In fall 2021, the nation’s medical schools welcomed their largest and most diverse class in history after receiving a record number of applications, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Institutions recorded a 17.8 percent increase in applicants—a number that typically fluctuates by just 2 or 3 percent from year to year. And, for the first time, most of those students did not identify as white, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports.
More than 22,000 medical students matriculated this fall following the highly competitive admissions cycle. Of those students, 11.3 percent identified as Black or African American, up 21 percent compared with 2020. Meanwhile, representation of Asian students and those of Hispanic, Latinx, or Spanish origin increased by 8.3 percent and 7.1 percent, respectively.
Motivated to address disparities, freed from travel costs
Officials at the AAMC, which also administers the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), pointed to several factors that could have contributed to the surge of applications—both overall and from students historically underrepresented in the medical profession.
They note that the pandemic has highlighted persistent health care disparities—and increased awareness of physicians’ potential to address those gaps. The pandemic also required adjustments to admissions practices—changes that eliminated some financial and logistical hurdles.
AAMC, for instance, shortened the MCAT exam and expanded eligibility for financial assistance. Some schools made the MCAT optional, while others extended their application deadlines and issued application fee waivers. The shift to virtual, rather than in-person, interviews also eliminated significant travel costs and time away from work and school for students.
“I feel like I was able to apply to more schools because it was all online,” Lois Owolabi, a first-year student at Harvard Medical School and co-president of an organization that supports Black medical students, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “Those hundreds or thousands of dollars that [I] would otherwise have to spend to fly to a place and get lodging, I was able to save and just put it into applying to other schools.”
The changing demographics also may reflect medical schools’ pre-pandemic efforts to diversify the applicant pipeline, said Norma Poll-Hunter, senior director of workforce diversity at the AAMC. She notes that some schools are prioritizing holistic admissions processes, educating admissions teams about unconscious biases, and engaging prospective students earlier in their education.
“What’s critical is that we learn from this past year,” Poll-Hunter said, adding that AAMC hopes “that it represents a deeper change that we’ll build.”