Breaking Down the Barriers: Advice from Nontraditional Applicants

Part of the reason I started this Blog/Instagram account was that I was seeing a common theme of Nontraditional Applicants being thought of as “less than.” Over and over again it was:

What do you mean you took the MCAT multiple times? Why are you in a Post-Bacc? In a masters? You weren’t smart enough to just go straight in? What does that mean for you as a future doctor?

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the average age of a first year medical student is 24 years old. Most people finish college at 22, this results in a majority of medical students taking time in between finishing college and medical school- meaning the majority of medical students are you guessed it, Nontraditional. 

Admissions committees like Nontrads because they bring a little extra to the table. I have talked about this a lot before on my own path to becoming a doctor. I am in it for the long-haul on why being a nontraditional applicant, for whatever reason: strengthening your application, learning a new skill, taking time to do research, being a career changer, in addition to traveling and spending time with family and friends, is one of the best things you can do for yourself at such a young age. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to have everything perfectly figured out in your early twenties to become a phenomenal doctor. 

I know I am not the only one who thinks this way, so I have teamed up with four amazing applicants who are in their gap years improving their applications, are career changers in a post-bacc program, have been accepted to professional schools, or are currently in medical school so they can share their stories as well. So let’s get started:

Your Title:

Sabina: Sabina, @thecurlymed, First Year Medical Student at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine 

Sneha: Sneha Dontha, @a.gram.of.sne, Robert Wood Johnson MBS program graduate

Jackelin: Jackelin Trevino (Jackie), @jackelintb, Dr. William M Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science 

Tara: Tara Caitlin | @thesaltypremed

What does being a nontraditional applicant mean to you?:

Sabina: To me, being a nontraditional applicant means not having gone straight from undergrad to medical school. I spent a few years building up my application, gaining experience, and maturing before I felt comfortable and ready to take on the task of applying to and being a medical student.

Sneha: I think being a non-trad definitely gives you the chance to explore who you are as a person, leading you to figure out what kind of physician you want to be. Whatever it is, you’re training your body, mind and soul to start the journey of medicine. Once you start, medical school and beyond is a marathon and can’t/shouldn’t be seen as a race.

Jackelin: I felt ashamed because I did not fall into the perfect timeline that has been perfectly set up by the pre-medical system. In all honesty, this feeling of shame sometimes was even fed by professors, advisors, and family members. Looking back now, I am so grateful I am a nontraditional accepted student. I know now my experiences shaped me and prepared me for the difficult road ahead. I have worked for 10 years for my “ACCEPTED” and all my road bumps, tears, anxiety, and disappointments make this acceptance that much sweeter. 

Tara: Being a nontraditional applicant means to me a student who did not immediately continue their education upon completing an undergraduate degree. These students usually have more experiences as they are older, and medicine may not have been their first career choice.

What you are doing/did during your gap years:

Sabina: I took 3 gap years. During the first 2 years I was completing and MS Biology program that served as my academic enhancer as I needed to boost my GPA before applying to medical school. I also did research and worked part time during those 2 years. I completed my MCAT in March 2018 as I was finishing up the program. In my 3rd gap year, I applied to medical school while completing an accelerated MPH program at Jefferson University. During the 9 month program, I balanced being a med school applicant with being a full time student and a part-time clinical research coordinator. During all of my years I continued to volunteer with local organizations and stayed true to my passion of serving the underserved. 

Sneha: I completed my Master’s in Biomedical Sciences at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School for 3 semesters. I also continued to volunteer as an EMT and started working as a medical scribe. I had the opportunity to shadow a psychiatry attending and an OMM resident.

Jackelin: After I graduated college, I took post-baccalaureate coursework at my community college. Once I finished, I applied to medical school for the 2016-2017 cycle as well as some Master of Science programs as a backup. Needless to say, I have never had so many rejection emails in my life. I was so upset and disappointed in myself because I felt like a failure. I saw classmates reach their goals, start families and here I was, STUCK. 

While I was wallowing in my disappointment, family friends from the United Kingdom were visiting around this time. They asked me if I would like to spend a few months in England with them while I figure things out, and I said “why not?!” I have nothing better to do right now! I spent four amazing months in the English countryside, an experience I will never forget. Little did I know during my time traveling, I got offered a spot at Liberty University’s Master of Science Biomedical Sciences program. 

Tara: Shadowing and working as an oncology patient care technician!

Your emotions when you first realized you were taking a gap year:

Sabina: I first realized I’d need to take at least one year before applying to medical school when I was a junior in college. At first I was, admittedly, disappointed in myself. There is all this pressure to go straight into medical school, and I was buying into that. I didn’t know at the time that it is not only more common these days to take gap years but also how beneficial it would be to have those extra years under my belt. 

Sneha: Initially, I was kind of disappointed in myself because my parents were hesitant about me taking a gap year. They were worried that once I took the gap year, I would change my mind from medicine, but that was certainly not the case! Part of me was also excited to kind of have a second shot at being a better student.

Jackelin: Definitely disappointment and shame. I took two gap years between undergrad and grad school, which I filled with travel and and post baccalaureate coursework. The second time, I took two gap years after I graduated from graduate school. I then worked for a microbiology lab for a year, in which I realized it was not for me. At this point, I had already given up applying to medical and podiatry school after two attempts upon receiving my Masters. Life happened, I hit rock bottom. Instead of wallowing like I had accustomed myself to do, I used that anger as fuel for one last push. Guess what? I got that acceptance. 

Tara: I went back to school for my bachelor’s degree at age 24 so I’m not necessarily taking one gap year between undergraduate and medical school like one might think when hearing that term. What is important to remember is that everyone’s path to medical school is different and to not compare yourself to others. This is a lifelong pursuit, so don’t rush it!

Your emotions during/afterwards:

Sabina: Pretty quickly into starting my gap year journey, I realized how glad I was to have taken these years off. Not only did I need the time to mature, but I also needed those years to learn how I can be the best learner possible before entering medical school. The three years I took off have been invaluable to my current success as a medical student. I truly feel ready both mentally and emotionally to handle the rigorous coursework and situations that I am expected to successfully navigate as a medical student.

Sneha: I am so incredibly grateful for all the things I have experienced thus far because it has truly shown me what kind of physician I hope to be. I also was able to grow so much as a student and as a person and I’m glad I was able to do that before diving into medical school.

Jackelin: I was in shock when I first saw my acceptance letter. I could not believe it. It has been two months since I got my acceptance, and now that I have had time to analyze these emotions, this is what I feel: I have understanding; I now see why everything happened the way it did in my career. I had to experience the frustration, disappointment and shame in order to fully experience the joy, gratefulness and humility. I can straight up tell you, if I would have attended medical school any of the three times I applied, I would have flunked out. My priorities were not the same as they are now, my focus was centered on something else, and the reason I wanted it so badly was to try and catch up to everyone else. This last try after my rock bottom experience, I was doing it for me, no one else. I believed in myself. The day after my submissions, I received interview invites, and everything else fell into place. 

Tara: I felt down on myself for going back to school at an older age. I realized that it doesn’t matter your age or where you are in life as long as you strive to be better than who you were yesterday. You are exactly where you’re meant to be at this time in your life.

What your advice is to other students?:

Sabina: My #1 piece of advice for students considering a gap year is to not care about what other people are doing or what other people will think. It is 100% your path, your story, and your dream. No one has any right to tell you that you cannot succeed except yourself. Do what is best for you on this pre-med journey and what will get you to where you want to be. You will have to put on blinders during the years as friends start getting into med school and people start asking you when you are applying but stay the course. Work hard during the gap years. Make yourself proud. They are worth it if they are used well. 

Sneha: Don’t sweat the small stuff! Trying to get into medical school can seem so daunting when you look at all the moving parts. Plan plan plan and make sure you know what you’re getting into. It is a truly emotionally and physically trying process. 

Jackelin: It is so easy to compare your life and career to others. Please stop. This gives you unnecessary anxiety. Everyone has their own story they are writing, all beautifully written with tear smudges and errors. Why do you want your story to be like everyone else’s? Embrace the struggle, embrace the failures, they make you stronger, they demonstrate your tenacity. All it takes is ONE acceptance! The perfect school will see your light and your story. For those of you that are on the brink of giving up or have already given up, try one more time, but this time do it for yourself and give it your all. I am looking forward to hearing your stories because they are all worth telling. 

Tara: The premed path will challenge you like you’ve never been challenged before and push you in ways you didn’t know you existed. If this is what you really want to do, if you continue to fuel your passion through experiences and never give up on your dream of becoming a physician, you will get there. There is no plan B!

I just want to thank these ladies for taking time out of their busy schedules and joining me in breaking down the stigma against nontraditional applicants! They are all going to be amazing in their futures and it’s an honor being able to let them share their stories on this platform. If you’re a NonTraditional applicant, please feel free to share your stories with me as well! And keep going, you got this!


Click to access 321468-factstablea6.pdf

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