The term, “traditional medical student” is becoming a misnomer. For most of Western history, the average medical student was a ~22-year-old white male with some sort of natural science education; today, the average medical student is quite difficult to characterize in a singular description.
According to the 2016 AAMC admissions report, medical school students are 50/50 male/female. The mean age of a matriculant is 24 years old, and the number of students older than 24 has been increasing over the years.
About half of matriculants identify as “white only” on their application, 20% listed “Asian only,” 7% listed “black only,” 6% listed “Hispanic/Latino only,” and about 14% identified as a combination or “other.” Admissions departments have a difficult task of sorting through thousands of applications from qualified individuals while maintaining enrollment that is somewhat representative of the general population in terms of race and ethnicity—for very important reasons to be discussed at another time (do some research; great interview discussion topics!).
In addition to racial and cultural diversity, admissions departments look for diversity in academic backgrounds and work experiences. The AAMC reports about half of medical school matriculants have an undergraduate degree in biological sciences, 10% were social science majors, another 10% were physical science majors, and ~25% have degrees that do not fall into the aforementioned categories.
Personally, I know that many of my classmates come from non-natural science backgrounds, many have graduate degrees from various fields, and a good handful of them are going into medicine as their second career. Most of these friends were not even in health care or science-related fields before medical school; a Wall Street broker, a professional musician, and an Air Force pilot to name a few!
Of course, that’s not to say jobs in the health care field are less exciting on applications. Nurse’s assistant, phlebotomy, lab technician, research assistant, EMT/paramedic, medical scribe, etc. are all excellent jobs that provide invaluable experience, and admissions departments know this. The take-home point is, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to medical school acceptance. Do what works best for you and own it. That is your best bet.
Finally, remember that what you choose to do outside of required coursework and standardized tests is just as important for applying to medical school. More and more students are taking one gap year or more after undergrad (I wouldn’t be surprised if most med students do by now; hence, the “traditional” misnomer). Gap years are viewed favorably—if you use the time wisely. By that, I mean spend a significant amount of time working, researching, volunteering, and/or traveling, but try to make it relevant to medicine and health care. If you do not want to do that or cannot find medically-relevant activities, use that time to grow as an individual: expand your horizons, step out of comfort zones, and seize opportunities that you won’t be able to do while in medical school and residency.
Demonstrating commitment to the medical field and helping others is crucial, but admissions departments also value evidence of commitment to yourself. Physician burnout rates are higher than other professions and as a result, medical schools want students who are well-rounded, reasonably confident, and have the resilience to learn from mistakes.
Other important characteristics in an applicant are passion, drive, empathy, and ability to communicate effectively. Yes, grades and MCAT scores are important, but the changing landscape and make-up of the modern medical student indicates that admissions departments take much more than numbers into their final consideration. Strive to embody these qualities during your education, work, and life experiences and then convey them through your application and interview. If you do, you will put yourself in a much better position for medical school acceptance!