Getting accepted into medical school is a long and difficult journey for traditional applicants, so the application process might seem even more daunting for nontraditional medical applicants. After all, if less than half of all medical school applicants are successfully matriculated, is it worth it for nontraditional applicants to overcome certain shortcomings and apply to med school anyway?
If you are a nontraditional medical applicant, you should know that the odds are not stacked against you. In fact, with more medical schools reviewing candidates holistically, your unique background may be an asset that diversifies the student body and enhances the medical profession. So don’t let your nontraditional background stop you from applying to medical school—you can bridge the gap with hard work and preparation.
This guide reviews what you need to know as a nontraditional medical applicant, including how you will be viewed by admissions committees, how to apply as a nontraditional medical applicant, and tips for getting accepted into your dream medical school.
You are considered a nontraditional medical applicant if you did not follow the traditional path that leads to becoming a doctor. Traditional medical applicants generally know early on that they want to be doctors, so they plan accordingly.
Traditional medical applicants take undergraduate science coursework, participate in the right extracurricular activities that admissions committees like to see, prepare for the MCAT, and work on completing every component of the medical school application process.
In short, traditional applicants take the most direct path to medical school, without deviation or breaks, except those who take a gap year between university and medical school.
A nontraditional medical applicant, then, is anyone who has followed any other path to medical school. This includes a diverse and vast group of applicants, but here are the most common qualities of a non-traditional student:
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, you can put your mind at ease because medical schools are increasingly looking to diversify and expand healthcare.
To achieve this, admissions committees review candidates holistically. While grades and test scores are essential in the application process, they do not measure the other selection factors that tell the story of who you are, what you’ve achieved outside the classroom, the impact you’ve had on your community, and your potential as a future leader in healthcare.
Admissions committees want to see the whole person and what new perspectives you can bring to the betterment of the school. Take a look at Harvard Medical School’s diversity statement and what they look for in applicants:
“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.”
“While we expect students to demonstrate an aptitude for the biological and physical sciences, our ideal candidates are those with a well-balanced academic background that includes the humanities and social sciences.”
Additionally, look to Marlise Pierre-Wright, a nontraditional medical student at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. She fully embraces her nontraditional background and uses it to her advantage.
As an undergrad, Marlise majored in English literature and had the opportunity to use her skills to teach poetry and work with people affected by Hurricane Katrina. This transformative experience led to her passion for healthcare. Marlise’s story is just one example of how medicine can benefit from practitioners who come from all walks of life.
To apply as a nontraditional medical applicant, you will follow the same application procedures as traditional applicants.
Most allopathic medical schools use a centralized application service called the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). Most osteopathic medical schools use the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS). There are exceptions—for example, most medical schools in Texas use the Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS). Please ensure that you follow the school’s specific application guidelines and procedures, as they vary.
If you want to become a traditional 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.
To decide the best career path for you, you will have to understand the difference between a DO versus MD. Essentially, both DOs and MDs are fully licensed and can treat patients, prescribe medications, work in various specialties, order testing, and more.
The main difference is in philosophy—DOs adhere to the osteopathic philosophy of medicine that incorporates a holistic, whole-body approach to patient treatment. MDs adhere to the allopathic philosophy of diagnosing illnesses and treating symptoms.
There are benefits and challenges to being a nontraditional medical applicant, and it’s crucial to assess them objectively so that you can increase your chances of acceptance.
A unique background will set you apart from other candidates. Due to the competitive and similar nature of applicant GPAs and MCAT scores, admissions officers evaluate other selection factors such as skill sets, extracurriculars, professional experience, and areas of personal growth. Because you are a non-traditional applicant, you benefit from a unique background that is well-rounded and holistically attractive.
You can use your background to your advantage to appeal to admissions officers. Think about any transferable strengths and skills and elaborate upon them in your medical school application.
For example, if you spent a year abroad teaching English in a refugee shelter, you could use this experience to demonstrate your global awareness, cultural sensitivity, and commitment to serving diverse populations. These are all desirable qualities of a leading physician.
If you are older than the average medical school entering class, then you have the benefit of maturity and experience. Reframe your professional, academic, and extracurricular achievements to demonstrate how they would make you a strong medical candidate.
For example, perhaps you spent a few years in an unrelated career as a non-profit social worker advocating for vulnerable children. In your application materials, you can discuss your experiences with children and how they will enhance your goals of becoming a pediatrician.
As a nontraditional medical applicant, you will diversify the profession in a positive way. Medical schools are always trying to diversify their student body by matriculating students who come from all kinds of educational, professional, and cultural backgrounds. Consequently, your nontraditional path will increase class diversity and bring valuable perspectives to their program.
It is important to analyze your experiences to frame them as transferable skills, or skills that would enhance a career in medicine. You can draw upon these experiences in the admissions process, such as the medical school interview.
As a nontraditional applicant, it is likely that you are missing some core requirements of getting accepted into medical school. At a minimum, you should study for and take the MCAT. Every medical school has a minimum required MCAT score, so you should aim to get the highest score possible to gain a competitive edge over other candidates.
Most medical schools also require a minimum GPA, and you should strive to achieve the highest GPA possible. Additionally, many medical schools require that you complete certain science-related prerequisites.
Every school has its own specific guidelines, so to ensure that you are on the right track to fill any gaps in your education or experience, it is recommended that you browse different medical schools’ websites and make a list of application/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 is important to identify where these gaps are and then commit yourself to gain relevant experiences.
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 its own specific course requirements regarding prerequisites and science-related coursework, including lab work and number of credits to take for each subject. For example, you may need to take several classes in various topics in biology, chemistry, physics, and math. Please carefully review the medical school’s website to ensure that you follow their exact requirements for prerequisites and science coursework.
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 strongest applicants have a combination of medical-related experiences. Generally, these medical-related experiences include medical shadowing, clinical experience, research, volunteering, and extracurriculars geared toward medical school.
It is important to gain relevant experiences and commit enough time so that you can network with supervisors, colleagues, and peers. This will also help you to secure strong letters of recommendation for your medical school application.
It is 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. Professors, deans, supervisors, employers, and your network of medical-related peers are good resources to ask for recommendation letters. Letters of recommendation are meant to showcase your best qualities, accomplishments, and skills, so it is important to be mindful of who you ask to be your letter writers.
Your greatest asset as a non-traditional applicant is your unique background. You can showcase your unique background in various areas of your application, such as the personal statement and the AMCAS work and activities section. Reflect on your diverse experiences and skillsets, then write compelling narratives about how they will be useful in medicine.
Because you are a nontraditional medical applicant, setting up a free consultation and receiving guidance and feedback throughout the application process would be highly beneficial, especially with interviews, essays, and tests. You need to ensure that you submit the most complete, polished materials and represent yourself in the most competitive light. Because your traditional peers have had the advantage of more time to prepare, it’s imperative for your success to apply to medical school thoroughly and thoughtfully.
Focus on building a competitive application package by taking the required coursework, getting a good MCAT score, gaining relevant medical experience, participating in the right extracurricular activities, and obtaining strong letters of recommendation.
You can, but you must complete the required and recommended science prerequisites and coursework. You should aim to complete your science coursework with a competitive science GPA to boost your application.
There is no age cut-off to attend medical school, but you should be realistic about your goals and how they fit in with your life circumstances. Medical school is a commitment of at least four years. Add to that your required residency after medical school, which is at least three more years.
According to the AAMC, the average age of enrolled medical students is 24.
As a nontraditional applicant, you should prioritize both the MCAT and your GPA equally. It’s impossible to get into medical school with a low MCAT score or GPA, so give yourself plenty of time to prepare for the MCAT and stay on top of your grades.
Yes, but you should be aware that having one or two letters of recommendation from science faculty or medical professionals will hold more weight and add more credibility to your application. Especially as a nontraditional applicant, it would be meaningful to have a professional in the field vouch for your ability, potential, and skills.
Additionally, some medical schools require that letters of recommendation come from specific sources, such as science faculty, school counselors, or employers. Be sure to check with the school’s application requirements to submit the requested letters as instructed.
It does not matter whether or not you are paid for your medical experience or extracurriculars. Volunteering is a perfectly acceptable and altruistic method of gaining relevant and competitive medical experience. Admissions committees like to see candidates who serve their communities.
As a nontraditional medical applicant, you are an asset to an increasingly diverse entering medical student body. Due to recent efforts of medical schools reviewing candidates holistically, you have an edge over other applicants with your unique background, perspectives, and skillsets.
It would be to your advantage to reframe your nontraditional background as transferable skills that would enhance your medical education and career. Then, to further boost your application, be sure to complete all medical school requirements and recommendations, such as taking science coursework, gaining medical experience, and scoring well on the MCAT.
With our tips for success, you are well on your way to getting accepted to medical school as a nontraditional applicant.