Competition for Medical School Stiffens

Crimson Graphic

National medical school application numbers

The number of students nation-wide applying to medical school increased last year after six years of decline, intensifying admissions competition at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and other highly-selective institutions.

About 35,000 people applied to American medical schools last year, an increase of 3.4 percent over the previous year, according to data released recently by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Within that pool, both females and certain minority groups comprised record-high percentages.

For the 2003 entering class at HMS, 4,523 students applied for a spot, and 165 accepted an offer of admission. The previous year, despite problems with the newly-implemented Web-based system for reporting MCAT scores—prompting HMS to relax its application deadline—about 100 fewer people applied to the school. Speaking of the change in the number of applicants from 2002 to 2003, HMS’ Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Mohan D. Boodram said, “In my mind, that was a significant increase, although it looks like a slight increase” because of the deadline extension.

Following the national trend, officials at HMS and the Office of Career Services (OCS) said they observed a slight increase in the number of students seeking admission to the class of 2004 at HMS and other schools.

“As of the beginning of November, our application volume was comparable to Nov. 1 of last year, perhaps slightly larger,” Boodram wrote in an e-mail. The final application deadline at HMS was Nov. 15.

OCS Director of Premedical and Health Career Advising Lee Ann Michelson ’77 said premedical tutors have suggested that more Harvard students are applying to medical schools this year than in years past.

“Last year, eight percent of the senior class applied. Five years ago, 12 to 15 percent applied, but I think the numbers are going to go up for us,” Michelson said.

Michelson said a slow economy and the associated scarcity of jobs may be a reason for the expected surge.

“People think that med school applications sometimes parallel the economy,” she said.

Boodram said his office has made a change to accommodate more applications.

“We have pushed our decision letter mailing date out to early March in order to ensure that we have adequate time to consider each application carefully,” he wrote.

As for the application evaluation process, Boodram said it has not been altered.

“We will continue our long-standing practice of reading each and every application from cover to cover as we select candidates for on-campus interviews,” he wrote.

Applicants who are not contacted for an interview will not be given an offer of admission, Boodram said.

Despite the increase, Boodram said, “We have no plans to increase the number of applicants invited for interviews. So far the credentials of this year’s interviewing candidates remain indistinguishable from those of the interviewees of past years.”

Some said they thought the increase held little overall significance for Harvard students facing the medical school application process. Consistently, 94 percent of Harvard students who apply to medical school have received an offer of admission from at least one school, according to Michelson.

“I don’t think it will have a great effect because med schools continue to look for certain qualities despite the number of applicants,” said Phillip A. Erwin, a premed tutor in Lowell House.

Changing Faces

For the first time, women comprised a majority of all medical school applicants last year. Of the 35,000 total students who submitted applications, 17,672 were female, an increase of almost seven percent over the previous year.

Boodram said that, historically, more men apply to HMS than women. However, he said three of the five most recent entering classes had more women than men.

“Males continue to hold a slight majority in the HMS applicant pool, though each year the gender ratio gets closer to 50-50,” Boodram wrote.

Environmental science and public policy concentrator Adeline A. Boatin ’04, who is in the process of applying to medical school, said the rise of women applicants reflected a “growing trend of equalizing the genders.”

“Females are taking a greater part in higher education and in more professional jobs,” she said.

The data released by the AAMC —which aggregates the results of the United States’ 126 accredited medical schools—also showed that more blacks and Latinos applied last year than the year before, with increases of about five percent and two percent, respectively.

Of the 2,736 black applicants, however, 1,065 entered medical school this fall, a decline of six percent from last year. Latinos also saw decreased entrance rates, with 1,089 of the 2,483 applicants attending medical school, a dip of about four percent.

In all, 53 percent of white applicants, 46 percent of Latino applicants and 41 percent of black applicants were admitted to at least one medical school last year.

Boodram said it is difficult to identify trends involving minority applicants to HMS because of recent alterations in how they identify themselves on applications.

“In 2002, the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) made a major change in the way applicants self-report racial and ethnic identity. Prior to 2002, an applicant who chose to provide racial/ethnic data was forced to select a single ethnicity. Today, AMCAS follows the conventions of the U.S. Census Bureau and allows applicants to select multiple ethnicities,” Boodram wrote.

“As a result, we’ve recently seen significant increases in all of the various minority groups, but we don’t have a clear understanding of how this data compares to our pre-2002 experience,” he wrote. “Nevertheless...from 2002 to 2003, we saw an 18% increase in the number of minority applicants and a 16% increase in the number of minority matriculants.”

In applying to the College, prospective Harvard students are asked to identify a possible area of academic focus. Michelson said about 17 percent of the class of 2007 indicated pre-med on the form, compared to about 20 percent of the class of 2006.

However, Michelson said she has reason to believe that a greater percentage of this freshman class will decide to pursue a career in medicine.

“Every fall, I do an orientation in the Science Center for freshmen who are interested in being pre-med,” Michelson said. “This year, it was filled. I have a feeling that we’re going to have more students interested in medicine.”