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Admissions Perspective: Non-Traditional Medical Students

Published on February 25, 2013, by Ryan Ross in Admissions.

As a medical school admissions counsellor, I have the luxury of speaking with
students from all walks of life. As the first point of contact in the application process,
its my job to get to know prospective students and learn all about their lives,
including goals, dreams/ambitions and experiences. Among my favourite type of
students to meet are non-traditional students.
Non-traditional students are characterized as students who didnt follow the
standard path of: high school to college to medical school (with little or no breaks
between).North-western describes non-traditional students as anyone whos taken
more than two years off between undergrad and medical school.
My experience has taught me that non-traditional students are a much broader and
more complex group than just everyone ages 24 and up. I really break nontraditional students into two groups: the late-bloomers, and the career
Generally speaking, the first group consists of students ages 24-28. These students I
call the late-bloomers, but its not a shot at their capability or academic
performance. For whatever reason, its just taken them a few extra years to start
medical school. They may have gone down the pre-med path in undergrad, but at
age 22 they werent quite ready to matriculate. Many of these students went abroad
after graduating, or pursued experiences and jobs they knew would serve them
later on as a doctor. This group may also contain students whove pursued other
graduate work before medical school. I find these students to be well rounded,
adventurous, more willing to take chances and think outside the box, than their
traditional student counterparts.
The second group of non-traditional students, which I refer to as the career
changers, are students ages 29+. This is an especially interesting group of people,
as theyre often making major sacrifices to attend medical school. Many of these
students have families or are leaving behind successful careers. Despite the choices
and paths theyve made in their younger years, the dream of becoming an MD is
something thats permeated throughout their lives. Because of the sacrifices
theyve made to attend medical school, we see these students being among the
most committed and driven to succeed.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the number of medical
school applicants ages 29+ for the past five years has averaged around 9%. This
chart from 2001 reflects the average breakdown of age demographics in US medical
Ages of first year medical students in 2001
Source: Assn. of American Medical Colleges 2001
Clearly the majority of students attending medical school are traditional students.
However, prospective students may be wondering if being non-traditional
automatically puts them at a disadvantage for medical school acceptance. In my
experience, traditional and non-traditional students are evaluated on even terms.
Where non-traditional students excel over their traditional counterparts are their life
experiences and maturity. Medical school admissions officers are looking for

candidates that can differentiate themselves from the thousands of other

applicants, and many non-traditional students certainly fit that bill. Students with
strong communication skills, and demonstrated confidence in front of people and in
stressful situations, are always going to sit a notch above the curve. When I meet an
applicant who is a mother of 2, and whos been a practicing nurse for 15 years, I
know without a doubt that this student will excel in medical school.
Given the fierce competition for seats in both US and Canadian medical schools,
there is often debate concerning the logic of accepting non-traditional students. Not
so much the late bloomers, but for the career changers, critics argue that seats
are limited, so why should we train doctors who will ultimately practice less years
than their younger counterparts?
I see many benefits to giving seats to older non-traditional students. One benefit is
that these students bring with them life experiences and unique viewpoints. This
can have a great effect on the medical school learning-environment, as other
classmates are exposed to unique and differing opinions. Also, the emotional
intelligence that comes with age and experience can make non-traditional students
into more confident clinicians in shorter time than their peers. This means a shorter
turnaround time for producing skilled doctors. Another benefit is that most nontraditional students are going into primary care type residencies. shortage and need
for doctors lies. Policy makers and educators are scratching their heads trying to
come up with ways to attract able doctors into primary care. It seems ridiculous to
neglect non-traditional students, when theyre a student population willing and
ready to take these residencies.