I am writing this for people who are Non-Trads thinking about medical school and wondering what direction to take to get there. This is my story (uGPA < 2.2, sGPA < 2.0, White male, over 30) coming from a competitive undergrad school on the west coast. I majored in a non-science so my sGPA only included a small number of low marks. I couldn’t find much information on how to get into medical school in my situation, so I am writing this in hopes that someone else might find it useful. This cycle I got accepted to a few MD schools and a few DO schools. You can do it too.
You will hear a lot of people tell you along the way that you cannot make it. Always have a common sense backup plan, but know that you do have a chance. This is not a quick fix or a fast solution, but it is one path to get to your goal if you decide you really want it.
Considerations before you start:
Your application will all hinge on one difficult standardized exam (MCAT) at the end of your journey. You need to really think about how well you do on these types of exams. Look at your SAT/ACT percentile for a rough guide, but understand that the caliber of students taking the MCAT is going to be higher. Just for reference, mine fell about 10% from one test to the other. I have no idea if this is typical, but it is something to keep in mind. The common advice I found online was a 510+ (~80th %) for MD and a 505+ (~65th %)for DO. I found that I really needed a higher score than 505 for DO because DO schools lean more heavily on GPA. This is N=1 experience, but I was flat out rejected from more DO schools pre-secondary due to GPA screening than MD schools and found it to be a common theme.
Get a 4.0 or as close to a 4.0 as possible during your postbac. If you are like me and don’t have money lying around, you will need to work while going to school. This is not fun. Really decide that this is absolutely what you want to do. There are people who have been working extremely hard in their undergraduate program to get a shot at medical school. It is only fair that you match their effort, just at a later point in life. It took me 2.5 years of school to finish the prereqs while working. FYI: There isn’t an exact science to calculating cGPA if you have taken time between undergraduate work and postbac work because each school treats it differently in my experience. Your application is going to be one that an Adcom reads differently if you make it past the computerized cutoffs.
This guide is not meant for people who want to get into research-heavy institutions or T20 schools. My application centered on clinical experience and I aimed for mid/low-tier MD schools (IS/OOS friendly) and DO schools I was interested in attending. I just wanted to get into any medical school within the United States.
Step 1: Enter the workforce
Leave school. If you have done terribly in your undergraduate work, it is unlikely you are going to A) have a way into an SMP to further your progress or B) actually do well enough in an SMP not to completely ruin your chances.
Some attributes medical schools are looking for: leadership, community service, clinical hours, lifetime learning, ability to work in a team, diversity, and a clear reason why you want to be a physician. You want to start shaping your application in this direction.
If you already have made a career choice, I would recommend sticking with that choice if it provides you with a stable income. I would pick up an EMT certification and work part-time. Most ambulance companies are hiring constantly and are fine with you working a shift every pay period or in some cases a shift every other pay period. This gives you clinical hours, leadership, teamwork, and a chance to learn what it’s like to work with patients. It also gives you the opportunity to display the ability to work under stress, work with patients from different backgrounds, and show that you are willing to continually learn new skills. It also leaves you with a solid backup plan if you do not gain acceptance.
If you have not made a career choice, I would recommend going through an ABSN program. I personally became a paramedic, but if I had to do it over again, I would have gone through an ABSN program. A paramedic program takes 1.5 years and makes peanuts compared to a nurse with a BSN which takes about the same amount of time. An ABSN program is expensive, but your application is going to be extremely strong as a nurse with multiple years of experience. This also provides you with a solid backup plan in clinical work if you don’t get in. RN’s on the west coast with a BSN make a very decent living and are able to go down multiple pathways in their careers. If you go the paramedic route and don’t end up getting in, your options are limited to becoming a paramedic supervisor or trying to join the fire department.
Step 2: Postbac and Letters of Rec
Remember that time is your friend. Put a decent amount of time between your terrible grades and your reinvention as a successful student.
You may have an option at this point: either to take a formal postbac program (if you got above a 3.0 uGPA usually), or take a do-it-yourself (DIY) postback at community college (CC). I didn’t have an option since my uGPA was awful, but I still would have chosen a DIY postbac anyway. Decide for yourself, but I have never had an interviewer ask me anything about CC and it didn’t prevent me from gaining acceptance to medical school. DIY postbacs are cheaper and allow you to take classes at your own pace in any order. Formal postbac programs do have their advantages (committee LoR comes to mind), so make up your own decision. CC is generally looked at less favorably, but if you do well on the MCAT it is hard to dispute your knowledge of the subjects.
As a nurse or paramedic, you can work the graveyard shift and take classes during the day. This is going to make scheduling your classes a lot easier.
Need pre-Mcat (IMO): Inorganic chem 1,2. Ochem 1, Biochem. Bio 1,2. Physics 1.
Useful pre-MCAT (IMO if you need to take the MCAT before finishing the core courses due to timing these are the least valuable): Ochem 2, Physics 2.
Need to matriculate: English, Statistics, Psych / Soc (1 of each usually). I dont include P/S in the MCAT courses because I feel it is straight memorization and miledown P/S deck is a better use of your time.
Note: Calc is not necessary unless you want to go to one of the handful of schools that require it.
Make sure to go to your professor’s office hours! It is absolutely critical that you get good LoR from 2 science faculty, 1 non-science faculty, and your boss. You will also need a LoR from a physician, make sure to approach a few as an EMT/Medic/RN to develop a relationship. Make sure to find a DO physician to talk to for a LoR from a DO as well. You’ll want an MD LoR for MD school and a separate DO LoR for DO school. Use Interfolio to collect these letters the year that you want to apply.
Step 3: MCAT
There is an entire r/MCAT dedicated to this exam. I read many guides on that subreddit and picked a blend that I thought would work for me. I used:
miledown’s anki deck for P/S, Bio, and Biochem. I ignored the rest of the deck.
examkrackers for Chem, Bio, Biochem and ignored the rest of their textbooks.
coursesaver for physics and chem.
86 page Khan Academy document for P/S and videos to follow along with.
Uearth, every problem except for physics passages that I felt were too hard and didn’t represent the exam difficulty.
Jack weston’s free stuff for CARS.
Step 4: Apply!
Apply to any IS school and any OOS friendly school you are interested in attending. Even if your cGPA is low (it will be) you should still apply. Being an older person absolutely adds to the diversity of the class and you should mention it without making too big of a deal about it.
Apply to DO early! I’d recommend applying to DO programs as early as possible if you want the best chance of getting into a DO school. Many people wait until later in the cycle and, just like MD school, your chances are better if you are in line sooner. A strong DO letter of rec is very helpful here!
My final stats were something along these lines: ~510, 3.8+ postbac, cGPA <3.0, sGPA >3.5, 8k hours clinical experience as a paramedic. I wrote a personal statement that reflected on my journey and honed in on the attributes above: clinical hours, teamwork (leadership and being a team member), community service, diversity, dedication to lifelong learning, and why I wanted to be a physician.
Step 5: PRACTICE INTERVIEWING
You need to interview well. The most important factor after getting an interview invite in getting accepted are the opinions of the people interviewing you. If you have an interview invite, the school considers all of your other factors strong enough for admission. It is basically an even playing field from that point forward between you and the other applicants they have selected for an interview. You really want to be able to sell yourself well and feel comfortable speaking to an admissions person in a high-pressure situation. Practice, but don’t memorize!
** Final Edit: My results. **
I’m posting this part to show why I believe giving yourself a break between a low ugpa and a strong postbac is a good option to get into medical school. I applied to about 25 medical schools (15 MD, 10 DO).
For DO schools:
I got instantly rejected from about 5 DO schools. 5 IIs for DO. 2 Interviews, 2 Acceptances. I withdrew from the other 3.
For MD Schools:
15 Applications, 14 IIs, 1 R (UCSF - yeeeah), 3 Interviews, 2 Acceptances, 1 Withdrawl before interviewing. 10 Withdrawn applications because I got into my first realistic medical school choice. I am waiting on 1 dream school that I’m sure will end up in an R. (RIP free med school… finally got the expected R from Kaiser)
I don’t think that someone applying with <3.0 cgpa and a 510 would have gotten anywhere near these numbers without a gap between their grades. Taking a break and distancing yourself from poor grades allows you to explain why you are a different person. It allows adcoms to focus on your current abilities as a student.
Finally, I wish you luck on your journey and hope this helps you!