Though it is common to begin dreaming of a career in medicine early in life, some people come to the realization that the medical profession is their calling only after they have finished college and begun working.
Michelle Benedict, a medical student at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor who worked as a senior engineering project manager at Apple, says premeds who are older than their peers should view their age and life experience as selling points.
“You have had more time to cultivate your interests, demonstrate competence, and often have a stronger ‘sense of self’ and real-world resilience,” Benedict, a member of the national leadership team for the American Medical Women’s Association, wrote in an email. “If you have come to know deeply that medicine is your calling, you should absolutely pursue it.”
That said, premeds who are in their late-20s, early 30s or even older should understand that they are outliers. According to age statistics published by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the average age among medical students who matriculated at U.S. medical schools in the 2017-2018 school year was 24.
Benedict explains that nontraditional medical school applicants sometimes “feel self-conscious” about being different than the norm, and these premeds often worry that they can’t compete with individuals who “have been on one track since the beginning.” Older applicants should remember that the journey to medicine doesn’t need to be a straight path, Benedict says, and they should strive to identify the parts of their life story that make them special. She recommends thinking about which life experiences are highly relevant to the medical profession and then sharing those anecdotes.
“Anyone can say ‘yes I am resilient’ but having a real-world scenario where you proved that will be taken much more seriously,” she says, adding that one advantage of being older is having more life stories to share.
Kari Shotwell, director of admissions with the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, urges older premeds to be open about how they arrived at the decision to apply to medical school. “Don’t be afraid to tell your story,” she wrote in an email. When prospective medical students clearly explain their motivations for pursuing a career in medicine, she adds, that helps reassure admissions committees that these students are willing and able to commit to the medical profession.
How to Evaluate Whether Medical School Would Be Worthwhile
Because med school usually lasts four years and graduates generally complete a medical residency afterward that focuses on a particular type of medicine such as psychiatry, it is important for aspiring physicians who have finished college to think about whether they are willing to spend many years preparing for a career in medicine, experts advise.
The cost of a medical education is also worth assessing. Among medical school graduates in the class of 2019 who took out loans to pay for medical school, the median amount of medical education debt was $200,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Older premeds who are currently working should not only consider the money they might have to pay medical schools, but also evaluate the effect of forgoing a salary, experts say.
“There’s going to be a change of lifestyle. You’re just not going to have that much extra cash to go around, and so you’re going to be scaling back what you do,” says Adam Goodcoff, a fourth-year medical student who is the co-founder and CEO of The Med Life, a company that provides guidance to future health care professionals.
Linda Abraham, founder and CEO of Accepted, an admissions consulting firm based in Los Angeles, suggests conducting a “comprehensive cost-benefit analysis” that accounts for the monetary and nonmonetary implications of going to medical school. Older premeds need to assess whether the personal and financial rewards of life as a doctor outweigh the sacrifices necessary to achieve that goal, and they should also consider how much they enjoy their current career, Abraham wrote in an email.
An aspiring physician who has a significant other should discuss his or her interest in medicine with that person, Abraham adds. Without supportive loved ones, applying to and getting through medical school becomes more challenging, she advises. Having strong relationships increases the odds that a premed will thrive, Abraham says.
How Older Premeds Can Successfully Apply to Medical School and Become Doctors
Medical school admissions experts say that it is absolutely possible for someone to get accepted into medical school at an older-than-average age.
Dr. Demicha Rankin, an associate dean for admissions with the Ohio State University College of Medicine, says the perception that older premeds are somehow less viable candidates for medical school because of their age is a “false narrative.”
Rankin, an associate professor in the medical college’s anesthesiology department, says there is nothing wrong with someone trying a different career before they decide to become a doctor. Older medical students can excel in medical school and “definitely bring in a very unique perspective,” she says, adding that these students tend to be efficient, creative and highly motivated.
Rankin notes that many types of professions can provide excellent preparation for a career as a physician. For instance, an engineering job can cultivate problem-solving skills and technical expertise that are valuable in medical school, Rankin says. A conceptual understanding of how machines operate can facilitate someone’s learning about how the human body works, she explains, and there is tremendous crossover between the field of medicine and the field of engineering as exemplified by biomedical engineers.
She encourages older aspiring physicians not to let anxiety about their age stop them from applying to medical school if they know in their soul that medicine is the right profession for them. “Don’t be afraid to take that chance,” Rankin says. “If that’s your dream, there’s no point in putting it on hold. Life is about helping others (and) trying to make a difference. And if there is a void in your current profession, I would say go for it. Yes, it is expensive, but you’re worth the investment.”
There is something deeply meaningful and incredibly fulfilling about the medical field, Rankin says, and someone who really wants to work as a physician should try to make that happen.
Experts say having an accountability buddy during the medical school admissions process, such as a friend, family member or classmate, can help older premeds stay on track, especially if they check in with their buddy regularly. These students can also seek advice from premed advisers at an academic institution where they took premed courses, or they can pose questions to admissions officials at medical schools, experts suggest.
Older premeds can also benefit from attending medical career fairs and admissions events, since those occasions provide an opportunity to learn about various medical programs and test prep services.
Dr. G. Richard Olds, president of Caribbean-based St. George’s University, which has a medical school, suggests that older premeds investigate the demographic statistics at various med schools to see which ones may be particularly receptive to older applicants.
It’s also important for older premeds to get at least one recommendation letter from someone who can describe their post-college accomplishments, such as a professional supervisor or someone who oversaw them as a volunteer, Olds says.
Olds also advises a premed who has worked in a service profession such as social work or the military to highlight that experience. Stints with the Peace Corps or Teach for America are also a plus, he says.
Older premeds who have been out of school for a while can demonstrate that their academic abilities are strong and that their classroom-based knowledge is current by excelling on the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, Olds says. Medically relevant graduate degrees such as a master’s degree in science or public health can also provide evidence of academic aptitude, he says.
Monica Ugwu Perkins, director of recruitment, admissions and retention with the Charles R. Drew/UCLA Medical Education Program, says it’s worthwhile for older premeds to check on whether their target medical schools are willing to accept prerequisite coursework completed at community colleges. If an older premed has recently taken several premed courses, he or she should consider getting a recommendation letter from a professor whose class he or she took in the recent past, Perkins says.
These prospective med students should also be sure to highlight their meaningful life experiences in the activities portion of their medical school application and be prepared to make the case for why a medical school should accept them.
“Really it’s just being honest and telling their actual story,” Perkins says, adding that it’s essential for older premeds to explain why they are embarking on this major life change.
Searching for a medical school? Get our complete rankings of Best Medical Schools.
More from U.S. News
What to Know About Applying to Medical School Later in Life originally appeared on usnews.com