How Coronavirus Could Affect Medical School Admissions

Although the coronavirus pandemic has upended many people’s plans, it does not appear to have stopped aspiring doctors from pursuing their dreams and submitting medical school applications, some say.

Medical school officials from across the U.S. say that they are receiving just as many applications this year as last year, and some med schools report that they have gotten at least 10% more applications so far this year than at the same point last year. They say that they expect this admissions cycle to be as competitive as or more competitive than prior cycles.

That means that premeds applying to top medical schools will need to distinguish themselves in order to get into those schools, according to med school admissions officials and admissions consultants.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the number of applications submitted through its AMCAS application portal as of Aug. 18 of this year — 47,124 — is 16% higher than the application volume at the same time last year.

[READ: What the Coronavirus Pandemic Means for Premed Students.]

“I think it’s reasonable to assume that — at least application numbers-wise and on a national level — there may be a bit more competition for entry into medical school this year,” Dr. Rafael Rivera, Jr., the associate dean for admissions and financial aid at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, explained in an email.

Some premeds say the coronavirus outbreak has solidified their desire to enter the medical profession because they want to help address the health care challenges that the crisis has exposed, such as a lack of preparedness for controlling the spread of infectious disease.

Aspiring doctors Ryan Chahal and Mary Grace Kelley, graduate students in the M.S. in Medical Sciences program at Boston University, say the COVID-19 outbreak increased their interest in medicine.

“There’s this huge national appreciation right now for health care, and I think COVID kind of put health care right in everybody’s face, and it made health care something that everybody is talking about,” Chahal says.

Kelley says she has dreamed of a career in medicine since she was very young, so she is undeterred by the pandemic, which she describes as affirmation that she is pursuing the correct calling. She says the social distancing measures implemented because of the pandemic allowed her to concentrate on studying to retake the MCAT without the usual distractions — and the extra alone time allowed her more time for personal reflection than usual, which helped her when crafting admissions essays.

[READ: How to Discuss Coronavirus in Medical School Admissions Essays.]

When Kelley was furloughed from a position as a medical assistant at a dermatology practice because of the COVID-19 outbreak, she was initially devastated, she says. However, she rebounded from that disappointment and found a new medical assistant position involving sports medicine, an area of medicine she is passionate about as a former Division I college athlete.

Admissions experts note that many med school applicants have suffered setbacks because of the pandemic and that nearly all premeds have been affected negatively in some way.

“Though the pandemic has limited certain opportunities, particularly those regarding shadowing and research, there have also been a myriad of service opportunities that have become available to applicants, and to those interested in pursuing a career in medicine as a result of COVID,” wrote Dr. Rona Woldenberg, associate dean for admissions with the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine, a New York medical school established in 2008 via a collaboration between Hofstra University and Northwell Health, a network of hospitals and outpatient health care facilities.

Woldenberg noted in an email a few pandemic-related extracurricular activities that premeds could get involved with. “Assisting elderly individuals who are unable to leave their homes, becoming an emergency medical technician (EMT), tutoring school-age children who are transitioning to online learning are just a couple examples of how COVID-19 has opened up opportunities for those who are committed to service,” she explained. “It also allows those individuals a chance to demonstrate their dedication and commitment to service and altruism, traits which are vital in medicine.”

Dr. Sahil Mehta, founder of the MedSchoolCoach admissions consulting firm, which is a regular contributor to the U.S. News Medical School Admissions Doctor blog, says many premeds have made inquiries at his firm, asking for guidance on how to use this summer wisely given that the activities they had planned to participate in were canceled.

“This is something that they’re in with absolutely everybody else,” Mehta says. “Their uncertainty is the same uncertainty that’s faced by quite literally, again, the entire globe right now in everything that anybody tries to accomplish.”

In the grand scheme of things, Mehta says, the coronavirus-related inconveniences for premeds probably won’t have a significant impact on their career trajectories.

“This is a bump in the road,” he says. “Just because your MCAT was canceled a few times, just because you didn’t get the clinical experience that you were hoping to get, does not mean that you’re not going to get into med school, and it also doesn’t mean that you’re not going to become a good physician. You kind of have to take the bumps as they come. That’s part of medicine.”

Dr. Steven Abramson — vice dean for education, faculty and academic affairs at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine — encourages premeds to keep the ongoing pandemic-related challenges in perspective by remembering that they affect only a portion of the long period of time students have spent preparing for a career in medicine.

[READ: Coronavirus and the MCAT: What Test-Takers Should Know.]

“In general, our feeling is that highly qualified applicants should not be significantly harmed by this several-month hiatus, because there’s much more to their record than the last semester, where most of them did do remote learning,” Abramson says. “So there may be some blips in terms of grading going to pass-fail, but I think our deal is that in looking at the entire application and the wholeness of who these people are, it’s going to matter very little if at all.”

Med school leaders say they recognize that this is no ordinary admissions cycle and promise that they will bear in mind the exceptional circumstances when reviewing premeds’ credentials. They acknowledge that this year premeds have faced unprecedented challenges while compiling their applications, such as MCAT test date cancellations, mandatory pass-fail grading in spring 2020 at some undergraduate institutions, a shortened version of the MCAT that differs from the traditional exam and difficulties arranging for experiential learning opportunities.

Admissions deans emphasize that they are evaluating applications holistically to ensure that COVID-related inconveniences do not block promising med school candidates from becoming physicians.

Dr. Demicha Rankin, associate dean of admissions and associate professor of anesthesiology at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, emphasizes that medical school admissions officials will be compassionate to premeds during this difficult period.

“I think it’s important for students to understand that, as the admissions committee is navigating this new landscape, we’re not robots,” Rankin says. “We really do care about the work that we do, and we have a good understanding, and we’re empathetic to the experiences that these premeds are having because they’re not having them in isolation. They’re not. It is not unique to them, and we understand that – that it’s happening to everyone. So, a lot of things are beyond their control, and we realize that as well, and so we’re just really, really relying on the holistic approach to evaluating candidates, even more so than we have in the past.”

Searching for a medical school? Get our complete rankings of Best Medical Schools.

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