Sunday, January 06, 2008

"I have never understood why medical schools have twenty year olds learning medicine."

While my age has been posted on this blog ever since it began over a year and a half ago, only recently have some commenters drawn attention to my age:

"Blogger, one question for you. How on earth did u get in to med school at 21? What was your life style like from high school through undergrad? " - anonymous
"I have never understood why medical schools have twenty year olds learning medicine. They have gone from high school to undergraduate to medical school and have absolutely no life experience. Of primary importance are the marks of the applicants; all else is secondary." - fossildoc
Before I begin I'd like to thank the many, many people who brighten my day every time they post a comment on this blog. Even if you don't agree with me (or my medical school's decision to accept me, perhaps, in an indirect sort of way?) offense taken. Keep 'em coming!!

It's interesting hearing this perspective when, first of all, I am by no means the youngest person in my class. Most medical schools publish statistics of their admissions class, which show that the average age is usually in the mid-twenties but the youngest person is often 20 years old on admission (and sometimes younger).

This is by no means the extreme, however. In some schools in Quebec, students are admitted to a five-year med program after only being out of high school for two years. And in the United Kingdom, students are admitted to a six-year med program straight out of high school.

Secondly, I sincerely agree with the fact that life experience is important. Personally, I took a year off and worked in a completely unrelated field and travelled between my undergrad degree and the start of medical school. I gained so much perspective in this year.

And not only is this my personal opinion, but many med school admissions committees would agree. If a spot comes down to two applicants who are equal on paper in terms of their academic qualifications, the applicant with more life experience will always be the one finding the thick envelope in their mailbox.

While fossildoc may have been right twenty years ago, and many schools retain a minimum mark cut-off, today it's no longer true that med schools admit students based primarily on their marks.

And as a result, the amount of life experience in my class alone means
the people in my class are all fascinating and there are so many whom I admire for various incredible reasons.

In addition to life experience though, medical adcoms look for something even more important: maturity. Maturity is an important factor in medical students and indeed physicians and you'd be hard pressed to find a school that admits someone whose immaturity compromises their professionalism.

Given all that, however, I can empathize with these readers who question how young medical school applicants are. I
submitted a forum post a while ago after being frustrated at the immaturity of some of my classmates:

"Most of the 3rd years in my class have demonstrated immaturity at one point or another, more so than the people who got in after 4 years or took some time off after graduating. By immaturity I mean anything from showing disrespect by talking loudly in lecture to uncontrollable giggling and crude comments during the genitalia examination clinical skills video. ... If it were up to me, based on what I have seen, I wouldn't allow 3rd years to get into medical school at all."
Needless to say I pissed off a lot of third-year applicants with that last statement, and in retrospect it was a bit extreme, but a) ruffling feathers on the interweb is fun and b) the number of mature young students compared to the number of immature young students - from my impression - is miniscule.

But while the ratio is low, the presence of a distinction demonstrates a point: the maturity of an individual cannot be inferred from their age. In other words, just because a student is young, doesn't mean they're immature. There are some students in my class who have stunned me when they revealed their age, because based on their maturity level, I would have guessed they were five years older than they actually are.

And that's the point I'm trying to make. Unfortunately I couldn't have said it as well as
worriedandwaiting, who summed this topic up really nicely in a statement on that pre-med forum, and with whose comment I'll close:

Are you a better doctor because you're 25 or because you're 35? That question has no correct answer. Age is not the factor. Who you are as a person is what matters. It is your life experiences that define you as a person, so try to maximize this opportunity to grow as an individual. As we all know, some 21 year olds already have a lifetime of experience, while some 30 year olds still think like teenagers. It all depends on the person.


lights n steel said...

I'm sad to inform you that the immaturity persists well into residency. Although it could be a disease of surgeons. Surgeons are, by and large, immature children. Listen to me NOW! Where are MY instruments? Dr. XYZ gets to have HIS own try, I want one of my OWN! I don't like you, I'm taking my blocks and going home!

Rick Frea said...

I think it's cool that you're so young and in med school. If I had decided to go to med school when you did I would have been a doctor by the time I finished RT school. Instead I have three degrees and a job where I get bossed around by doctors and no energy to go back to school. If you can handle it, awesome.

YS said...

First of all, thanks for the interesting article.

I'm a third year medical student, guess how old I am? ... I'm 20 years old! Yup, you heard me correctly, I'm 20 years old.

As you said in your post, over here we enter Med. school right after high school.

As I was reading the beginning of the article I put in my mind a couple of things that I wanted to say, but I came to realize at the end that you said the same exact thoughts in a beautiful way:

"the maturity of an individual cannot be inferred from their age. In other words, just because a student is young, doesn't mean they're immature. There are some students in my class who have stunned me when they revealed their age, because based on their maturity level, I would have guessed they were five years older than they actually are."

I experienced the same thing in my school. Many of the older students are childish and immature and on the other hand, several of the much younger students shock you with their maturity, wisdom, and life experience.


Kim said...

Two comments:

1. It takes what, 12 years minimum to become a doctor in the US? Starting early would be beneficial in terms of a long career.

2. Doesn't a certain amount of maturity come with the territory of being a med student/doctor?

smalltowndoc said...

Rightly said. More than the arbritary number of your age, it is your maturity that counts.In India, medical schools take in students after they finish the secondary education at which time their age is around 18 years. Some are younger than that some are older. But most are around 18. That does not mean doctors from India are not up to the mark. Your attitude and maturity is more important than anything

Breathingthroughschool said...

You're right age and medical school shouldn't matter. You were probably part of the double cohort and started your undergrad degree sooner. Immaturity exists in all jobs sadly.

Anonymous said...

I had studied pharmacy at college for one year before I switched to medicine and I must agree that it gave me a perspective on what I really want to do in my life. So I guess it isn't a waste of time to take a year off or try something completely different and I got a lot of life experience.
Lida, Czech republic

Anonymous said...

Good entry! I'm 21, and in 3rd yr of medschool, which means that when I got my admission letter, I had just turned 19. I would say my classmates aren't too immature, at least for the most part. And I agree with lights n steel, immaturity persists into residency, and I would even say later than that... I worked with surgeons during my last placement and it was almost embarassing at some point!

Anyway, as far as life experience go... I didn't travel most of the world like many of my friends, or didn't go to the olympic games, but I got sick w/ a chronic condition at a young age and was in and out of the hospital during my childhood and adolescence. I can assure you I started learning about medicine and health waaaay before I sent my application to medschools.

Yes, the grades count (usually for 50%), but I'm not sure I would have been accepted if it were for grades only. We have letters to send, interviews to go through. I know people who had almost perfect scores in HS/college, and were refused after the interviews...

Anonymous said...

My school (University of Miami School of Medicine) has a 6-year BS/MD program for kids right out of high school. There is a kid in my class who was 17 years old on the first day of medical school. And let me tell you...not only is he hands down the smartest kid in my class, he is also one of the most mature. He is smart, kind, funny, respectful and diligent and I would be thrilled for him to be my doctor one day.

So bah humbug to the naysayers.

Anonymous said...

Hey, glad to see ageism remains strong within the medical community -- clearly the fact that some of you never wasted your time in the social sciences or humanities has really paid off.

I mean c'mon. Zelda MD (and who wouldn't trust a Doc with such a moniker?) is bang on: it's not about age. And hell, even if you think it *is* about age, why on earth would you care what age people START learning? Do the math: we need all the years we can get out of doctors these days, and the sooner they can practice [well] the better.

Can "life experience" help make someone a better doctor? Absolutely. But "experience" doesn't equal "age", and its value is entirely relative to other factors. I don't give a damn if my proctologist has been to Mozambique.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I should have opened my question with the word "Congrats". I don't beleive age has anything to do with the person's maturity. I was just amazed by your commitment and passion for medicine at an early age. I decided to come off the path to medicine for a while, until I know for sure that medicine is what I want to do, plus after high school, I wasn't confident enough to puruse medicine. But now my confidence keeps growing day after day.
So, by asking that question I was admiring and not the other way around.

I will keep on reading your blog, best of luck

Anonymous said...

VM - I completely agree with your post. As a younger student at a D.O. school, I feel where you are coming from. Age has nothing to do with it - I have a wife and a child, yet I am in the youngest 5 of my med school. I have learned life lessons, just like the 40 year olds.
And another point, which is probably to sensitive to add is the idea that I will practice medicine for 20 more years than my 40 yr old counterparts - my training will pay back more to society in terms of years treated. Doesn't this have any say in the matter as well?

Anonymous said...

In the UK you finish high school at 16 then do two years of A levels which is the equivalent of your last two years at high school in the US. This makes people normally 18 years old when they enter med school here (we do not have to do a previous degree), and most of the courses are 5 years in length, which means if you dont take a gap year between A levels and med school you are 23 when you become a doctor!

I joined my med school as a 'mature student' at the age of 23 I am now just 25. At first I must say that there were some in my year who were very immature but this was just because for the majority 90% of the year group it is their first time living away from home, in a big exciting city with their own money etc, so they were just living it up. Now we have just finished the first semester of the second year it is amazing to see how most have settled down how mature peoples outlooks are. Im not saying everyone acts like this but most do. I think maturity does come with experience, but that experience comes in many forms, and i have met many mature and respected people who are only 18 or 19 who I am proud to call my friends and colleagues.

Anonymous said...

I'm 76 now, but entered med school at 19 (after HS) and graduated at 25, spent 7 years in post-graduate work, and the next 30+ years practicing medicine. There were 40 yr-olds in our class (WW2 vets) and everything in between. Age is NOT a factor in determining whether a person will make a good physician, but should med schools accept someone who will only be around for 20 years instead of 40? I don't know......

Anna said...


I just stumbled across your blog today and I happened to read your article. Guess how surprised I was to see you quote me!
Keep up the good work

-- Worriedandwaiting

Anonymous said...

I am a 45 year old premed. I worked in the health care field for 9 years, and have been volunteering in the health care field for the past 17 years. I plan on applying next year or the year after when I finish a 2nd bachelor's degree in the sciences.