How do schools look at applicants from groups under-represented in the health professions?
Admission committees at medical and other health professions schools value the perspectives of students from varied demographic backgrounds and are increasingly attentive to the challenges experienced by applicants from groups historically under-represented in the health professions. There are several ways in which application systems and individual admission offices enable and encourage applicants to convey their personal backgrounds.
Schools look holistically at applications, which means that they look at every application element in the context of everything else. This includes race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, health status, access to health and social services in childhood, and a range of other life factors that may have presented challenges to applicants' education. You can learn more about this on the AAMC page on Holistic Review.
There are four categories of foundational competencies that medical schools look for. Two of them focus on personal attributes such as Cultural Competence, Resilience and Adaptability, Capacity for Improvement, Ethical Responsibility to Self and Others, which can illuminate aspects of applicants' lived experiences. The competencies don’t only include Scientific and Thinking and Reasoning attributes that mostly align with course work and research. Explore the Competencies on our website. Other health professions schools look similarly at a broad range of qualities, attributes, and experiences even though they don’t articulate them in exactly the same way.
Importantly, schools evaluate the various aspects of diversity differently in the context of their own missions, some of which place a particular focus on attributes such as state residence (about half of all M.D. schools are at state universities), or particular groups represented broadly in their communities but under-represented in their classes. In other words, diversity isn’t viewed in set but in dynamic terms to encompass many dimensions, which individual schools consider somewhat differently.
There are several application elements that give applicants the opportunity to highlight aspects of diversity. While application systems for different health professions do this differently, they all ask questions about parental and personal income, education, race and ethnic backgrounds. Some ask about the need for employment during high school, limited access to health and social services while growing up or barriers to education. In recent years application systems have included questions about gender identity as well, even if LGBTQ+ applicants are not explicitly considered under-represented in medicine at present. To learn more about the AAMC definition, explore the Diversity and Inclusion pages on the AAMC website.
Beyond the questions on the primary applications, individual schools enable applicants to further provide insight about their lived experiences. Once schools receive applicants' primary application they would send their own secondary (or supplemental) applications. Importantly, all of the application narrative in primary and secondary application essays and activities descriptions also provides much space for reflection about applicants’ identities and backgrounds. This can include both the positive aspects of applicants' embodiment of diversity and resilience, as well as any range of family and personal challenges, if the applicant deems them salient. Additionally, most schools now ask about the impact of the pandemic on applicants.
Application systems and individual medical and other health professions schools don't ask directly for information about disability and overall health status in applications. This is in line with non-discrimination legislation and practice. However, schools specify the technical standards that students need to meet, as demanded by the competencies for admission and graduation, as well as the realities of the health professions. The framework of these technical standards is set forth by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education as a condition for the accreditation of medical schools. It focuses on assessing abilities and characteristics which, together with academic preparation, are necessary for admission and graduation. These include Observation, Communication, Motor Function, Intellectual, Conceptual, Integrative, and Quantitative Abilities, Behavioral and Social Attributes, and Ethical and Legal Standards.
A few examples of medical and dental schools' Technical Standards:
- Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University
- Harvard Medical School Technical Standards
- Georgetown University School of Medicine
- UCSF School of Dentistry
What resources are available along the journey?
Throughout your studies in college, into the application, and in health professions schools there are a number of resources to be aware of and use fully. Building community while at Brown, connecting with student groups, offices such as the U-FLi Center, the BCSC, the Swearer Center, Tutoring, Academic and Student Support Services, the Science Center, CareerLAB, the College, and our office is always great to do. We and many other counselors, staff, and faculty, as well as your peers are a source of continual guidance and support.
Universities throughout the country run summer programs for rising sophomores and juniors that focus on research, provide mentorship, and structured exposure to clinical practice. These are excellent and fully paid programs offering early exposure to essential experiences for students from backgrounds under-represented in the health professions. While many universities run these programs on their own, a large number are coordinated under the umbrella of the Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP). For an extensive list, see our website's Resources section and the sub-section for Students from Backgrounds Under-Represented in the Health Professions:
When beginning to prepare for standardized tests such as the MCAT for medical school and DAT for dental school, do look into the Fee Assistance Programs available from the application systems for these professions. Based on a combination of parental and personal income, as well as other factors, these programs provide substantial benefits for standardized test preparation and registration, as well as for the application.
The AAMC also maintains the Medical Minority Applicant Registry (Med-MAR) which enables applicants, when registering for the MCAT, to self-identify as being from groups historically under-represented in medicine or who are economically disadvantaged. This enables applicants to indicate early in the application process that there are aspects of their backgrounds to highlight. Admission offices that want to increase its applicant pool of students who self-identify as members of racial or ethnic groups historically underrepresented in medicine or who are economically disadvantaged can use the registry to send school information directly to registrants. To learn more, explore the AAMC Med-MAR pages.
As you enroll in health professions programs you will have access to guidance and support specifically dedicated to students from backgrounds under-represented in the respective profession. Most schools have dedicated staff, usually connected with both counseling and career services, as well as admissions. Schools have been continually focused on providing such support alongside the professional and wellness resources that all of their students have at their disposal.