The Non-Traditional Applicant

(Adapted from a presentation by Erin Graham, Director of Admissions, SIU School of Medicine, at the Medical School Admission Seminar, November 1, 2003)

Are you a non-traditional applicant? Are you a non-science major, or older than most applicants? Or both?

If so, you may have concerns that are different from other applicants.

MYTH: You are too old to go to medical school.

REALITY: The age at which you enter medical school is a personal choice, and depends on how you deal with the problems of time, sacrifice and cost that medical school involves. SIU School of Medicine graduated a woman over 50 last year.

There is no need to hurry to finish the courses necessary to prepare you for medical school. It is a sign of maturity to plan a curriculum that will make you a competitive applicant, no matter how old you are. Taking the minimum number of science courses to meet the requirements is not enough. A non-traditional student, even more than a traditional one, has to be better than the competition in terms of their credentials. You need upper level biology courses (such as microbiology, cell biology, biochemistry, advanced physiology) not only to be successful in medical school, but to be a competitive applicant, no matter what your major is.

You need to think realistically about the demands of medicine and medical school. Considerations:

  • What do you know about medicine as a way of life? (see the section called Beyond the Numbers.) Have you shadowed a physician? Can you get a job in a clinical setting? Will you be able to give up your present job in order to get one in a clinical setting?
  • Have you considered the cost of medical school? The average debt of students graduating from SIU School of Medicine, a state school, is $90,000 (including undergraduate and medical school expenses).
  • Medical school requires time. Not just in the years of education and residency, but time away from your family and friends.
  • How will you deal with the stress of medical school--on you, on your family? Anxiety, stress, fatigue are part of the life of a medical school student. Will you have the emotional support of your family?

How can a non-traditional applicant compete with a traditional applicant?
A non-traditional applicant may have a variety of experiences that the traditional applicant does not. Your life experience is valuable. The experience of having and keeping a full-time job is important. Having supported yourself and perhaps a family is a responsibility that many younger students may not have had to accept. If you have had a different major or a different career from most students, you will have a different perspective on patients and on the practice of medicine that you can communicate to other students. Usually, non-traditional applicants are among the most dedicated medical students, because they have made more sacrifices to get to the point of applying to medical school.

Non-traditional applicants are often hard for admissions committees to evaluate. If the applicant had good grades, but took the coursework a long time ago, it may help to take higher level courses before applying. Most admissions committees look at the most recent coursework, usually science courses. If the applicant had poor grades when he/she was in college before, then he/she needs to prove that he/she can do better now. If the student is truly more capable and more focused now than they were before, he/she will be able to earn high grades (only A's and B's) in the current upper level science coursework. It will be necessary to explain the previous year(s) of poor grades and to show that he/she is not the same person now as before. A non-traditional applicant may have to do twice as much work as a traditional applicant to prove that they are a competitive applicant.

When you are applying, provide evidence of your determination to be a competitive applicant, of your maturity, and of useful experience that has contributed to your committment to medicine. Your depth of coursework and knowledge in science should be comparable to that of a new graduate. Your grades in upper level courses are the most important. You certainly need to take the minimum required courses, but you also need to go beyond that to be a competitive applicant.

Various other considerations:

  • The MCAT scores are even more important for non-traditional applicants than for traditional ones. Strive for 9's and 10's (range 0-15). There is no substitute for good scores, except better ones.
  • Time utilization: How do you fill your day outside of class? Are you working? Taking night courses? Other activities? Family? Kids?
  • On AMCAS application, list everything you did post-high school, even if your undergraduate years were a long time ago. Include college extracurricular activities, even if they weren't medically oriented. They will look at old course loads (15/semester), and new grades (should be A's and B's). Non-science coursework is important too. Your ability to manage a full course load plus your other activities is evidence of your study habits and other skills.
  • Who you are, what is important to you, your character--these are evident from what you've done with your time.
  • Letters of recommendation/evaluation: If you have no pre-medical advisor, it is ok to have letters sent directly to the schools that you receive secondary/supplementary applications from. Usually you should be prepared to supply 3 academic letters (preferably science instructors) and 1 letter from a non-academic source, such as a physician or employer. These should be recent letters, from instructors in recent coursework.
  • Be knowledgeable about the field of medicine. You should have investigated the current events in medicine, current ethical issues, advances in diagnosis and treatment, etc., before you consider yourself ready for an interview.
  • Slow down! Don't let age pressure you into a hurried preparation. Do the work that's necessary to make yourself competitive and well-prepared. The minimum required courses are not enough. 70% of successful applicants have taken biochemistry; nearly 100% have taken cell and molecular biology.
  • Financial aid: Be prepared to fill out FAFSA forms. Most people get loans for medical school. You may have to give up some aspects of your current lifestyle and make do with less for several years. Previous credit problems can be trouble for getting loans, so clear up such problems before you need the loans.
  • Poor science grades? If they were 1 or 2 years ago, work on a master's degree to show you are capable of higher level science work. If they were 10 years ago, consider a post-bacchalaureate preparation program and repeat courses in which you did poorly.
  • Past GPA problems? Most schools have a minimum GPA for screening applicants. SIU focuses on the most recent 60 credit hours and looks for a minimum 2.7 GPA in undergraduate and post-bacch courses combined. Not all schools do that. If your overall grades are lower than the mean (3.56), schools will look harder at your MCAT scores.
  • Calculus: Some schools require it; SIU doesn't.
  • Most schools will not be concerned that you attended many different schools to get the courses you need to apply. It may be hard to find night offerings of upper level science classes, but keep looking (U of Ill Springfield offers some).
  • Some schools worry if you have a large number of hours from a community college (Northwestern, for instance); SIU doesn't care so much.
  • Graduate school: A master's program may be a good idea, but one in a "soft" science (e.g., public health, psychology) is not as helpful as one in a "hard" science (biology, chemistry, physics). If you didn't do so well (low GPA) in the sciences, you should have a heavy load of hard upper level sciences for your master's degree.
  • Single parents will not be able to spend as much time with their family. They will need a support person that can become a surrogate parent even more than most parents during medical school and should choose a school closer to their family if possible.
  • MCAT: Scores can be 2 or 3 years old for some schools. SIU considers scores no more than two years old, and especially the most recent set of scores. SIU doesn't mix subtest scores from different MCAT's; some schools may.
  • Research: More important for research-oriented schools like U of Chicago and Northwestern; less important for SIU, which is more focused on primary care/family practice/pediatrics/internal medicine.
  • Secondary applications: Why are you choosing that particular school? Research the school--particularly the curriculum. How does your choice reflect your personal characteristics?