By Jeff Thomas, MD/MPH Candidate
Whether you are changing careers or deciding late in your college career that medicine is your path, there is no doubt that making that decision can be anxiety-provoking and life changing. The truth is that medical students come in all forms and from every imaginable background—something I didn’t fully realize until beginning medical school myself. Regardless of where you are starting from, it can be a daunting task to ready yourself for the application process when you feel behind from the very beginning.
I made the decision to go into medicine from a business background after ‘accidentally’ working in a clinical position for several years during college. Like many other nontraditional applicants, I found myself with little idea of where to begin. At the time I decided to change paths, I felt I had wasted years pursuing my degree—but I now realize that those years are one of my greatest assets. What followed was a long period of self-evaluation, academic preparation, and eventually acceptance to medical school, where I am now nearing the end of my third year. To say I understand the struggle of the nontraditional applicant is an understatement, and I hope to share some of my own insights as well as that of other non-traditional applicants that I wish I had before beginning this process.
Find a mentor.
A mentor can come in many forms, but the fundamental utility of having an experience sounding board remains the same. By having a mentor with experience in your situation, you now have an insider’s view of how to navigate some of the more subtle challenges you will encounter on this journey. Finding a mentor early in this process will give you consistency in guidance and planning and provide a trustworthy outlet to help you plan your future. Your mentor could be another nontraditional student, a physician, or an advisor—no matter who that person is for you, communicate early and often.
Take a critical look at your academic record.
The purpose of evaluating yourself academically has two purposes—to remember where you’ve been and plan for where you’re headed. How has your performance been in basic science courses like biology, chemistry, and physics? Have you taken the courses commonly required as prerequisites for application? Whether your GPA is in need of repair or you lack the necessary courses, knowing this well in advance will allow you to plan the next few semesters or years more efficiently. Working closely with a premedical advisor at your school can be helpful if you are a student and have access to them. Otherwise, researching the admissions prerequisites at schools you are most interested in is a great place to start. If you have not yet taken the prerequisite courses, consider a formal postbaccalaureate program or simply taking the necessary courses locally. If you’ve taken the courses but your performance was less than stellar, retaking courses or pursuing a professional degree that will give you graduate-level sciences can be beneficial. Whatever path you choose, the most important thing is to make sure you are setting yourself up for success from the beginning—doing well in these courses is paramount.
Take an inventory of your hobbies, extracurricular activities, and experience.
One significant area that many nontraditional applicants feel they lack in is extracurriculars, volunteer. and work experiences related to the sciences or medicine. Have no fear—what you do have to offer is a background that is unique from that of a traditional, science-based applicant. Recognize that while you may not have a broad science background to offer, what you do have is a unique set of strengths, leadership experiences, and work experiences that can help set you apart from fellow applicants. Building a robust, well-rounded resume is important, but keep in mind that being a successful applicant does not necessarily require a resume rife with medical service or experience.
Do something you’re passionate about.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that admissions committees are only interested in seeing and hearing about healthcare-related activities. Having interviewed countless applicants myself, I can say firsthand that I would much rather listen to an applicant tell me about something they truly care for rather than something they did to “check a box”. Take the time to evaluate what opportunities you have to get involved in your community in a capacity that will not only give you something to talk about, but will also be something that will fulfill you as an individual. Whether that is volunteering at an animal shelter as a companion, teaching music lessons, or something completely different, focus on building your extracurricular application around your passions rather than your perceived deficits.
Gain healthcare experience.
While this may fly in the face of what I just said, understand that you will need to demonstrate some kind of experience with healthcare and patients in general. This does not need to be a heroic effort—something as simple as passing out warm blankets in your local emergency department a few days every month can be a great place to start. If patient care is something that you would like to be employed in during this time, consider looking into opportunities like an EMT or CNA position in your area. The key is to try and (to the best of your ability) gain an insight into building relationships with patients and identifying how to interact with them in that setting.
Be realistic about your goals and timeline.
Preparing for medical school can be a very long, tedious process. Even traditional applicants can spend three or more years preparing for applications and matriculation. While you may feel that you need to do so, it is not important to move through this process quickly, but rather to move through this process successfully. Rushing your timeline to apply in an earlier cycle will be of no use if you are not successful in gaining an acceptance and are forced to re-apply in the following cycle. Be realistic with your personal situation and obligations outside of your academics and what that means in terms of how much time you will need to complete requirements, gain experience, prepare and take the MCAT, and build your application. There is no one size fits all formula to this process! Don’t feel pressured by your peers to follow their plan—make your own plan and do your best to stick to it with the understanding that this is a very fluid, dynamic process that may require some adjustment to your timeline.
Be kind to yourself.
The path you have chosen in pursuing medicine is long and arduous. While I understand the enthusiasm to begin your education and career, it is incredibly important to remember that taking care of yourself now will pay dividends in the future. Develop good work, study, and sleep habits now to prepare yourself for the future. It is important to immerse yourself in your studies during this time, but do not do so at the expense of personal relationships and friendships. Be open and honest with your peers, family, and friends about your goals, and reach out to them for support when you need it. Lastly, understand that this path inherently comes with stumbling points. There will likely be times when you feel like you are being tested beyond your limits and times when you feel that you have failed. The fact that you meet these challenges is far less important than recognizing you are capable of overcoming them and reaching your goals. The old adage that “you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself” is most certainly true. Developing these habits of self-care and work-life balance now will benefit you during medical school, residency and beyond.
About the Author
Jeff is a 3rd year medical/public health student in the Midwest pursuing a career in general surgery with particular interests in acute care and trauma surgery.