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Decline in Med School Applications May Be Over

2002 saw fifth drop in six years

The number of Harvard students and alums who applied to American medical schools dropped for the fifth time in six years in 2002, but preliminary data seems to indicate that the decline has likely ended.

The Office for Career Services released its latest statistics last week, showing that 126 members of the Class of 2002 applied to medical school as seniors, down from a high of 262 in 1996. Meanwhile 166 alums applied during that same admissions cycle, a decline from the peak of 249 in 1996.

The admissions rate for both graduating seniors and alums—95 percent and 82 percent respectively—was among the highest seen in a decade. Nationally, only one out of every two applicants gains admission to medical school.

This is also the fourth year in a row in which alums have outnumbered graduating seniors, reflecting the recent trend towards students taking a year off between college and medical school.

Pre-med counselors and admissions experts said that the economy was the likely culprit behind the continued downturn in the number of applications.

The economic boom of the 1990s tempted seniors with the prospect of lucrative jobs right out of college, rather than four years of expensive medical education.

“Medicine is impervious to upswings and downswings,” Harvard Medical School Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Mohan Boodram said of the profession’s appeal.

Though the economy has subsequently soured, the heavy pre-medical course load means that application rates usually lag three or four years behind.

In fact, according to a number of indicators, the economic downturn is just now beginning to have its effect in driving application rates back up.

The Association of American Medical Colleges reports that MCAT examinations were up 5.6 percent in 2003, leading AAMC President Jordan J. Cohen to project last fall that “the six-year decline [in applications nationwide] may finally be over.”

And Lee Ann Michelson ’77, Harvard’s director of premedical and health career advising, reports that the number of students attending the pre-med advising meeting during Freshman Week was the highest it has been in years.

While conceding that economics does influence students’ interest in medical school, Jason P. Brinton ’02, a premedical advisor in Dunster House, also argues that changes to the health care system may be driving students away.

Managed care has “altered the doctor-patient relationship,” he says. As students read stories of rising malpractice insurance rates and hear of doctors losing their autonomy, this inevitably raises questions about a decision to choose medicine.

Kevin Jwo ’07, a potential pre-med, echoed Brinton when asked why he thought the pool of applicants has been a shrinking one.

“Nowadays doctors are getting sued more often,” Jwo said.

Scott Itano ’05, a pre-med planning to apply to 15 schools, downplayed the influence of socioeconomic trends on his decision to pursue a career in medicine.

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