Applying to Medical School After a Pandemic

Pre-med students are facing many challenges in 2021, such as how to adapt to remote classes and labs, find relevant clinical opportunities, keep up with research, and prepare for the MCAT in a new context. 

Preparing for and applying to medical school, or going on a medical mission trip can be overwhelming at any time, but immersive clinical experiences are especially hard to find now. Unfortunately, this means that many students applying to medical school in the next cycle may not have the right expectations about becoming a doctor.

It is a sobering thought, but the lack of available clinical experiences including shadowing may have lasting ripple effects on our overall quality of care. If entering medical school students are less prepared and less aware of what it takes to be a compassionate and competent doctor, it is likely that the recent trend of physician burnout will not improve, and may even worsen.

For this article, we borrow many insights from a recent study published in the Journal of Surgical Research, which says that the biggest challenges students are facing are “lack of in-person science courses and laboratories, reduced ability for face-to-face experiences in shadowing or volunteering, sudden changes to the [MCAT], and changes to deadlines.”

The study calls for the premedical education community to develop solutions and new resources for students to navigate these challenges. Some recommendations the authors make are for students to shadow telehealth appointments and for surgeons to make extra time to talk with students about different specialties they might consider.

Atlantis programs offer a crucial piece of the solution that students need: face-to-face shadowing. The need for high-quality, immersive shadowing is real, and medical schools will continue relying on candidates’ awareness of medicine as a factor in determining admission, especially given how many current med students and doctors find out too late that medicine isn’t really for them.

Ultimately, we expect that despite the pandemic, the qualities that medical school admissions committees look for in applicants will remain constant. No matter what, entering medical school students will need to demonstrate their abilities (including technical knowledge and leadership experience), as well as their commitment and passion for the field of medicine. Pursuing shadowing opportunities now is a powerful way to demonstrate both your competence and your passion.

Without further ado, here is a summary of the study’s findings of what challenges pre-med students face and how to best address them.

The Primary Challenge of Reduced In-Person Opportunities

One of the principal challenges for students has been the adjustment from a predominantly in-person experience to one that is largely virtual. The study, published in September 2020, showed that “perceptions of students and teachers about online courses are dramatically different, resulting in confusion and dissatisfaction for students.”

Further, the study found that “early experiences in undergraduate research correlated to student attainment, MCAT performance, and medical school acceptance. With this reduced ability to partake in early laboratory research, students may face a disadvantage on multiple levels.”

Over the course of a pre-med college career, those in-person labs and the ability to do research projects are a boost to an understanding of the scientific process, which is so closely associated with the study and ultimately practice of medicine. With COVID-19, the capacities of in-person learning and research opportunities have drastically reduced.

Beyond classroom limitations, medical learning outside the classroom has also been constricted – especially when it comes to shadowing physicians and medical mission trips. The study reports: “Many shadowing and volunteering experiences were canceled for premedical students because of the pandemic. Volunteering, medical mission trips, and shadowing are crucial for premedical students to determine their fit and desire for a career in medicine and demonstrate commitment as a prospective doctor.

While COVID clearly impacts students’ ability to experience the day-to-day life of a physician, there are further unexpected consequences the study points out. In particular, lack of shadowing experiences now may aggravate the already high rates of physician burnout. Burnout has been a troubling trend among physicians, due to increasing workloads and other changes in the U.S. healthcare system. The harm to physicians’ physical and mental wellbeing naturally creates adverse effects for their families and the patients they serve.

Challenges with the MCAT Format

The MCAT is always on the mind of pre-health students. COVID-19 has significantly affected students’ preparation and timing for taking the MCAT; for instance, last spring, during peak MCAT testing season, “the spread of COVID-19 brought about the closure of all testing centers across the country.”

More challenges have arisen as testing dates have been canceled. As the authors of the study explain, “the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) decided to reformat the examination by shortening the MCAT from 7.5 h to 5.75 h for the rest of this testing season.” Important to note is that “the shortened MCAT will still cover all four sections of the longer version and will test the same knowledge and skills at the same level of difficulty as the full-length examination according to the AAMC. In addition, the scoring will remain the same as the full-length examination.”

This change in format plus the new guidelines in place for social distancing have made taking the MCAT a different animal than in years past, adding another hurdle for pre-health students to prepare and perform well.

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Challenges with Deadlines & Schedules

The changing of application deadlines – a direct result of MCAT cancellations – has also been a source of stress for pre-med students. In a bit of good news, the AAMC has stated that they will be delaying the transmission of data to medical schools to give students additional time to complete their applications. As the Journal of Surgical Research study summarizes: “This means that applicants will have more time to enter their coursework, clinical and volunteering experiences, and personal statement before the system begins transmitting applications to medical schools.”

Also, as of December 2020, students are able to reschedule their MCAT test date at no cost. The hope is that these measures will give students the opportunity to perform their best and still submit everything they need to in order to enter medical school according to plan.

The Long View for Students Applying to Medical School: Can do and Will do

At the end of the day, it’s most likely that medical schools will continue to want what they’ve wanted for years, that is, students who are well prepared and deeply interested in the world of medicine.

The crucial qualities of a med school candidate can be defined in terms of  “can do” and “will do” – the sheer ability to do the work well and the passion that keeps you going through the tough days. These qualities are universally attractive to admissions committees, and we’ve outlined “can do” and “will do” previously in an article about what makes a great candidate for medical school. “Can do” is essentially whether you’re able to do the job (of student of medicine and practitioner of medicine). “Will do” refers to your interest level, genuine passion for it, having the right reasons for it, and looking forward to the long path of being a doctor.

Continue to foster and cultivate an interest in medicine through extracurriculars and whatever high-quality volunteering and shadowing opportunities can be found. Show that you have the “will do” of someone who is serious about the medical path. These personal qualities go beyond your practical ability and indicate the kind of mindset and drive that you’ll need if you’re to research, investigate, and serve the world of healthcare as it continues to evolve.

A steady demonstration of “can do” and “will do,” even in the wake of a pandemic, is what’s going to set great students apart and set them on the path to do great things in the field.

Source: The Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Medical School Admissions: Challenges and Solutions

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Atlantis is the leader in pre-health clinical shadowing for U.S. pre-health students, partnering with hospitals, primarily in Europe, including top hospitals in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Hungary, and elsewhere. Students shadow 20+ hours per week, develop the AAMC Core Competencies, set themselves apart on their medical/PA school applications, and grow in their passion for medicine, all of this during their academic breaks, which allows them to focus on academics during the school year

If you found this article helpful and would like to explore shadowing opportunities with Atlantis, contact us today to learn more about how to get involved.