The number of students applying to enter medical school in the 2021 matriculating class increased 18% from 2020’s entering class, an unprecedented jump compared to the average 2.5% growth in applications seen from 2018-2020, according to Geoffrey Young, PhD, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) senior director of student affairs and programs.
“We were especially encouraged by the growth in applicants from racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented in medicine,” says Dr. Young. “The increases in Black/African American, Latinx, and American Indian/Alaska Native applicants were all greater than the overall 18% increase.”
However, while ‘The Fauci Effect’ of the pandemic brought more applications for the 2021 school year than usual, the growth in applications has returned to average levels for the 2022 year, as we get further into the pandemic.
“At this point in the AMCAS cycle, medical school applications are 14% lower than last year, but are 3% above academic year 2020-21,” says Dr. Young. “Our experts say that the numbers are trending in line with the pre-COVID years.”
“People who were ready and intending to apply during the 2020–2021 cycle did apply as they intended,” says Mark Speicher, senior vice president for medical education and research at the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM). “People who were ready but intended to wait a year – to get more health care work experience, to travel, to have other kinds of experiences — saw these opportunities disappear, so those individuals applied as well. Plus, any economic jolt, like the pandemic, is a push toward occupationally secure professions, like medicine. But we believe that most people who want to be doctors, will want to be doctors no matter if there’s a pandemic or not.”
A revert to average levels
AAMC and AACOM are working to survey incoming medical students and assessing additional data points to better understand this year’s applicant numbers. But Jessica James, AACOM’s interim director of application services, recruitment, and student affairs, has some early insights on what might have been the reason behind the drop.
“We do know that undergraduate enrollment has decreased since the start of the pandemic. Many students postponed enrolling in undergraduate programs until pandemic restrictions were eased or lifted in order to have a more traditional college experience,” says Dr. James. “The pandemic seems to have exacerbated the trends in decreased undergraduate enrollment that began before the pandemic. The decrease in undergraduate enrollment will impact the number of students qualified and ready to enter medical school several years from now, so this will be something we’ll be watching closely.”
As the pandemic wears on, some people might be deciding that they don’t want to pursue medicine, says Sean Kiesel, DO, MBA, a second-year family medicine resident.
“Initially there was sort of a ‘call to medicine’ to help, but as the pandemic has gone on, I think people have been turned off because of the burnout, response to encouragement of vaccines, and the way physicians are being treated now,” says Dr. Kiesel. “Many patients tell us how to treat their COVID.”
Encouraging applicants to stand out
If you are mentoring premed students who are seeking advice about their medical school applications, Dr. Kiesel recommends focusing on getting high test scores and developing great interview skills.
“Test scores get you in the door, and your interview skills and preparedness get you accepted,” says Dr. Kiesel, who runs COM Prep Med, which offers free and paid medical school, board and residency study resources. “Make sure if you get an interview that you know a lot about the school. Have some questions about their curriculum planned out to ask, and show that you are genuinely interested in the program.”
Researching schools and having a good understanding of the application process can go a long way in helping premeds show their interest in the school and their readiness to get involved.
“Find the schools that fit into your narrative,” says Dr. Kiesel. “Everyone has a story. Find a school that fits your story. The school you go to matters much less then how hard you are willing to work.”