A unique path

I was once lost, but now am found: A nontraditional student’s advice for success in medical school

Not all paths to medical school are linear. Read about a nontraditional medical student’s journey and get his tips for med student success.


For some students, medical school is the next step of a straight, multi-point trajectory toward becoming a physician. These students discover their calling at a young age, earn high marks in grade school, graduate undergrad with honors, study for the MCAT and immediately start their medical school education. After finishing school, these physicians have ample time to find their ideal work setting, whether it be academia, research or a long career of seeing patients.

On the contrary, nontraditional students like myself contemplate medical school later in life. Some of us are already established in successful medically related careers, while others work in a completely different trade and are nearing retirement age. For us, the decision to pursue medical school may seem to some like a whim that drastically alters our current way of living.

Below is the story of how I came to medicine as a nontraditional student and some tips I’d like to share with new medical students based on my experiences.

My journey

After high school, I had yet to discover my calling in life. An academic counselor advised me to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business, as this is a versatile degree applicable to many different fields. With so many career options available to those holding a business degree, I was assured that I would find a satisfying profession one day.

However, soon after earning my degree, I found myself at one of those fork-in-the-road moments as a lower-level manager in the customer service industry. I felt lost and thoroughly unsatisfied in this capacity. The dissatisfaction, coupled with the devastating loss of my father, brought me to the realization that I needed to change my way of living. I could either keep my current job, hoping for different results, or choose to discover a different future than I originally imagined–one involving medicine.

Dedicating time to fulfilling the essential science prerequisites gave me the feeling that my career had begun anew. The four years spent earning my business degree had enabled me to dedicate time to personal growth and self-discipline and refine my test-taking and study skills. I had learned what it takes to be a successful student and felt challenged to raise my performance. I strived to earn “As” in all my premed classes.

As expected, receiving invites for interviews was humbling. I desperately called several schools requesting them to review my application. Eventually, I was offered an interview and acceptance to Lincoln Memorial University-DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine. When I arrived for the first semester, I was ready for the challenges ahead and kept the same momentum going during my premed classes. I finished the year ranked near the top of my class. All of my hard work was finally starting to show.

Tips for first-year med students

As I reflected on my story, I realized that I had concrete suggestions that students beginning their first year of medical school might find useful. First, there is simply no substitute for hard work. Do not make yourself a stranger to long nights and weekends of tedious studying.

Second, push yourself to truly understand concepts rather than memorize facts. Test/quiz question writers can easily reword questions to confuse you. If you can visualize the biochemistry or physiology behind an idea, you can answer thousands of questions that include many details. Countless students choose rote memorization because abstract thinking takes time. However, in the long run, your deeper understanding will allow you to digest more voluminous and complex issues in a shorter time and integrate that knowledge in a more clinically meaningful way.

Third, find ways to make information stick. I accomplish this through the extensive use of mnemonics. Some of my favorites can be found at the following websites: medicalmnemonics, Sketchy, RxPGonline and Compiled USMLE Step 1 mnemonics. Use these mnemonics as tools to recall the larger concept at hand rather than as shortcuts to learning.

Last, and most importantly, reconcile your school schedule with your home schedule. Nontraditional students with a family often feel they are helplessly neglecting their role as a spouse or parent without recourse. I have found that attending lectures in-person may help make the most efficient use of time by eliminating household distractions. Also, set aside time for family bonding weekly to suppress feelings of isolation. If your spouse is feeling neglected, persuade them to join the spousal support group at your school.

For every nontraditional student reading this, I want you to remember that there will be setbacks and successes as you embark on your career change. Just know that your unique life experiences make you a great candidate for medical school. They have expanded your abilities and serve as testimonials to your courage and resiliency.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Medical school: A balancing act

How will taking a year off of medical school impact my Match prospects?

Leave a comment Please see our comment policy