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How Is the Pandemic Affecting Med School Admission?

COVID-19 has changed a lot about the future of higher education. Here's what you need to know about how the coronavirus is affecting medical school admission.

Getting into medical school can be a stressful ordeal in the best circumstances. Prospective medical students need to study hard to earn high MCAT scores, secure strong letters of recommendation, and strengthen their applications with some medical experience by volunteering or job shadowing doctors. After all, the average acceptance rate at medical schools was just 6.7% in 2019, according to U.S. News & World Report, so finding ways to stand out is essential. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has made admission even more complicated for the next class of medical school hopefuls—stay-at-home orders have forced many students to switch to digital courses unexpectedly and are making it difficult to get that must-have, in-person medical experience. Plus, many MCAT testing dates were canceled in those first few months of the outbreak. This unexpected situation is impacting health care training as well as the future of medicine at large. Here are five big changes to be aware of if you’re considering applying to medical school and pursuing a career as a doctor. 

The MCAT is shorter (but not easier) 

After weeks of test cancellations, the Association of American Medical Colleges has shortened the MCAT for the remainder of the 2020 exam schedule, which runs through September 28. The seated time of the abridged test is now five hours and 45 minutes—compared to the seven hours and 30 minutes allotted for the traditional MCAT—in order to offer multiple testing sessions per day. But while the shorter MCAT will be a change of pace, it won’t be any less challenging, according to Petros Minasi, Senior Director of pre-health programs at Kaplan Test Prep. “The number of questions will be reduced, so the approximate time per question will be the same as in traditional MCAT administrations,” he says. “Since timing is especially challenging on the Critical Analysis and Reasoning section, there are fewer changes to timing and question reduction here than in other sections of the MCAT. You can expect the new test to be equally as difficult to finish.”  

Related: All Your Questions About Med School, Answered 

Admission will take longer (but be more flexible)

The admission timeline at medical schools is also changing in response to the challenges of the pandemic. The American Medical College Application Service has pushed back its planned transmission of student data to medical schools from June 26 to July 10. That in turn means students could find out the results of their applications later than usual, says Minasi. The shifting timeline may also affect scholarships that traditionally help cover the cost of medical school. Some medical schools are also adjusting their admission criteria to reflect the challenges that students have been experiencing over the last semester. “Since applicants will have difficulty getting certain medical experiences—like physician shadowing, hospital observerships, or volunteer community service—the admission committee will have to take that into account,” says Stephen J. Cavalieri, PhD, Assistant Dean for Admissions at Creighton University School of Medicine. He added that the admission committee may accept more pass/fail grades from undergraduate courses, which have become more common since students shifted to online learning last semester. Finally, applicants who are lucky enough to get invited for an interview should expect to have the conversation online rather than in person. 

Learning will move online (and feel different)

Like much undergraduate coursework this past spring, some medical school classes have also transitioned from in-person instruction to virtual learning to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Lectures and even some lab work will be conducted online in the upcoming semester, says James Giordano, PhD, professor of neurology and biochemistry and senior scholar of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, where he’s a member of the admission committee. Students may face challenges building connections with classmates through online learning, which may change the overall medical school experience. “Classes of medical students usually bond in collegiality, cooperation, and friendship as a consequence of the long hours spent together in lectures, labs, and study sessions,” Giordano says. “While these events will still occur…their ‘feeling’ is likely to be different.” 

COVID-19 will be in the curriculum (and provide new opportunities)

Medical schools have already started exploring ways to adjust their curriculums to incorporate lessons learned from the pandemic and to respond to a rise in students’ interest in public health. Cavalieri says that several faculty members at the Creighton University School of Medicine have already developed a COVID-19 symposium mini-course for students and professionals in health care, which has had “outstanding” participation. Similarly, the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine designed a four-week COVID-19 public health rotation for third-year students, while Vanderbilt University School of Medicine has augmented clinical rotations with a pandemic medicine–integrated science course. Students should expect to see even more courses pop up in the future related to the pandemic and public health.  

Related: Unexpected Pandemic Takeaways for Aspiring Nurses

A rise in telemedicine will influence teaching (and your learning)

The technology behind telemedicine has been around for years, but as of January 2020, only 24% of health care organizations had an established virtual care program. The pandemic is now pushing telehealth into the mainstream. An April 2020 report from Forrester Research forecasts that there will be more than one billion virtual care visits this year. In an effort to prepare future doctors to provide the best care—both in person and on screen—medical schools are incorporating telemedicine resources and tools in their clinical education, says Giordano. This has already started happening in pre-clinical medical education programs as well as in certain experiential rotations during the third and fourth years of the medical science curriculum, he adds.

The pandemic offers opportunity, not hinderance

This pandemic is in a constant state of change, and medical schools are tweaking their admission processes, curriculums, and teaching methods accordingly—providing you an opportunity to learn medicine in a never-before-seen way. Think of this pandemic as a way to broaden your scope of knowledge in your pursuit of a medical career. As things progress, check the websites of your dream schools for the latest updates—and don’t lose your motivation. 

Connect with great med school programs using our Grad School Search tool, and visit our COVID-19 student resource page for more relevant information on the pandemic.

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