Tips for Nontraditional Applicants

Don't waste the years you spend between college and medical school.

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For years, medical school admissions committees divided applicants into two pools: the "traditional" applicants, or those applying during their junior year of college, and "nontraditional" applicants, or—to put it simply—everyone else. Until recently, those in the traditional category had a leg up in the admissions process. However, the scales are now tipping towards nontraditional applicants.

The difficult admissions process can be even more daunting if you've taken any amount of time off between college and medical school. Many people out of school struggle with getting letters of recommendation, writing essays, or preparing for the MCAT without the benefit of college premed resources and advising.

When admissions committees consider applicants with nontraditional backgrounds, they usually look for answers to these questions:

— Why didn't this applicant go straight from college to medical school?

— What did this person accomplish during their extra time?

— How did their experience affect their desire to pursue medicine?

[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Medical Schools.]

As you can already imagine, there are hundreds of unique answers to these questions, none of which are necessarily deal-breakers. No matter the reason you decided not to enter medical school immediately after college, how you answer these questions is a critical part of your admissions application.

Although everyone has their own story, medical school admissions committees tend to lump nontraditional applicants into one of two categories:

1. The one who got low grades.

If this happens to be you, rest assured that it's more common than you think, and it's not the end of the world. Medical schools generally value those who have learned and grown from their mistakes, as they see it not only as a sign of maturity, but also something that is integral to success in a constantly evolving field where clinical problems won't always have a right answer.

In this situation, medical schools look for corrective action; whether it's through additional science classes, a special Master's program, or additional clinical experience, medical schools want to be sure you can handle the intense science curriculum.

2. The one who wasn't sure and/or decided later.

If this sounds like you, you've got company. Plenty of applicants have careers in other fields before they realize they want to pursue medicine.

The good news is that medical schools value the diversity of perspective these applicants tend to bring to the table, as well as the commitment demonstrated by giving up one career for another.

If you fall into this category, it is important to emphasize what experience along your journey inspired or solidified your decision to become a physician. You should get letters from professors who knew you well, as well as someone who can speak to your work currently.

[See the 10 medical schools with the lowest acceptance rates.]

Being "nontraditional" is usually regarded as a positive component in your application. Showcasing your unique off-the-beaten-path choices in a way that resonates with medical schools is key to succeeding in the admissions process.

Don't forget: people want to be doctors for lots of reasons. Often, people reach the top of their fields and decide to give it all up to go to medical school. Everyone has a compelling story, but in this process it's ultimately all in the presentation.

One cardinal rule: you can't go wrong presenting experiences as learning opportunities, rather than making excuses for your past or being defensive.

Making the decision to go to medical school later in life is difficult. Being aware of your strengths and what you've learned from your background will be critical in succeeding as a nontraditional applicant.

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How To Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.