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The Non-traditional Medical Student Journey

The journey of an old medical student.

A nontraditional medical student is one that doesn’t follow the “traditional” path of going from premed to med school without a break. Taking a gap year, starting a career before grad school, or switching degrees tend to make one a “nontraditional student.”

Many students aren’t able to follow the conventional path for one reason or another. Applying to medical school involves a grueling process wherein the school prerequisites comprise a wide range of requirements for prospective students.

Students may not take all recommended science courses during their undergraduate degree program, focusing on only the required ones. This will need to prove themselves in other ways and gathering strong letters of recommendation from their professors.

What Makes Someone a Nontraditional Medical Student?

There is no strict definition, but a non-traditional medical learner generally falls into a few categories. They took time off to build their credentials, returned to school after holding a career, or applied for an MD or DO program from a non-premed degree.

A non-traditional medical student comes from a diverse academic or career path. They do not necessarily possess healthcare experience by shadowing physicians at an internal medicine or family medicine clinic. Non-traditional students may or may not undergo the typical requisite pre-med courses such as anatomy and physiology.

These learners are generally older than students following the traditional path due to planned and unplanned academic breaks. The study methods of a non-traditional medical student can be quite different than their traditional counterparts. They are often students with the humanities department like arts, history, psychology, or economics.

There are many U.S and Canadian students who apply to Caribbean medical schools as non-traditional applicants. Applying to US schools usually requires students to sit for MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) exam. However, many international schools are now dropping this requirement for acceptance. 

Several letters of recommendation from their previous school are highly recommended, if not required. LORs from science department chairs and other high-ranking faculty can boost a student’s application more than a part-time or staff instructor.

How do Medical Schools Perceive Nontraditional Applicants?

A nontraditional applicant can possess a plethora of life experience in extracurricular activities. During interviews, admission committees evaluate a student’s commitment to medicine, science-based education, and the healthcare profession by asking questions about their prospects.

Pre-med life experiences are critical for non-traditional students as they slowly build a career in medicine. They may pursue a formal post-baccalaureate program with additional science coursework and extending their study time.

Countless applicants apply with diverse career backgrounds, educational backgrounds, and ethnic backgrounds. They go through a dynamic application process and will likely be questioned about the reason for their delayed graduation or academic gap.

Admission officers evaluate each applicant on various criteria such as examination scores, subject exam scores, age of applicants, experience in healthcare, experience on topics about clinical medicine, communication skills, medical terminology, etc., experience in health volunteering programs, the experience of teaching, etc.

Some students fail to secure admission due to a lack of experience in practical clinical skills. But, the future of medicine is changing as medical schools are now accepting students with not only a science background but business and humanities as well.

Admissions teams in various medical schools offer critical insight to entering students through clinical programs. These programs curate the learning environment and offer a critical path towards residency training. The Deans of Students are committed to offering an educational environment that prepares their learners for patient care.

Tips for Non-traditional Medical School Applicants

Being a non-traditional student is not good or bad. However, understanding the pros and cons of this academic pathway is important in order to plan your future in medicine. Play to your strengths. Exploring past experiences and educational differences will give you the advantage if solicited properly.

Non-traditional medical student’s journey involves a lot of challenges at the initial stages but once they get through those perils and obstacles, it’s quite easy for them to adapt and move forward. Diverse life and educational experience can work to their advantage. 

The occupational, communication, and leadership skills from non-healthcare experiences make them more adaptable in many situations. Combined with their medical training,  they gain the clinical skills needed to match in diverse and reputable residency programs across the U.S.

Chase DiMarco

Chase DiMarco

Chase is an MS, MBA-HA, and MD/Ph.D-candidate. He is the Founder and educator at MedEd University, host of the Medical Mnemonist podcast and Rounds to Residency podcast, co-author of Read This Before Medical School, and is the CEO of FindARotation clinical rotations platform.

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