Many people decide to pursue a career in medicine later in life, often after starting a family or pursuing another career. Although the mean age of first year medical students in the United States is 24, there are many people who enter medical school in their 30’s and beyond. Nontraditional medical school applicants have unique challenges when seeking medical school admission. Although many schools like the diversity brought by nontraditional medical students, schools often question whether these students are able to meet the academic demands of the program. It is therefore especially important for a prospective nontraditional student to have a strong application package. This article will present four tips for nontraditional students who are seeking a career in medicine.
Tip #1: Consider a Post-Baccalaureate Program
Many schools offer premed postbac programs. These are programs that provide students the opportunity to take science courses after graduation from an undergraduate program. Most postbac programs take 8 to 24 months to complete. For a nontraditional medical school applicant, attending a postbac program can be advantageous. If it has been several years since you were in school, enrolling in a postbac program can get you accustomed to once again being a student. It is important to re-learn good study skills and get re-accustomed to attending classes, completing assignments, and taking tests. Another benefit is that many postbac programs have affiliations with certain medical schools. Graduates from these programs have an increased chance of being admitted to an associated medical school.
There are two types of premedical postbac programs. The first offers basic science coursework. These programs are intended for nontraditional medical school applicants who were not science majors when they were in college. Attending a program like this will give you the basic science experience that is required by many medical schools. The second type of postbac premedical program offers advanced science courses. This type of program is ideal for prospective medical students whose undergraduate grades were not high enough to be competitive for medical school.
The following are some highly regarded post-baccalaureate premedical programs, most have medical school affiliations:
Johns Hopkins University
Tip #2: Write a Strong Personal Statement
The personal statement is an essential part of any prospective medical student’s application package. However, it is an even more powerful tool for nontraditional medical school applicants. Because your path to medical school is much different than the majority of other applicants, admissions committees will naturally be curious about why you are now pursuing a career as a physician. Most medical schools admissions officers ask themselves three questions when they encounter an application from a nontraditional student. First, they want to know why the applicant did not go directly to medical school from college. Second, they would like to know how the applicant used their time after college, and what they accomplished. Finally, they want to know what the applicant learned from the experience. Your personal statement is the ideal place to answer these questions. Your personal statement should address your previous history and explain why you decided to change career paths. Nontraditional medical school applicants have more life experience than typical applicants. Use these experiences to your advantage in your personal statement. As an older applicant, you possess maturity and a different perspective that the other applicants lack. If you execute your personal statement well, you will be very attractive to medical schools who are looking to add diversity to their incoming class.
Tip #3: Prepare Your Family
Unlike most typical medical students, many nontraditional medical school applicants have a family. This adds another consideration for nontraditional applicants to consider. Although it is certainly possible to be a successful medical student with a family, it is important for all family members to understand and agree to the undertaking. Medical school is a time-consuming and arduous undertaking. It is important that your spouse understands that you will be less available to assist with housework and childcare. They will have to increase their workload in these areas while you are in school. It is also a good idea to explain to your children that while you are in school you will have less time to participate in their activities. You will likely be unable to attend every single school play, soccer game, or piano recital while attending medical school. However, if you and your family enter this phase of your life knowing what to expect, medical school will not place undue stress on your relationship with your family. Although you will be very busy with school work, it is also equally important to make time for occasional family activities. Creating and adhering to a schedule is often very helpful in this regard.
Tip #4: Learn How to Study… Again
You will be amazed at how quickly your study skills disappear after you have been out of school. Taking notes during lecture, writing papers, and studying can seem very difficult once you get out of the habit. If you decide to attend a postbac program, you will relearn these study skills as you complete your coursework. If you decide that attending a post-baccalaureate program is not a good option for you, it may be wise to enroll in a few courses that are of interest to you at your local community college. These classes are generally inexpensive and not very rigorous but they will get you used to being a student once again.
Nontraditional medical school applicants have unique challenges when choosing to apply to medical school. However, with adequate planning they can become successful physicians.
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"Am I too old to go back to school?"
A common perception is that most medical schools are seeking out a fresh-faced graduate right out of college. Although most applicants are in their early twenties and finishing off a B.S., they may not actually be the most preferred choice for med schools. Many MD programs actually desire older, more mature students because of their dedication and hard-working attitude.
The faculty at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine "generally finds non-traditional applicants more focused on why they want to attend medical school, and they generally are more willing to work hard without complaint," says Steven T. Case, Ph.D., the Associate Dean for Medical School Admissions at Mississippi in a recent email. Between 2003 and 2006, there were 982 applicants. 61 of those were between the ages of 30 and 44. Out of the 61 non-traditional applicants, 21 were accepted-and 9 of them were female.
The average age of the students at The College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University is 25 years old. "Our classes typically have several students in their 30s, an occasional student in their 40s, and, rarely a student older than that," says Jay Bryde, the Admissions Officer at Michigan State. This university seriously considers non-traditional applicants because of their maturity, the diversity they add to the class, and the life experiences they bring. The University of Maryland School of Medicine has admitted an increasing number of older students as well. During the past two years, more than half of the matriculating students have been out of college for one year or more. "Their diversity of experience is impressive. We graduated a 52-year-old grandmother several years ago. Her contributions to her class were incredible, and she has become a wonderful physician. Thus, we are very interested in the non-traditional student," says Milford Foxwell, MD, the Associate Dean for Admissions.
Along with these schools, the University of Massachusetts Medical School and UCSF have accepted several students over age 30 from a wide variety of backgrounds. Over the past 5 years, 25% of the matriculating students at University of Kentucky College of Medicine have been 25 or older. Approximately a third of those students were female.
Drexel University College of Medicine is one of the leading pioneers in accepting diverse applicants. Both women and underrepresented minorities are encouraged to apply. After all, Drexel was formed out of the union of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (the first medical school for women) and Hahnemann Medical College-two of the earliest medical colleges in the nation. Now, with a population of over 1,000, Drexel is the largest private medical school in the United States. "Because of the school's unique background, we encourage nontraditional applicants and are committed to a diverse student body. Our Admissions Committee has a positive attitude toward students who have had varied experiences and are interested in medicine as a second career." Drexel requests students who have a breadth of knowledge in the biological and physical sciences. However, experiences in other areas of education and fields of study make a desirable candidate as well.
Thus, nontraditional applicants should have no fear-they are ideal contenders for medical school admissions committees. Although the twenty-something right out of college has the momentum of transferring from one academic environment to the next, nontraditional applicants offer a wide variety of life experience, knowledge in other fields, and undeterred commitment.