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    Questions from Non-Traditional Students 

    Written for Kaplan's Medical School Admissions Advisor. Posted versions are longer than those published.

Can I learn as fast as younger students?
How will I adjust to college?
Will schools believe my career change is serious?
Will I recall my previous science coursework?
Can I use my non-science background?
How do I balance school, work & clinical experience?
Will admissions care about my balancing act?
Advantages of Non-Traditional Students?

    What should I do to prepare myself to apply for medical school? Should I attend a formal postbaccalaureate program, go to graduate school or "do it on my own?"

    First, you need an initial assessment about how much time you can devote to this activity, how supportive your immediate family is, how much you have set aside in financial resources to develop your application, etc. You may need an Advisor to help you wade through the many levels of issues that you face. Rarely, is it clear and easy to deduce the appropriate strategy for any non-traditional applicant immediately; indeed, it is very helpful for you to share your background and concerns with someone who has worked with many non-traditional applicants, and to enlist their help to develop your personal trategy.

    That being said, the possible pathways include:

      a. Formal, typically expensive, highly structured, postbaccalaureate programs, generally administered at private colleges.

      Students who have a strong academic record in a non-science degree and are changing careers often enroll in these programs. Generally, you will need to quit working and put full-time effort into being premedical in order to take this route. This may work best for someone who has ample funds and wishes to complete preparation quickly. The up side to selecting this direction is that you interact regularly with a small group of premedical peers, generally, some sort of advising program is included, and there is a compacted one or two year academic sequence in which to complete your premedical requirements. MCAT preparation may or may not be included in the package. You may get more individual treatment in this type of program.

      A subset of this program exists at a few medical schools where students take courses with their school's medical students. You may earn a Master's degree upon completion of the program, although it is similar to a postbaccalaureate program. If you earn top grades in competition with the medical students, you may have an edge in admissions at that school, or be offered a guaranteed interview or acceptance into that school's medical program.

      b. Formal, typically inexpensive (some are free or include a stipend), highly structured, postbaccalaureate programs at public and private colleges generally for underrepresented and minority students who need to improve academic records.

      Some schools offer programs with one or two years of upper-division science courses such as molecular biology, embryology and immunology, clinical experience, research opportunity, and MCAT preparation. Eligibility requirements vary tremendously. There may be requirements for having applied previously and having been interviewed, but not been accepted. Sometimes, there is a minimum GPA or set of MCAT scores. The length of time provided, such as one or two or even more years varies between programs as does the cost of tuition and how much financial aid is provided. These programs may be competitive and require that you reside in a particular state.

      c. Informal, unstructured premedical coursework.

      Many non-traditional students are the primary breadwinner in their family, which may include a spouse and several children, and even extended family members. Thus, taking premedical coursework at night or on weekends may be your only available option if you must continue to work full-time or close to full-time. Many allopathic medical schools evaluate academic credentials from community colleges as less rigorous than credentials from four year institutions. This may be a disservice to community colleges, yet it is still the case. Osteopathic schools seem not to distinguish between records from two year and four colleges. Some four year colleges provide a weekend or evening schedule to meet the needs of older, working students. Medical school admissions committees may have difficulty evaluating extension courses, and may not want to "take a chance" on someone who, to them, is an "unknown" quantity. Extension courses, then, are probably not a good choice. Call the schools where you will apply to verify how they view these academic venues. Reputation of the institution at which your coursework is taken is important, courseload is important, and the level of academic rigor is important.

      If you are going to take the premedical requirements "on your own," you can do so as a second baccalaureate student (and you may be eligible to receive some financial aid). You may not need to complete that second degree in order to apply to medical school; you may just need some of the coursework from it. Or, you may register as an unclassified postbaccalaureate student, which means you can select exactly those courses which you need for your premedical requirements. The down side is that you may not be eligible to receive financial aid in this status. And, you may be totally without an Advisor. If that is the case, find one!

      Start with the math and chemistry courses that you last took, whether it was four or 15 years ago, since your physics, and upper division chemistry and biology courses will build on these basic courses. You must begin at the beginning..wherever that is for you, and work into upper division coursework. If you took beginning algebra in high school, then strengthen your algebra skills first, and go from there.

      d. Graduate school.

      If your undergraduate grades in the sciences were not strong, you may need at least two years of science coursework to prove to admissions committees that you can handle medical school level work, and to prepare yourself to do well on the MCAT exam. One way to do this coursework is to complete a graduate program. You need to assess exactly where your undergraduate weaknesses lie; have an Advisor help you. Then, select your degree in an area that will showcase your newly-developed strength in previously weak areas. Suggestions include earning a Master's degree in biology, applied life sciences such as ecology, molecular biology, etc., exercise physiology, nutritional sciences, public health, chemistry, etc. If you do not attend medical school for whatever reason, make certain that this degree is one you enjoy and one on which you can build another career!

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