Record numbers of students are applying to San Antonio med schools. Is COVID-19 the cause?

click to enlarge Record numbers of students are applying to San Antonio med schools. Is COVID-19 the cause?
Katie Hennessey

As healthcare providers, overworked and understaffed, battle COVID-19 from the front lines, San Antonio’s two medical schools are experiencing record numbers of new applications.

UT Health’s Long School of Medicine experienced a 20% applicant surge for its 2021 entry year, while the University of Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine (UIWSOM) tallied the highest number of applicants since its inaugural class in 2017 — an 18.6% year-over-year rise.

UIWSOM Associate Dean of Admissions and Student Affairs Andrea Cyterski-Acosta said there's no doubt the global pandemic is spurring an increase in applications.

“Physicians, along with other health care workers have worked tirelessly over the past several months,” she told the Current. “They’ve displayed commitment, passion, resilience and true acts of bravery.”

Indeed, the local spike mirrors a national trend. Applications at medical schools across the U.S. are up a record 18% from last year, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The phenomenon is being called the “Fauci Effect,” referring to the high-profile role played by of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease doctor, and countless medical workers during the COVID-19 crisis.

"Dr. Fauci's depth of knowledge and experience, demeanor and dedication to guide this country through the pandemic has caught all of our attention," Cyrterski-Acosta said. "The medical school generations, Millennials and Gen Z, have a strong sense of community and civic responsibility which has been heightened during COVID."

While the pandemic may have inspired many to apply, the route to medical school is a “marathon,” according to an admissions officer at the Long School of Medicine. The majority of U.S. medical schools require a laborious checklist including medical prerequisites, at least a 3.5 GPA, shadowing experience inside a hospital and high scores on the MCAT admissions test. Even with those boxes checked, aspiring doctors often send out dozens of applications and personal statements.

“If [witnessing the pandemic] was an initial inspiration for some, it is unlikely that they would be fully prepared to apply this current cycle,” said Judianne Kellaway, Long's associate dean for admissions and outreach.

Changing requirements

Texas State University student Synda Harper is one of those new med-school applicants. A non-traditional student and mother, Harper is looking to start a second career. She said her application process has been a three-year journey.

“There is so much that goes into the process that it's not a whimsical decision to apply to medical school,” Harper explained. “There are so many very specific prerequisites you have to take, that if you are already in a different career or major, it makes it very difficult to transition that way.”

Applicants would likely need to start with a background in a STEM field before applying, Harper added.

But that doesn’t completely rule out some students' recent inspiration from the pandemic.

Cyterski-Acosta said some applicants who already completed certain requirements could have quickly finished the rest of the work needed to be competitive in this year’s pool.

Changes to this year’s application processes during the COVID-19 crisis also provide logistical explanations to the surge, according to local experts.

Long's Kellaway said the virtual environment created by the pandemic has given people more time to complete the arduous application process, a potential factor in her school’s almost 1,000 additional applicants over last year.

"It is a massive document with over 200 questions and takes many hours to complete," Kellaway said.

'Significant' rise

Long has experienced a steady rise in applicants over time, but Kellaway said this year's was “significant.” Currently, 6,312 applicants are vying for just 220 seats.

In a normal year, students would spend at least a year after undergrad gaining extracurricular experiences. Cancellations of such in-person opportunities during the pandemic might be prompting some to apply sooner, she said.

"We do know from many applicants that their research, hospital volunteering, mission trips and service experience were cancelled," Kellaway said. 

Applicants for the 2021 cycle have also faced difficulty scheduling their MCATs.

In line with other med schools, Long stretched out its admission cycle to allow  extra time for applicants to complete the test. Meanwhile, both San Antonio medical schools are accepting test scores from up to five years prior, instead of the usual two-to-four-year standard.

"It is possible that some students saw the shift in the timeline and applied this cycle, because they originally thought they couldn't get these other components of the application completed, but now they had time to do so," Kellaway said.

UIWSOM, where 4,573 applicants are in contention for 150 spots, is even considering applications without MCAT scores for the 2021 entry year.

Texas State student Harper plans to submit her application late in the cycle, since she had to contend with several MCAT cancellations. She has concerns about the large pool of applicants this year.

“I plan on submitting my application everywhere,” she said. “The climate is becoming more and more competitive for med school applications.”

But ultimately, Harper said, this is a good thing.

"I think, honestly, there's been a shortage of doctors for so long," she added. "I think people have risen to that challenge and are trying to meet it, regardless of the pandemic.”

Inspired to serve

If the pandemic alone didn't ignite an interest in applying to medical school, Harper said it's certainly playing a role in defining the field she wants to enter. 

“I work in the ER as a medical assistant and scribe,” Harper said, “And working in the ER during COVID has just affirmed how much I want to go into emergency medicine.”

Seeing the health crisis from inside a hospital also helped Harper pinpoint an even narrower field of interest — providing crucial followup care outside the emergency room.

“We had multiple rebounds, where [a patient] was seen in the emergency department and then they bounce back in the next few days,” Harper said.

Long's Kellaway said this year's applicants show a passion for fixing inequalities in the health care system, a problem highlighted by the pandemic.

"Healthcare inequalities is a common topic in the personal essays and video presentations in the applications," Kellaway said. "And this interest is reflected also in the applicants' involvement in service to the underserved."

Regardless how significant a role the pandemic is playing in the flood of new applications, Cyterski-Acosta of UIWSOM said future students can take a lesson from today's health care workers.

"In my opinion, the pandemic has not glamorized the profession, but made evident the fortitude needed for this professional calling,” Cyterski-Acosta said. “Young men and women have been inspired to serve their communities. This is one positive that's come from this crisis."

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