Applying to medical school in the post-COVID-19 era: What has changed?

By | April 22, 2021

The spike in medical school applications during the 2020-2021 cycle surprised most people involved with medical school admissions. COVID-19 erupted full force in the spring of 2020, right in the middle of the admission season for the medical school class of 2024 and the testing season for the medical school class of 2025. Taking a look at the timeline for typical medical school admissions can help illustrate the COVID-19 disruption.

Typically, for admission to a medical program beginning in the fall, students must take the MCAT exam approximately a year and a half in advance to be ready to submit their applications in the late summer one year before matriculation. Historically, every year there are more applications for medical school spots, and the increase averages approximately 2 to 3 percent, with some years showing a decrease in applications and some years showing an increase in applications. Interestingly, the number of applications for the medical school class of 2024 (those applying in the fall of 2019 and admitted in the spring of 2020) was slightly lower than the year prior. Given that these students had applied before COVID-19, the number of applications during 2019-2020 was not affected by the COVID-19 disruptions.

However, due to the COVID-19 related disruptions in the winter and spring of 2020, students planning to apply for medical school beginning in the fall of 2021 faced numerous challenges. The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) administration was often canceled and rescheduled. The MCAT itself was shortened, classes were suspended, and then coursework was moved online, interviews were changed to online formats, and students often faced disruptions in their personal lives as well. In this context, it was very surprising that applications for the medical school class of 2025 increased by 17 percent, a historically unprecedented increase.

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Several hypotheses have been proposed to account for this unexpected increase in applications. These generally can be divided into either practical or altruistic reasons. Practical considerations include the benefits of online coursework, such as having more time to focus on applications or studying for the MCAT when commuting to school or in-person activities were suspended, and a shortened MCAT exam, which is less daunting and easier to get through. Increased testing time options can also benefit students who prefer to take the exam in the evening or early morning, which previously were not options. Other practical considerations include the fact that the medical profession offers stable employment which is considered “essential.” Despite disruptions to many industries throughout the COVID pandemic, health care remained a stable employment option, offering security and stability to those involved.

Furthermore, perhaps students who initially planned to do a “gap year” between completion of college coursework and medical school canceled their plans due to the difficulties of scheduling and participating in in-person activities which are traditionally done during a “gap year,” such as shadowing physicians, participating in international volunteer health care-related activities, or even pursuing other interests before applying for medical school. Perhaps these students decided to submit their applications earlier than they had initially anticipated to secure a spot in the medical school class.

Altruistic reasons relating to the view of the health care profession during the COVID pandemic may also account for the increase in medical school applications. Health care workers have been lauded as front-line heroes and provide essential care to patients worldwide. Nationally, nursing school applications have increased 6 percent from last year. Although not as dramatic an increase as the 17 percent in medical school applicants, the increase in applications for other health care-related positions highlights a more general increase in interest in health care-related careers.

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In the spring of 2021, students preparing to apply for positions in the medical school class of 2026 are preparing to take the MCAT and begin their applications in the summer of 2021. Many of the challenges faced by the class of 2025 have been sustained, with students continuing to experience online coursework, shortened MCAT exams, limited opportunities for in-person volunteer or shadowing experiences, and other changes. What remains to be seen is whether there will be more, less, or the same number of applicants this summer and fall as there were for the class of 2025. If the trend is sustained from the previous application cycle, applications to medical school are surely to be more competitive moving forward.

Assuming this is the case, according to this AAMC study, undergraduate GPAs and MCAT scores will become more important than ever before. While certainly not the only factor in being invited for an interview and ultimately being offered a spot at a medical school, academic performance is still considered the most important criterion. With letters of recommendation and medically related community service experiences trailing closely behind test scores, students applying to medical school post-COVID-19 may find themselves needing to make plans for a competitive application long before it’s actually time to apply.

Karolina Woroniecka is a pathology resident and ad hoc reviewer for cancer medicine and a USMLE tutor, Elite Medical Prep, LLC.

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