How Nontraditional Students Can Best Position Themselves When Applying to Med School

A friend of mine studied film in college and subsequently found himself working as a cameraman for a documentary television program about the lives of EMTs and ER physicians. He experienced some very tense situations, and from his work decided that he wanted to do more than document how people received medical care—his desire was to participate in the action of helping others as a doctor.
Unfortunately, his film education was the furthest possible undergrad experience he could have from pre-med. He had no applicable science credits, no anatomy or physiology, and the only shadowing he had done of physicians had been with a camera in hand. In short, his path would be an arduous one, and he was soon going to turn 31.
How to turn what was purely desire into a distinct possibility?
1. Volunteer. 
How do you attain experience when you have none? Become a volunteer. By volunteering at free clinics and other hospitals, my friend received a resume booster and found a distinct avenue into the field.
Another path is to investigate hospital positions that grant experience while allowing some financial benefits as well. Another woman I know is an ER scribe who assists doctors in keeping track of their diagnoses and notes. She simply followed up with the listing online and ended up with far superior exposure to real hospital life than someone who volunteers to wash bedsheets or moved patients through wards—and she got some remuneration at the same time.
2. Shadow.
Many would say that that best way to get ahead is to find someone to mentor you. Often physicians are open to having you shadow them on the job for a period of time. Be respectful, be enthusiastic and be unobtrusive. My friend worked with physicians who even took the time to educate him along the way. They quizzed him on diagnoses and treatments while shadowing. Ultimately, this is another excellent resume builder.
3. Don’t hide from your past… embrace it! 
While you think your non-traditional status is a liability, it might actually be a positive boon. Incorporate your past into your desire to pursue medicine in interviews and essays. Never apologize for the–perhaps circuitous–route you may have taken.
Another friend was an engineering/computer science major, and in one of his classes invented an app to help people take their medicines on time. He spoke at length in his application about how it changed his perception of modern medicine. Those who are accepting applications want to have a diverse class, and that means people from a variety of backgrounds. Be honest and focused about your life goals and they will recognize yours as a unique and interesting voice in the room.
4. Score high the MCAT.
This is easier said than done; however, there are a number of useful strategies you can use. Take classes, search for tutors, do what whatever is necessary. Ideally, score around a 510 – at least the 84 percentile. If you can successfully accomplish this, it shows a dedication to the work that you will have to do in med school.
5. Get your pre-requisites out of the way.
Many nontraditional students will need to take classes in basic sciences to round out what they were missing as an undergraduate. Find ways to take these classes in non-traditional ways if you must, either online or as night school. But take the classes continuously. Studies show that there is a greater chance of giving up if you take a semester off.
6. Choose your school wisely.
There are a number of thoughts on schools that give you the best possible chance of acceptance. Your initial step should be to look up the number of non-traditional students that a particular school generally accepts – then discover more:
· State-funded medical schools in states where you are a legal resident should offer the best chance of acceptance.
· The American Association of Medical Colleges is an ideal place to look for resources. There you can learn about the requirements of each school and see if your experience is viable.
· Foreign Medical Schools can be an option for non-traditional students. You might want to consider a degree in the Caribbean, South America or Europe. After graduating, you will be considered a Foreign or International Medical Graduate (FMG or IMG), and will have to pass an exam called the USMLE in order to can practice in the US and to be placed in a residency that is approved by the AMA. Before you apply, look into the success rates of students who were then able to practice in the U.S. Also you will want to be careful with this degree because it can limit the specialties you can go into when practicing in America.
7. Talk to your peers.
Medical school can tax your finances and outstrip your time commitments money. If you have a family, speak openly with them first about the dedicated hours you will spend on this, not to mention the financial burden. You might find your boss is understanding about your decision to work toward a dream of becoming a doctor. See if you can adjust your schedule or hours to have time to take classes and study.
8. Internalize the Three Stories. 
In my experience, there are three possible stories to tell about your desire to practice medicine. Embrace one of these and make it your focus.
· Story 1: Research is my goal. I long to be an educator and work in cutting edge research as a doctor.
· Story 2: Clinical care is my goal. I long to be on the front lines working with patients and providing empathic care.
· Story 3: I want a balance of research and clinical care. I would like to work at a teaching hospital or university hospital and work with one hand in research and the other in practical patient care.
None of these are more appropriate paths than the other, but pick one to highlight and use it to make your application easier to understand. Applications are about packaging yourself properly.
Ultimately, there are a number of resources and strategies for non-traditional students when it comes to finding their footing in medical school. As for my friend, he works at a children’s hospital and even assists kids in the hospital in making their own movies from time to time.
About the Author
Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson’s & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL; editing essays and personal statements; and consulting directly with applicants.