Unique pathways

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

Yasi Arabi, OMS III, has advised many students who are concerned that age may be a barrier to attending med school. Here’s what she tells them.


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 to not 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 shed light on the fact that there are many, 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. I chose persistence. With each setback, I was further determined to strengthen my application for the next cycle.

As I continued to gather insight within varying medical applications, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in physiology and biophysics. It was a degree that 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. It has shown me that the experiences that 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% of people who entered colleges of osteopathic medicine, with 3.6% 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’s 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 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.

Related reading:

The ironic tango of imposter syndrome and a growth mindset

My quest for immortality: I wanted to always be around so I could take care of my brother


  1. Jerome Daly D.O.

    Attending medical school later is not new. My friend and classmate Dr.Ed Nicholson was over forty when we graduated from CCOM in 1977. A great father husband friend and doctor. Quite a few of my classmates were over thirty at graduation.

  2. Jay Colbert, DO

    In 2000, I embarked on a “second Career” at age 37, starting off my first year at PCOM, with a wife pregnant with our 8th child and 7 other children in tow. I had been a podiatrist for the 10 years preceding, but felt I needed to be doing more for people, instead of confining myself to the end of the leg. While it was challenging navigating through med school with such a family, I have never regretted my decision and the rewards of an osteopathic medical education have been well-worth the sacrifice. I appreciate PCOM giving a non-traditional student, such as myself, the opportunity to thrive.

  3. John Scranton, DO

    Great job Dr Arabi. I started med school at PCOM in 1983 when I was 32 and there were about 20 other students older than me. It is never too late to try and the older students have many things to offer the profession and their patients.

  4. Mischa Coleman, DO

    Excellent article, Dr. Arabi,
    I started medical school in Kansas City in 2000 at the tender age of 42. My previous careers and experiences made it easier for me to bond with my patients. Now I am teaching at a brand new medical school and really enjoying my life to the fullest.

    It hasn’t always been easy. It was tough for me to deal with the politics of medical education and the “pecking order” as a fully grown adult, older than most of my preceptors, but I survived and, eventually, thrived. I tell people all the time, that it’s never too late to learn or to follow your dreams.

Leave a comment Please see our comment policy