Can too long of a time frame preparing to apply to medical school "look bad" on an application?


I am wondering if too long of a time to apply to medical school, when one could have done it earlier after having done all requirements and obvious premedical requirements, can hurt an application to medical school or in a personal statement? Here is my abbreviated backstory:

In California, I spent 12 years as a volunteer running and doing medical assisting work for a free clinic for the homeless and other medically-underserved groups. I then left to do health work in rural Mexico, where for the last 16 years, I have helped coordinate a monthly comprehensive free clinic for poor farmworkers and indigenous villagers, still as a volunteer. Besides coordinating, I do everything from running the pharmacy and dispending medications, helping fill cavities, take x-rays, clean instruments, assist in surgery, translate for U.S. physicians, etc. To pay for my volunteer work and my missions to Mexico, I have worked as a medical assistant/phlebotomist and, most recently, as a pharmacy technician.

Many of my formerly premed friends – all of whom are now practicing physicians – believe that I should have applied to medical school decades ago. They have pointed out that my delay in applying (by doing so much volunteer work) is going to hurt my application, especially in trying to answer the questions: “Why do you want to be a physician?” “Why now?” “Why not earlier?” If being a physician is really what I want to do, my doctor friends have asked, then, “Why have you taken SO long to do apply?”

Another point they have noted is that staying too long a one “gig” may look bad in terms of lacking progress. Instead of doing just medical assisting and coordinating, I could have gotten more comprehensive or advanced training (e.g. nurse, etc.) and use that training to be able to have done more during those decades of volunteering.

Which brings up the obvious question, of why the delay? Frankly, I think one reason is not believing that I am smart enough nor that I am a competitive candidate (my GPA is not that great, and while I am taking more science courses, the uptick in my GPA has been incrementally small at best.) I also had doubts about being a physician, – whether I could be competent and also handle the stress. But I realize now that being a physician would allow me to do more with the populations that matter to me. Another is that I am very attached to the population in which I am involved. I like doing health work and social work with various “marginalized” populations; I feel there is a great need that needs fulfilling. When I ponder about going off to medical school, I feel that I am abandoning these groups because I know that so few health workers want to work with the poor – and yet that is all I have ever done.

Sorry for the long post. Any ideas?

Your story is YOUR story. It happened, and it happened for your own reasons. If people don’t like that you devoted yourself to under-served areas, and you did it because you enjoyed doing it, then they have a superiority complex and you don’t want to work with them anyway. (Global health and rural health are big parts of some school programs. Also, under-served areas is a realm being looked at more closely by healthcare institutions, so you have some good insight and experience to offer).

The biggest question in my mind is whether this would stop YOU from applying. People may ask you to explain your actions, and the only thing you can do is tell the truth. Everyone figures their lives out in different ways, and if it took everything you’ve done to gain the desire and courage to apply to med school now, then so be it.

It seems like you’ve had a broad array of experience working behind the scenes to allow people to be taken care of. One could argue that have a smoothly run operation is beneficial to the masses, while a nurse (or whatever) can really only serve a small group of patients at a time. There are so many different ways an interview about this could go, so just be ready to be you and talk about it. Worst case, someone doesn’t agree with your path, and you don’t get in. Honestly, you’ve done a lot of work and done it in a lot of places that I’d personally not want to go to. I respect people who are willing to do what is outside of my comfort zone, so I might be a little biased in this post.