The “traditional” medical student and resident many of us may imagine is a fresh-faced student in their twenties who entered medical school straight out of college. That has never been the only type of student who goes into medicine but nontraditional students are becoming more and more common, including students who take just a handful of gap years to gain more life and academic experience before applying to medical school. There are also people who spent time in a career for a few or many years before either realizing that they want to pursue medicine or have returned to a long-held dream. So, you are not too old to go to medical school and you will also not be the only student in your class who has not entered straight out of undergrad.
It is true that older students may have additional hurdles to overcome or considerations to make, but that doesn’t make it impossible or even improbable that you can be a successful medical student. It is almost never actually truly too late to consider pursuing medicine, and the true consideration will be whether following this path will be worth it considering the other priorities you may have to balance.
You may have a spouse, children, or parents to care for as well as expenses and may feel like you’ve already put enough into your current career that it’s not worth making a change. Some of the usual advice may not work for you, like applying widely, and you may not be able to leave your job to pursue opportunities more closely related to medicine, but there are steps you can take to get the experience you need and apply to the schools that will be the best fit for you within your budget and potential location restraints. You can hear the answers to other nontraditional students on The OldPremeds Podcast. These questions are sourced from our Nontraditional Premed Forum. An episode that might be particularly helpful is Session 265 where I gave advice to a 49-year-old student considering medical school.
There are also some relevant episodes of The Premed Years like Session 424 where Dr. Joon Kim and I discussed postbac programs, and episodes where I talk to nontraditional students about their journeys and successes. On Session 419, I talk to a former theater major and yoga instructor who is now an admitted medical student. Her journey will be especially relevant to those of you who may have to limit your school lists based on family commitments or who have to schedule around careers and family. In another episode, Session 422, I interview a student who was a 5x reapplicant when he was finally admitted to medical school. Hopefully his story can serve as some motivation and a few lessons for any of you who have been on this path for a long time, but may have any number of things throwing obstacles in your way.
Although there will probably be hurdles and difficult decisions on your road to medical school, your experiences can also be a benefit to you. Regardless of what field(s) you’ve worked in up to this point, it may have helped you learn what you actually enjoy doing on a practical level. The maturity you’ve gained since the last time in school may allow you to be a more disciplined student and use better study techniques which may make you more successful than you would have been or were in the past.
You may have a longer path than you would hope or be moving in a different direction than you originally expected, but don’t get overwhelmed by how long it seems everything might take, or how many classes you might have to take overall. It’s good to have some sense of what your key steps will be and an idea of what years and seasons those will happen in, but it doesn’t serve you to be worrying about your medical school interview before you’ve taken the MCAT. Work with an advisor or use the roadmap feature on Mappd to come up with a plan, and then once you have that guide, try to focus on your current step while keeping the immediate next step back of mind. This will help you give your full effort to your current activity and thinking of your path as one or two steps at a time will allow things to feel much more manageable.
There are a few key things to keep in mind, and some of these will be applicable before you’ve decided to pursue medicine and others that will help you make that decision. If you can, get clinical experience, or shadow a physician, before you make a commitment like signing up for classes or long-term volunteer positions. There are few musts in this process despite how it can seem looking at other students’ collections of experiences or the archetypal premed path. Instead, there are qualities schools are looking for and questions they need you to be able to answer and you can be creative about how to get experiences that allow you to show who you are and articulate why you want to go into medicine.
The one must is completing your prerequisite coursework in physics, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology and potentially biochemistry. You really do need these courses to do well on the MCAT, but the school you complete them at can give you more advice as to how long you can expect that process to take. If you already completed all or many of these courses, but struggled in them, you may need to take coursework beyond these. You can do this by completing upper-division science courses as a postbacc student or by completing a Special Masters Program, and what your best option will be will depend on what is available to you in your area. You can use our medical school GPA calculator or enter all of your coursework into Mappd to get a clearer picture of what your educational history will look like to medical schools and what you might be missing. One benefit of Mappd is the new Roadmap feature will lay out the steps on your journey to medical school, along with projected timings based on when you want to begin medical school.
The other caveat to there being no musts is the need to get clinical experience. Have there potentially been students who have gotten into US medical schools without clinical experience through shadowing and direct patient contact? Sure, but that’s rare and you would do yourself a disservice by attempting this. You need to be able to prove to yourself that you want to take care of people and that you specifically want to do that as a physician and not through another role in healthcare. It’s good to get this experience early so that when you apply to medical school, you have a wealth of stories that show who you are as a person and help you explain why you want to be a physician. There is no one type of clinical experience that is best. What’s available to you will depend on licensing requirements in your state and whether you have the time or ability to volunteer or need to seek a paid clinical role. Don’t try to choose the experience that will “look best.” Each role from scribe, to EMT, to medical assistant will give you a different perspective and set of stories. Choose based on what you actually want to be doing, what is available to you, and what works for the rest of your life.
You aren’t the first or last person to doubt whether this path is right or possible for them, but don’t let your age be the only thing keeping you from building a life doing what you really love. Every person has their own set of unique experiences, upbringing, and goals and these qualities make you a valuable addition to the field who will bring something new to your team.