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What Is the Best Age to Start Med School?

Newanna Anna Burkhead -- The average age of my first-year medical school class was 24.5. The oldest member of the class was 41, and the mythical youngster was but a raw 19 years old. The most common age was probably 22 or 23, a good three months wiser since college graduation earlier that May. But some of us had taken time off between college and medical school to pursue another calling, profession, or mission.

Starting with the young one: Obviously this kid had been advanced for his years throughout his entire schooling. Probably started college at 16. I never even met this person, so I can’t make any statements about his maturity level. Of course, if he made it through college at that young age, applied and was accepted to medical school, he must be something special. He’ll graduate and become a doctor at age 22, and finish residency around 26. There’s potentially a very long career ahead of him, with many accomplishments to be made!

The mode of the age graph for my class falls right at 22, ie, a very recent college graduate. There are many people out there who advocate heading straight from college to medical school. I can see some advantages: no loss of momentum, younger age upon entering practice, the “just get it over with” factor. But, no offense to my colleagues who followed this path, there’s a lot of life experiences to be had besides that of a student. And I imagine it can be pretty tough to identify with a patient who makes minimum wage working 16 hours a day if you’ve never had a full-time job.

My class includes people who had all kinds of professions before embarking on medical careers. I was a high school teacher. I have friends who were researchers, bankers, architects, professional soccer players. In my experience, having had another job before medical school has been nothing but a positive thing. I had things to talk about in med school interviews, and people still want to know all about it, even now in residency interviews. Countless other benefits in terms of my own maturity, compassion, and work ethic can be attributed to my experience as a teacher. Not to mention I made a little bit of money in the working world! (A very little bit of money).

The 41-year-old woman in my first-year class had a long, successful career as a Physician's Assistant before applying to medical school. On the first day of class, one of our peers gauchely remarked that her daughter was older than some of us. (Note: there is no age requirement for medical school, and there is obviously no requirement for social appropriateness, either!) Although she has a good amount of experience, wisdom, and maturity over the rest of us, does being 15-19 years older than most of her class mean that her career will be 15-19 years shorter, after the same amount of resources spent training? I don’t know, and I don’t know if it matters.

Med school can be experienced in a completely different way as a youngster, recent graduate, worker with a few years under a belt, and veteran in another career. Of course I’m biased, and I prefer my path, but I can see pros and cons to each career trajectory.

January 20, 2009 in Anna Burkhead | Permalink


I started med school at 39 after 2 Masters degrees, a career in the US government as a Mid-East intellingence analalst (my first Masters),a brief career in fitness (my second Masters) and then 15 years as a paid and volunteer paramedic (my true career love until a job-related wrist injury ended it). I finished my first residency in Family Med last year at the age of 46 and I just started a second residency in Emergency Med. Age is relative. I have a lot of energy because i take care of myself: I work out and make time to pursue my extracurricular interests and spend time with my friends and family. The only thing I regret is choosing to go to an off-shore medical school which severely hindered my ability to get into an EM residency. But the 3 years in Family Med were tolerable (barely) and now I am in an incredible EM residency program and on my way to achieving my goal of practicing in a rural ED as a board-certified EM physician. The length of my career in medicine won't be as long as those of my younger colleagues but I hope to make an impact as an EM physician and EMS educator in the rural West in the next 15-20 years.

If there are any older, "non-traditional" med-school hopefuls out there who have questions about making a career change, please feel free to email me at nascarmedc@aol.com.


Posted by: RC | Jan 27, 2009 4:22:45 PM

I started medical school in 2006 at the age of 41. I will be 45 next year when I graduate. No doubt, with such a jump of time since being in school and the existence of other responsibilities (wife and kids) other than medical school, the experience has been an incredible challenge. I have had many moments where I wondered if I could do it, but I always persevered. I have overcome every hurdle and now am doing quite well in my third year clinical rotations. It seems that my people skills refined over the years, have really provided fruit in my interactions with patients.

I do believe the discussion of years in practice is a bit overrated. Many docs who love their work easily practice into their 70s, or even 80s, if health permits. The truth is, if you love what you do, why would you retire?

Posted by: GNR | Jan 27, 2009 4:29:13 PM

I took organic chemistry when I was 32, still nursing my second child, and applied to medical school one year later. I am now in my third year of medical school, age 38. My son in in Kindergarten learning to read and write the alphabet while I'm learning to read EKG's. It's a balance and there are many trade-offs. I too, would not trade the 15 years of living I did between undergrand and medical school for anything. I'm glad that I've had my kids and that I'm not trying to figure out when to have them. I've found there's a lot of support out there and that medical school is more flexible than I expected with on-line lectures, podcasts, elective time off and so on. I am on track to finish in four years and still have had more vacation time than most people working 9-5 jobs year round. Residency won't be as kind, but I do know some people who have managed to negotiate a 2/3 time or 3/4 time position and extend their residency by 6 months to a year so that they still have a quality of life at home. You just have to want to do it.

Posted by: sarah averill | Jan 27, 2009 4:36:51 PM

I think it's difficult to say age doesn't make a difference in maturity until you've actually aged! At 24 I'd put myself through college and a Master's degree program, so I thought I was very mature. But now I'm 34 and I handle situations very differently than I did when I was 24.

I'm planning to start a new career at 40 and I'm thinking about medical school. At 40 I'll have paid off my mortgage and saved enough money to cover medical school. Plus, now I've actually have had some health care issues that make me more compassionate than I was before.

I don't expect to have the stamina that my classmates have, but I sure hope they'll be open-mineded and invite me for a drink once in a while! Or, I guess it'll be me and the other 41 year old in the class hanging out alone.

Posted by: Erin | Jan 27, 2009 4:38:00 PM

this topic is something that has been on my mind lately... i'm 25 and looking for a job, and i feel that i am at a disadvantage because of my age. 25 isn't too terribly young, but i look really young for my age and at only 5'2'', i'm not tall (for some reason people associate height with age).

right now i'm questioning if i made the right decision by continuing my education right after college. i am competing against other professionals who have the same level of education, but are older and therefore, people assume, are more "mature" and have more "life experiences" that are assets to them as they continue their new career. This has not been directly said in so many words by anyone during interviews but this how i feel inside when they stare me down at interviews.... that look on their faces says "i have a kid older than you, what could you possibly know"... and no one will give me a chance to prove myself. I am ready to give up and work in "day-care"!!!

Posted by: kristina | Jan 27, 2009 4:38:55 PM

I became an RN in 1980 and a NP in 1993. I am now 50 years old and getting ready to graduate from med school in June. I am following my life long dream of becoming a physician. I am of the belief that if you want something bad enough---then go for it. You only go around once in life.

Posted by: Christine | Jan 27, 2009 4:43:51 PM

I am the oldest medical student I know, older than anyone posting in these comments so far. Nonetheless, it was tough to get in, and tougher to hang on, but oh so satisfying knowing that I'm in it for the right reasons and plan to practice at least 25 years after graduating anyway. I do think my complex life has been a factor, but know that my (older) patients will appreciate what I've been through and respect my similarities to their circumstances. I am not worried. I love this "job", even though I don't get paid. I took off the golden handcuffs and got to work following my real passion. I just hope I survive the ten year income hiatus financially. It's probably the toughest thing I've ever done, not academically, but in terms of total life impact. Still, when I'm eighty, taking care of those around my age and older, I believe it will be fun, interesting, exciting, and satisfying to know I am making a lasting contribution to what really matters.

Posted by: not given | Jan 27, 2009 4:44:08 PM

I have been reading the comments and I thought I would chime in with my two cents. To those of you who think that you can take a short cut, go to school for two years, not go through residency, and consider yourself at the same level as a medical doctor, you are mistaken. There is much to learn about medicine, and in my humble opinion, two years of preparation is not enough. Have a good evening.

Posted by: alejo | Jan 27, 2009 4:51:02 PM

I am 32 years old and in my last year of medical school. I owed a bussiness, worked for the public sector,and went to law school all before I decided to finally go to medical school. This path not only helped me make sure that become a doctor is what I always wanted but, it helped me look at medicine from a different perspective. Lack of previous employment before going to med school is not a good thing as far as I have seen. My med school counterparts do not view medicine as I do, do not value the chance they were given the same way as an older person does and the ones that ultimately end up suffering are the patients

Posted by: joe | Jan 27, 2009 4:51:07 PM

My year off working full time in the ER was the best decision I ever made. The experiences really helped me determine WHY MEDICINE for me, and I know my patients will be better off for it. Wonderful post. Thank you!

Posted by: Riles_C | Jan 27, 2009 4:57:14 PM

A few European medical students have made comments about being younger. Being an American student who has studied (in college) in their system, I think the educational background of an American vs. European trained doctor are quite different. Europeans start to focus education-wise on their occupational choice (B-levels or A-levels or whatever) while Americans are still taking in our high school 'college-prep' classes to give us a generally larger knowledge base prior to college. Whilst in college we further a general education base in a basic science, or another subject (music/foreign language/etc.) and take required courses to get into medical school (which usually requires a 4 year degree prior to enrollment). It is no wonder that most of us are older (and perhaps wiser in the broad scheme) than our counterparts in other countries. In my opinion, a longer wait enables a more pleuripotent professional who is ready to adapt to a changing world.

Posted by: Jason | Jan 27, 2009 4:58:10 PM

Who in the right mind would go to medical school now?

Folks, please don't tell me that you'd like to help people. If it is the case, become a clergyperson, or go to PA or NP school (you can treat people and have all presriptive authority), and don't have to waste your youthful time (4 years of medical school and at least another 3 years of residency). Unless, mom or dad insists that you follow their footsteps.

I have been practicing internal medicine for 15 years, and wonder daily why I made such a bad decision. Unfortunately, it is too late for me to do anything else, and it is not like I am still young to embark on another career path (too much financial and intellectual investment; medicine is all I know). There isn't a day in the life of a primary care provider that is pleasant: one is constantly being treated poorly by patients, insurers, manager/administrator, and even nurses....

The primary care medicine in America is nothing but nightmares....

Posted by: Casper | Jan 27, 2009 5:01:49 PM

My family physician is a second generation doctor and he has told me many times that had he to do it over again, he would have waited. In his opinion, you are not truly respected as a Dr. until you are aged anyways. It all depends on the person. I am more ready and able now than when I was 22. I have my family established and will not require neediness in the future as some other women may when they are ready to start a family. I intend on practicing for myself, so other people's opinions are not high on my priority list.

Posted by: Kisya Brown | Jan 27, 2009 5:07:13 PM

I served on a medical school admissions committee and can tell you that age did come into the discussion, both pros and cons. Yes, a person can be young and mature or older and immature. We noticed. We did look at the 'whole package' of each and every interviewee. I would say, though, that there was a subset of the group that would comment about (roughly) > 35 year old applicants and suggest they consider being an NP or PA, 'doing 80% of primary care work anyway' and in much quicker fashion. Their expressed concern was the amount of time a person would have in the profession of medicine and the vast amount of resources it takes (from the student, medical school, and residency) to obtain that education. They would question if it was really fair in a state funded system to prepare people for a shorter service timespan when you had other, equally qualified applicants who might spend many more years in service after that investment in their education. So, my advice to students still considering applying for medical school is: (a) do follow your passion, (b) take time to 'know thyself'--medical education in the US is a LONG timeframe so don't dally if you think this might be what you want to do, (c) shadow, shadow, shadow to get to know IF medicine is TRULY what you want to learn and apply (I always thought it laughable when a 22 year old student would talk about wanting to be a doctor since he was 5 years old and then I'd find out he had only spent 4 hours on a university-created shadowing experience but had plenty of time for other things in his life), (d) you still need to be an excellent student (who wants to go to the doctor who was just average?), and (e) talk to the admissions staff -- if you have applied 7 times and haven't gotten in, it might be time to reorient your goals OR if you tried once and didn't get in, you may still be an excellent candidate in a future year if you address the items of concern the committee expressed about your application the first time. Believe it or not, I did see candidates who didn't do a thing their interviewers suggested from one year to the next application and I can tell you we ALL remembered those candidates, and not in a fond way. But those who did address our concerns (and even one person who was mid-40's) impressed us and we were happy to offer entry on a later try. In the end it is up to you.

Posted by: On the Other Side of the Coin | Jan 27, 2009 5:13:26 PM

I hope the folks in this column who aspired to attend medical school will eventually choose a specialty that is other than primary care (family MDs, pediatricians, or general internists); otherwise, you will have a very rude awakeing after completing a primary care residency.

Today in America, primary MDs are looked upon as equivalent to PAs or NPs, and financially why would any health care institution pays these MDs 20K-30K extra when they can employ the mid-levels at a cheaper price. This is how managers/administrators with MBAs make their hiring decisions. Third party payers make similar decisions since they don't compensate for additional cognitive decision making that go into taking care of patients with high illness acuity and complexity.

If the current trend is any reflection of the future, PAs and NPs will run primary care medicine in the USA.

Posted by: Casper | Jan 27, 2009 5:21:50 PM

I started med school when I was 19. I am in my last year now and turning 23 next month. The best thing about being young in this situation is the fact that I will still be young in the event that I want to specialize and I will be established before having a family. On the negative end, being female and young I encountered quite a few other medical students and medical personnel that didn't take me seriously at first. Then I realized that a lot of it is just in the way you carry yourself. Now, when people find out my age they are surprised because they say I carry myself maturely. So I do feel I have to work a little bit harder and be extra mature but I guess in the end if I'm an attending at 27/28 then it's worth it! :)

Posted by: Chrissy | Jan 27, 2009 5:31:55 PM

I'll be 29 years old this year. I'm also married, and my wife and I are expecting a new addition - a girl - in two months. I am also in my first year of an MD/PhD program.

I am far from the oldest person in my med school class. There's another first-year MD/PhD candidate who's exactly my age, and we've got a couple of other students - one of them a former (pretty famous) TV personality, and the other one another (also famous) former musician for some pretty major music groups. There are also people with other graduate degrees, traveling experiences... you name it!

Also... my mom is just about start residency. :0) Suffice it to say, I think we non-trads wouldn't have it any other way - we have had exciting, fulfilling lives after college, and before med school, and all of those experiences just carry us to the doorstep of medicine with invaluable experience, wisdom, maturity (obviously) and, probably in every case, an enviable clarity and conviction about the path we have chosen.

As the last poster suggested... the next decade, or two, or three, etc., will come no matter what we do - so the question is what do we want to be doing when it gets here?

Posted by: ejb | Jan 27, 2009 5:33:14 PM

Im 27 and in my 3rd year. Age is irrelevant and we all face the same challenges together in med school.

Posted by: Alexandra | Jan 27, 2009 5:48:15 PM

I am what you may call the "traditional" medical student. I went to undergrad for 4 years and entered medical school 3 months later. I began 2 days after my 22nd birthday. We all talk about what "life experiences" we have/have not had. Who said there was an order to having certain experiences? Everyone is an individual, and no two paths will be exactly alike. I for one, am very happy to be a single female with no children. I feel that if I did have these people in my life, I would not be the best student or the best wife/mother. I would prefer to get school over with and then enjoy the rest of my life. I will graduate when I am 25, so I have plenty of time for "life experiences."

Posted by: Rebecca | Jan 27, 2009 6:02:10 PM

There's strong bias toward candidates of more traditional ages. While medical schools will accept older candidates, residency programs, particularly competitive ones are much less open. I started med school at 37, graduated with 3rd year AOA and a couple of peer reviewed papers relevant to my field, but took three tries to match to my 23rd of 23 place on my match list. Understand there were interviews at excellent places, and my adviser called several of them, but to no avail. His report and my experience corroborate that there is a great bias against older students. For example my adviser reported one of the PDs told him "He's just too old (Kashgarian at Cottage)," and one interviewer told me directly "I'm not comfortable training someone older than myself (UCSF)."

Things may be better in family practice and internal medicine programs than in my field (radiology), but in retrospect, it's not clear the effort was really worth it. There's still fellowship and finding a real world job to come, and I'm pretty concerned things aren't much better there; I got into this field to do excellent diagnostic work for patients, but in the real world of clinical medicine that has little bearing or importance.

In order to succeed without too much prejudice, probably one should be no more than thirty starting medical school. Getting into medical school is not the problem, since there seems to be way less bias there, but in my experience and from observing my colleagues or similar vintage, the problems begin at the residency level and beyond.

Posted by: rincewind | Jan 27, 2009 6:02:50 PM

Hi, im from Dominican Republic, and here right after we finished high school we get in Med school , so now im 21 and im almost finishing my med school, I think that the years of pre-med school are irrelevant, cause it's to much time doing things not really important to become a doctor, actually that is why I stayed here for Med school but im going to apply to do my residency in US cause there the residency is so much better and that part really worth it!!!

Posted by: Indhira | Jan 27, 2009 6:21:25 PM

I obtained my BSc at 22, Msc at 25, research experience + certificate at 29, MD at 34, research + start residency at 35. I'm loving it! I think the best advice is never to lose your enthusiasm!

Posted by: Cameron | Jan 27, 2009 6:26:32 PM

I started undergraduate studies in 2000, completed a 4 year degree in Biology/Physiology. Took my MCATS just like any other medical school applicant. Started medical school in 2005, and will graduate in May. However, I am a nontraditional student. I am 50 something, married with three children 23, 13, and 10. My oldest graduated high school, when I graduated from college and my youngest graduated from kindergarten. In addition I am Hispanic, neither of my parents graduated from college, and now my oldest has completed college and is interviewing for medical school. So, if I can do it, you can do it. If you have the passion, and the willingness to make the sacrifice, go where your heart takes you.

Posted by: Mature Student | Jan 27, 2009 6:32:25 PM

Dear Anna,
I totally get what you were trying to say. I also took a couple years off between college and med school, mostly because I wanted to see what it is like to be completely out of the school environment and out in the real world. Like one of the people who posted a comment before me, I had also had a 40hr/wk job during college, but it was completely different to just work without going to school. Personally, I think I wasn't mature enough to take on the responsibilities of a med student when I was done with college. I knew myself, so I waited until I felt I was ready (at 26). However, I often wish that I had been younger upon entering med school, because I am going to turn 29 right after starting residency and my biological clock is really ticking, telling me that I need to reproduce. I guess I'll have my babies during residency, hopefully that won't scar them for life.
As far as the PA's go, seriously, what is the big deal with the spelling? Physician Assistant vs Physician's Assistant....??? Does removing the "'s" somehow make the title mean something else? Like in the Office, Assistant Manager vs Assistant to the Manager, lol. Who cares. Jeez, when did people get so jaded. The title totally doesn't even describe the position. PA's are docs without residency, pretty much.

Posted by: Hopefully MD soon | Jan 27, 2009 6:33:35 PM

I mean without having to do the residency, not at the knowledge/experience level of a freshly matriculated MD or DO.

Posted by: Hopefully MD soon | Jan 27, 2009 6:35:40 PM

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