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Taking Medical School Prerequisites as a Nontraditional Student

Last Updated on June 24, 2022 by Laura Turner

A look at the pros and cons of a post-baccalaureate program, self-designed program, classes as a community college, and a 4-year university

There are multiple ways to go about taking pre-requisites for medical school admission as a post-baccalaureate or “post-bacc” student. Nontraditional students are often swamped with information from various sources on how to successfully formulate a plan for medical school admissions. Some of the options for students pursuing the prerequisite courses include structured post-baccalaureate programs or non-structured/do-it-yourself (“DIY”) post-baccalaureates. These courses can be completed at either a community college or a 4-year university. Each of these options has pros and cons which will be discussed further.

What is a nontraditional “non-trad” student?

A nontraditional student is one that takes time off between college and medical school. There are many different types of non-traditional paths; we will cover some of the more common paths here.

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  • Gap/glide years are taken by some students in order to improve their credentials for medical school or other professional school admissions. Some of these students will take courses (or repeat courses), take/re-take the MCAT, or obtain additional extracurricular activities such as shadowing, volunteer experience (clinical or non-clinical), etc.
  • Career changers are those that have had a career (healthcare related or otherwise) prior to beginning their path towards medical school. Career changers come from a variety of fields such as law, engineering, nursing, computer science, etc.

Because of the variety of circumstances that nontraditional students arise from, it would be impossible to cover every situation. In general terms, students should follow a general path as follows. Obtain a 4-year degree if they do not yet have one, gather physician shadowing experience, volunteer in both a clinical and non-clinical setting, and prepare/take the MCAT. Once these steps have been completed, the non-traditional student should be able to apply for medical or professional schools.

Structured post-baccalaureate programs:

Students who thrive in a structured environment and tend to need guidance will likely do well in a structured post-back program. Structured post-baccs tend to be a good option for “career changers” who do not have a background in pre-medical studies from their previous career. These programs will often include MCAT preparation, volunteer opportunities, and a committee letter if the expectations set within the program are met.

Some of the drawbacks of the structured post-bacc programs are cost and lack of flexibility in terms of the courses that one may or may not want to take. Structured programs often have a schedule pre-planned for the student to follow. Depending on the needs of the student, this may result in them taking a course over that they didn’t necessarily need to repeat.

Self-designed/non-structured or “DIY” post-baccalaureate programs:

These programs are best suited for students who are easily able to self-direct towards their goals. These post-bacc programs are also a great fit for students who don’t mind doing a little bit of extra work in order to craft a post-bacc program that meets their needs. The benefit of a DIY post-bacc is that the student can take various courses that they need (and avoid courses that they don’t need) on their own time, rather than on a rigid schedule.

Some disadvantages of a DIY post-bacc can include lack of guidance through the program. Although there are online resources and likely a pre-med advisor available, the student will likely have to seek out these opportunities and mentorships on their own. Additionally, MCAT preparation assistance is not usually included in DIY post-bacc programs unless it is completed with assistance from an outside source or “self-studied.”

Both DIY/self-structured and structured post-bacc programs allow individuals the opportunity to redeem themselves or to prepare for application to medical school when changing careers.

The AAMC provides a list that one can search based on different criteria that meets their needs.

Community College vs. 4- Year Universities

When deciding to take courses at a community college (CC) vs. a 4-year university, students must determine which schools will accept community college credits (not all medical schools accept CC credits). Allopathic medical schools (MD) publish the Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) that details whether or not each school will accept community college credits. Osteopathic schools (DO) do not have a similar publication. Rather, it can be useful to visit the website of each school that you are interested in applying to.

Community College

Often students will choose to attend a community college (CC) because they are known to be “easier” or more laid back. While this may occur occasionally, there are still standards that must be met. Community colleges have a big benefit of being significantly cheaper in most places than their 4-year university counterparts. Community colleges are sometimes in a more convenient location than 4-year universities, which may allow for more flexibility if a student works a full-time job or has a family to take care of. Additionally, community colleges will often have smaller class sizes than 4-year universities which sometimes have the cliché “mega lecture halls.”

4-Year Universities

Admissions committees tend to look more favorably upon courses that are taken at a 4-year university. Universities often will offer upper-division science courses which are more rigorous and allow the admissions committees to gain a better understanding of your level of preparation for the rigors of medical school. A few drawbacks of a 4-year university include cost (often times more expensive), less flexibility of scheduling (classes might fill up faster), and for some students, lack of personalized attention.

While there is no “correct” way to go about taking post-baccalaureate courses as a pre-medical student, it is important that you find what works best for you (and will be accepted by schools) in order to do your best. Ultimately, the most valuable thing that you can do while taking courses is to get as many “A”s as you can to prove your mastery of course topics.

2 thoughts on “Taking Medical School Prerequisites as a Nontraditional Student”

  1. What does one do when they’re in my situation:
    I began college in 2008 at a community college while obtaining my EMT certification. The next couple years, I became careless with some classes which hurt my GPA. I’m now a paramedic that works full-time with a total of 10 years of EMS experience. I have taken more classes with adequate grades, but my GPA still doesn’t meet the traditional expectations of students being granted admission into a medical school. Do I start over? Do I try to retake classes that are below a certain grade? I see other paramedics doing it, so what do I need to do?

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