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My Journey From Night Student To Med Student

  • by Fehbe Meza
  • Feb 21, 2020
  • MCAT Blog, Med School Admissions, Pre-Med Support

This personal essay was written by Halley Darrach, a member of the Next Step Pre-Med Advisory Council.

For many college students, their coursework is their job – something work-studies, volunteering, and other activities must be scheduled around. Even in the best of circumstances, course scheduling can be an expensive, high-stakes juggling act. But what happens when you already have daytime commitments – be it a job, serving as a family caretaker, or otherwise – and suddenly find yourself faced with a deluge of pre-med requirements? Fortunately, not every route to med school has to (or does!) resemble the standard four-year undergrad experience.

During college, my best friend was NPR. Between my parents’ house, my undergrad campus, and my part-time job, I was commuting nearly a hundred miles a day. At the time, moving closer to either locale was not financially feasible.

Every time class enrollment rolled around, I found myself anxiously paging through the course catalogue. Given my commute, I either had to compress my courses as early or late in the day as possible, to evade traffic and fit in a contiguous block of time at work. My saving grace, however, arrived in the form of distance-learning (AKA online) courses and after-hours (AKA night) courses.

Are pre-meds allowed to take online or night courses?

At the time, I was toying with the idea of going straight into industry or research, so the question didn’t cross my mind until it was “too late.”

The short answer is that online classes are less desirable than traditional coursework and their acceptance differs on a school-by-school basis. Many schools – including my own – denoted online courses as such in my transcript, so it would be abundantly clear on applications. Evening/night courses typically have no denotation, as they are simply a traditional course held at hours more amenable to working students.

Be aware of application requirements for medical schools, as many will not accept prerequisites that are taken online or at community colleges. In addition, many medical schools can also refuse to consider degrees conferred from online programs. When approaching your pre-med game plan, a good rule of thumb is to attempt to take as many of your courses in-person and at a formal undergraduate campus as possible.

That said, this is easier said than done, so what should pre-meds be aware of when pursuing alternative pathways for their coursework?

There are some classes that cannot be taken online.

Anything with a laboratory component has to be taken face-to-face and, due to the length of time needed to complete experiments, I was unable to take any in the evening. I would recommend scheduling these non-negotiable courses with first priority and taking non-core classes (ex: general education requirements) through more flexible avenues.

Online and night courses might affect your letters of recommendation.

I was guilty of being the “invisible student” in undergrad. I think I went to maybe two or three office hours in total over four years. As such, my strongest letters of recommendation were not from professors. Since many of my general education requirements were taken in the evening or online, I ended up applying to medical school without a letter of recommendation from a non-science professor, as I had not forged a relationship with one.

Online courses aren’t necessarily easier than in-person ones.

My hardest (and favorite) undergrad class was an online course on Buddhism. What I foolishly presumed would be an easy semester of casual readings and the occasional essay turned out to be a writing-intensive deep-dive into history and philosophy, complete with mandatory field trips to local temples. When all was said and done, I was reading over a hundred pages and writing at least a dozen pages a week for the class. However, I was given the liberty to visit the sites according to my schedule and complete my readings/essays any time within the week they were assigned.

Online classes demand a greater degree of motivation and discipline than their traditional counterparts. The temptation of cramming for your class days before the final can become even more alluring when there is no face-to-face interaction with a professor or set lecture schedule to keep you on track. In addition, without formalized office hours, it can become harder to reach out for help when you find yourself struggling.

As such, I’d recommend reaching out online course facilitators early, rather than waiting for a disappointing midterm performance. My institution’s online courses still offered the same support resources as their physical class, such as departmental tutors and general office hours.

Be realistic about what you can accomplish week-to-week.

Online and night courses can place extra strain on an already-full plate. It is better off to take a little longer to complete your studies and really comprehend the material) rather than biting off more than you can chew, risking sub-par grades or last-minute withdrawals. While it’s tempting to graduate a semester earlier, you can end up delaying graduation if you’re falling asleep during your evening course or forgetting your online deadlines and then subsequently having to retake the course.

It’s okay to be a part-time premed student.

There is no rule that undergrad has to be completed in four years or less. Sometimes the necessary course at the right time is unavailable. It took me four years to get both the introductory public speaking class required for my degree and the introductory physics class for my prerequisites. If the scheduling cards do not play in your favor, consider taking a semester at part-time status and either enhance your extracurricular involvement or work some overtime. My final two years of undergrad were taken at part-time status with at least 1-2 online classes at a time, which allowed me to delve further into my job at a research laboratory than I would have otherwise. The work I did off-campus at my job ended up being discussed at my med school—and residency—interviews.

Medical school admissions committees aren’t as close-minded as you might think.

I was surprised to find admission committees were generally more understanding than their black-and-white application requirements suggested. Despite not meeting the listed letter of recommendation or course requirements at some schools, I was still accepted to them regardless. Many schools will also notify students post-acceptance if there are any outstanding requirements that must be taken/re-taken. A thorough reviewer should take your entire pre-med journey into consideration when evaluating your transcript and activities. However, a transcript where the most challenging of courses are all taken online may be suspicious if you’re concurrently taking lighter courses in person and spending dozens of hours a week into optional activities.

However, this means you have to be a clear communicator and strong advocate. Adcomms won’t know you were taking evening and/or online classes so you could make the shift at your day job or care for your ill family member unless you specifically tell them so. Don’t be afraid to make this known in secondary essays or even your personal statement, especially if it has influenced your path to medicine. Supervisors and bosses that are privy to your situation may also be excellent advocates and help corroborate your journey in their letters of recommendation.

Do I regret my non-traditional premed experience?

All in all, I don’t regret the online or after-hours classes I took, as they enabled me to support myself through college and achieve things outside of class that ordinarily would not have been possible. I was fortunate to have a fantastic part-time job and a course schedule that ultimately enabled me to graduate in four years (partially thanks to community college… which is a subject for another blog). Juggling these odd-hours courses on top of a job and a commute was not a fun experience but five years later and mere weeks from wrapping up medical school, I’m grateful for the skills it primed me with. In many cases, with enough determination and flexibility, a challenge can be turned into an opportunity.

Halley is a med student and former member of the Admissions Committee at the John Hopkins School of Medicine. She interviewed dozens of applicants and deliberated on countless more. At Hopkins, Halley investigated means of improving breast reconstruction outcomes and worked as a medical illustrator. Halley understands the stress and complexity of the medical school admissions process and hopes her experience in mentoring and admissions can help demystify the process for all applicants. Learn more about Halley and the Pre-Med Advisory Council.

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