm your transferable skills related to your medical education and career. Ensure you complete all requirements before applying. Thankfully, the nontraditional path to medical school doesn’t need to put you at a disadvantage. With our tips for success, you’re well on your way to getting accepted at your dream med school.