Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from undergradute, graduate school, medical school, residency and beyond.

Strategies for non-traditional success

Being Non-traditional

A non-traditional applicant  generally hasn’t taken the “traditional” route to medical school application (graduation from 4-year university with application in junior year). There is no particular “higher status” that applying to medical school as a non-traditional applicant will confer. In short, you are in competition with every applicant that applies to the schools that you apply to. The same criteria also applies to your undergraduate experiences and preparation for medical school. In general, many non-traditional applicants are older but this is not always the case. Sometimes an applicant is non-traditional because they didn’t attend primary or secondary school in this country but completed university here, worked a couple of years and then applied to medical school in their early 20’s. Certainly, this type of applicant is not traditional in any sense of the word but they would not be an “older” applicant as many nontraditional applicants would be.

While there is no age “limit” in terms of admission into medical school, certainly an older applicant needs to be sure that they are physically able to get through four demanding years of coursework and residency which is minimally three years. In today’s world, many folks who are in their 40s and 50s are in excellent physical condition and would have no problems with medical school, residency and practice. In my own case, I was over 40 when I applied to medical school and had no problems with school or practice.  I was heavily involved in middle-distance running  and tended to meet several older classmates on the running track. In short, the older students (a couple of service academy grads, a former olympic gymnast)  in my medical school tended to be in excellent physical condition. While many folks in their 20s and 30s would look at those folks who are in the 40s and 50s as “taking up a seat”, in general, the older applicants to medical school have no illusions that they need to be in good physical condition while the 20-somethings are often not as physically fit. If you are older, you should make physical conditioning a priority without question.

Keeping in good physical condition (at least 30-60 minutes of meaningful aerobic activity) can spell success in your academics. Physical activity is excellent for stress release and relief along with allowing one to foster discipline in life. It is the consistent and disciplined students who tend to perform best in medicine and in practice. Being able to work long hours (almost any specialty will demand this) will be much easier and better if you are in good shape. I can tell you that in residency, tennis, soccer and basketball along with running stairs became my means of keeping my head clear and my back strong. I played varsity tennis in college and continue to enjoy this activity well into practice. Having a physical activity or sport that can give you a good workout along with some social connections can be excellent. Even golf is good as long as you walk the course (I know the cart is fun but walk the course).  Twenty minutes of brisk walk on a treadmill a couple of times per day (listen to the audio summaries of your coursework) can be good for your physical condition and good for your head.

Turning disadvantage into an advantage.

Remove the thought that because you are a non-traditional applicant, medical schools are “hunting” for you. Medical schools do not have to hunt for any type of applicant or accept every type of applicant for diversity. This means that as a nontraditional applicant, you have to be just as competitive as a traditional applicant. Many times, many non-traditional applicants have had less than a great undergraduate record but taking a undistinguished undergraduate record into a competitive range is a very positive asset for a nontraditional applicant. Most admissions committees will look at recent coursework that is excellent and take into consideration that many students apply with a poor freshman year and turn things around for the next three years. While you won’t be applying with an undergraduate GPA (uGPA) of 4.0 (and you don’t need a 4.0) you will need to be above 3.5 to be considered minimally competitive and in the  3.6-3.7 range to be considered very competitive in addition to a strong score (31 or above) on the Medical College Admissions Test.

With those types of “numbers” out there, am I saying that you don’t have a chance? No, that is not the case but I am saying that you need to be realistic about your application when you are posting a uGPA or 3.5 along with a 28 MCAT and expect to be the nontraditional student at most allopathic medical schools. While the osteopathic schools do replace grades and make a good shot for the nontraditional applicant, you still have to do some uGPA “damage-control” if you have several grades of D in Organic Chemistry and have Cs in every pre-med requisite course. For any medical school, osteopathic or allopathic, the numbers are going to be more important and are going to be more important than the subject of the major that you have selected. In short, your application has to show recent can consistent scholarship in some manner. You have to get your academics in the best order that you can and optimize every part of the application along with excellent academics.

Many nontraditional students make the mistake of trying to take too many classes while working full-time. If you need to work full-time, your coursework need to be part-time. You are not going to get any “points” for a less than optimal performance (any grade below B+) in your coursework because you are working and taking a full load. Most allopathic medical schools are going to screen by uGPA which means that you need to make sure you meet and exceed the screen. When screening, most schools are not going to try to look at whether or not you are employed full-time. In short, drop back your courses (even if it take longer) until you can do excellent work in your courses. While you can’t allow your family (or yourself) to live outdoors while you are trying to take courses, you can cut back on the number of course hours that you take. If you are dependent on financial aid, take only the minimum of courses that keep your financial aid flowing. If you do well with the minimum, then add more but don’t overload and drop in the middle of the semester when you burn out on work and too much of an academic load.

You also need to take into account the demands of your courses. Taking three lab courses in one semester and trying to work full-time is not a sound strategy. When students (traditional or nontraditional) try to overload on coursework and work at the same time, it’s not the employment that suffers, it’s the academics. Again, it the performance that counts and not particularly the courseload because you are trying to “prove” that you can take many hours like a medical student. Additionally, your pre-med prerequisite courses need to be outstanding with the acquisition of a solid knowledge base for a good performance on the MCAT. For General Chemistry and General Physics, you need to have a very strong math background and thus, make sure you have good college-level algebra/trigonometry skills before you take those classes. If you need a math upgrade (or refresher),then take General Biology and math before you take General Chemistry and General Physics.

If you have a family, certainly there are things that you are going to have to take part in that your more traditional students will not have to deal with. You can become an expert with time-management and make time for the things that mean the most for you or you can resent the fact that you just have more demands. Balancing a family (does not mean that you inform the professor that your child has a play and you won’t be getting your assignment done that night) with excellent academics can be a huge positive when it comes to application to medical school. In short, make a schedule that allows you to get your studies done and take time for the people who you love. If you have a son or daughter’s play or a ballgame that you want to see, make that your recreation for the week and do your work with your recreation reward in mind.  Even better, schedule some physical activity with your child or spouse that will allow you to both spend time and get some benefit from the experience. Never, never use your family or job as an “excuse” for not getting your assignments done on time or doing poorly in a class or on a test. If you set a regular and consistent study schedule (without academic overload), you are likely to be more efficient rather than less efficient.

On the job

If you are working full-time, your job demands your attention when you are on the job. You can certainly bring a note card or two that you can work on when you are on your meal break but don’t expect your co-workers to “take up the slack” because you have a final exam coming up or because you are in school to become a doctor. First, your coworkers start to resent you and your work performance which makes the job more stressful for you. If you are on the job, you need to put in as much mental and physical energy as if you were not in school.  Again, cut back on the coursework if your job is very demanding and don’t count on breaks at work to be your study time as most people can’t get their homework done on the job. Pitch in and be a good coworker/employee while you are getting yourself prepared for medicine. These characteristics will serve you very well when you are both in medical school and in residency.

Studying and getting academics strong

If you have poor academics from an earlier attempt at university work, take your time and get As on your retakes. Taking Organic Chemistry three or four times with Cs is not going to get you into medical school. The retakes will be on your record and don’t bode well for an acceptance.  Before your start to prepare yourself for medical school (uGPA “damage control” or not), sit down with a counselor and take a good and objective look at your study skills and academic knowledge base. Do you need to upgrade your reading skills? Do you need to upgrade your math skills? Do you need preparation in critical thinking skills? In short, you need to have good communication (reading, written and spoken English), good critical thinking (math and logic) and a good academic base to show that you can get through a challenging medical curriculum. You can acquire these skills at any time but you need to get them. Take some time and put yourself in a good position to get the most for your tuition dollar.

As I stated above, there is no “hurry” to get into medical school. If you acquire strong academics, you can enter professional (medical, dental, law)  at any age. Take your time and get what you need. Medicine is a very long-term goal. It’s a bit like having 100 pounds of excess weight to lose. You are not going to be able to get that much weight off in two weeks even if you drink only water for that period of time. You are not going to turn a poor academic record around in one semester but you can start right this second to sit down and work out how you are going to achieve the excellence that you need. With any long-term goal, you can “tick off” the daily strides that you make toward it. Write down everything on everyday that you have done to get toward your goal even if it’s “studied and mastered all of the synthetic reactions for alcohols” .  Also, don’t forget to reward yourself for keeping on a straight path to your goals with excellent performance. Also, don’t forget to “forgive yourself” if you weren’t perfect in everything that you attempted. Being an obnoxious perfectionist will lead to burnout rather than excellence which is the real “key” to nontraditional sucess.


9 December, 2010 - Posted by | age, medical school, medical school admission, stress reduction, study skills


  1. Hi,

    I graduated with a BS in Biochemistry in 2011 with a cGPA and a sGPA of 3.3. Money was always an issue and therefore I had to work part-time throughout my four years of college to cover my living expenses.
    Right after graduation, I could not gather the courage to rack up more loans…so I decided to take up full-time cancer research job in solid tumor and immunology. I have been working fulltime in research and paying off those loans since last two years. I also have a major interest in filmmaking. I have contributed as a producer/production assistant to a number of short films.
    I have always wanted to go to medical school. A recent personal experience has ignited my motivation to pursue a career in medicine more than ever. Thus, I am currently preparing for MCATs, volunteering at two different hospitals, and will shadow a physician in late fall. I am planning to apply in 2014 for 2015 entry.
    Obviously, as a non-traditional student, I am wondering how competitive would I be for california medical schools? With a low GPA, I know I need to ballpark atleast 34-36 on MCATs to atleast be considered.

    Any advice/opinion is appreciated.


    Comment by samantha | 29 September, 2013 | Reply

    • To Samantha:

      You can actually answer your own questions by going to the websites of the schools that interest you and looking at the GPA/MCAT scores of the matriculants. You need to know that MCAT does NOT offset uGPA. You also need to know that non-traditional does not confer any “special consideration” in terms of boosting your chances of entry into medical school. In short, non-traditional students have to meet the same requirements as traditional students. With that being said, you need to first: Take and objective look at what you bring to the table in terms of admission to a medical school class. Why should a school admit you and what could you bring to medicine? In terms of your uGPA, you can’t use the fact that you worked during school as a reason for not achieving academically. Yes, it’s great that you have no debt going into medical school but you have to be able to show an admissions committee that you can excel in a challenging and largely self-directed curriculum where there is little room for error. In short, an admissions committee needs to see that medical school isn’t going to be a problem for you because there are plenty of people who entered medical school with uGPAs above 3.5 who had difficulty with the curriculum. Choose your schools wisely and contact some of them them to get an idea of how much variation is around their matriculant mean uGPAs. If there is considerable variation around those means, you have a better chance of getting into said school. The California medical schools are extremely difficult to get into because of the huge numbers of applicants with extremely academics and extracurriculars. The state is large and the applicant pool is very deep. With that in mind, you may want to apply to a broad range of schools across the country (privates so that state residency isn’t a matter). Try to get some recent post-bacc work done (not graduate) so that you can keep adding to your uGPA. For you, every increase is going to help. Good luck.

      Comment by drnjbmd | 29 September, 2013 | Reply

  2. Dr. B.: Your point: “If you have poor academics from an earlier attempt at university work, take your time and get As on your retakes. Taking Organic Chemistry three or four times with Cs is not going to get you into medical school. The retakes will be on your record and don’t bode well for an acceptance. Before your start to prepare yourself for medical school (uGPA “damage control” or not), sit down with a counselor and take a good and objective look at your study skills and academic knowledge base. Do you need to upgrade your reading skills?” was very precient and timely for me. I took Biochem II three times and could not get more than a C each time. C. C. C. And I was a biochemistry major, which made by efforts rather embarrassing. However, it was in that last Biochem II course that the professor noted that I never finished is rather lengthy tests. He suggested I get tested for a reading disorder and it was determined that I read about 1/3 the rate of my colleagues. I have since improved my reading rate considerably; however, as I was graduating from post-bacc at the time, it was too late for me to use that improved reading skills to assist with school. I wonder how much of my B grades would have been A grades had I been more skilled at reading and test-taking.

    Comment by Xoco | 23 August, 2012 | Reply

  3. Dr. B.: Your point “You are not going to get any ‘points’ for a less than optimal performance (any grade below B+) in your coursework . . .” would mean for some people that they would need to score a solid A as some schools, such as mine, do not give out +/- grades. That is, if you miss an A, you get a B; there is no A- nor B+. This certainly needs to be kept in mind when taking courses where one’s grade is borderline A/B (or even B/C, etc.).

    Comment by Xoco | 23 August, 2012 | Reply

  4. I am not sure if you are still checking these comments, but I have found your blog insightful and I was hoping for your advice on my situation. I am a non-traditional applicant hoping to apply to medical school in the upcoming year. I have a 3.56 uGPA (Biochemistry) at a top 20 university and a 36 MCAT score (current). I have several years of volunteer service and fairly extensive clinical exposure. In the six years since I have graduated from undergrad, I have earned a PhD from a top five university. I have numerous first author publications, and I should have strong letters of recommendation from well-known physician scientists. I have been advised that I should mainly apply to top 15 research medical schools (Stanford, Harvard, UCSF, Wash U, etc), as my research credentials are likely to carry more weight at these types of institutions than other medical schools. Is this a realistic assessment? I am nervous my mediocre uGPA makes it a crap shoot to get into any medical school, much less a top 20 national school.

    Comment by Brian | 28 December, 2011 | Reply

    • To Brian:
      Apply to a broad range of school and apply early. The reputation of the medical school that does not accept you is meaningless in furthering your career. As long as you get into a medical school in the United States that is LCME-accredited and do extremely well in coursework and on USMLE (Steps I & II), you can get into a very high-powered residency program. It’s actually residency that determines how you will eventually practice more than where you attended medical school. As an example, I attended a medical school that was certainly not a top-ranked research school but did my residency trainingcin a very, very strong university surgical residency program under two former chairmen of the American College of Surgeons. One of my medical school professors was a former chair of the American College of Surgeons too.

      No, your research and Ph.D isn’t going to offset your below-average uGPA but you can apply to a broad range of schools (the research schools, your state schools and some national privates like George Washington, Case Western Reserve/Cleveland Clinic) and see where you land. You definitely need to get your materials together and apply as early as you can. If the school that granted your Ph.D has a medical school, apply to it too. Medical school admission isn’t a “chip shot” for any applicant. Good luck.

      Comment by drnjbmd | 28 December, 2011 | Reply

  5. hey please give me advice for foreign students…i’m from India and want to take the usmle exams…any help would be great

    Comment by Sri | 23 December, 2010 | Reply

    • To Sri:
      You can find information about USMLE at . Be aware that there is new content for Step 1. Good luck.

      Comment by drnjbmd | 23 December, 2010 | Reply

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