Nontraditional Medical Student
Getting into Medical School: A Guide for Older Nontraditional Students



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Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another. - Walter Elliot
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand
. - Confucius

Reapply to Medical School - A Second Chance

It's common to find people who did poorly in college, but still want to go to medical school. To a certain extent, this is what happened to me. If you find yourself in this situation, what you need to do is to redeem yourself academically before applying to medical school. And while there's no guarantee you can turn things around, here are some of the things I learned while going through it. At the bottom of this page is a summary of this process.

Find Out What Went Wrong
Before you can make things right, you need to understand why you did poorly in college the first time around. This is probably the most important thing you can do, so don't take this step lightly. Be honest with yourself and seek the input of your academic advisors,  professors, teaching assistants, family, and friends. This can be a humbling process. But it will help tremendously if you take what these people say to heart. Maybe you just weren't mature enough, took too many hard classes at one time, need better study skills, or were distracted by work, dating, or sports. See what tutoring, counseling, and remedial course offerings your school provides, and take advantage of them. Commit yourself to making the right changes before you go any further. This may take a few weeks from some, but it make take a couple semester for others. But it's most important to do this before you start taking challenging premed classes.

Develop Good Study Habits
Another reason you may have done poorly is that you never developed strong study skills. Unless you're a natural at college, you'll probably need to do something close to the following to get A's as an undergraduate and to survive in medical school. Plan to study 2 to 4 hours for each hour you spend in class on the tasks listed below. At first, assume you'll need 4 hours. This works out to 60 hours of homework per week for a student taking 15 credits.

  • Understand the scope of each class in advance. Before the semester begins, read the first 2 to 4 chapters of each of your textbooks. (There's no rule that says you can't do homework until after the semester begins.) And by understanding where the course is going, you'll be in a better position to organize and process the material you are going to learn.
  • Review each lecture before you attend class. By familiarizing yourself with the lecture material in advance, you'll take better notes and become an active participant in your learning process. Depending on the class, you may want to do any or all of the following.
    • Review lecture handouts.
    • Skim reading assignments.
    • Complete reading assignments in detail.

  • Reinforce each lecture. The prime learning time is right after each lecture. Everything your teacher said is still fresh in your mind. Make the most of this by doing the following.
    • Try not to waste time doing busy work like rewriting your notes or creating detailed review cards. Instead, try to take good notes the first time, which will be easier to do if you reviewed the lecture in advance. In addition, leave space in your lecture notes for future annotations.
    • Review your class notes right after lecture. Highlight and annotate important points, general principles, and key objectives. Practice drawing mechanisms, equations, formulas, diagrams, and graphs from memory. This should take roughly 15 to 30 minutes for each hour of lecture.
    • Depending on the class, complete all reading assignments in detail or just review the text as needed to clarify points you don't understand. This may take up to 1 or 2 hours for each hour of lecture.
    • Memorize important details. Most premedical and medical courses require a ton of memorization. In Gross Anatomy, for example, be prepared to memorize 15 new terms each and every day. This should take 15 to 30 minutes daily.
    • Finish all homework assignments as soon as possible. If your teacher doesn't assign any, then make some up from your text, old tests, or review books. If all else fails, ask your teacher for suggestions. A common approach in medical school is to use sample test questions to highlight weaknesses in your reading and help you become a more active learner. Plan to spend an hour for each hour of lecture on homework and review questions.

  • Integrate what you are learning. Spend time each day integrating what you are learning. Keep in mind that "teaching" does not always amount to "learning". Repetition is often the best way to assimilate knowledge.
    • Every day, after you study your current lectures, take an hour or two to skim the material from past lectures. This will help you integrate the current material as well as strengthen your understanding of previous concepts.
    • In addition to skimming all of your lectures notes every day you are in class, take one day a week when you are not in class to review all of your lectures in detail. This time is absolutely essential, if you want to keep up with things. Plan to spend the entire day (8 to 15 hours of solid studying) on this. I either take 12 hours each Saturday and then take Sunday off, or I study for 6 hours on both Saturday and Sunday morning and take the late afternoons and evenings off. I also start in early in the mornings, instead of sleeping in. If I don't start early, it's often hard for me to get started at all.
    • Clarify points that you don't understand with your professor, from references, or from your study group.
    • Meet periodically with 1 or 2 other people to review the course material. This works best if everyone is prepared (if everyone isn't prepared, it's often a waste of time). This is not a substitute for studying on your own, but a time to reinforce what each person in the group has learned. During this time, each person should take turns explaining a lecture objective to the group. The process of teaching others will reinforce what you know. And what you learn from other members in the group will help identify areas of learning you need to concentrate on. This should take 1 to 4 hours a week, depending on how your group is set up.

  • Study for tests early. Start studying for each test a week before it is scheduled. Everyone has their own style. Here's what works for me.
    • Review the lecture notes in detail.
    • Practice drawing mechanisms, equations, formulas, diagrams, and graphs from memory.
    • Review your memory lists.
    • Complete all reading assignments another time, if necessary.
    • If you've had the time to stay on top of things, the day before the exam should be reserved for fine-tuning, not cramming. Spend the day working on practice tests from old exams, questions in the your text, or review books. During the remainder of this day, reinforce areas of weakness, review general principle and objectives, review your memory lists, and get a good night sleep.

Establish A Strong Post-Bacc GPA
Your application to medical school will break down your GPA by year (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, post-baccalaureate, and graduate) and by science versus non-science courses. This makes it easier for a good post-bacc or graduate GPA to stand out on your application. The general rule is that the lower your undergraduate GPA was, the more courses you should take. If your GPA was around 3.2 to 3.5, then 3 to 5 additional science courses may be sufficient. If your GPA was below a 3.0, you may want to retake all of the medical prerequisites, complete a formal post-bacc premedical program, or earn a graduate science degree.

Don't be afraid to repeat courses you did poorly in as an undergraduate. Many of your basic science courses make up the core material on the MCAT. In addition, you probably won't do well in upper level courses if you did poorly in the basic sciences. And in whatever courses you take, it is imperative that you get all A's in them (or very close to all A's). If you can't do this, you may need to reevaluate whether medical school is a realistic goal.

One thing that may help balance out a low GPA is getting a higher than average score on the MCAT. However, there is a catch. Remember that the MCAT is based on General Biology, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Physics. So if you didn't ace these courses, you most likely will do poorly on the MCAT.

One other point on this is that it takes a good 6 to 12 months of hard work to improve your reading comprehension. So start early if you need help on the Verbal Reasoning section of the MCAT. Before you begin to study for the MCAT, take a solid 6 to 12 months to improve your reading speed and comprehension. Do this by working through books on reading comprehension, like the ones I list on the Books Link on this site. Read challenging material during this time from journals, newspapers, or books in the hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Don't  underestimate your preparation in the social sciences and humanities, since these are often the toughest questions on the Verbal Reasoning section of the MCAT. When you finally begin studying for the MCAT, make sure you work regularly on Verbal Reasoning practice tests. At a minimum, complete half of a practice test every other day for 2 months. If you run out of practice tests, get some GRE or LSAT tests.

Other Issues
Consider getting new letters of recommendation. Your premedical advisor can help you on this. It's important to have 2 or 3 strong letters written by professors who know how to write such recommendations and who think very highly of you. Make sure you have enough volunteer clinical experience. It might be helpful to do additional volunteer work while you are retaking classes. Moreover, keep in mind that some medical schools will be unwilling to look beyond your earlier problems, so you need to be realistic in your expectations. To hedge against this, you should apply to a larger number of schools. Finally, make sure you submit all of your application materials as early as possible. Most medical schools use a rolling admissions, where applications received early have a better chance of being viewed favorably.

In summary, consider taking a step back and laying out a 2 to 3 year plan for getting into medical school. That's one or two years to take courses and the MCAT, one year to go through the application process, and possibly one more year if you have to reapply. Here's an outline of the process.

  1. Find out what went wrong the first time around and take steps to develop good study habits. This will help to ensure you will get all A's from this point on (or very close to it).
  2. Retake all of your required premed courses where you did not get an A (General Biology, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physics, Calculus). If your GPA is borderline (around 3.25), you may instead want to skip these courses and take some junior/senior level biology courses. Another possibility is to enter a post-baccalaureate program that has a linkage to one or more medical schools.
  3. Take the MCAT in April. You need at least a score of 30 to be competitive. However, you may need at least a 33 if you are trying to offset earlier academic problems.
  4. Apply to medical school as early as possible, which is on June 1st. At this point, you should have a 4.0 post-bacc GPA over 20 to 30 credits and at least a 33 MCAT.
  5. During the 15 months your application is being processed (June through the following September), take another 30 credits of upper level biology or complete a quick masters' degree. Be prepared to apply again the following June if you don't get in the previous year. At this point, you should have a 4.0 GPA over your last 60 credits and at least a 33 MCAT, which are very competitive numbers.

If you can establish a 4.0 post-bacc GPA (or very close to this) over 30 to 60 credits, get a 33 or better on the MCAT, strengthen your letters of recommendation, and broaden your clinical exposure, you may find that you're a very competitive applicant. And if you really want to be a doctor, isn't it worth an extra 2 or 3 years of your time?