November 10, 2020

COVID-19's Legacy: Predictions for the 2021-2022 Medical School Admissions Cycle

By: Savvy Pre-Med Staff

Canceled MCATs; online coursework; in-person shadowing restrictions; virtual interviewing - COVID-19 undoubtedly shifted the medical school admissions process in 2020 and created unprecedented challenges for pre-meds.

But how will it impact medical school admissions moving forward? What will COVID-19’s legacy be in the 2021-2022 cycle?

COVID-19's Legacy: Predictions for the 2021-2022 Medical School Admissions Cycle

Let’s break it down into several categories, so that you know what to expect as an applicant in this upcoming 2021-2022 medical school admissions cycle.

Prediction #1 - There Will Be A Record Amount of Rejections from 2020-2021

The AAMC has finally shared what we suspected all along - that there was an unparalleled surge in applications from the 2020-2021 cycle:

"At Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, applications for admission to the class of 2025 are up more than 35% compared to the same time last year. At Boston University School of Medicine, they’ve risen by 26%. And at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, admissions officers have seen applications increase by 27%. In fact, nearly two dozen medical schools have seen applications jump by at least 25% this year, according to AAMC data. So far, there are more than 7,500 additional applicants nationwide, according to data from the AMCAS. That’s an increase of nearly 17%.”

The problem with this surge is that the number of available spots at medical schools has stayed the same. Medical schools are unlikely to increase their class sizes. That’s because substantial expansion requires approval from the medical school accrediting body, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education. Plus, there's the issue of resources. Schools usually decide their class sizes well in advance because they want to be spot-on in matching spaces with resources like clinical training sites. They don’t want to find out that they can’t adequately train any additional students.

Normally, about 60% of applicants are rejected from medical school each year. That percentage might remain consistent, but due to the increase in applicants, we’re going to see the largest amount of rejected applicants in the history of medical school admissions. 

Prediction #2 - The Amount of Medical School Applicants Will Continue to Rise in the 2021-2022 Cycle

In the past decade, the year-over-year increase of medical school applicants has averaged around 3% each year. This steady pattern makes the sudden 17% increase in 2020-2021 especially striking.

Will it go up 17% again in 2021-2022? Probably not. But it’s also likely to be more than the normal 3%. The usual 25% of reapplicants in the candidate pool will likely be much higher as well. 

Why are the medical school applications surging?

  • Students having more time for applications as college classes moved online
  • Inspiration from COVID-19 patients’ suffering and frontline providers’ heroism
  • Applicants seeking a reliable profession in uncertain times
  • Aspects of the application process getting easier as schools extended deadlines
  • Fewer applicants taking a gap year because of limited opportunities
  • Cheaper interview process due to travel restrictions

Due to COVID-19 extending into 2021, these motivations will likely hold up for the next cycle and continue to influence a higher candidate pool.

Prediction #3 - Medical Schools Will Continue to Adjust to the Best of Their Abilities

Every sector of society, including medical school admissions, is struggling to adjust to the pandemic, and there are no easy answers or solutions. 

For the current 2020-2021 cycle, some medical schools have enlisted extra reviewers, taken more time to process submissions, and added interview slots. 

Some schools are building in more time to process applications. Tulane University, which has 16,000 applicants vying for 190 seats, is taking longer to extend interview invites to ensure that it reviews the majority of applications before it gives away all its interview spots.

Other schools have added more interviews. The Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, where applications are up 9%, is one of them. According to its associate dean of admissions, it hasn’t been a hardship to add extra interviewers since virtual interviews offer more scheduling flexibility. The school also extended its interview timeframe, partly to accommodate candidates who faced delays gathering recommendation letters and other application elements.

If the pandemic continues to restrict pre-meds in their ability to meet requirements, travel for interviews, or complete their MCAT exams, you can expect the medical schools to offer more leniency and accommodations. Also, unless medical schools vastly expand their resources or admissions personnel, there will likely be delays in processing the higher number of applications in 2021-2022.

The MCAT, which was arguably the most controversial aspect of COVID-19’s impact on medical school admissions, will likely remain chaotic, with constant cancelations and policy changes. 

Prediction #4 - There Will Continue to Be an Emphasis on Social Justice and Equity in Medical School Admissions

More than ever before, candidates this cycle were asked to complete secondary essays about social justice, systemic discrimination, and equity. For example, here are a few from Loyola Stritch and Miami Miller:

Inherent human dignity is an essential dimension of Jesuit education at SSOM. What have you learned from your concrete social justice experiences? How do you plan to sustain your efforts to advocate for current social justice issues as a medical student and as a physician?

What have you done to help identify, address and correct an issue of systematic discrimination?

Perhaps even more notably, at the recent AAMC Learn Serve Lead conference, anti-racist writers Ibram Kendi and Nikole Hannah-Jones were featured as keynote speakers. They were even prioritized in the list of presentations over Dr. Anthony Fauci. In general, about half of the panels at the conference centered around the topic of equity.

Due to the recent social upheaval in the country and movements like Black Lives Matter, there has been an increasing emphasis on social justice and a sensitivity to privilege in medical school admissions. And you could argue that this is justified. Around 75% of candidates apply to medical school with no previous paid employment, and the average family income of accepted applicants exceeds $100,000.

Due to this increased conscientiousness, candidates will need to justify their privilege, underserved work will become an essential prerequisite, and there will continue to be an effort to recruit minority candidates to create a more diverse pool of doctors and establish role models to inspire the next generation of underrepresented applicants.

Prediction #5 - There Will Be More Use of Advising, Tutoring, and MCAT Prep

As we’ve noted in the past, it’s becoming statistically harder and harder to compete and get in, and that’s largely in part to steadily increasing averages for MCAT and GPA across the board for successful applicants.

As the applicant pool continues to grow and become more competitive as a result, candidates will continually draw upon more advising, tutoring, and MCAT prep services to make sure that their stats, experiences, and metrics are up to snuff.

Disadvantaged and underrepresented candidates will receive some leeway from medical schools in this regard, but for everyone else, it will be paramount to achieve stellar numbers in order to get serious consideration.

Prediction #6 - Virtual Interviewing and SJTs are Here to Stay

In the 2020-2021 cycle, the VITA was introduced as a workaround to COVID-19’s restrictions on in-person interviewing. However, now that it has been established, there’s no reason why medical schools won’t continue to use these recorded interview responses as part of their screening process.

Some MD schools, like Rosalind Franklin, exclusively used the VITA as its only interview procedure during the 2020-2021 cycle. Some DO schools, like LECOM, essentially emulated the VITA as its only tool as well. Odds are, some schools will follow suit in the upcoming cycles, especially if traveling continues to be restricted.

Additionally, there will continue to be more situational judgment tests (SJTs). Recently, two medical schools - UC Davis and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities - participated in the AAMC’s pilot SJT.

The makers of the CASPer, Altus Assessments, also announced that they’re currently piloting a tool called the CASPer Snapshot, which could gain traction as another screening device for medical schools in the future.

Overall, it will be important for future candidates to learn how to effectively present themselves virtually, and prep services will continue to emerge to help train candidates for SJTs that assess their competencies, decision-making, and ethics. 

Prediction #7 - Virtual Shadowing Will Emerge as a Viable Option to Complete This Requirement

Hospitals and clinics have mostly banned pre-med students from shadowing and volunteering, but medical school admissions committees continue to require hundreds of clinical hours (~300 total, 100 shadowing) in order to get in. 

You could opt to get an EMT or phlebotomy certification, but those essential jobs typically require 20+ hours per week, not a time commitment that most full-time students can keep.

So how do you get clinical experience when you're not "essential personnel?"

Traditionally, there have been VERY few virtual clinical and shadowing experiences, so medical schools will have to individually decide whether they will accept this replacement, which clearly isn't as formative as an in-person experience.

In the same way that some medical schools have chosen to waive the MCAT while others haven’t, we suspect that schools will be somewhat split on this issue as well.

Thankfully, thus far, the limited available data has shown that the majority of medical schools will accept virtual shadowing and clinical hours.

During a recent webinar from the Illinois Medical School Consortium, where 10 schools were represented, 7 schools reported that they’d be accepting virtual experiences as a way to meet their requirements.

Pre-meds should research the best virtual shadowing opportunities and get a head-start on securing this experience. 

Prediction #8 - There Will Be a Greater Need for Physicians in the Long Term, and a Greater Desire to Fill That Role

In the long term, there is going to be a greater need for healthcare professionals, and young people will continue to be drawn towards it as a career.

Yes, it presents some dangers while working on the frontlines, but it offers a huge impact on people. And for some, it could offer a high degree of professional fulfillment that’s relatively free of politicization or ethical ambiguity.

Medicine has always been a career that’s in demand, but COVID-19 has only highlighted the job security that healthcare presents during uncertain economic times. This factor, along with the number of young people whose families and friends have been affected by the virus, will lead to a spike in the interest in medicine.


So, what do you think? Do you have the drive and fortitude to pursue medicine? Will you be undaunted by the increased competition in future cycles? 

We believe in you, and wish you the best of luck!

Have any questions about applying in the 2021-2022 cycle? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll respond to you personally!

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