Growing up in this century, it is easy to think that we should all follow one path. If you go back to middle school or high school, there were people who made fun of other people like the nerds because the nerds generally did not follow social customs. This is an extreme example but there are so many different variations however mild that occur in our lives. Because of this, most of us feel that if do not follow the “normal path” to medicine, that we will not make it. It is so natural to assume this but contrarily this is not the case for medical school.

Traditional students are those students who start medical school the summer after they graduate whereas non-traditional students are those who took time in between undergrad and medical school. It does not matter what the reason was for taking time in between – whether it was for research, studying for the MCAT, working, etc – but you end up being classified as a non-traditional student. Medical schools actually love non-traditional students and there are a couple of different reasons why:

DIVERSITY IN THE INCOMING CLASS

Generally when we use the term diversity we are referring to different races and ethnicities but in this case it is referring to the diversity in the educational and work backgrounds of students. Why is this even important? This is so important because if you have students from all different backgrounds then their base level of knowledge will be different from other students. Also, the way that people think is based on their environment, educational background, and so much more. The more “types” of students there are, the more varied the discussion. Discussion is a vital part of the medical school experience because there are sessions in which you sit with your fellow peers in small groups and discuss ways to take care of a made up patient. This is called Problem Based Learning (PBL). If you have 7 traditional students who all majored in Biology and these students are discussing a patient during PBL, the type of discussion will differ from a mix of traditional and non-traditional students. This is not to say in any way that traditional students are not bright, this is not what I am trying to say. The point is that a good variety of people allows a discussion with more ideas and this paves the way for more learning. Additionally, learning and interacting with all sorts of people allow you to further learn about interacting with future colleagues from different backgrounds but also gives you an edge when talking to patients with backgrounds you are unfamiliar with.

I used to wonder why medical schools would boast about diversity on their website or during interviews. Honestly, I never paid attention to that aspect of medical schools. With time and experience I do understand the reason for its importance.

SUBSPECIALISTS, PRIMARY CARE, WIDE ARRAY OF SPECIALISTS

There are a wide array of tracks you can chose to take after medical school all the way from Plastic Surgery to Family Medicine to Urology to Radiology. Each specialty has a personality type that it attracts and various advantages that attract a certain person (this is not exclusive but it is a generalization). For example, Family Medicine physicians are generally very nice and really enjoy taking care of their patients for the long term. A benefit of pursuing Family Medicine is that the Residency is 3 years (the shortest a Residency can be) and your hours practicing are usually 8am-5pm which provides a stable home environment. On the other hand, if you take a Cardiologist this is a longer training requirement as it requires 3 years of Residency and 3 years of Fellowship. Also, depending on the type of Cardiology you go into, you will be required to be on call and come into the hospital during the middle of the night. The trade off is that you make more money. Basically what I am trying to say is that there is a type of specialty for almost every personality and if medical schools want to fill in different specialties they want to attract different types of medical students. A diverse medical student group provides a rich array of different personalities who will all pursue different specialties in the future.

EXPERIENCE

I am in a class of 149 other students and many of these students have fascinating paths and stories towards Medicine. Some students have done a Master’s program in various different fields and they come into medical school with a very fresh perspective. A student with a Master’s has spent additional time with their education and the take they have on patient’s can be so refreshing. I remember helping to take care of a patient during my Surgery block and we were struggling to find ways to help a patient make improvements in their health. The other medical student, previously a phlebotomist, made a suggestion for the patient that none of us had thought of before and it actually ended up working for the betterment of the patient. People with diverse educational experiences can help provide a different outlook on certain scenarios. Also, we can learn a lot from other students as I learned from the other medical student on my team for Surgery.

THE SAME GETS BORING

If we were all the same with the same types of experiences then life would get really boring. Stability is a nice part of our lives but we all look forward to the changes that we go through. By being with a wide variety of medical students, we all change in subtle ways that we hope make us better physicians in the future. Patients come in all sorts of flavors – some that are quiet, excited, talkative, fearful, etc. For each of these patient types we need to be prepared to not only treat them but also be able to mesh well with our patients based on their personalities. By interacting with medical students from all walks of life, we are able to slowly increase our abilities to tackle any patient. It is hard to see the transition that happens in ourselves because it is so gradual and yet when we all finish medical school we are all different from when we started four years ago. However gradual the transition may be, the changes that have overtaken our lives are a consequence of the experiences and relationships we experience in medical school. Medical school admission’s officers have all been there, they know and therefore they appreciate the importance of diversity in an incoming medical school class.

A post-bac student is resilient (not that other students are not) in many ways. A post-bac student decides to commit to more time learning and studying at an attempt to go to medical school. Post-bac students do not have a guarantee of getting into medical school and they do place a gamble. The gamble being that they spend time doing a program that will make them a stronger candidate. This level of resilience and confidence placed in one’s future is unique. A student that goes straight to medical school from undergrad merely does not understand that struggle and I can say that because I was a student who went straight to medical school. Things were simpler for me. The simplicity of my situation did afford the ability for me to be relaxed during my senior year of college whereas those pursuing a post-bac did not have that luxury. Applying to post-bacs in itself can be a stressful and difficult time and in surpassing those obstacles, post-bac students learn a lot not only about themselves but about their strong desire to pursue Medicine. If my tone has not given it away yet, I admire the students who took time off in between undergrad and medical school because it takes a level of commitment and patience that I am not sure I had. From these students I have learned so much and this is one of the reasons why non-traditional students are looked at fondly.

So many students who take time off to do other things before coming to Medicine have very different lives from their lives in medical school. To be able to make money and have a real life and decide that you want to give that up for Medicine takes a lot of guts and patient. It was easy for me because I had never really worked before so nothing was being taken away from me. To have something and then chose to not have that something anymore is inspirational and we can all learn something from these types of students. I would like to be clear, I have nothing against students who go straight to medical school because I did that myself but I believe we can learn so much from non traditional students and this is why medical schools also are intrigued by these students.