When it comes to traditional vs. non-traditional pre-medical students, is one better than the other?

With more and more non-traditional students pursuing careers in medicine – followed by data on the trend in medical school admissions – there are many new conversations to be had. When it comes to getting into medical school, who has the greater advantage? The 23-year old pre-med or the career changer 40-year old “non-traditional” student?

Many experts point out that the “traditional” premed may have the greater advantage in many ways – 1) they have more time to dedicate to the commitment of medical school, 2) motivation will probably never be higher, and 3) they know that they are still young enough to get it wrong and then get it right later on. All legitimate points. However, some caution that if a “traditional” succeeds in gaining admission to medical school, the institution may look to a more “seasoned” pre-med to round out the incoming class.

Consider this fact as well – medical schools now routinely admit students in their 30s or 40s who already have families or are well into another career before turning toward medicine. In an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Leslie Kahl, Dean of Student Affairs at Washington University School of medicine in St. Louis, noted that post-baccalaureate students are more focused, more goal-oriented, when they arrive and believes that

Furthermore, the article made the point that “although most medical schools do not keep track of how many nontraditional students they admit, the number has almost certainly increased over the past decade and will probably continue to rise in the face of concerns about a looming doctor shortage.”

Admission consultants say that while there are many stories of traditional pre-med successes in which these students didn’t have the experience to contribute anything other than their college years, and managed to dig deep to make it through the admissions process. In contrast, other experts note that nontraditional students often have extensive support systems that help them through tough times rather than succumbing to the pressures of the process and lifestyle.

There is clear evidence that nontraditional premed are just as successful as the traditional candidate. For example, in the same NEJM article, author Dr. Sandeep Jauhar shared the following: A 46-yearold intern at my hospital, whom I’ll call David Burns, went to medical school in his mid-20s, but when he had a health crisis, he decided to forgo residency and become a teacher. He eventually became a top-level administrator in a large hospital system in Philadelphia, with a six-figure salary and six secretaries. Then, he says, “I hit the big 45 and asked myself, `What is this?’ I had always wanted to do medicine.” So he started doing daily rounds at 6 a.m. with an ICU team at one of the hospitals he was overseeing. “I loved being there,” he recalls. “I wanted to be taking care of people.

The point when a nontraditional student makes the decision to move forward and apply to medical school is key. Because when this particular group of students decides that they want to practice medicine, there’s another factor that comes into play which may be of interest to certain medical schools. In a study published in Academic Medicine, post-baccalaureate students who were admitted to medical school were more likely to practice medicine in an underserved area compared to their counterparts who took the traditional path. So the data seems to be showing that non-traditional pre-meds are applying and gaining admission to medical school in greater numbers – and more specifically, are answering the call for more physicians to serve in underserved areas across the country – and they have a significantly higher level of maturity and know-how to make it out on top.

However, traditional students should still get the credit they deserve. There is evidence that younger, traditional pre-meds have significantly higher undergrad GPAs than their “non-traditional” peers; however, their performances on the MCAT were nearly identical.

So when it comes to getting into medical school, who has the greater advantage? Statistics favor both sides in different ways and both groups offer beneficial characteristics and come with different contributions. A traditional pre-med, paired with a non-traditional pre-med, could potentially be what the next generation of healthcare needs.

At every stage, pre-meds need to rely on one another and on a strong educational system and resources to help them succeed. We should come together, in the pre-med community, to help pre-meds at every stage and age to be the best medical school candidates possible. The future of health care and the next generation of physicians will depend a great deal on their successes.

What is your opinion on the ideal age to apply to medical school? We welcome your stories, and we welcome your thoughts.