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Is it ever too late to attend medical school? A nontraditional student shares her thoughts.

In a world where the path to medical school is often depicted as a one-size-fits-all journey, my story is a testament to the fact that there is no cookie-cutter method for current or prospective doctors. I am now a third-year osteopathic medical student, but my path to get here has taken many detours.

A nontraditional medical applicant is anyone who has followed an unorthodox path to medical school. We exhibit qualities such as taking two or more gap years before entering medical school, pursuing a career change from another profession into medicine, switching majors from an unrelated field to premed coursework, or holding a degree in the arts or humanities rather than the traditional sciences.

The truth is, the road to medicine is as diverse as the patients we eventually serve, and it is OK not to fit the traditional mold. If you are on a nontraditional journey, try to enjoy the ride—your life experiences will help you relate to your patients.

As I share my story, I hope to illuminate the many ways to pursue a career in medicine.

Behind the wheel of a bus

My alternative journey into the world of medicine began during college. While pursuing a neurobiology major, I took on the role of a bus driver for the student-run company on campus. As I navigated the city streets, I discovered that although I was responsible for taking passengers safely from point A to point B, I had also become an observer of the various qualities of human beings. Regardless of age, background, or circumstance, every passenger carried a story to share, a life to live, and a journey to undertake.

My time as a bus driver, whether it involved helping passengers navigate bus routes or providing clear instructions, reinforced the critical roles of communication and dependability, as well as the responsibility of being entrusted with the lives of others—skills I now apply during my clinical rotations.

Beyond the desk: unconventional classrooms

Intrigued by the world of orthopedics, I embarked on a journey into research after college. At the laboratory bench, I learned how innovations in orthopedics could translate into real-world solutions for patients. This opportunity expanded my intellectual horizons and allowed me to see the practical applications of medical advancements.

After gaining valuable research experience, I transitioned into a role as a front desk clerk in an HIV/AIDS clinic. This role exposed me to the inner workings of health care, albeit from a different angle. I wasn’t donning a white coat, but I was absorbing the complexities of patient care, the importance of efficient health care systems, and the power of compassionate communication. My time at the front desk wasn’t just about answering phones and scheduling appointments—it was about witnessing the impact of health care on individuals’ lives.

These two experiences further confirmed my desire to pursue medicine. Witnessing the impact of health care firsthand, from the bench to the front desk, made me eager to help my own future patients. I also saw how research can influence the clinical side of medicine, and when working behind the desk, I experienced the humanistic side of patient interaction.

Application cycle persistence

My path to medical school wasn’t without its challenges. I faced rejection not once but twice during my first two application cycles before finally receiving acceptance on my third attempt. Each rejection could have been a roadblock, a reason to give up, but I chose a different path: persistence. With each setback, I was further determined to strengthen my application for the next cycle.

As I continued to gather insight into varying medical applications, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in physiology and biophysics. This degree taught me critical thinking and the value of interdisciplinary learning, both of which would later prove invaluable in the medical world.

It’s never too late to try

I entered medical school at the Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine (ICOM) when I was 27 years old. Society often associates medical school with youth, but I have found and proven that age is just one end of a much broader spectrum of characteristics. My unique path, enriched by my master’s degree, research, work at the front desk, and even my time as a bus driver, has given me a multifaceted perspective on medicine.

It has shown me that what is taught in medical school is not confined to textbooks and stethoscopes. The experiences we bring to medical school can allow us to better connect with individuals, empathize with their stories, and be part of their healing journey.

One common question that arises when considering medical school is whether it’s ever too late to start, based on age—for me, that answer is no. As the former vice president during my first year and president during my second year of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) chapter at my school, I had the privilege of organizing premedical workshops for the local community college. During these workshops, I encountered enthusiastic students, some of whom were older yet equally committed to their aspirations of becoming physicians.

One common concern among aspiring medical students is whether their age poses a barrier to applying to medical school. It is a valid concern, especially when you look around and see that many of your classmates are a few years younger. However, it is important to note that the landscape of medical school applicants is diverse in terms of age. While the mean age of matriculating students is 24, there are still many applicants and students who enter medical school at a much older age.

In fact, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) 2021 Applicant and Matriculation report, matriculants into medical school over age 26 account for 17.3 percent of people who entered colleges of osteopathic medicine, with 3.6 percent being over the age of 31.

Seeing so many older students at community college wanting to pursue medicine made me realize that I am a testament to the fact that it is never too late. Many were worried it was too late for them, but I wanted to share my story to reassure them that age should not be a barrier to pursuing their dreams in medicine.

I’ve come to realize that we shouldn’t hide from being nontraditional students. At times, the age difference between yourself and your classmates can lead to a sense of shame or the feeling that you don’t quite belong. Rather, I suggest we should proudly wear this title on our sleeves. The term ‘nontraditional student’ comes with a unique sense of honor and a wealth of experience under our belts.

One day—whether in the classroom, on clinical rotations, or in residency—these qualities will shine through, not as markers of difference, but as the strengths that make us exceptional. We bring unique backgrounds, diverse sets of skills, and a passion for health care to the table. We’re not here just to earn degrees; we’re here to transform the health care landscape.

My path—as well as that of other nontraditional peers before me—to medical school may not fit the typical standard, and that is perfectly acceptable. It is a reminder that the future of medicine is diverse, innovative, and inclusive. Age is just one variable in the equation, and life experiences are invaluable assets that should be cherished.

So let us welcome individuality, question conventions, and recognize that nontraditional medical students are reshaping the definition of how to become a doctor, one step at a time.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Yasi Arabi is a medical student. This article originally appeared in The DO.

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