At The University of Western Ontario, as I’m sure it is with many other universities across North America, science professors have a habit of asking their large first year classes, “who here wants to go to medical school?”. Invariably hands shoot up from 499 of the 500 students in attendance. It is no secret that an incredibly large number of students want to enter into medical school and go on to become physicians and surgeons. What is surprising however, is how few of these eager first year students fully realize what the process entails. As any student who has gone through the process can attest to, applying to medical school is not only a long and arduous task but one that is also extremely frustrating and expensive. Given that medical schools receive applications from students in all faculties, the subject of applying to medical school is one that is pertinent for nearly all undergraduate students.
Being granted entry into a medical school is no small feat. According to the Ontario Medical School Application Service (OMSAS) the 2006-2007 application cycle received 17,312 applications to the six medical schools in Ontario (OMSAS, 2007). While that number alone may seem staggering, it becomes truly astounding when you consider that there are only 806 open spaces for new medical students in Ontario each year (OMSAS, 2007). Thus, the purely statistical chances of receiving an offer of admission are slim. This is not said to discourage potential applicants but merely to display the initial difficulties faced by would-be doctors.
For most medical schools the application process can begin up to five years before the applicant wishes to be admitted. Of course there are the pre-requisite courses that must be taken which normally include specific sciences, and humanities, but there is also the dreaded Medical Colleges Admission Test (MCAT). The MCAT, administered the by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) is a grueling nearly eight hour test that evaluates students on their writing and reasoning abilities as well as their knowledge of several areas of science. According to an AAMC report, 70,901 individuals wrote the MCAT at the two sittings for the test in 2006 (AAMC, 2007). For many students the MCAT becomes a year-long affair with copious hours spent studying from various textbooks and manuals. For the medical schools themselves, particularly Canadian medical schools, the MCAT is used as a cutoff mechanism by which the applicant pool may be narrowed down. Each year schools post a specific score that must be met in each of the four MCAT sections in order to be considered for admission.
Once the MCAT has been written and the undergraduate courses completed each applicant must make a key choice; to which schools will they apply. The simple answer is “as many as possible”, but both time and monetary restraints place a damper on these hopes. Students often overlook cost when applying to professional programs, yet the money spent can very quickly add up. In the OMSAS instructional booklet the cost of applying to all six of the medical schools is listed as 650 dollars (OMSAS, 2007). On top of these application fees applicants must also pay for copies of official transcripts to be sent directly to OMSAS, which cost a much more manageable eight to ten dollars each. For students who choose to apply to schools outside of Ontario, as many do, the cost is further increased. Each out-of-province school requires two copies of official transcripts in addition to the application fee which ranges from 75 to 150 dollars per school.
Finally, once the MCAT and fees have been dealt with students may begin to complete the actual applications for each school. These applications most frequently consist of an autobiographical sketch, a detailed record of undergraduate academics, and a series of essay questions which vary by school. Furthermore, students must arrange for two to three referees to write and submit letters of reference on their behalf. Quite obviously applications are a very time-consuming process often requiring up to fifty hours of applicant effort.
For almost all medical schools the final step in the application process is an interview with the applicant. Interviews may be of the one-on-one, group, or bell ringer variety, but most commonly consist of a panel interview. The panel is regularly composed of a physician, current medical student, and community member. While the interviews are most certainly nerve-wracking they also afford the interviewee with a final chance to “sell” themselves as a valuable asset to the medical school.
After having read through the steps involved in applying to medical school it is logical to ask why anyone would ever want to submit themselves to this torture. The straightforward answer is that despite the grueling undergraduate degrees, the horrific eight hour MCAT examinations, and the arduous applications, each applicant is more than willing to put in the effort required to become a doctor. As most applicants realize, significantly more difficult challenges and decisions lay ahead of them in medical school, so in reality, the applications don’t seem all that bad.
American Association of Medical Colleges. (2007). Percentages of MCAT examinees obtaining scared score levels and associated percentile rank ranges by area of assessment combined April/August 2006 administration. Retrieved March 11, 2007, from http://www.aamc.org/mcat/examineedata/combined06.pdf.
Ontario Medical School Application Service. (2007). OMSAS Instruction Booklet. Retrieved March 11, 2007 from http://www.ouac.on.ca/omsas/pdf/b_omsas_e.pdf.