Alumni Spotlight: Non-Traditional Applicants – It’s Never Too Late!

Written by Euan Zhang

Hi everyone, my name is Euan Zhang and I graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a B.S. in Music Technology. In Fall of 2024, I will be starting the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at McGovern Medical School in Houston, TX, which will grant me an MD/PhD dual degree after 8 years of training. I want to take this opportunity to hopefully inspire some of you who aren’t taking a traditional pathway to medical school. Perhaps you’re on the fence about going into this field at all, due to the differences between your resume and the “ideal” applicant. X major, Y community service hours, Z leadership experience, blah blah blah. What if you found yourself waist-deep in an amazing side project for the past 3 years and haven’t had time to shape your stats up to be a cookie-cutter applicant? Rather than prematurely striving for that ideal, I’d suggest that you play your cards to your advantage.

Back when I graduated, my stats were miserable. I had zero volunteering hours, zero shadowing hours, and only two professors I could ask for letters from. I hadn’t even started studying for the MCAT, so that alone would set me back two whole gap years until I could matriculate, provided I get in on the first try. I didn’t even really have a great reason for pursuing medicine, so my personal statement was entirely up in the air. The only thing I had going for me was the ample number of clinical hours I had from my co-op as an EMT. I moved to Houston to be with my family and set out to fix each of these weaknesses.

Volunteer hours were particularly tricky. I had to find something I was actually interested in, and I had to come up with an excuse for why I never spared any time to do it during undergrad. Thankfully, one of my music professors told me about a nonprofit called Hear Your Song, which visits severely ill children in hospitals and empowers them with collaborative songwriting. Since they were in New York City, I couldn’t really go out there and work with these kids directly. I decided to get creative and ask them to be a volunteer mastering engineer, which wasn’t listed on their website as an official role. I would receive their recordings and polish them up to sound more professional, making use of the skills that I had learned as a music tech major. Little did I know, this would become a very fruitful experience that I would be able to write into an impactful secondary essay. Despite not having interacted directly with the kids, I was granted a window into their minds and witnessed the positivity that kept them going despite their conditions. This positivity is often lost as people mature, and I want to be able to bring it into my own practice in the future.

Additionally, I decided to continue my work as an EMT and really bolster my clinical hours. In this line of work, I frequently deal with elderly patients, many of whom suffer from dementia or poor outcomes after stroke. I have always had a keen interest in the brain, but directly working with these patients solidified my desire to contribute to the field of neurology. I experienced a striking story when I was transporting a patient with Alzheimer’s Disease, which had progressed so much that she could no longer remember how to eat. I was deeply saddened by how the healthcare team and her family had resigned themselves from her care – not because they didn’t care about her, but because there is nothing they could do about the devastating condition with the scientific advances we have now. This story led to my personal statement, which highlights my dissatisfaction with the current state of neurology and what I want to do to fix these issues.

The meat of my gap year experiences came through my employment as a research assistant in a neurology lab at McGovern Medical School. During my time in this position, I got to know the neurology department chair, which helped me secure a great letter, and I was also able to shadow her in the clinic. Most importantly, I discovered my passion for research with a topic that I would be willing to pursue by any means necessary. I had stumbled across a series of papers published in Nature and Cell which highlight a novel technique to treat Alzheimer’s Disease using visual and auditory stimulation targeting the gamma frequency of neural oscillations. In simpler terms, scientists may have found a way to reverse AD using music! It’s an amazing phenomenon, but at this point, that’s all it is – no one knows how it works. My culminating experiences have put me at the intersection of music and medicine, with the perfect skillset to advance this research to the next level. Now, the pursuit of the underlying mechanism for this phenomenon, which may be further consolidated into a powerful targeted treatment, has become my raison d’être. This research topic was also my impetus for pursuing the MSTP, which I am very thankful to have been accepted into.

What do all of these have in common? My unique disposition as a gap year student opened doors to experiences that were unavailable to me when I was in college. If I tried to cram for the MCAT on top of my packed class schedule, I doubt I would’ve done half as well as I ended up doing by studying like it was a full-time job. The volunteer organization was much more open to me coming on as a mastering engineer because I already had my degree. I collected new stories as an EMT which matured my motivation to go into medicine. Finally, my involvement in science was far deeper as a full-time research assistant compared to when I was just an undergrad lab intern helping out for a few hours a week. If you are close to wrapping up your college education and still feel inadequate, know that you are not alone and it’s not too late. If I can start from zero after graduation, so can you!


  1. Your major can be anything, so feel free to study what you’re interested in during undergrad.
  2. If your stats aren’t satisfactory, take some gap years to fix them.
  3. Create your own opportunities, ideally something that wasn’t available to you as an undergrad.
  4. Try to get involved at your target school and get to know the faculty and staff personally.
  5. If you don’t have a good reason for studying medicine, hold off on your application. Go out, live your life, and come back when you have naturally found your own passion.