What Non-Traditional Applicants Should Consider When Applying to Medical School

Non-traditional medical school applicants have more to consider beyond academics. Ensure medical school success by evaluating cost of living and support systems.

Non-traditional applicants to medical school are becoming increasingly common, with higher numbers of students coming from a variety of backgrounds. A student might be considered non-traditional for many reasons, including taking gap years, being older, having a degree or career in a different field, or having the additional responsibilities that come with a family. It’s important for non-traditional students to bear in mind that a successful medical school application showcases how being “non-traditional” will make you a more capable physician – but before you even apply, make sure you’ve selected the right school for you and your needs. 

The reality of being a non-traditional student is that there are often a variety of other life circumstances that should be important considerations in choosing the right medical school. Medical school is a significant investment, not only in terms of time spent in training, but also financially. Ensuring you have the right environment and support system in place can substantially impact your mindset and wellbeing as you progress through your medical training. A non-traditional student may want to take into account geographical location, overall cost of living, and presence or absence of a support system, as these may have a more significant impact than they would for a more traditional student. 


Expenses Beyond Tuition

First, consider the total cost of living, not just tuition, for the location of the school. Additional costs such as childcare or daycare, as well as housing and transportation, can vary greatly between cities. Tuition aside, cost of living expenses could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to your overall debt during the course of training. Especially if you plan to use financial aid to support your living expenses, or if you have a spouse or children relying on you for support, this can be an important factor when budgeting and determining whether living in the area will be feasible. Ultimately, you will end up with a medical degree no matter which school you attend, whether it’s in an expensive area or a more affordable one, so choose carefully.

Another thing to keep in mind regarding overall cost is that many schools may have clinical rotations at several locations across the state or country, and there can be additional expenses for travel, parking, extended daycare, and childcare. It’ll be important to figure out whether the medical school you’re applying to has a home program for the specialty you are interested in, or whether you will have to travel for away rotations to complete sub-internships at a program of your desired specialty. 


Support for Families

Secondly, one of the biggest concerns for students who have families is whether the medical school itself will be flexible and supportive and/or whether the school is located near family or friends who could offer support, with childcare or otherwise. When interviewing with schools, ask the school administrators or current medical students about the typical schedule of classes for the basic for sciences portion, or whether there are frequent last-minute schedule changes. If you need to plan around a childcare schedule, this can be an added stressor. Also determine if there is mandatory attendance for lectures at the school; for example, my school does require lecture attendance, but if I don’t have last-minute childcare, this can be difficult when my child is sick and has to stay home from school. It’s not impossible – but does take some advance planning. 

Overall Support System

Lastly, and most importantly, your overall support system as you progress through medical training. Your family, friends, and network are key factors to your success as you embark on this journey. Of course the school’s location and cost are important, but having a strong network of support is nothing short of essential in medical training. For myself, without the unconditional support of my husband, who’s been able to take on meal preparation, or get the kids out of the house so I can study, I honestly don’t know that I would be where I am now. Medical training is the epitome of delayed gratification. There are seemingly endless days of sacrifice for the ultimate goal of becoming a physician, and I can’t say enough about having a shoulder to lean on to carry you through. 

While there are a lot of additional challenges that come into play as a non-traditional applicant, take solace in the fact that a lot of these things are what will help you succeed and become a great medical student and future doctor. Managing a career, family, and all the other life factors that come with being a non-traditional student shows that you have an intrinsic motivation to pursue medicine regardless of life circumstance, and that will take you far. You’ve found your passion and all the right reasons that make it more likely you will succeed.

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