How COVID-19 Changed Medical School Admissions

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The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying focus on physicians and healthcare workers have led to an increased interest in careers in medicine. But has this so-called “Fauci Effect” translated into more medical school applicants? And if so, how has the pandemic impacted getting into medical school as a whole? Let’s set the record straight.

First, we’ll explore how medical school admissions have been impacted by COVID-19, comparing the 2020-2021 application cycle to prior years, then dive into the implications for current and future applicants.

 

Medical School Admissions Statistics 2020-2021

When applying to medical school in the United States, there are three centralized application services: AMCAS for MD schools, AACOMAS for DO schools, and TMDSAS for Texas schools. Each year, approximately 53,000 students apply to AMCAS, 22,000 to AACOMAS, and 6,000 to TMDSAS. Of these, only about 40% of AMCAS applicants will matriculate into MD schools, 36% of AACOMAS applicants into DO schools, and 28% of TMDSAS applicants into Texas schools.

According to an article from the AAMC published October 2020, preliminary numbers for the 2020-2021 application cycle showed a significant increase in the number of applicants. Some schools even reported as much as a 35% increase year over year. Final tallies from the AAMC, however, show a different story.

There were 53,030 applicants who submitted their AMCAS for the 2020-2021 application cycle, which is actually a 0.6% decrease from the 53,361 applicants who submitted for the 2019-2020 cycle. TMDSAS data are similar, with a 0.6% increase from 6,053 applicants to 6,093. The data from the AACOMAS, however, is where things get more interesting. According to the AACOM, there was approximately a 20% bump in applicants from 22,708 in 2019 to 27,276 in 2020. And sure, more DO schools are opening each year, but that only accounts for a 2-5% annual increase in seats.

 

Possible Explanations for the Osteopathic Bump

It is important to note that premed students applying for the 2020-2021 cycle were all well on their way to applying long before COVID-19 restrictions came into effect. After all, preparing a medical school application is a multi-year process. So what explains the DO bump?

One hypothesis involves gap years, or perhaps the lack thereof. It is common for premed students to take time after completing their undergraduate degrees to bolster their applications. Common avenues include research experience, volunteering, and shadowing; however, due to COVID, most in-person opportunities were canceled. Students may also strengthen their applications by re-taking the MCAT; however, COVID restrictions caused testing centers to cancel test dates or offer an abbreviated version of the test. This may have dissuaded some students from retaking the exam.

These barriers to strengthening one’s application may have led some students to apply earlier than they had intended to, and DO schools may have been the more logical choice. After all, they’re substantially less competitive and more attainable to MD programs. For comparison, the average GPA and MCAT scores for matriculants into MD schools during the most recent cycle were 3.7 and 511.6 respectively compared to 3.5 and 503 for DO schools.

That being said, this alone is unlikely to explain the DO bump as these same restrictions may have also prevented some students from applying during the 2020-2021 application cycle. Many students choose to take their MCAT in the months just prior to applying to medical school. This can mean taking the exam as late as mid-July or mid-August of their application year – weeks after applications have already opened.

MCAT administration was canceled globally between March 2020 and May 2020, leaving students scheduled during this time without a test date. In addition, those who chose to reschedule their exam after testing resumed in May 2020 had no choice but to take a new, shorter version of the exam. This five-and-a-half-hour version of the exam was appealing to some given its decrease from the normal eight-hour test length; however, many were apprehensive about being the first to take the new version of the test.

And when you consider the importance of MCAT scores in medical school admission, this is a very reasonable concern. There were also many students that chose to forego taking the exam altogether due to concerns of contracting coronavirus at a testing center. In response to this, there were a handful of schools that waived the MCAT requirement for the 2020-2021 cycle; but, the majority did not. Overall, COVID restrictions on MCAT administration prevented many from applying during the 2020 cycle.

Another hypothesis to account for the DO bump is that the transition to virtual interviews may have removed a financial barrier for some applicants. Applying to medical school is costly enough, and when you add on the additional financial burden for travel and lodging, many find the cost to be prohibitive. Virtual interviews, in comparison, are essentially free, and some applicants certainly saw this as an opportunity to save thousands of dollars. Still, this doesn’t account for the increase in specifically DO applicants and not MD applicants.

Regardless of the reason, the spike in medical school applicants during this past application cycle is unlikely to be from a “Fauci-effect” given that once you decide to pursue medical school, it takes years to complete the requirements and prepare a competitive application. In the coming years, we may see continued increases in the number of applicants as these newly interested students complete their prerequisites.

 

Effects of COVID on the 2021-2022 Application Cycle

COVID-19 has also significantly impacted students applying for the current 2021-2022 application cycle.

The abrupt transition to a 100% online curriculum left many students feeling disoriented. Many instructors were equally unprepared, leading to a suboptimal learning environment for students. Furthermore, trying to study during a global pandemic while coping with stress from social isolation, unemployment, and concern for the health and well-being of yourself and others is not conducive to effective learning. As a result, there were many students who experienced a drop in academic performance during this time.

Online curriculums coupled with the inability to participate in in-person contact through research or office hours also made it difficult for many students to connect with professors. Under normal circumstances, these may have been the same professors that they would have asked for a letter of recommendation – another important aspect of a strong medical school application.

Early experiences with undergraduate research have also been correlated with increased student attainment, MCAT performance, and medical school acceptance. Whether that’s a chicken or egg phenomenon is unclear, but those who established relationships prior to the pandemic certainly have a clear advantage.

MCAT restrictions also impacted this year’s applicants as many students are proactive and take the MCAT during the summer prior to their application year. Studying for the MCAT is a long and intense process. Even in a “normal” year, most premeds will spend several months preparing for the exam, adhering to a strict study schedule so they can peak on exam day. Unexpected changes in test dates can upset the careful balance between retaining information and forgetting what you’ve learned. In addition, increased time spent studying can quickly lead to burnout and decreases in performance come exam time.

 

What Are Schools Doing About This and What Can You Do?

Fortunately, medical schools and admission committees are cognizant of the challenges that premeds have faced due to COVID-19. Many schools are being flexible with their requirements for the 2021-2022 cycle. Some have chosen to accept the pass/fail grading scale and online lab credits from the Spring 2020 semester. Others are accepting applications lacking the required lab credits altogether if they were unavailable when the student took the course.

Many schools are also loosening the requirements for letters of recommendation and in-person healthcare experience. Typically, at least one letter of recommendation has to come from either an MD or a DO. For many students, opportunities to work with a physician were severely limited last year as hospitals and clinics sought to minimize nonessential workers.

Even now, many opportunities that existed before are still unavailable. In response, many programs are loosening these requirements. Similarly, opportunities for in-person healthcare experience continue to be limited leading many programs to relax these requirements. A large proportion of medical schools are also allowing virtual interviews to minimize the financial and travel burdens.

These exceptions will vary from program to program, so you will still have to check with each individual school to make sure you meet their requirements.

Many admission committees are also adopting a more holistic approach to reviewing applicants. They are placing a further emphasis beyond hard metrics, namely the MCAT and GPA, in favor of application soft components.  This doesn’t mean that the GPA and MCAT are not important; but, it does mean that if you didn’t do as well as you had hoped, you still may have a chance at getting in during this cycle.

If you are planning on applying to DO schools, the AACOMAS has also included a COVID-19 essay section where you can discuss any challenges you overcame during the pandemic. Taking the time to fill out this section can help to offset any gaps in your application as a result of COVID. If you were able to help your community in some way during the pandemic and can show that you made someone’s life better, it may resonate well with an admissions officer.

At the end of the day, getting into medical school and becoming a doctor is not, and will never be an easy endeavor. But regardless of an increasing number of applicants, or unforeseen hurdles as the result of a global pandemic, it is important to remember that your outcomes are not a matter of your circumstances. Your outcomes are a matter of your mindset and how you play the cards that you are dealt. If you want to get into medical school and become a doctor, pandemic or no pandemic, you have to be the one to take ownership and responsibility to reach your goal.

Despite the uncertainty and changes brought about by COVID-19, applying to medical school doesn’t have to be a scary process. At Med School Insiders, we’re committed to empowering the next generation of physicians, and it’s our passion to help aspiring doctors achieve their dreams. See how Med School Insiders can help make your dreams a reality.

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