Changes prompted by the pandemic increased the inclusivity of medical admissions and should be preserved after the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic created an unavoidable shift in how higher education institutions went about their daily functions. Institutions across the nation and the globe were propelled into a remote work environment in which many faculty and staff had to learn how to navigate their roles in a virtual setting for the first time ever. For the medical school admissions process, this meant changing how applicants were reviewed and interviewed for programs across the nation.
Many admissions departments within medical schools across the United States had to conduct virtual interviews and provide information to prospective applicants through virtual webinars and one-on-one Zoom meetings. Moreover, test cancellations and postponements resulting from COVID-19 restrictions left many applicants unable to sit for the MCAT, and because of these delays, admissions committees often had to review applications while still waiting for applicants to take the MCAT and submit scores.
Although this was a rough transition for many staff and faculty within admissions, these adjustments to the admissions process created positive changes for many applicants. The virtual format has made the medical school admissions process more accessible and inclusive to applicants. Across three dimensions, the virtual format has enabled a larger increase in access to and knowledge of the medical school admissions process than ever before.
The Change in Reviewing Metrics
Due to the pandemic, medical schools started accepting pass/fail and online coursework. Some programs reviewed applications without MCAT scores, and others did not require the MCAT at all. As programs relaxed the traditionally strict requirements for their prerequisites and testing scores, applicants had an opportunity to highlight other aspects of their applications, such as clinical experiences and community service. To the extent that medical schools allow pass/fail and online coursework in the future, applicants who go through this stressful and intense admissions process have an opportunity to focus on sections of their applications that fall outside the numbers and could be valuable indicators of their preparedness.
The MCAT will always be important, but the past year has proven that an applicant can be given a full review without that score. Admissions officials might not choose to switch to a permanent change in the way they assess metrics, but they should give serious thought to how such a change could shift the paradigm in medical school admissions. If admissions committees stop using metrics as the gate to keep students out, then they might be able to review applicants from a more individualized, less standardized perspective. Students who have test anxiety or do not have the same resources to prepare for the MCAT due to a variety of disadvantages but have a strong application outside of their numbers deserve a chance to prove themselves worthy of a medical education. Changing how admissions committees view metrics can allow for a more diverse and inclusive applicant pool.
The Widespread Dissemination of Information
All admissions departments have faced the difficult task of switching to virtual webinars, conferences, and information sessions for prospective applicants. Admissions advisors have also started conducting one-on-one appointments through Zoom or a similar platform. This has allowed students to learn about programs that are usually a plane ride away.
Making program information more widely available has allowed applicants across the country to learn about different medical schools and about how they could potentially fit in at a certain program. Instead of having to spend money on a hotel, flight, and transportation to visit a medical school in person, candidates can attend virtual tours and virtual information sessions. This has been beneficial for students with disabilities, low-income students, and those who do not have time to visit a program in person due to work, academic, or other obligations. That said, as much as technology can be a tool for accessibility, it can also create barriers to success for some applicants with disabilities and should not be viewed as an all-encompassing solution to accommodate all students.
Keeping at least part of the admissions recruitment process virtual can help extend opportunities to more applicants than ever before. Medical schools should start focusing on incorporating virtual events throughout the admissions cycle and extend the scope of their recruitment to those who might be a good fit for their program but don't have the ability to visit a certain school in person.
The Virtual Interview Process
Along with virtual events, admissions staff at medical schools in the United States should consider keeping their interviews virtual. Typically, an applicant who is invited to a medical school for an interview would have to travel to that institution to interview in person. Although this might be a simple process for those who live near the medical school, it can be unrealistic for applicants who live far away.
Most medical programs do not reimburse travel for applicants. Students interviewing at multiple programs that are not in their vicinity will rack up a significant bill while traveling. Of course, being able to see the campus and get to know the university community can help applicants choose the program that best suits them, but traveling to multiple campuses can be a huge barrier to entry for applicants with physical disabilities, low-income applicants, or those who simply cannot afford to take time off from school or work to travel. These applicants are put at a disadvantage if they cannot attend these interviews when other applicants can.
The virtual platform has also made it more realistic for more applicants to interview at any individual program. A common issue that admissions departments face when scheduling interviews is that some applicants cancel within a week of—or even on the day of—their interview. If interviews are in person, filling those spots on such short notice is almost impossible. The virtual platform eliminates this issue because an applicant can access Zoom on short notice, unlike having to fly across the country in a day. If an applicant does cancel at the last minute, admissions departments are much more likely to be able to fill that spot, meaning that another applicant who potentially would be a great fit for the program would have an opportunity to participate in an admissions interview.
The virtual interview process can be a lot less intimidating than having to visit an institution in person. Having to buy a professional outfit (rather than just a top for the virtual setting), navigate through a new campus to find the medical school, and arrive on time adds stress to an already intimidating process. Being able to concentrate solely on the interview can mitigate those stress factors immensely for applicants. Moreover, virtual interaction between interviewers and applicants can minimize the incidence of unconscious bias. The interview process is a closed-file activity in which interviewers are supposed to focus exclusively on assessing an applicant's responses to multiple scenario questions. Through a virtual interface, interviewers are less likely to pay attention to details such as an applicant's clothing, posture, age, ethnicity, or height. Although bias can still creep in, interviews that occur virtually limit the amount of unconscious bias compared to an in-person interaction. Overall, the virtual interview process is a much more efficient and inclusive way to get to know applicants and make the process easier for them.
Medical Admissions Evolution
According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, the 2020–21 admissions season saw an 18% increase in the number of applicants to medical school.Footnote1 The rise of interest in medicine is encouraging because the United States is facing a physician shortage that needs to be addressed by producing more medical students.Footnote2
Changes to admission metrics, to the availability of information, and to the interview process are now part of the post-pandemic landscape for many higher education institutions and should be widely accepted by medical schools as well. Instead of resisting change and going back to the old way of doing things, medical school officials should be willing to adopt at least some of the new changes that the virtual format has created. Adapting to this new virtual environment would be in the best interest of faculty, staff, prospective applicants, and the future of medical school admissions. If schools care about accessibility, inclusivity, and diversity, then the virtual setting offers the best type of resources for applicants to succeed in their medical school admissions endeavors.
- Stacy Weiner, "More Students Are Entering Medical School," AAMC News, December 16, 2020. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Patrick Boyle, "U.S. Physician Shortage Growing," AAMC News, June 26, 2020. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
Sydnee Larson is Admissions Coordinator at the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine.
© 2021 Sydnee Larson. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.