How Nontraditional Students Benefit Traditional Students

Last Updated on June 24, 2022 by Laura Turner

In both high school and college, we get used to our peers being our age. Everyone turns the same age in the same range year after year. This makes it easy for friendships to form based on common interests and just being in the same stage of life. After college, however, most of our paths can diverge in a variety of different ways. Many of my non-preprofessional school friends got jobs and are even buying houses now. Others went straight into medical school, and still others waited a few years and lived out their lives before going back to school to study medicine. I think that is actually one of the most interesting and beautiful parts of medical school: the diversity in age and experience.

According to many polls and studies, the average age of the matriculating medical student is 24. I myself was younger than this when I began medical school, and I yet thought I was going to be one of the older ones in my class because I had taken a year off between graduating college and starting medical school. To my surprise, there were people from many walks of life. I believe the average age in our class is 27! I have nothing but admiration for these folks who may have had established careers earlier and decided to switch and follow their dreams, and those with families who manage to take care of their loved ones, themselves, and their grades. One of my fellow students has a PharmD and had been practicing as a pharmacist for many years before ultimately deciding to pursue medicine. I asked him what had been the deciding factor for such a big transition, and he told me the answer was very simple: he knew he had always wanted to be a doctor and that there was never going to be a better time than right now. He managed to work part time as a pharmacist to support his family while still attending our many mandatory classes and lab sessions. I felt like I was barely able to keep my head above water, but my struggles must have paled in comparison to his.

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One of the fascinating things is which field most nontraditional medical students choose to pursue. Some of the more popular ones (just based on surveying students in my class) are family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine, and pediatrics. These may seem like fairly obvious choices for those who might be older and have families: they all offer a good work-life balance and have the fewest years of graduate medical training. I do know, however, of a student in her mid-40s who chose to apply to a general surgery residency. That must have been a decision that she did not take lightly, as she has a family to care for at home and most likely will have to make tremendous sacrifices in pursuing such a demanding field. General surgery residencies are notorious for being grueling even on those who are single and I’ve heard of horror stories where working 36 hours straight (unofficially, of course) takes its toll.

These stories just go to show that medicine’s doors are open to anyone who wants to walk through them. Many nontraditional students end up leading very successful careers and personal lives. In fact, medical schools embrace students whose experiences are different from those fresh out of college. It’s those life experiences that shaped them to be the phenomenal, hardworking human being they are today, and they are wiser for having gone through them. That’s a level of maturity that is rare to find in 22-year-olds who have known little outside the walls of an academic institution. I have benefited from knowing many of the wonderful nontraditional students in my class; although we might not always share the same interests or experiences or have the same amount of time to go to happy hour on a random Thursday, they have so much wisdom to impart, and I’m ready to soak it in!