My Biggest Regret as a Non-Traditional Medical School Applicant

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • I remember the moment where it struck me. I was looking out the window of my Greyhound bus, on my way from Sydney to Melbourne. Just 2 months prior, I had bought a one-way ticket to Australia on a working holiday visa. The plan? Well, there wasn’t much of a plan other than to try to find a job of sorts and see where the world took me. My parents were thrilled that my college education had bought me a ticket to the antipode of my birthplace to be a day laborer.

    Outside of Sydney, I had just finished up a one-month stint working at a surfing camp for other tourists. It meant days cooking giant pots of food, teaching people from all over the globe how to surf, and playing guitar around beach campfires at night. Never before had I felt so happy and healthy and satisfied in my life. It was a certain nirvana that I honestly believed I could have ridden out for the rest of my days. In return for my “work,” I got to eat and sleep for free. Best deal in town.

    As I counted clouds from my window seat on that bus, I felt like I had just completed the ascent of a mountain of desire and was now on the way down. In addition to this trip, the years prior had me backpacking through the woods of the Pacific Northwest as well as the cobblestone streets of Europe, appearing on a game show, officiating weddings, a one-off into modeling, teaching skiing for a season in Colorado, and running adventure trips for teenagers in Central America. Honestly, I had been living for myself, seeking pleasure through life experience, travel, and adventure.

    But as I started into the emptiness of Australia National Highway M31, the epiphanic thought hit me: I wanted to be part of something bigger. I wanted to channel my life’s energy into a more singular and tangible goal. Gone would be the days of living only for the next thrill.

    I was going to apply to medical school.

    This idea had always been in the cards. I was about to take the MCAT during a college summer, but there was a music festival that weekend which I already had tickets for, and I put it off for a future test date. That “putting off” continued for nearly 5 years; the institution of medical school will always be there when and if I’m ready, I thought to myself. After I ironed the fun and more self-serving desires out of my system, I was ready to take the plunge.

    Now came the challenge. While I knew it wouldn’t be easy, I knew it would be simple. There was a plan in place — get letters of recommendation, apply, take the MCAT, interview, and cross fingers.

    My first step: study for the MCAT. I had to start here because I knew it would require the longest amount of time. My biology and chemistry classes had been just shy of a decade ago, and while I wasn’t starting from scratch, I was pretty close.

    If I had done one thing differently on my path, it would have been to get some professional help to get me through the MCAT with the highest score possible.

    Here I am 10 years later, and I have learned troves of information about tests, testing theory and strategy, and the necessary action, dedication, and above all else, STRUCTURE necessary to score as high as possible on an exam.

    Back then, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had no one to keep me accountable other than my parents who would offer the occasional, “How’s studying going?”

    I didn’t know the incredible value of practice tests to see how close I was to my goal. I didn’t even buy books from which to study; I had borrowed old ones from a friend. Rookie mistakes.

    The most important reason that I should have opted for a tutor/consultant was that I was already applying from a compromised position. I wasn’t a fresh-faced go-getter right out of college who spent every moment dying to start medical school. I wasn’t a healthcare consultant who had seen the inside of the industry and was ready for a pivot. I hadn’t spent the last 5 years on service projects, health missionary work, or giving back to the underserved.

    I had taken a bunch of time off, for myself, to find myself and live a little bit, and now it was time for me to come crawling back into academia. Despite a robust college experience with good grades, leadership positions, and publications, I needed all the help my application could get.

    In retrospect, I believe that a better MCAT score would have opened up many more doors when it came to getting offered medical school interviews.

    Just as IMGs depend on higher test scores to get more interviews because of their IMG status, I should have done whatever it took to score higher in order to bolster my own chances. I ended up with an average score, got 2 medical school interviews, and ONE SINGULAR acceptance. Luckily, that’s all it takes.

    Non-traditional students: if you aren’t applying to medical school from a glowing position of service, dedication to medicine, and a powerful background, make sure you absolutely ace the MCAT.

    It will open more doors now, which means more doors throughout your career. While it is possible to do so on your own, it is almost impossible to think that bringing someone on board to guide you would result in a lower score on Test Day. Take all the help you can get, and do what it takes to start your return off right. You’ll be glad you did.

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