Prospective students applying to medical schools are often concerned about their MCAT score and their GPA, but standardized test scores are just one component of the decision made by medical schools that practice holistic admissions.
The UMHS Endeavour looks at what the holistic admissions process is in medical schools and how it differs from more traditional methods. We will look at holistic admissions as defined by various sources, including the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), as well as comments from admissions officials at UMHS. We will also include updated information on diversity in admissions and the AAMC’s statement about the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decision on two cases in June 2023 that struck down Affirmative Action programs at colleges, medical schools and other higher-educational institutions and was, as NBC News reported, a “major victory for conservative activists, ending the systematic consideration of race in the admissions process.”
SEEKING PEOPLE WITH A PASSION: Med schools that practice holistic admissions also look at your passions & hobbies (such as if you play a sport or a musical instrument, for example) & volunteer experience in a health care setting. Because in med school, you're more than just a number, & unique people enrich the student body. Pictured: UMHS students attend a Med Olympics event. Photo: Dr. Prakash Mungli
Holistic Admissions & Core Principles Defined by AAMC
The AAMC website has an entire section devoted to holistic admissions. A Holistic Review of admissions takes “the whole applicant” into consideration.
“Holistic Review refers to mission-aligned admissions or selection processes that take into consideration applicants’ experiences, attributes, and academic metrics as well as the value an applicant would contribute to learning, practice, and teaching,” the AAMC website explains. “Holistic Review allows admissions committees to consider the “whole” applicant, rather than disproportionately focusing on any one factor. The core principles of holistic review are outlined below.”
The AAMC site outlines core principles for holistic admissions, including:
- “Applicant selection criteria are broad, clearly linked to school mission and goals, and promote numerous aspects of diversity as essential to excellence.
- “Selection criteria include experiences and attributes as well as academic performance. These criteria are:
- Used to assess applicants in light of their unique backgrounds and with the intent of creating a richly diverse interview and selection pool and student body,
- Applied equitably across the entire candidate pool, and
- Supported by student performance data that show that certain experiences or characteristics are linked to that individual’s likelihood of success as a student and/or physician.
- “Schools consider each applicant’s potential contribution to both the school and the field of medicine, allowing them the flexibility to weigh and balance the range of criteria needed in a class to achieve their institutional mission and goals.”
AAMC statement on Supreme Court ruling on Affirmative Action
After SCOTUS ruled against the Affirmative Action guidelines on diversity in college admissions in the cases Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina—affecting higher-education admissions policies on diversity and an applicant’s racial or ethnic background in nationwide that had been used for more than 50 years, the AAMC issued a detailed statement.
AAMC President and CEO David J. Skorton, MD and Frank Trinity, JD, AAMC chief legal officer, were quoted in a press release about the nonprofit organization’s opinion on the ruling, noting that “the lower courts in both cases had upheld the schools’ process” and “The Supreme Court has reversed the lower courts’ decisions in the Harvard and UNC cases.”
“We are deeply disappointed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to dismantle its longstanding precedent in the 2003 case, Grutter v. Bollinger, which had recognized student body diversity as a compelling interest permitting the limited consideration of race in admissions. Today’s decision demonstrates a lack of understanding of the critical benefits of racial and ethnic diversity in educational settings and a failure to recognize the urgent need to address health inequities in our country.
“The AAMC, informed by decades of research, recognizes the undeniable benefits of diversity for improving the health of people everywhere. We remain committed to enhancing health professional education and practice by emphasizing critical thinking, innovation, effective communication with all patients, and increased access to patient care for an increasingly diverse population.
“In addition, the AAMC believes that a diverse and inclusive biomedical research workforce with individuals from historically excluded and underrepresented groups in biomedical research is critical to gathering the range of perspectives needed to identify and solve the complex scientific problems of today and tomorrow.”
The AAMC filed an amicus brief (the legal term for a document that organizations submit to courts when there is a pending interest in a case). AAMC asked the court to “refrain from a broad prohibition on awareness of an applicant’s race, which for many applicants is a significant part of their personal story. Moreover, any action that comes with the risk of decreasing diversity in the health professions and limiting the ability to address existing and projected physician workforce shortages is contrary to improving our country’s public health.”
The AAMC has a Diversity in Medical School Admissions page that is being updated regularly with resources for the medical academic community.
AAMC last updated the page on August 24, 2023 with the following statement: “The AAMC is committed to strengthening the diversity of the medical student body and the physician workforce. These court cases are just one example of the many attacks at the state-, local-, and federal-level against diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across all aspects of education. Supporting racial and ethnic diversity in the health professions — spanning classrooms, labs, and clinical settings — enriches the educational experiences of all medical and health professions students and the teaching experiences of faculty, and it is essential to improving the overall health of our nation,” the AAMC said in a press release. In fact, diversity cultivates an innovation mindset, catalyzes creativity and discovery, and enhances complex problem-solving, prediction, and forecasting.”
The Value of Unique Students
Holistic admissions does not exclusively apply to medical schools. In fact, many universities, especially in the Ivy League, moved away from strictly looking at student grade point averages and standardized test scores decades ago.
As Allen Grove wrote in a post about holistic admissions on the website Thoughtco.com, “Under a holistic admissions policy, a student with a 3.8 GPA might be turned down while an award-winning trumpet player with a 3.0 GPA might get accepted. The student who wrote a stellar essay might get preference over the student who had higher ACT scores but a bland essay. In general, holistic admissions take into account a student's interests, passions, special talents, and personality.”
So how can this apply to med schools? A student with an average MCAT score who has had a unique life experience (outstanding work in a healthcare setting, for example) can sometimes add value to a med school’s student body.
A post on “Holistic Review Medical School Admissions” from the Georgetown Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Medical Student Association blog at Georgetown University gave highlights of the “Evolution and Revolution in Medical School Admissions” at the Washington, D.C. school back in 2014.
Why would a medical school take a risk on accepting a student without a high MCAT score or GPA? For many reasons.
“For example, the diverse life experiences of one medical school class allowed them to raise an unprecedented $300,000 for a student-run clinic because of their past knowledge of fundraising and collaboration,” the post on the Georgetown blog explained. “Students who enter medical school knowing that they will need to work harder tend to perform competitively on examinations and to match for residencies better than in the past because of their commitment.”
HOLISTIC ADMISSIONS AT UMHS: UMHS in St. Kitts practices holistic admissions. Numerous factors are considered when reviewing a student's application, according to admissions officials. Photo: UMHS Files.
Holistic Admissions at UMHS
UMHS takes a holistic approach to admissions in which the total student is evaluated, so students should not be deterred from applying just because they think their GPA is too low or their MCAT score is not high enough.
The UMHS Endeavour spoke to Marie B. McGillycuddy, MSc, Vice President of Admissions at UMHS about the important factors for acceptance, such as academic performance, motivation, and what the holistic approach to admissions means, and how this may give applicants an edge. We also discussed ways undergraduates interested in a career as an M.D. can prepare for future study in medical school.
What is the UMHS approach to holistic admissions?
“A holistic approach means that each student is reviewed individually,” Ms. McGillycuddy said. “This means that we take everything into consideration such as: grades, volunteer work, research work, general work, letters of recommendation and community outreach. We also interview students, which is an important deciding factor. It is important that we understand why she/he wants to pursue this field.
GPA & MCAT Score
Prospective students are often concerned about their GPA and their MCAT score. Although all U.S. residents and people who completed their undergraduate studies in the United States are required to take the MCAT in order to be considered for admission, UMHS does not have a minimum score.
Why? Although UMHS indeed looks at MCAT results, a less-than-stellar MCAT score does not necessarily mean someone is not right for UMHS. “We want a well-rounded student who knows exactly why they are going into medicine,” Ms. McGillycuddy said. “We want to ensure that each student has a purpose and vision for choosing this field.”
Should students worry too much about an MCAT score or GPA? “Of course, you need to be academically ‘fit’ but let’s say your MCAT results are slightly low yet your GPAs are higher (or vice versa), this can balance each other out,” she said.
DO PAID OR VOLUNTEER WORK IN HEALTH-CARE SETTING BEFORE MED SCHOOL: UMHS VP of Admissions Marie McGillycuddy recommends gaining experience in a health-care setting before applying for med school. Pictured: UMHS med students hard at work in the high-tech simulation lab. Photo: UMHS Files
Advice for Undergrads Thinking About Med School
There are numerous things undergraduates thinking about applying to medical school after graduation can do now to prepare for future studies to become a doctor.
Ms. McGillycuddy said it is essential to choose the proper study methods for achieving high scores. In addition, one must do well in what are often called “premed” foundation courses such as biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics because they play a “key role” in medical school curriculum. She recommends doing either paid or volunteer work in a health-care-related setting.
“Make sure that you have stepped foot inside a hospital or clinic in a volunteer capacity or work capacity,” she said. “You need to confirm that this is the field for you and it is strongly encouraged that you do this before you enter into medical school.”
(Top photo) GPA & MCAT SCORES AREN’T EVERYTHING: In med schools that practice holistic admissions (such as UMHS), the whole student is evaluated individually & diverse life experiences give one an edge because students shouldn’t be selected simply by test scores. Photo: UMHS Files.
Built in the tradition of the best U.S. universities, the University of Medicine and Health Sciences focuses on individualized student attention, small class sizes, and recruiting high-quality faculty. For these reasons, UMHS is quickly becoming the school of choice among Caribbean medical schools.
Scott is Director of Digital Content & Alumni Communications Liaison at UMHS and editor of the UMHS Endeavour blog. When he's not writing about UMHS students, faculty, events, public health, alumni and UMHS research, he writes and edits Broadway theater reviews for a website he publishes in New York City, StageZine.com.