Older medical students arrive with different motivations, advantages, and challenges than their younger classmates; they reflect on why and how they took on those challenges
They found their way to medical school along circuitous paths, propelled by life experiences their younger classmates can only imagine.
2nd Lt. Thomas O’Leary, 41, was an Army combat medic searching for his next career move to support his family. Kirsten Pickard, 41, had grown disenchanted with her telecommunications career and aspired to become a doctor after marrying one. Cat-Tuong Vu, 44, felt inspired by doctors whom he watched guide his wife through a frighteningly complicated pregnancy with their twins.
These students are part of a tiny cohort: medical students age 40 or above. From the 2000-01 through 2019-20 academic years, 1,143 such students matriculated into medical schools — comprising about 0.3% of the 375,188 total matriculants during that time span.
“Graduating at 50 was extreme, and there are days I wonder if I should have,” says Karen Thiele, M.D., who left a nursing career. “But I enjoy the job. My family is proud of me. And it was one of the best days of my life when I walked across the stage.”
Older students tend to face challenges that differ in intensity and type from those of traditional medical students, but they also bring different assets.
First comes the Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®) exam. Largely due to their long absence from college, admissions officers say, older students typically face particular struggles on the admissions test.
“It’s a lot of ground to make up,” says Athena R. Ganchorre, Ph.D., director of student development at the University of Arizona College of Medicine - Tucson. “They might never have taken a standardized test like the MCAT exam – it requires a way of thinking and testing that’s hard to learn in a short time.”
Nevertheless, admissions officers say they look favorably on many older applicants because they bring life skills that don’t show in test scores. They’ve juggled career and family responsibilities and built resilience by working through financial, professional, and personal ups and downs.
“Being able to balance between all of those things is a significant strength,” says Steven Gay, M.D., assistant dean for admissions at the University of Michigan Medical School.