Perhaps you took some time off to start a family, serve in the military, or even begin another career. Although you are confident that you will succeed in medical school, you may have some concerns about how well you will adjust to academic life. As a non-traditional medical student your world will be different. You will not only have to master a rigorous curriculum but also readjust to the life of a full-time student. The steady income, set schedule, and free time you were used to as a working professional will be replaced with a fixed budget, extended hours of study, and limited family time. You will also have to learn how to work and play with classmates that may be much younger than you. All of these aspects of student life can make medical school more difficult than it has to be. Therefore, as a returning student, you should search for programs that make the transition from working professional to student doctor as seamless as possible, and here are five factors that you’ll want to consider before making your medical school selection.

MISSION STATEMENT – WHAT IS THE SCHOOL’S PURPOSE?

Firstly, as a nontraditional applicant, you need to review the school’s mission statement – a formal decree that outlines the institution’s action plan for achieving its vision for medicine. Admission committees use the statement to guide them in identifying students that are right for their program. For example, a school may say that their core purpose is to create physicians that work to improve healthcare through patient care and civic activities. The admissions committee of these schools is then likely to seek applicants who show evidence of community service and leadership. Similarly state-supported institutions may express that their goal is to create doctors that provide medical care for their state. In these cases, the school may not even consider an applicant if they are out of state or lack strong ties to the state of the institution; their justification for the rejection would be that the applicant’s goals do not align with the school’s objective. The mandate will also reveal the educational goals of the institution, express expectations for its graduates, and influence the delivery of its curriculum. These facts highlight the importance of understanding a program’s mission.

COST – HOW WILL YOU FINANCE YOUR EDUCATION?

The second factor to consider is cost. That is, how much debt you will incur over the course of your entire medical education. The smartest practice is to have a financial plan before applying. This begins with having a good budget and knowing how much money you need to borrow to fund your education. The school’s financial aid office or website is a good place to start learning about different financial aid packages. It will give information on student loans, institutional grants, and scholarships. It is also important to contact them if there will be a significant reduction in your income as your financial aid will be based on your previous year’s salary.

SUPPORT – WHAT ACADEMIC SERVICES DOES THE SCHOOL OFFER?

A third element to look for is a strong academic support network.  Many schools have learning resource centers in place, but the extent of their support services varies. In most institutions you will find peer tutoring, counseling and mentoring, and testing for learning differences. Older students should seek schools that go beyond these services. An ideal program will be confidential, have its own administration equipped with staff skilled in adult learning, and offer additional assistance such as writing labs, USMLE reviews, and study skills workshops. The extra help will come in handy if you initially feel overwhelmed by the workload or inadequately prepared for a class. This also demonstrates that a school is committed to making sure that all students master the curriculum.

DIVERSITY – WHAT ARE THE SCHOOL’S DEMOGRAPHICS?

Another feature to search for is a diverse student body. Diversity reacquaints you with the different cultures and ideas that you may have experienced in the workforce, and it almost guarantees that you will not stick out as an anomaly in your class. A multicultural educational experience is also important because it improves your ability to work with colleagues and patients of differing race, gender, and sexual orientation. Furthermore, it will positively influence your attitude towards caring for traditionally under-served populations.

One way to determine the level of diversity in a school is by reviewing AAMC’s statistics on the race and ethnicity of its student body. Keep in mind that statistical data about a program’s demographics are just numbers and may not give the full picture of the student body makeup, and that the best method of finding out a school’s composition is by visiting its campus and observing its students yourself.

LOCATION – WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO LIVE?

The final aspect to be assessed before choosing a school is its location. Aside from going to class every day, you have to eat, sleep, and play at or near your campus.  So, why not have the ideal learning and living environment? It will make the hard road of becoming a physician a little bit softer. Besides, the last thing you want to worry about after a long day of lectures is your living space.

Consider if you prefer city, suburban, or rural living. If you have a spouse and children, you need to take into account their living preferences as well. The neighborhoods near campus should be carefully scrutinized to see if they are affordable, safe, and convenient (e.g., plenty of grocery stores, banks, a post office). Similarly, traffic flow, parking, and mass transit must be thoroughly assessed if you decide to live far from campus.

Remember, becoming a great physician is a life-long process that requires an immense amount of work and dedication, but can be made bearable, if not actually enjoyable, by choosing an institution that you feel closely matches your lifestyle preferences and demands.