Getting into Medical School: A Guide for Older Nontraditional Students
Where to Apply
Applying to medical school is a highly competitive process, where the demand is much greater than the number of available seats in U.S. schools. The odds are even higher for nontraditional students. In 1998-1999, the overall acceptance rate was about 42%. For applicants age 32 and older, the acceptance rate was 26%. While this may partly be due to age discrimination, GPA and MCAT scores seems to be the primary predictor.
Most students apply to about a dozen medical schools. The general rule is that the less optimistic you are about your chances for acceptance, the more schools you should apply to. I applied to about 24 programs in the Mid-Atlantic area that have a strong primary care emphasis, interdisciplinary research programs, and associations with other universities.
Estimating Your Chances
To be in a realistic position, you should be in line with the average MCAT scores and GPA for other matriculants, which is about a 3.6 GPA and 30 MCAT. Check out the following link for more details directly from AAMC. Note that less than 5% of students who enter medical school have a GPA of 3.0 or less, and most of them probably have extenuating circumstances which offset their low GPA. For example, a low GPA may be offset by a high MCAT score. If your grades are below the averages listed here, you may want to consider ways to improve your standing, which I discuss under the Second Chance link.
Average MCAT scores and GPA for Matriculating Medical Students in 1999.
Selecting a Medical School
Private schools are another option. Do not disregard them because of higher tuition costs. These schools are more financially independent and are not under the same restrictions as state funded schools. Because of this, some will cater to students who do not meet the qualifications of public state schools.
Other considerations are whether you will have to relocate, the urban/rural character of the school, curriculum options, or special programs. Some schools may give preference to students in the same general part of the country, such as the Mid-Atlantic area. Find a characteristic you are interested in, such a strong primary care emphasis, strong research programs, or associations with other universities.
Foreign Medical Schools
Becoming a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) may be a reasonable alternative to becoming an allopathic Doctor of Medicine (M.D.). Osteopathic doctors are the legal and professional equivalent of medical doctors. They reportedly have a more holistic view of medicine, and with 50% of them specializing in Family Medicine, a stronger primary care focus. Osteopathic medical schools tend to look beyond the pure numbers, so they have a reputation for being more receptive toward nontraditional students. The average age of entering osteopathic students has been 26 years, which is higher than the average of those accepted in allopathic medical schools (24 years old). The main disadvantage is having to educate your patients and colleagues to the fact that a DO is the equivalent of an MD. So if you have a strong ego or you are overly sensitive to prejudice, this may not be a good choice. Another consideration is that D.O. students have a lower first-time pass rate on the USMLE (91% for M.D. students versus 72% for D.O. students in 2003), and that it may be tougher for D.O.'s to get into competitive allopathic residencies. There are several good books that describe what osteopathic medicine is. I list a couple on my web site, one written by two osteopathic physicians (to give you an insider's view), and the other written by someone outside the osteopathic community (which may be more objective).
Physician Assistant and Nurse Practitioner
Some older applicants may consider Physician Assistant (PA) or Nurse Practitioner (NP) programs as an alternative to medical school. They require only 2 years of training, instead of the 7 or more years it takes to become a doctor. There is no doubt that PA's and NP's provide an important function. Just be careful that you become one for the right reasons. If you enjoy working in an ancillary role with limited autonomy and responsibility, then becoming a PA or NP may be the right decision for you. The PA's and NP's who develop a proficiency outside the basic skills of a physician, or who provide niche services that are not economical for a physician to perform, seem especially satisfied with their career choice.
However, if you feel that becoming a PA or NP will be a shortcut to being "just like a doctor", you may be making a mistake. In whatever specialty area you work, there will always be significant limits on what you know and on what you are able to do. As a PA or NP, your clinical responsibilities will always be under the direction of a physician, you likely will only be able to diagnose and treat the more basic cases, you won't be able to become board-certified in the various specialties, you won't be able to perform surgery, and you will have significantly less earning potential. Of course, there's nothing wrong with having limited knowledge of medicine or a limited role in patient care. But you're setting yourself up for failure if, deep down inside, you really wanted to be a physician.
Another thing to consider is that "experience does not equal competence". Even after working in the field for several years, a PA or NP probably won't know as much about medicine as a first-year resident, and will often have to defer to residents and physicians in many clinical situations. Note that a PA or NP with several years experience may sometimes have more confidence that a first-year resident, but will still lack in competence. In my program, second-year residents are routinely called upon to supervise PA's and NP's. Remember that it takes years of rigorous and formalized education to become a physician, with most doctors training for around a decade. For example, a physician who specializes in Internal Medicine will never magically become a Cardiologist just because he/she practiced medicine for several years. The same is true in other fields -- someone with a BS in Biology and some work experience doesn't automatically become a Biology Professor without the formal training of a PhD program, and possibly also post-doctoral training. In the same way, a PA or NP, with only 2 years of formal training, can never equal the competence of a physician without the 7 to 15 years of rigorous and formalized training that he/she lacks.
You may want to consider other alternatives to both allopathic and osteopathic medical school. Several alternative professional organizations are listed under links on this site. Before you make a final decision, you should weigh the pros and cons carefully. On the plus side some of these program may be easier to get into, less intensive than medical school, or have a philosophy that you believe strongly in. However, you will always be a minority in a health care field that is dominated by allopathic medical doctors (M.D.'s). In addition, some of these alternatives are controversial because they are based on anecdotes or untested theories, and can sometimes hurt their patients by discouraging them from seeking legitimate medical care. Finally, be wary of alternative fields that claim with cult-like fever to have unique insights into medicine that medical doctors do not understand.