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How to Leverage Trends in Medical School Admissions: For Non-Traditional Students

It’s great to be trendy: designer belts, curtain bangs and flared jeans can all make you feel like an icon. Trends come and go, some faster than others. Similarly to fads in fashion, getting admitted to medical school requires the observation of trends. What trends can you leverage as a student switching careers into medicine? The first step in crafting your medical school application is to take an honest look at yourself and your accomplishments. Assess whether you are a traditional applicant or a “non-traditional” applicant. This article is tailored to non-traditional applicants who are pursuing medicine as a second career.

Your application to medical school should tell a cohesive story with a set of values tied to each of your experiences. After speaking with a former student-member of a medical school admissions committee, he verified that a consistent mission could be an asset to any medical school application. The member stated, “We look for an applicant’s experiences and narrative to be coherent with why they’re applying. It’s a red flag if an individual can’t relate what they’ve done in their time since undergrad in a way that conveys meaning.”

For example, my first job after college was in an underserved area and my volunteer experiences with Remote Area Medical also served that population. I was able to attest to why I care about working with underserved patients in my application and interviews, tying in a different experience each time to support my statements. I tried to tie common threads throughout my application that linked each opportunity I pursued to my core values.

As I was choosing schools to apply to, I understood that many DO medical schools are historically non-traditional friendly. These schools frequently encourage those who have had previous careers to apply, as their experiences can help lay a foundation for a successful education. For me, this meant attending interviews at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic MedicineKansas City University and a few others, some of which actively recruit non-traditional students. This growing trend is beneficial for career changers and can be seen in other schools too. 

Interestingly, Kirksville SOM’s “Still Scholars” program affords the opportunity for a select few students to matriculate without an MCAT score. These students must have excellent grades alongside outstanding work and leadership experiences. Assessing the distribution of matriculating student ages can show which schools tend to have older students. Choose which schools you apply to wisely, in order to decrease the volume of applications and focus your efforts on writing excellent secondary essays. It is more important to tell your story well than to try to rush while completing dozens of essays.

When evaluating your achievements, find areas for improvement. This includes your work history, volunteer hours and research projects. I believe it is essential for students to work at least one paid job before attending medical school. This affords you the opportunity to earn money, excel at interpersonal skills and experience what it means to be a part of a team. You can observe how your contributions to the work environment can shape your team. Additionally, you will be able to speak to the specific skills that will make you a great doctor using real-world examples of teamwork, time management and conflict resolution.

As you interview at schools, each question should be answered with an anecdote that ties in your experiences. Most interview committees are not seeking yes or no answers, hypothetical scenarios or a rehearsed script about why you want to be a neurosurgeon. They are seeking honesty, personality and a genuine interaction between two professionals.

I prepared for my interviews by researching common interview questions for each school. For each question, I picked a specific experience on my resume to answer it. For example, when asked about a time I had to resolve a conflict, I gave a real-world example from my workplace. When asked about my weaknesses, I backed up my answer with a story from my research lab.

Next, it is essential to evaluate your MCAT score and GPA objectively.  Apply to schools that have a reason to consider your application seriously. This means comparing yourself to each school’s quantitative requirements using the MSAR. If you aspire to be a plastic surgeon, but your MCAT score is average, you may consider retaking the test to achieve a score that is consistent with MD admissions requirements; in 2019, 158 MD seniors and 2 DO seniors matched into plastic surgery. If you are like me, willing to consider a variety of specialties, I accepted that an MD or a DO school would get me to where I want to be. Evaluate the match data for the schools where you plan to apply, assessing if you would have a chance at matching into your specialty-of-choice in the future.

This doesn’t mean your application is doomed if you got a C in general chemistry, like me. The former admissions committee member reassured me, “We understand that applicants move through different stages of life with different challenges. The biggest aspect we look for is growth, so if coursework didn’t go well in undergrad, has there been any coursework since? Where has the growth and progression been?”

Finally, you should apply to schools with a vision that aligns with your own. As I attended interviews, I visited schools where I knew I would fit in. This meant applying to schools that value volunteering, had numerous research opportunities and provided a healthy learning environment.

If you keep your story consistent, honest and interesting for the admissions committee, your application for medical school will thrive. Ensure you apply to schools whose values align with your own, while also matching their criteria with your achievements. Watch out for additional admissions trends, the same way you may keep an eye out for the newest fashion trends; you may end up finding some interesting information to help you achieve your dream.

Image Credit: Custom drawing by Megan Pattoli for this column.

Switching Stethoscopes

After working in the emergency room as a registered nurse for three years, Coco made the transition into medical school at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. The column Switching Stethoscopes describes a medical student’s journey from nurse to doctor, while reflecting on the “non-traditional” path some students take to become a physician.

Coco Thomas Coco Thomas (10 Posts)

Columnist and Medical Student Editor

Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine

Coco Thomas is a medical student at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Philadelphia, PA, class of 2024. In 2016 she graduated from The University of Scranton with a Bachelor of Science in nursing. In her free time she enjoys traveling, going to the beach and hanging out with her dog, Zoey.

Switching Stethoscopes

After working in the Emergency Room as a registered nurse for three years, Coco made the transition into medical school at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. The column Switching Stethoscopes describes a medical student's journey from nurse to doctor, while reflecting on the "non-traditional" path some students take to become a physician.