3 Medical School Admissions Tips for Older Applicants

Think about timing, academics, and commitment if you're pursuing a medical career later in life.

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Medical school admissions can seem competitive. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reported that 42,742 applicants applied in the 2009-10 application cycle (a record), but only 18,665 applicants matriculated. While it may seem like applicants are all coming straight out of their undergraduate degree, that isn't the case.

Many incoming medical students are not recent graduates; a 2006 joint survey conducted by the AAMC and the American Medical Association (AMA) showed that as much as 10 percent of incoming medical students are 27 or older. However, because of the financial and time commitments involved in pursuing a medical education, many students have said that the later in their lives that they enter medical school, the more difficult it is to adjust.

[Learn more about nontraditional med school applicants.]

Below are three important factors to take into account if you're interested in pursuing a medical career later in life.

1. Timing: The decision to apply to medical school involves making many personal choices. Often, older applicants have prior financial obligations and family situations that applicants fresh out of college typically do not need to consider.

From a career standpoint, it is important to evaluate your desire to pursue medicine even more closely. We all know that the older we get, the more obligations we seem to accumulate. Asking yourself, "Why now?" will not only help you make an important personal decision, but will also help prepare you for an inevitable onslaught of questions admissions committees will ask should you decide to apply.

[Be prepared for the medical school interview.]

If you're enthusiastic about medicine, it's tough not to be deterred by the seemingly numerous requirements and other barriers applicants face. A professor at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine wrote a piece in the New England Journal of Medicine on the difficulties older students may face; he also emphasizes that the silver lining is that admissions committees value the life experience and different perspectives that these students bring to incoming classes. 

2. Academic preparation: More often than not, applicants who make the decision to pursue medicine later in their lives are not completely prepared academically.

It is important to keep abreast of changes in medical school course requirements, which can differ by school, particularly if you didn't major in a science. If you need to take additional coursework, it is important to examine carefully where and when taking these classes would be optimal for you.

Refresher courses might be a good idea if you haven't picked up a science book in a while. After all, you'll need to take (or retake) the MCAT—most schools require a score within the last two to three years.

You might even want to consider a postbaccalaureate or special master's degree program, particularly because recent recommendations from professors carry more weight than those from employers (or professors from 10+ years ago) with admissions committees.

[Decide if a postbac medical program is right for you.]

3. Commitment: Medical school can be a grueling endeavor even for an enthusiastic 20-year-old, and can be even more challenging for a student in their early 30s or older.

Though medical schools and interviewers are not legally permitted to ask you directly about age or family-related circumstances, you can expect to be asked questions designed to get you to address these situations in different ways. The New England Journal article states that these issues, as well as career goals, are at the forefront of committees' minds when interviewing older applicants.

Because medical school can be quite demanding, both academically and physically, particularly during the clinical years, admissions committees usually want to be sure older applicants are aware of what is expected and prepared to handle this often taxing schedule with minimal interference.

Making the decision to pursue a career in medicine 10 or more years after finishing college can be extremely difficult. Knowing how medical schools view and handle applicants who have been out of school for a substantial amount of time will help you put your best foot forward in the admissions process.

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How to Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.