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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 will be graduating at 22 here in the UK. I would like to go to America for residency, but i fear a combination of age and nationality could pose problems.
Oh well; waiting can't hurt

Posted by: Joe | Jan 22, 2009 12:02:44 PM

The more pertinent question is, should people who've had other career experience be given an automatic leg up in admissions?

And why is it that people always assume that the older a person gets, the more mature they become? The most immature guy in my class is in his thirties.

Posted by: Brian | Jan 22, 2009 12:21:27 PM

Here in Italy med school starts right after high school, so first-year students are about 19 years old...only a few work during or after high school but I don't feel like we are immature!

Posted by: Sara | Jan 22, 2009 2:22:44 PM

This question is very interest for me!!! Can you answer me, if I am 20 years, I'm studying on biophysics (5 semesters already completed) - but I very want to be a doctor. Early (before I'll see this post) I think that I lost many time and it's impossible for me to go to med school. What can you say? Can I after my graduating go to med school or it's too late?

Posted by: Steve | Jan 23, 2009 8:11:54 AM

I got into med school yesterday! Irrelevant to you, but good news to me!

Posted by: Joe | Jan 24, 2009 10:57:14 AM

Im in NP School Right now just a few more classes to go. working as a Nurse and still debating on going to med school after i'm done with school. its real encouraging to hear that there really is no set age entering medical school and that the age range is variable. thanks!

Posted by: Isabelle | Jan 27, 2009 3:38:28 PM

Im in NP School Right now just a few more classes to go. working as a Nurse and still debating on going to med school after i'm done with school. its real encouraging to hear that there really is no set age entering medical school and that the age range is variable. thanks!

Posted by: Isabelle | Jan 27, 2009 3:38:29 PM

Being a student and working/experiencing the real world aren't always mutually exclusive. I worked full time (40 hrs/wk) during undergrad as an EMT in the University Hospital ER. I made some money and gained invaluable experience not only pertaining to medicine, but also to dealing with real people with real problems. I feel like it has given me an advantage in med school even though I fall into that "straight from college to med school" crowd you speak of.

Posted by: Ross | Jan 27, 2009 3:41:06 PM

Regarding: "(Note: there is no age requirement for medical school, and there is obviously no requirement for social appropriateness, either!)"

There is a de facto age limit in that admissions programs overwhelmingly select those who follow a traditional path, and for that very same reason, patients will always come to enjoy the inappropriateness that the AMA seemingly selects for.

Posted by: TMG | Jan 27, 2009 3:43:05 PM

I am 33 and just finishing my BA in Psychology. Didn't start college until 26, took two years off midway. I shouldn't have because there is NOTHING out there to go back to. (I will admit that I look much younger and I laugh a lot)I'm finishing my pre-req's in Fall of 09 and taking the MCAT's in Jan 2010 so I won't get in until 2011. My point is if you want it then do what you have to. I am relentless and energetic and not easily put off when I really want to do something.

Posted by: Stephen | Jan 27, 2009 3:45:49 PM

If you have a physician assistant working for you, never call him/her a "physician's assistant." Its an unfortunate faux pas. Otherwise, I think there's a little bit of wisdom both ways.

Posted by: Josh | Jan 27, 2009 3:46:08 PM

I am 34 yrs old and I am graduating this year from med school and I just finishing interviewing for residency.

Posted by: Herminio | Jan 27, 2009 3:48:34 PM

To the author, thanks for posting. For future reference, it is Physician assistant, w/o the possessive apostrophe. I am 36 and 1/2 through PA school, I decided Med school was too long of an endeavor to practice medicine, and am happy with the mid-level practitioner route. PA's are pretty comparable to MD's anyway... but that's just my opinion based off of 12 years previous health care experience. Good luck to all in your future academic endeavors.

Posted by: Meaux | Jan 27, 2009 3:49:10 PM

Age is not as important as focus. I have seen students drop out of medical school for various reasons. I think that the older students may have more complicated lives but may also be more focused and stable. It would be interesting to see what the completion rate is by age and experience. I am 38 with a PhD and still debating whether I should do an MD or an MBA.

Posted by: Raphael | Jan 27, 2009 3:49:41 PM

sorry for the typo. " I just finished interviewing"

Posted by: Herminio | Jan 27, 2009 3:51:04 PM

To the poster that noted that the most immature person in class is in his 30's - I would wager that the majority of younger people in medical school could not actually define what maturity is much less pass judgment one way or the other on a classmate accurately. I am 40 in medical school and I am sure that the majority of my classmates view me as immature, little do they know that it is clear to me that their level of maturity has much to be desired. Children right out of college enter medical school with a retarded set of social skills and are incapable of seeing their own shortcomings, they never been responsible for anything in their lives with the exception of signing student loan papers.

One thing I can say with certainty is that GPA and MCAT scores obviously do not guarantee a level of maturity. When the heat is on, that "immature" individual will surprise you, and probably save your behind.

Posted by: Bryan | Jan 27, 2009 3:52:47 PM

I'm currently a PA and it is my second career (I initially studied pre-law and I worked in Public health for many years) I think,regardless of age,if you know you want to be a doctor (or NP or PA),organize your money and personal life as best you can and GO FOR IT!!! Life is short and working at something you really want to do makes that short ride a much better one. At any age,you have something to offer to the process.

Posted by: Joanne Ellison | Jan 27, 2009 3:54:45 PM

We should DEFINITELY take older students (having kids is a plus) esp since there is a shortage in primary care. I mean who wants 5 years of a surgical residency when 3 and done u are working!

Posted by: pcp | Jan 27, 2009 3:56:24 PM

I am 34 and graduating this May. Being an older student forces me to think about how much time I have to practice and what I want to accomplish in my career in that time. As important is $$ for retirement, college and loans. Because of this, primary care is out.

Posted by: Christian | Jan 27, 2009 3:57:18 PM

I agree with TMG. Non-traditional students are often up against a wall when it comes to medical school admissions. I taught for two years while I applied to U.S. medical schools, and was never accepted, despite MCAT scores of 34P and 37S (I had to take it a second time three years after the first time, when my first score expired). I even spent an extra year retaking some undergraduate courses, and still didn't get in. I applied to a Caribbean school, and I'm in my first semester there now.

Posted by: Taylor | Jan 27, 2009 4:00:59 PM

I was 43 when I began medical school. I have some fantastic experience, perspective, and professional skills, but on the other hand I am rusty with the gunner-style wrote memorization. I also have a husband and children--while that removes the question of who and when to marry and when to have children, it does add a crowd to who and what I need to consider in my decisions and actions.

I am in a tight class with many young adults whom I greatly respect and admire. I am old enough to be the mother of most of them (and it wouldn't have been a teen pregnancy....). In addition the sheer age and generation gap (I am a baby boomer and most in my class can't even define what that is!) many of my classmates assume I don't have any interest in making friends with them or doing things with them, or they expect me to be motherly, or prudish (hey folks, my generation INVENTED the hippie!). Between my existing friends and my family I knew that I was not going to have a great deal of time to socialize with my classmates, but it is always nice to have that option, and it is easy to feel left out. Regardless of understanding why, that can hurt.

As to the length of my career after med school--I look at it this way: I was fortunate enough to retire from my first career at an early enough age that I could pursue something I really want to do in my retirement. I will only have a decade or so to pay off my med school debt but this is something I can do as long as I am able and want to.

Posted by: older but wiser? | Jan 27, 2009 4:01:47 PM

I love this topic! I am 21 and in my 3rd year of medical school. So, doing the math, I started when I was 18. Now I want people to be aware that age has NOTHING to do with maturity. While I realize life experience may be a little different, that is also questionable. Before I began medical school I worked as a consultant at an adoption agency for 4 years. I have had plenty of opportunities, for which I am all grateful, but people tend to still look down on me for my age. I want to encourage those that are young as well as exhort those who are old. Age is a number. It makes no statement as to what you have experienced. Whether you are 42 or 17 life is life. There are just different paths to the end. So if you are 18 and a college grad - more power to you! Reach your goals, whether that be continuing education or working. If you are 45 and going to your first college course - AMEN! Don't let the perspectives of others change the way you work to live out your dreams.

Posted by: GMH | Jan 27, 2009 4:04:20 PM

I've been a software developer for over twenty years and I plan to go to medical school next year, assuming that I'm accepted. It's never too late to do what you love. I may not have as many years to practice as someone starting medical school in their twenties, but I bring my strengths and experiences to the mix, that younger students may not have. I haven't been offered any shortcuts in this pursuit. I took my MCATs, shadowed doctors and even had to take a few additional classes to show that I could still compete in an academic setting. That turned out to be a good thing because it gave me more confidence that I am a competitive student. One thing is for sure, I'm not doing this for the money. It will probably be close to ten years before my income matches my current income. I'm hoping to hear some positive news soon.

Posted by: Jon | Jan 27, 2009 4:13:22 PM

Just turned 28 and wrapping up my second year of medical school... Wouldn't trade my life experiences for having entered medical school any sooner. In fact, most of my peers cannot tell my age, and for those who know how old I am, it doesn't really seem to matter in the end. The way I see it, medical school is a challenge, and so long as there's good company (no matter how old) around for those late night study sessions, it's all good in the end :)

Posted by: Hayden | Jan 27, 2009 4:14:44 PM

To GHM--there are many ways to measure age. Chronological is one of them, and with regards to med school, as you pointed out, it is largely irrelevant.

If you are thinking of taking on a profession like medecine but are hesitant because of your age.....well, in 4 years you are going to be 4 years older regardless of what you decide to do in those 4 years--you may as well arrive at that time with the training to do what you want to do!

Posted by: older but wiser? | Jan 27, 2009 4:16:10 PM

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