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‘It’s Basically a Full-Time Job’: Applying To Medical School During A Pandemic

Courtesy of Loyola University ChicagoCOVID-19 has forced both students and administrators to rapidly re-evaluate how the medical school process works. Including changing standardized testing and rewriting the rules for how applicants are considered and interviewed.

COVID-19 has tested every level of the medical field. Not only are doctors battling the virus in hospitals, but the virus has flipped the medical school application process on its head for aspiring medical students.

Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine is using virtual tools such as Zoom to meet prospective students and interview candidates for admission. The transition to a heavily virtual admissions process has gone better than expected, said Darrell Nabers, the assistant dean for admissions and recruitment at Stritch.

The medical school application process takes months to complete, with every applicant going through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) application which requires a completed Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) — a standardized medical exam that costs $320 — a transcript and a bachelor’s degree. Secondary applications change for each medical school but the secondary process for Stritch is similar to most medical schools and has applicants include personal essays, interviews and a campus tour, Nabers said.

Mackenzie O’Donnell, a senior biology major, is in the middle of the medical school application process which she started in October 2019. The 21-year-old says COVID-19 added stress to an already “really difficult” process. 

“It’s basically a full-time job applying to med school,” O’Donnell said.

One of the biggest changes was to the MCAT exam-taking process, O’Donnell said. All MCAT exams in March, April and early May were canceled due to COVID-19 concerns due to the fact the AMMC said the exam has to be done in person. The format also changed from the regular seven and half hour exam to a shortened five hours and 45 minutes in order to accommodate the backlog of students whose original MCAT date was canceled, according to AAMC’s official website

The complications due to the coronavirus have kept some students including Ramsha Essa, a senior studying software engineering and media studies on the pre-med track, from applying to medical school. 

“The ideal scenario would have been to apply this cycle,” the 20-year-old said. “I kind of realized it’s better for me not to rush the process and really take time and do these things carefully.”

Other aspects of the application process have changed, including recruiting and interviews, Nabers said. The admissions team had to pivot from an almost entirely in-person recruiting process to an all-virtual one. 

Stritch’s final deadline for applicants is midnight Dec. 13 and if an applicant wants to include an official MCAT score they would need to take the exam before Nov. 13, Nabers said.  

Some colleges, such as Stanford University, decided not to require the MCAT this year for admission into its medical school, according to the school’s website. But Stritch is one school that will still require MCAT submissions for primary applications. 

“We still rely to some degree on academic achievements metrics like the MCAT, we weren’t prepared to make that sacrifice in this cycle,” Nabers said.

O’Donnell said she understands the reasoning behind some schools not requiring the MCAT this fall, since some students may not be able to reschedule their MCAT in time. But she said she still thinks this decision could be unfair to applicants who spent a lot of time and energy taking the exam before the cancellations. 

“I think so many people have prepared for the MCAT before the pandemic … then it’s ‘well I studied really hard and paid a lot of money for an exam that isn’t worth a lot,’” O’Donnell said. 

Since Stritch is still requiring the MCAT, the pandemic-forced MCAT hiatus is affecting its application numbers, Nabers said. Currently, Stritch’s applicant number is down 15 percent from this time last year with only 7,000 current applications, said Nabers. 

O’Donnell thinks it makes sense that there’s a backlog of applications because of the MCAT delays. She originally planned to take the exam in March but it was delayed four times before she was able to get into a socially-distanced room to take the exam in June, she said.

The new and shortened MCAT just added more apprehension to the process, O’Donnell said. 

“I was taking a practice exam which is eight hours every week and then when they decided to move it back,” O’Donnell said. “And no one had any practice material for the shortened exam.” 

O’Donnell said other medical schools she applied to are accepting Pass/Fail grades for the first time and allowing applicants to say how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their lives.  Stritch is accepting Pass/Fail grades and is conducting all interviews virtually, Nabers said. 

Before this year there was a “No Virtual Interviews” rule at Stritch because admissions officials didn’t know if virtual interviews would be effective, according to Nabers. 

“The technology wasn’t known,” said Nabers. “If there wasn’t a necessity there wasn’t a whole lot of thought in how [virtual technology] worked.”

While having virtual interviews makes sense in the middle of a pandemic, some students including Essa and O’Donnell said they worry about the effectiveness of meeting admissions officials online. 

“I think that virtual interviews can be a good option,” Essa said. “The challenge is that it’s very important for the other person to see your personality. … I think that is more prominent when you do an in-person interview.” 

Even with the unknowns, Nabers said switching to a virtual process has had some benefits including cutting down on travel costs and being able to talk to more potential applicants. Stritch normally gets 10,000 applications every year for its 165 first-year seats.

On average, the Stritch admission team meets with 5-7 percent of applicants but with virtual tools such as Zoom and online recruitment fairs Nabers estimates they’ll interview 8-9 percent of applicants. 

Virtual interviews could be here to stay if the application process goes back to pre-pandemic procedures since it would allow for more student interviews, according to Nabers.

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