As a medical school admissions counselor, I have the luxury of speaking with students from all walks of life. As the first point of contact in the application process, it’s my job to get to know prospective students and learn all about their lives, including goals, dreams/ambitions and experiences. Among my favorite type of students to meet are non-traditional students.

Non-traditional students are characterized as students who didn’t follow the standard path of: high school to college to medical school (with little or no breaks between). Northwestern University School of Medicine describes non-traditional students as anyone who’s taken more than two years off between undergrad and medical school.

My experience has taught me that non-traditional students are a much broader and more complex group than just everyone ages 24 and up. I really break non-traditional students into two groups: the “late-bloomers,” and the “career changers.”

Generally speaking, the first group consists of students ages 24-28. These students I call the “late-bloomers,” but it’s not a shot at their capability or academic performance. For whatever reason, it’s just taken them a few extra years to start medical school. They may have gone down the pre-med path in undergrad, but at age 22 they weren’t quite ready to matriculate. Many of these students went abroad after graduating, or pursued experiences and jobs they knew would serve them later on as a doctor. This group may also contain students who’ve pursued other graduate work before medical school. I find these students to be well rounded, adventurous, more willing to take chances and think outside the box, than their “traditional student” counterparts.

The second group of non-traditional students, which I refer to as the “career changers,” are students ages 29+. This is an especially interesting group of people, as they’re often making major sacrifices to attend medical school. Many of these students have families or are leaving behind successful careers. Despite the choices and paths they’ve made in their younger years, the dream of becoming an MD is something that’s permeated throughout their lives. Because of the sacrifices they’ve made to attend medical school, we see these students being among the most committed and driven to succeed.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the number of medical school applicants ages 29+ for the past five years has averaged around 9%. This chart from 2001 reflects the average breakdown of age demographics in US medical schools.

Ages of first year medical students in 2001

Source: Assn. of American Medical Colleges 2001

Clearly the majority of students attending medical school are “traditional” students. However, prospective students may be wondering if being “non-traditional” automatically puts them at a disadvantage for medical school acceptance. In my experience, traditional and non-traditional students are evaluated on even terms. Where non-traditional students excel over their traditional counterparts are their life experiences and maturity. Medical school admissions officers are looking for candidates that can differentiate themselves from the thousands of other applicants, and many non-traditional students certainly fit that bill. Students with strong communication skills, and demonstrated confidence in front of people and in stressful situations, are always going to sit a notch above the curve. When I meet an applicant who is a mother of 2, and who’s been a practicing nurse for 15 years, I know without a doubt that this student will excel in medical school.

Given the fierce competition for seats in both US and Canadian medical schools, there is often debate concerning the logic of accepting non-traditional students. Not so much the “late bloomers,” but for the “career changers,” critics argue that seats are limited, so why should we train doctors who will ultimately practice less years than their younger counterparts?

I see many benefits to giving seats to older non-traditional students. One benefit is that these students bring with them life experiences and unique viewpoints. This can have a great effect on the medical school learning-environment, as other classmates are exposed to unique and differing opinions. Also, the emotional intelligence that comes with age and experience can make non-traditional students into more confident clinicians in shorter time than their peers. This means a shorter turnaround time for producing skilled doctors. Another benefit is that most non-traditional students are going into primary care type residencies. Primary care is where the biggest shortage and need for doctors lies. Policy makers and educators are scratching their heads trying to come up with ways to attract able doctors into primary care. It seems ridiculous to neglect non-traditional students, when they’re a student population willing and ready to take these residencies.

Caribbean medical schools like UMHS will continue to be a haven for non-traditional medical students, especially those in the “career changers” group. UMHS’s incoming September classes have had at least 20% of students in the 28+ age bracket for the past 2 years. This is more than 10% higher than the US average. In our eyes, as long as a student is qualified and driven, age should be no discriminator in acceptance to medical school.

About UMHS:

Built in the tradition of the best US universities, the University of Medicine and Health Sciences focuses on individualized student attention, small class sizes and recruiting high quality faculty. For these reasons, UMHS is quickly becoming the school of choice among Caribbean medical schools.

9 COMMENTS

  1. My class room experience during my career as professor for biochemistry in three Caribbean medical school (currently in UMHS) is I found “non-traditional” students performance is on par with traditional students ( sometimes exceeding the traditional students), I found “non-traditional” students are more focused (with this I don’t mean traditional students are not focused but definitely not all!!), non-traditional students classroom behavior is more mature and they bring their life experience in learning the material and applying that to real life scenarios. I found most students will succeed beyond expectation. I totally agree with Ryan Ross giving opportunity to non-traditional students a chance to fulfill their life dream!!

  2. Thanks for a wonderful article. I will fall into the ultra-non-traditional category if I get accepted into UMHS. I have been practicing chiropractic for 26 years. I would like to practice medicine for 26 more. There is lots to accomplish before I can matriculate. I have been studying for the MCAT daily. Some of the material I haven’t seen in 30 years so to say that I am rusty would be an understatement. The house we have lived in for 13 years is now finally ready to go on the market. I just completed the sale of my clinic to a young doctor. Our agreement is that I will stay for a 4-6 month transition period. My plan is to sell the house, ace the MCAT, and enroll. I could become your poster boy for non-traditional students. Jim

  3. Hi James, glad you enjoyed the article! It sounds like you’re making some serious sacrifices to pursue medical education, I hope everything works out well for you. Best of luck on the MCAT!

  4. As my 30th anniversary of being a Registered Nurse approaches, 25 of those in Hospice care, I am applying to UMHS with my ultimate goal of becoming a Palliative Care Physician. I am truly a non-traditional student!

    I recently had a campus visit and cannot wait to return and begin my studies. The office staff were wonderful, nothing was too much trouble for them, thank you all, especially Caroline. The Professors were excellent and all embraced me being in their class checking out the academic world of UMHS. The students made me feel so welcome and so ready to begin this journey, urging me not to leave it any longer. Anatomy was amazing. And the lunchtime ladies ensured that I was well fed in order to go on to the next class.

    And yes, non-traditional students try hard, we know the value of what a medical school place means, and that it should not be taken lightly or squandered. It is a second chance at a dream. The sacrifices are cumulative and must include your family in order to do this. I can no longer be the queen of Halloween and I am sure that the neighborhood will wonder what happened, my husband might remember to get in candy, but the crazy lady in guess what costume it is this year is playing med student instead!

    • Hi Amanda, glad you had a great experience visiting St. Kitts! Wow, I’m sure the student body would appreciate having someone with your clinical experience around to share wisdom.

  5. Hi,

    I graduated with a BS in Biochemistry in 2011 with a cGPA and a sGPA of 3.3. Money was always an issue and therefore I had to work part-time throughout my four years of college to cover my living expenses.
    Right after graduation, I could not gather the courage to rack up more loans…so I decided to take up full-time cancer research job in solid tumor and immunology. I have been working fulltime in research and paying off those loans since last two years. I also have a major interest in filmmaking. I have contributed as a producer/production assistant to a number of short films.
    I have always wanted to go to medical school. A recent personal experience has ignited my motivation to pursue a career in medicine more than ever. Thus, I am currently preparing for MCATs, volunteering at two different hospitals, and will shadow a physician in late fall. I am planning to apply in 2014 for 2015 entry.
    Obviously, as a non-traditional student, I am wondering how competitive would I be for california medical schools? With a low GPA, I know I need to ballpark atleast 34-36 on MCATs to atleast be considered.

    Any advice/opinion is appreciated.

    Thanks

  6. Hi Samantha,

    It’s hard for me to say since all of my experience in admissions is from the Caribbean medical school perspective. I imagine students going to California based medical schools are averaging GPA’s in the mid – high 3’s, but any admissions office is going to look at much more than just GPA. With your experience in research and the clinical setting, and your struggles as a part-time student, it sounds like you have a well-rounded résumé. I think it’s important that you do as well as you can on the MCAT and prepare heavily for your interview. “Selling” your non-traditional experiences and maturity will be your best bets, and you’ll need a great essay and interview to do that.

    Sorry, I hope that was helpful!

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