With the average age for medical school matriculant inching toward 25, the “nontraditional” designation no longer means “older student”. More premeds are taking one or two gap years before medical school to either deepen their research skills, improve their grades, gain more clinical experience, and more. More likely, nontraditional applicants to medical school will now come from two different paths: applicants who majored in humanities, or other non-science major, and applicants who are changing careers, for example a nurse practitioner or social worker who want to pursue a medical degree. In both of these categories, these aspiring physicians may be slightly older than the current 24-25 M1 matriculant average, or they may be in their thirties or older.
The good news for those taking a nontraditional path to medical school is that if you are a good candidate for medical school, your nontraditional path is much more of an asset than a liability. So what are the best medical schools for nontraditional students? Take your pick. Check out our advice for applying to medical school strategically as a nontraditional student.
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1. Make sure your science bona fides are up to date.
If you’re a humanities major looking to enter medical school or a career changer, you have several options for getting up to speed on the science and math courses required by most medical schools (a year of biology, organic chemistry, physics, chemistry, and biochemistry). You can take those courses separately through an undergraduate institution or you can enter a post-bacc program designed for students just like you. Post-bacc programs have many added benefits, such a curriculum truly geared toward making you a better premed applicant, access to a committee letter of recommendation, and application guidance.
Either way, you’ll want your science knowledge to be very recent, within the last 5-7 years. If you haven’t taken a science class in more than five years, you should strongly consider retaking it. Not only do even foundational sciences change, but this will also help you refresh your basic concepts in preparation for taking the MCAT. You’ll want to perform your best in these classes as medical schools will pay special attention to your science GPA. They’ll also want to know that you are committed to the study of science and will be able to keep up with the rigorous curriculum in your first and second years of medical school.
2. Get the best MCAT score you can.
This might go without saying, but a low MCAT score is frequently the biggest application killer. Even if you don’t plan on attending a very competitive program, keep as many opportunities open. A great MCAT score can help elevate your application, make you stand out, and show that you’re ready for what’s next.
3. Use your nontraditional background as a strength.
Being a well-rounded applicant, having more life or work experiences, and having a career before attending medical school can all help you stand out to medical school admissions committees. Use your experience and your journey to tell a story that connects who you are and what you’ve done to your pursuit of the study of medicine. Depending on your circumstances, you’ll want to answer the “why now?” question in your essays because you may face it in your interviews. If anything, it’s a good question to ask yourself before beginning the long and challenging process of applying to medical school.
4. Research medical schools and apply thoughtfully.
The average premed will apply to about 16 medical schools. Cast your net wide and have the same reach, target, and safety schools that correspond to your GPA and MCAT stats. Applying to your home state’s school or schools may give you the biggest advantage in applying as those schools’ mandates prioritize in-state applicants. Then, consider other schools whose programs you like and check out their class profile. Many schools will publish the average age of their students, how many gap years they took, how many come from non-science backgrounds, etc. For example, 60% of the University of Chicago Prizker School of Medicine matriculants come from non-science backgrounds. Some of the most top-ranked osteopathic programs routinely matriculate career changers and have an average matriculant age that is 27 or older. Don’t limit yourself, but do look for schools that seem to value the diversity and experience you’ll bring to the class.
5. Think about your post-medical school plans, too.
Many medical students enter their M1 year just knowing they’ll become pediatric surgeons to realize that they’ve fallen in love with orthopaedics or urology. You’ll have a chance to experience many differents areas of medicine, both through your required clerkships and rotations and through elective courses and rotations. So keep your options open, you never know what you’ll end up clicking with. That said, if you’re mostly passionate about primary care, or about providing healthcare in rural settings, apply to schools who will give you the most opportunities to pursue these goals. Then, think about what your path in residency and beyond might look like. Look for schools with very good match rates, i.e. how many of their seniors find residency positions in their chosen field.