Here, you'll find tips and advice for writing admissions essays and personal statements when you haven't been in school for some time.
Returning students can be especially apprehensive about the essay portion of the application package. It may have been years since you wrote an essay, and now you're being asked not only to write but to write in the particular style that is effective in the college selection process. However, you can manage this situation like a pro by following our expert tips for returning students.
1. Highlight your experience
When working with returning students, one of the biggest concerns they tend to have is about being a non-traditional student and competing with traditional students. In fact, colleges are looking to create a diverse student body, and they are genuinely interested in including returning students. The reason for this is that you can contribute to classroom discussions and study groups in a way that your traditional counterparts cannot.
When writing your essays, emphasize that you have the organizational skills and dedication needed to excel in college. Most of all, let the admissions officers know that you, as an adult, have confidence that you have chosen the right path and are fully committed to completing your degree program.
2. Remember to show instead of telling
This advice applies to all applicants, but it is especially important for returning students. With more background on which to draw upon for your essays, you can paint a more vivid picture of your skills and potential. Skills from your personal and professional life can translate well to the collegiate environment, so help the admissions officers see how you have formed a strong sense of self and a meaningful set of abilities that you can use as a student.
3. Focus on your adult life
While the seeds of your reasons for returning to school may have been planted when you were younger, the admissions officers are much more interested in who you are now. It's fine to mention briefly moments from your childhood or adolescence, but these should be limited to a phrase within a sentence. Instead, use experiences and situations from your adult life that reflect your character and passion for your chosen program of study.
4. Help the admissions officers understand why you are returning to school
Why now? The admissions officers will look for a cogent answer to this question. Have you reached a plateau in your current career? Are you looking to change fields? Were there circumstances in your past that are now resolved, giving you the ability to focus on school?
There's no reason to be anything but honest in your response here. If you were downsized, let the admissions officers know. If you were working in a certain job out of necessity but are now pursuing your dreams, tell them. Show the admissions officers that you now have time in your schedule to dedicate to school.
5. Show enthusiasm for the school/program
Take the time to thoroughly research each school before you apply. In addition to the school's website, you might want to write a couple of emails to professors whose work interest you as well as reach out to administrators to answer any questions you may have. Also, most colleges have a non-traditional student union, and you may want to get in contact with them to understand their perspective of the school.
6. Don't avoid talking about your adult responsibilities
As a returning student, you might not have the luxury of leaving a job, family or mortgage behind to pursue your studies. In your essays, you can write about how the program is perfect because you can continue in your career. If you are moving with a family, help the admissions officers see that your partner/children are supportive and enthusiastic about the opportunity.
7. Reach out for help
If you feel that you still aren't sure about the content of your essay or the quality of your writing, seek out some other opinions. Is there someone at your work who has recently returned to school? Someone who graduated from your chosen program? Professional help is also available, whether you would like step-by-step help or just a final polish to ensure that your essay is error-free.
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If you have been out of school for several years and are thinking of pursuing a medical education, you have a challenging but not impossible path ahead of you. Although the average age of entering medical students is usually around 24-25 years of age, there are always a few older students in any given class.
If you are just now trying to figure out what you should be doing to be a competitive applicant in the future, we recommend that, first and foremost, you schedule an appointment with a pre-med advisor here at UM or at a school in your geographical proximity to map out your timeline and strategy. Please keep in mind that regardless of any past stellar academic record or professional achievement, you will still be required to have appropriate pre-medical coursework, competitive GPA and MCAT scores under your belt and health related experiences to support your (newly found) career interest. Whether you enroll in a formal postbaccalaureate program to efficiently cover the necessary pre-medical requirements, or develop a plan for a more independent approach to the coursework, this step alone may take you anywhere from a couple to several years of study. Be sure to cultivate strong relationships with your instructors since these individuals will be eventually the authors of your academic reference letters.
As you complete or refresh your academic coursework, it will also be crucial for you to spend time in health care settings (hospitals, clinics, hospices, nursing homes, etc.) to test your career interest and to demonstrate your commitment to the medical profession. These multiple goals can be particularly challenging if you are also trying to earn a living for you and possibly, your dependents. Yet, you need to be able to demonstrate your academic prowess and commitment to the profession to be a a competitive applicant.
As you gear up to apply, remember:
- Do not make excuses or apologize for your "late" application: It's O.K. Many practicing physicians did not find medicine or were able to respond to its call until later in life. However, be prepared to explain in your essays and in your interviews "why medicine now" and "why not back then".
- Be judicious in picking your reference givers. If you completed your pre-requisite work recently, those instructors should be great sources for your academic letters. For non academic letters, coach employers as needed to write reference letters that fit the occasion. You do not need a recommendation for another job. You need an endorsement about your suitability for medical education and practice. A good place to start is to make a list of the skills (analytical ability, communication, problem solving...) and personal traits and characteristics (maturity, compassion, dedication....) that make a good physician and try to identify writers who can specifically comment about you in relation to those skills and traits. Most likely, each one of your writers will only be able to comment on a few of those skills and characteristics; which is fine, because it will be the totality of your reference letters that will paint a more complete picture of who you are and what you bring.
- Put a lot of thought into your personal statement and other application essays. A common mistake in non-traditional applicants' essays is that often too much space and energies are wasted trying to explain why they no longer wish to continue to do what they are doing, instead of providing enough information about why they want to pursue medicine now. Your goal is to illustrate more why you are walking toward medicine than why you are moving/running away from something else (although some basic information about your decision-making process and elements that are no longer satisfying in your current career should obviously be included).
- Finally, apply carefully and broadly. Although occasionally geographical limitations seem to increase proportionally with applicants' age, most individuals cannot afford to apply to just one or two schools, no matter how convenient or desirable those schools might be. In fact, the competitiveness of the medical school application process requires as much flexibility as applicants' individual circumstances may reasonably allow.
The National Society for Nontraditional Premedical & Medical Students ia a great resource if your path to medicine is not the traditional "high school to college to medical school" and the OPM annual conference is worth attending.