Med School Applicants Up 17%, Pandemic Role Unclear

Marcia Frellick

September 23, 2020

Medical school applicants for next year's enrollment cycle are up 17% from this time last year, according to an analysis by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

For comparison, last year applicants had increased only 1.1% from the year before.

Osteopathic Medicine Numbers See Same Surge

Joseph Shapiro, spokesperson for the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), told Medscape Medical News applications are increasing substantially for osteopathic medicine schools as well, up 18% this year whereas last year saw an increase of 5% from the previous year.

Geoffrey Young, PhD, AAMC's senior director for student affairs and programs, told Medscape Medical News that the pandemic may have driven some students to move up their timeline for applying to medical school, though they would have had to lay the academic groundwork before the pandemic, so COVID-19's precise role is unclear.

"This is an unprecedented time," he said, adding that there may be more urgency in joining the healthcare workforce in times of extraordinary need just as some are moved to join the military after an attack on the country.

Shapiro said AACOM hypothesizes that the breadth of care needed for COVID-19 may have drawn more students toward the holistic approach to medicine, the basis of the osteopathic philosophy.

"Mind, body, and spirit has certainly been at the forefront as people are coping with COVID-19, whether being in quarantine or separated from family members," he said.  

"Students may also have had more time to work on applications earlier in the cycle," he noted, with virtual classes and stay-at-home directives opening up free time.

More Competition

Higher numbers mean more competition as school slots have increased only slightly. Last year, 42.5% of applicants were accepted to at least one medical school, AAMC spokesperson Stuart Heiser told Medscape Medical News.

At Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, for example, directors so far have received 13,000 American Medical College Application Service applications for 138 first-year slots for July 2021 enrollment.

Ira K. Schwartz, MD, associate dean of medical education and student affairs at Emory, told Medscape Medical News, "This is the largest number of applicants in the modern history of our school."

"We are meeting altruistic, compassionate, and kind people who are motivated to use their talents and intellectual gifts to serve the sick and suffering," Schwartz said. "It is an inspiring time in medical education."

Coaching Needs Increase

MedSchoolCoach, a medical education service company, saw an increase in requests for services of 74% in April and 113% in May, according to a company news release.

Founder Sahil Mehta, MD, a practicing interventional radiologist in Boston, told Medscape Medical News the increase may be related to the pandemic in that people may have canceled plans for gap years and decided to push straight on into applying for medical school.

But he doubts the increase in applicants has come from people suddenly wanting to join the healthcare fight as completing academic requirements before medical school takes years.

More likely it is people who were planning that already but were on the fence as to when to apply, he said.

They may have said this is the year, Mehta said, because a few schools are waiving the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) requirement or have eased requirements in other ways, such as online interviews or delayed applications and test deadlines.

He said in some ways the increase is counterintuitive.

"It's actually somewhat surprising that applications are up," Mehta said, citing the upheaval in the process this year.

Medscape has previously reported on the chaos as testing sites closed because of the pandemic, sometimes drastically changing locations and dates of testing.

Mehta said future years will likely see more students applying because the physician role has figured so prominently in the pandemic.

"It's going to be a competitive year and the general trend is that it will be more competitive in future years," he said.

Shapiro, Young, and Schwartz have disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Mehta is the founder of MedSchoolCoach.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune, Science News and and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick.

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