First we must define our terms. What is a non-traditional applicant? Is it someone who is two or three years out of college looking to apply to medical school? No. More and more applicants have opted to acquire some worldly experience and wait a couple of years before applying to med school. In my estimation, this is a good thing. And, statistics show that the average age of the medical school applicant is creeping upward.
So, what is a non-traditional applicant? It is often someone who has taken a different career route out of college, and after some years (3? 5? 10?) decides that his/her submerged passion for medicine (which s/he had in, or prior to, college and then discarded) can no longer take a back seat to the current reality. Or, it is someone who is in the health care field who wants the broader professional responsibility of a physician. It is usually an applicant who is moving close to age 30, and can be as old as the early 50's.
Obviously admissions committees view these applicants with a slightly different set of criteria than they do the applicant who is about to graduate from an undergraduate program. Here are questions that admissions officers are interested in knowing the answers to:
1. Why are you considering medicine now? (The unasked question, of course, is why didn't you go to med school "back when"?)
2. What path, circuitous or not, have you traversed from "then" to "now" that would indicate an ongoing interest in medicine? In other words, did this idea just leap out of the blue because you are dissatisfied with your current career, or is there an obvious connecting thread along the way? For instance, do you have a law degree and suddenly decide that medicine is for you? Or, do you have a law degree in which you help the homeless and medically disadvantaged (in your practice or in a volunteer capacity) in a way which shows an ongoing interest in medicine? Perhaps you have been a nurse for a number of years, and now want to obtain your MD. Or you've been in research, and it's time for you to be a clinician. Or, or, or. These are just a few examples of the myriad of possibilities.
3. What is your academic history? Admissions committees want students who can handle the academic rigors of medical school. Have you taken classes recently to show your academic ability? Have you done well on the MCAT?
4. Naturally, you will be expected to have had some clinical exposure to make sure you have challenged your own desires for a career in medicine (just as "traditional" students are expected to have).
The bottom line: be prepared to answer the question(s): Why medicine? Why now? Why not back then? If your history weaves into a pattern that is understandable for the situation, and you meet the academic expectations held for all applicants, you must do everything possible to turn your passion for medicine into an MD degree. Go for it!
© Judith J. Colwell, MA Medical School Admissions Consultant