Nontraditional Applicants and Post-Baccs

What is a “nontraditional” applicant? 

There is no hard definition, but nontraditional (nontrad) applicants are typically students who have taken two or more years off before matriculating to medical school. Traditionally, students decided early on to be premed and attended high school, college, and medical school with little (if any) gap after college; however, pursuing other opportunities before medical school or even deciding to be premed later in life is becoming increasingly common. 

 

In fact, it is possible to apply to medical school without a typical health science-related degree. In this section, we will provide some real-world examples of nontraditional paths to medical school and explain common ways you can apply to medical school with a nontraditional background.

 

I am X years old and I’ve been working in (insert unrelated field), can I still become a doctor?

If this is something you really want, yes! According to the AAMC, the average age of matriculation for medical students is now 24 years old, but it is not uncommon for those in their 30s to apply, and there have even been students in their 50s who have already had a full career. A common misconception is that not being a premed in undergrad, being much older, or working in a completely unrelated field will put you at a disadvantage, but this is not true. This sort of background would qualify you as a nontraditional medical school applicant, and these experiences are actually an asset to your application. The additional years of life and work experience usually afford people with more maturity. Having a different background can help set you apart from the traditional applicant, and can also make you more interesting and memorable.


 

What might a nontrad applicant look like?

Anything! A nontrad applicant could be someone who was always premed but decided to take some time off to pursue Teach For America or a Fulbright Scholarship for example, but here are a few successful applicants that we know of, personally:

  1. Professional jazz musician who at one point played for Legally Blonde: The Musical

  2. Hollywood screenwriter and voice actor who also worked at some Silicon Valley startups

  3. Nurse with several years of experience who continued to work as a nurse during medical school

Because these three applicants did not complete medical school prerequisites during their undergrad education, they all completed a premed postbaccalaureate (post-bacc) program to fulfill those requirements before applying and successfully matriculating to medical school. We will discuss in greater detail what a post-bacc is as well as the different types.

 

Okay I’m interested, where do I start?

Hold on! If you haven’t already, it is strongly recommended that you do some clinically-related volunteering, shadow physicians, and talk to people in different roles in the health field while doing some soul-searching before you commit to this path. If you haven’t done these things already, most likely, becoming a physician is more of an idea or a fantasy than a concrete goal. These initial steps are especially important if you are going to quit a stable job and/or have important financial obligations (such as a family to support) because the pursuit of medicine requires many years of sacrifice and potential debt. If you quit now to attend a full-time post-bacc program, it will be at least 6 years before you start earning any income (resident pay), and at least 9+ years before you have meaningful income (attending pay).

 

The volunteering, shadowing, conversations and reflections will not only help give you a clearer picture of what being a physician really entails, it will also help you answer the questions “Why medicine? Why medicine now?”, which will constantly come up in your medical school applications and interviews.

 

Lastly, there are no hard rules, but successful medical school applicants typically have at least 150+ hours of clinical volunteering (working as a scribe, clinical/medical assistant, or EMT are very common premed clinical activities), 150+ hours of non-clinical volunteering, and 40 hours of physician shadowing. It is also good to show a history of consistency with your activities, so it would be best to begin doing these activities to assess whether you truly wish to pursue medicine and then continue them through your post-bacc education and application cycle.

 

Alright, I’m sure I want to be a doctor, so how do I apply as a nontrad?

Regardless of your background, in order to apply to medical school, you need to take the MCAT, complete a baccalaureate degree (e.g. B.A./B.S.), and complete certain college-level prerequisites that usually include one year of biology with lab, one year of inorganic chemistry with lab, one year of organic chemistry with lab, physics, and biochemistry. Each medical school has slightly different course requirements (e.g. some do not accept community college course credit, some do not require physics, some want prerequisites completed within 5 years of matriculation, etc.); check each school’s website to clarify, or purchase/share a subscription to the AAMC’s MSAR which is a searchable database that has every school’s requirements along with a lot of other useful information.

 

Traditional premed students will have taken all of these prerequisites and more during their undergraduate studies; as a nontrad, you may have fulfilled some or none of these requirements. You will have to complete these prerequisites through a premed post-bacc program and demonstrate that you can handle a rigorous course load in the health sciences (read: do well). The term post-bacc simply refers to any education at the college level completed after one already has their first baccalaureate degree.

 

What is a premed post-bacc program? 

To do a post-bacc means to take college courses after you already have a college degree. It also means that you are not taking those courses for the sake of getting another degree. There are two main types of premed post-baccs: career changer or academic enhancer.

  • Career changer post-baccs

    • Formal programs

      • One- or two-year programs at four-year universities specifically geared towards people who already have degrees/work experience in other fields but want to switch into medicine

    • Do-it-yourself (DIY) “programs”

      • Registering for and taking all required premed coursework at a four-year university and/or at a community college (CC) on your own

  • Academic enhancer post-baccs

    • Programs for re-applicants or traditional first-time applicants who need further preparation to become a competitive med school applicant, typically students who have the experience needed to go to medical school but need to enhance their GPA 

  • Post-Bacc Database Website (not exhaustive list): https://apps.aamc.org/postbac/#/index

 

Tell me more about career changer post-baccs!

Here are some pros and cons of formal and DIY career changer programs:

  • Formal programs

    • Pros:

      • Linkage partnerships

        • Well-established post-baccs have linkage agreements with certain medical schools which means if you meet the requirements, you can apply to that medical school while attending your post-bacc and be granted admission upon completion of your post-bacc (skipping a application gap year)

        • Each linkage will have different requirements: some have certain GPA and MCAT requirements, some allow you to skip the MCAT entirely, while some post-baccs guarantee admission to their partner medical school contingent on maintaining academic standards (allowing you to skip the medical school application entirely)

          • Because of the unique requirements of each partnership, your post-bacc advisor will walk you through their specific process during the school year if/when you determine that this is your goal

        • Here are some well-known, one-year post-baccs with linkage partnerships and high rates of students successfully matriculating into medical school (close to 100%):

      • One-year programs

        • Taking all of the premed coursework in one year may seem daunting, especially if you don’t have a science background, but most career-changers come from non-science backgrounds and do really well!

        • The advantage of completing your premed classes in a single year is that it reduces the amount of prep work you have to do when studying for the MCAT: much of that information is (hopefully) still fresh in your mind

          • A traditional premed who takes their courses over four years typically spends at least 3 months of dedicated time studying for the MCAT

          • Most nontrads who apply for med school at the end of a one-year program are usually able to prepare very well for the MCAT in 1 month

        • While it is theoretically possible to complete premed coursework in one year as a DIY student, I have found when trying to plan it out at different CCs that the schedules often work out to 2.5-3 years

          • As an independent student, you often have lower priority to pick classes than students who are trying to complete a degree; this is not a problem for formal one-year post-bacc programs because they are integrated with the institution and guarantee your class schedule

      • Premed advising

        • Formal programs have very experienced and streamlined premed advising teams that are dedicated to their small cohorts of post-bacc students

          • This is contrasted with premed advisors at large universities that often deal with a much bigger population of premeds

          • Making yourself a competitive applicant and the application process can be very daunting, and if you prefer to have more guidance, a formal post-bacc would be very helpful (though not necessary)

    • Cons:

  • Do-it-yourself (DIY) “programs”

    • Pros:

      • Is the most cost-effective option if taking most coursework at a community college

        • Calculating the cost of taking all the courses at some of my local CC’s the total amount varied from $4000-$7000

      • More flexible for those who need to keep working at their jobs or have other circumstances that does not allow them to attend a formal program full-time

    • Cons:

      • Little to no advising, will have to navigate the application and preparation process on your own

      • Likely no committee letter (this is a letter of recommendation written by your premed advising team on your behalf that refers to and contains your individual letters of recommendation)

      • While people do succeed going down this route, I have also heard from people who were questioned as to why they chose to take courses at a CC

        • I personally reached out to several Top 20 (T20) schools and inquired about this and the general response was something along the lines of “while we do accept community college coursework, we would question whether you could have performed as well at a more academically rigorous institution”

        • Keep in mind that the views of these schools are not representative of all schools; there are people where doing a DIY post-bacc at a CC is the route that makes the most sense for them. If this is your situation, you should reach out to schools directly if you have any concern about it.

 

Tell me more about academic enhancer post-baccs! 

Academic enhancer post-baccs are for students who have taken their prerequisites and have the experiences needed to apply to medical school but want to boost their science GPA to become more competitive. These students usually have a minimum GPA of 2.7 and a maximum GPA of 3.6. Some academic enhancer post-baccs offer MCAT prep as well. Formal programs are typically a year long and DIY programs can take as long as necessary. The purpose of the academic enhancer post-bacc is to show that you can perform well in upper-level science classes, so a final GPA of 3.5 or higher is expected.  

 

Here are some pros and cons of formal and DIY academic enhancer programs:

  • Formal programs

    • Pros:

      • Structured Program 

        • Well-established post-baccs have a very structured program where you can select the classes you want to take each semester/quarter and they might have workshops, shadowing, research, etc. depending on the program 

          • Ex. of academic enhancer post-baccs: the UC Consortium, which is a partnership of post-bacc programs at the UC Davis, UCI, UCLA, and UCSF Schools of Medicine 

https://health.ucdavis.edu/postbacc-consortium/

  • Note: applying to all four of these programs only requires a single California Post Bacc Consortium application

  • Linkage: some post-baccs will guarantee interviews or acceptances at specific medical schools if they have linkage partnerships. These usually have a certain GPA or MCAT requirement.

  • Premed advising

    • Formal programs typically have a lot of support and resources provided to help navigate the MCAT and entire application process 

    • Typically there is staff available to help individual students with their needs 

  • Cons:

    • Formal programs are more expensive than DIY programs 

    • Usually you cannot work while attending a formal post-bacc

  • Do-it-yourself (DIY) “programs”

    • Pros:

      • More flexibility in how many classes you can take, which classes you can take, as well as when you take them

      • Cheaper than formal post-baccs and you can usually work or do other things while taking classes if you need clinical experiences or anything else to bolster your application 

    • Cons:

      • Little to no advising, informal programs mean you are essentially just registering for classes and navigating the application process on your own 

      • No linkages 

What are some options for financing post-baccs?

Because post-baccs are not degree programs, you will not qualify for most scholarships or grants; however, you can (in 2021) borrow up to $12,500 in federal unsubsidized Stafford loans per year; if that is not enough, the rest will have to come from private loans. If you are borrowing private loans, you will need to have proof of income or a co-signer who has income to qualify for more favorable rates (5-6%); otherwise, you will have to accept higher interest rates (7-8%). Federal loans do qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program; you can read more about this on the Financial Roadmap page.

 

Depending on the schedule of your post-bacc (some allow part-time attendance), or if you are doing DIY at a community college, you might be able to continue working to help pay for the post-bacc.

 

Not all post-baccs are expensive, and there are some that target URM populations and offer much lower tuition (e.g. the UC Postbaccalaureate Consortium in California charges ~$13,000). 

 

Post-baccs that target URM populations: 


 

General Tips for Applying

Remember, your nontrad background is what makes you interesting; figure out what your story is, and determine how it answers the questions “Why medicine? Why medicine now?” Your answer must be readily apparent and consistent in your application. That means that if you say somewhere that you are passionate about working with the homeless community, you should have a demonstrated history of volunteering/work experience that aligns with this statement. Your application will consist of a personal statement, a section where you can list up to 15 work/activities (this is where you talk about work experience, volunteering, research, and/or hobbies), secondary essay questions unique to each school, and hopefully interviews as well. These are all opportunities for you to showcase your unique background. Consider that most traditional applicants will have some clinical volunteering, non-clinical volunteering, shadowing,  and research among others, but would have had less time to accomplish truly unique experiences. You can bet that the three aforementioned nontrads talked about jazz music, screenwriting/voice acting, and nursing in their work/activities sections in a thoughtful manner that helped make them stand out.

 

As you begin this journey, keep a journal where you can jot down noteworthy thoughts and experiences. Perhaps you had an inspiring conversation or patient-interaction while volunteering; these are the sorts of anecdotes that you will want to bring into your essays and interviews.

 

Resources 

Note: while Reddit and StudentDoctorNet are useful resources and communities, remember to take the advice you receive with a grain of salt. Many members are fellow premed students, and not all information you hear on forums will be entirely accurate. Do your due diligence, and make informed-decisions based on your own best judgment.

Contributors: Sean Luong and Stephanie Bueno