10 tips for non-traditional medical school applicants

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I would like to offer some words of encouragement to what many call the “non-traditional” students pursuing medicine.

The term encompasses people in different aspects in their lives. It may be someone in a different line of work looking at medicine as a second career or another just getting started that didn’t take the traditional path in undergrad.

My own journey

I started medical school at 28 after spending six years as a police officer.

I had a criminal justice degree with none of the science requirements. I felt quite out of place and didn’t really know where look for help.

The pre-medicine advisor at my school was no help and basically discouraged me from applying. I felt like I couldn’t relate to traditional pre-med students. Student Doctor Network forums were brutal.

But I did it.

I want to highlight a few things that I found useful to get me through to the other side.

Listed below are my ten tips for non-traditional medical school applicants:

1. Give yourself credit. Be proud of your non-traditional path and realize that you have a lot to contribute to medicine.

Medicine is just as much or more about relationships than the science. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses coming into medical school. I struggled with basic sciences in my first year of school while others breezed through it.

In contrast, I had no problem going into our simulated patient encounters and clinical rotations while some of my classmates were terrified of this, given that some of them never had a job or experience working with the public in a professional setting prior to medical school.

2. Find a mentor. I was fortunate to connect with another non-traditional student that was a few years ahead of me in the process, and his help was invaluable.

Much of the application process seems difficult because it is unknown. There are many hoops to jump through, but it is not impossible.

Remember that many have walked the path before you and people are willing to help if you ask.

3. Spend some time shadowing. I shadowed several different professions before deciding on medical school including a dentist, CRNA, physician assistant, and a physician before I made a decision.

Then I shadowed several physicians of different specialties.

These relationships often carry forward into your career, so always keep in touch with folks that you make a true connection with. You will need letters of recommendation for your application, and it is much easier for them to write you a personalized letter if they are able to get to know you.

4. Spouse/significant other support. This is crucial. They will effectively be going through school with you. It is imperative that they be on board with the plan, especially if you have children.

My wife is the reason I was able to get through school.

Be open and honest with each other at the beginning instead of having to deal with it while you’re studying for finals. There are websites and podcasts directed at medical school spouses and significant others where they can find common ground with others going through the journey.

5. Apply broadly and be persistent. On my first day of medical school, we were told that 17 other people wanted the seat that each of us was in.

Many qualified applicants are turned down from medical school every year because there simply aren’t enough seats for everyone. Your chances of getting accepted will be greatly increased if you are willing to apply broadly. You will be doing yourself a disservice if you limit yourself to a certain geographical area.

If you don’t get in the first time, take a step back to look over your application to see what you can improve on.

Apply again during the next cycle. If you don’t get in the first time, it’s not the end of the world. The difference of a year or two matters little in the big picture.

6. Ignore the noise. There is a lot of negative chatter about medicine.

You will hear from many people, including physicians, that things are not what they used to be. This may very well be true, but medicine is still and always will be a noble profession.

I take pride in the privilege I have been given to take care of people. It is easy to get discouraged when others are trying to bring you down.

Keep your head up and don’t let anyone talk you out of your dream.

7. Get your finances in order. Medical school is expensive. Do everything you can to set yourself up as best you can before you start school. Many medical students tend to live a “doctor lifestyle” while they are students. You must remember that every bit of the money you borrow will eventually be paid back with interest. You will get little to no education about finance in medical school, so it will be up to you to educate yourself.

I recommend reading up on physician finance even before you start school. There is a wealth of information available.

8. Get organized. Start building good organization and study habits now.

No matter how well you did in undergraduate studies, medical school is a totally different environment. I also suggest something to keep your life organized as you are about to have information overload. There are many programs available, often with free versions which are usually sufficient for your needs.

9. Don’t stop living your life outside of medicine. Your time will be limited in school. You have to take breaks to keep your sanity.

My wife and I always kept Friday nights sacred with no talking about medicine and no studying.

Schedule time for exercise and time off from studying. I would set timers for studying blocks because I found that once I was so many hours deep into it, I was no longer retaining information, despite my best efforts.

10. Focus on the end goal. It is easy to get discouraged in the process, even after you get into school.

Take things one day at a time and remember that this is a short term investment for a long term gain. If it were easy, more people would be doing it!

What do you think? Any non-traditional physicians out there that would like to add their advice? Any prospective non-traditional medical school applicants out there? Leave a comment or share if you know someone that would benefit from this.

Joe Bardinelli is an emergency medicine resident. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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