Planning your career as a doctor can be overwhelming. Are you too young? Too old? Is it too late for you to go to medical school?
You might be surprised.
The average age of students graduating medical school is 28. Most students start their four years of training right after or soon after college. However, not everyone follows this path. Some start sooner, around 20 years old and others start much later, as late as 40 years old.
Deciding when to start medical school isn’t always a simple choice. But it can be helpful to understand that there are a number of different ways to get there.
How old is the average medical student?
According to the AAMC, the average age for all students entering medical school is 24 with most graduating at 28. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Going to medical school is a big decision. It’s a huge commitment of both time and money. At least four years of extra school beyond college plus 3 or more years of residency training alongside potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
Add in the fact that it’s pretty tough to know where you’ll be in 5 years, let alone the 7-10 years before you’re finally an attending physician. All that time and money you spent trying to be a doctor could turn out being something you may or may not still want to do when you’re done. It really is a big decision.
For some people, though, it’s an easy one. These folks may feel “destined” to become doctors and dive in head first, starting as soon as they’re done with college. They’ll be much younger when they graduate compared to those who start later.
Other applicants may need more time before making the decision to become a doctor. It may be for any reasons that they delay that decision, but it’s ok. That’s why medical students range in age anywhere from 20 years old to over 40 years old. And that’s why the average age of medical school graduates is 28, a full two years after the expected age if you’d gone straight out of college.
Is one path better than the other? Should you try to graduate medical school as young as possible? And can you be too old to be a doctor?
Starting medical school later in life
I remember when I was first thinking about going to medical school and becoming a doctor. I quickly realized at the time that I was really late!
Around me, my friends had already been midway through their own plans. They had research, volunteering, and all those other things you need to be a good applicant. Then there was my advisor who told me I was too late in the game to even start.
It was stressful. It felt like everyone who becomes a doctor takes the MCAT their junior year and starts medical school right after undergrad.
But then I got into medical school, and I realized everyone wasn’t the same age. I mean, I was a year older because I delayed my application a year, but sitting next to me were people in their late 20s and early 30s. They were just as happy to be there as I was.
It turns out that I was wrong. Not everyone follows that same traditional path to becoming a doctor: going to medical school right after college around 22 years old. Actually, most people followed a nontraditional path of their own.
The reasons why someone would delay being a doctor are varied and personal, but here’s a list of the common ones.
- Taking more time to study for the MCAT. This is what I did. By the time I decided to be a doctor, the MCAT was only a few months away and I didn’t have time to study, so I took a year off to improve my application
- Strengthening your application. Plenty of students feel like their application isn’t strong enough for one reason or another. They’ll take a year or two to improve their GPA, get stronger letters of recommendation, or build their resume with research or other projects that make them a better applicant.
- Taking time off. Not everyone wants to sacrifice their 20s just to be a doctor as soon as possible. A surprisingly large number of potential applicants actually take time off to do something productive or just enjoy life. Especially when they realize that they won’t get left behind by doing so.
- Getting your finances in order. Medical school is expensive! Not everyone has $200,000 laying around to pay for medical school. Delaying your application to medical school could allow to you better prepare for the financial burden of applications, books, housing, and student loans.
- Deciding later in life. While I decided to be a doctor a year or two after my friends did, other people decide much later in life. One friend wanted something different than his accounting job and started when he was 32. Another friends realized he’d rather be a doctor than a patent lawyer and started at 31. According to the AAMC, almost 5% of first year medical students are over 29 years old.
Alternatives to Traditional Medical School
The traditional medical school model is 4 years of training split roughly into two sections.
The first two years are primarily spent in classrooms studying and learning. At the halfway point, you’ll hopefully know everything there is to know about the basic sciences surrounding medicine and you’ll take your first big test, Step 1.
Then, the next two years you’ll focus on developing your clinical skills. You’ll work directly with attending doctors in various specialties from ob/gyn to surgery to outpatient medicine and hopefully find something that you like.
Finally, in your fourth year you’ll craft your residency application, apply and interview, create your match list, and find out where you’re going next.
Following this traditional model, you’ll graduate medical school four years after you start. On average around age 28.
However, there are other nontraditional schools with different timelines. For example, the accelerated three year programs and the combined six year programs.
Accelerated medical pathway programs are a relatively new thing, only having being around for a little under 10 years. In these programs, the traditional four year system is condensed into three, allowing you to graduate one year early than you otherwise would have.
In six year programs, you’ll combine your undergraduate degree and medical degree into a compressed 6 years compared to the traditional 8. As a benefit, you won’t only finish medical school a full two years early but because it’s a combined system, you might also be able to skip the MCAT.
Sounds great, right? But these programs are few and far between. In fact, as of this writing, there are only three left:
- California Northstate University
- Howard University College of Medicine
- University of Missouri – Kansas City
Is it better to graduate earlier or later?
There are a number of reasons why applicants would apply to medical school earlier or later in life. Both are valid ways to approach your decision to be a doctor. And both have their own pros and cons.
The traditional applicants are able to make it to the finish line sooner. If you finish medical school by 26 and do a three year residency, you’ll be an attending at 29. This lets you make an attending salary much earlier in life, but could also mean sacrificing time in your 20s when you may have been experiencing life or doing other things.
Applicants who start medical school later in life may face their own challenges. While they may have greater certainty in their decision after working in other careers or greater financial stability when entering medical school, they’re also further away from the university system.
This could mean going back to school to fulfill prerequisites, taking extra time to boost your application, or having to worry about family obligations in addition to school.
For most folks, the decision of when to go to medical school is a personal one. Neither path is better or worse than the other. And neither makes for a better or worse doctor. Whether you go to medical school at an old age or a young age, know that others have been there before you. It’s never (technically) too late.