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A Path To Medical School For Non-Traditional Students

There is a reason “playing doctor” is something most kids do growing up. Being a physician is a career that many people believe to be the ultimate “job.”

Taking care of another human being during their most vulnerable time is an amazing privilege that few people get to experience.

For different reasons, many people give up the dream of becoming a physician early on in their undergraduate career, or even before. Some think it takes too long. Some think it is too expensive. Some doubt they can handle the academic rigors. Others don’t want to delay having a family.

For whatever reasons, the childhood dream of wearing a white coat and hanging a stethoscope around the neck is dropped in favor of something else.

There are generally two types of medical students.

Traditional students are those that cruised through high school, survived their premed journey as an undergrad and decided to continue their journey and go straight into medical school. These types of students seem to be on the decline.

Non-Traditional Medical Students (and Premed Students)
Then there are non-traditional students (non-trads). I’m a psuedo non-trad, having taken 3 years off between undergrad and medical school. The initial delay was forced, because I didn’t get into medical school with my first application. Then I delayed on my own as I enjoyed getting “real world” experience not being a student.

Non-trads come in many different flavors. There is Evan, a former minister, or Anita, a former stay at home mother of 4, and there is Mark, a former PA. All of these people are, or are on their way to becoming physicians because what they were doing was not ultimately what they thought they were called to do.

Evan, who as a minister, interacted with physicians and the healthcare system a lot, found that he more and more wanted to be on the other side of the table during family meetings. He wanted to have the impact physicians were having on patients. So he hit reboot on his life and went back to school to become a physician.

Evan isn’t the only one doing this. According to the AAMC, from 2009 to 2012, 25% of the students matriculating to medical school are older than 25 []. Five percent are older than 31! There is even a whole community of non-traditional students at!

An interesting fact that I learned about the Medical School Headquarters Podcast is that about 40% of the listeners are non-traditional students. Probably because they are the ones with the least amount of support!

If you are in a job that you don’t love, or have an itch to go back and give your childhood dream of being a physician another chance, the question is what do you do next?

Where to Start
The first step is to be realistic. Many non-trads will need to take all of the required pre-reqs for medical school. These classes include a full year of physics, general chemistry, organic chemistry and biology. Many schools require English as well.

Unfortunately every medical school is different, so you have to do some homework and find out specifically what you will need based on the schools you may be applying to.

The best place to start looking at this is the Medical School Admissions Requirement service for MD schools and the College Information Book for DO schools. These books will tell you the requirements for each medical school, so you can be sure that you are taking the right path.

Time, Money and Support
Taking all of these classes will require you to either quit your job, or significantly cut back on your hours. Can you and your family survive without your income? Can you survive for at least 4, or more years? Do you have the support of your spouse, significant other or other family members?

Being a full-time student is more favorable, though not required, because it shows admissions committee members that you can handle a full course load. Take this into consideration when you are planning your path.

Make Sure You Want It
Before you even start worrying about going back to school, you should make sure that medicine is really right for you. Let me be brutally honest. Grey’s Anatomy and House are not what it’s like to be a physician!

You need to experience for yourself, first hand, what it’s like to be in a hospital seeing patients, or in a private practice, understanding some of the frustrations that come with healthcare today.

Find physicians, maybe even your own, that you can interview and shadow to gain the experience that you need.

Not only will these experiences help you in determining if you want to dedicate the rest of your life to medicine, but it’s also very important for your application. Admissions committee members expect shadowing to be including in your extracurricular activities. It was actually something missing from my first application many years ago.

What Else?
There are many things to take into consideration as you being your journey, including where you will get your pre-req credits. Should you go to a community college or a four year institution? Should you seek out the “best” premed school, or go to one nearby?

The first step may be to go back to your prior undergraduate institution. Many schools will allow you to talk to their pre-health advisors as an alumni.

Just Start!
Whatever path you take, know that your journey to become a physician will be filled with many amazing opportunities, and many frustrating struggles along the way. It can be scary to change everything you are used to, to move to a new place, to give up a great job. But I can tell you that being a physician is such an amazing calling that is worth it in the end.

Remember, the end goal is to be a healer, to take care of another human. Keep this in mind and the hiccups along the way will only seem like small speed bumps.

Dr. Ryan Gray is host of the Medical School Headquarters Podcast

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