Learn how much race matters when applying to medical schools and how diversity is achieved through admissions
The role of race in admissions is an incredibly hot topic these days. Talk of discrimination is seemingly everywhere, affirmative action lawsuits against universities are making headlines, and at least one student per week asks me about how their ethnic background will factor into their admissions process.
The question comes mostly from students who are Asian American (e.g., Chinese American, Korean American, Indian American) or White (i.e., overrepresented in medicine; ORM) because they wonder whether their applications—despite having a GPA and MCAT score at or above the average among matriculants—will be reviewed with greater scrutiny than applicants from other ethnic or racial backgrounds.
The media, Reddit threads, and private conversations within premed circles tend to generalize how individuals from certain backgrounds perform academically. Of course, there is great variance in performance within groups. Specifically, there are high-achieving and low-achieving applicants who are African American, Asian American, White, Latinx, or Native American. Moreover, it’s well documented that there are no differences in intelligence between members of different racial groups.
My goal for this article is to review what we know about the role of race in medical school admissions and to provide guidance on applying this understanding to your applications.
Medical School Acceptance Rates by Race
AAMC offers data annually on acceptance and matriculation rates by race/ethnicity. Here is the most recent data:
The percentages of applicants from the largest ethnic/racial applicant groups—Asian, African American, Latinx, and White—who were accepted and matriculated to medical school by race are as follows:
Asian - Accepted: 44% (Matriculated: 43%)
African American - Accepted: 36% (Matriculated: 35%)
Latinx - Accepted: 43% (Matriculated: 41%)
White - Accepted: 45% (Matriculated: 44%)
The data show that Asian, Latinx, and White applicants tend to get into medical school roughly at the same rate, whereas African American students have a markedly lower acceptance rate.
GPA and MCAT Scores by Race/Ethnicity
The controversy surrounding race and medical school admissions doesn’t stop at acceptance rates. The question isn’t simply, “Which group gets in at the highest/lowest rate?” but rather how much individuals from various groups must achieve, on paper, in order to be competitive for admissions.
To my knowledge, the best available data to answer this question are the following provided by AAMC:
The average stats among matriculants from the largest ethnic/racial groups are as follows:
Asian - Total MCAT: 513.4 | Total GPA: 3.76
African American - Total MCAT: 505.1 | Total GPA: 3.51
Latinx - Total MCAT: 506.0 | Total GPA: 3.60
White - Total MCAT: 511.9 | Total GPA: 3.75
Clearly, Asian and White applicants are applying to medical schools with higher GPAs and MCAT scores relative to their African American and Latinx peers. The same trend holds true for matriculants.
Will Race Impact My Admissions Odds?
The answer to this question may seem to be a clear “yes”; however, it’s complicated.
I’m not aware of any data describing the average GPA and MCAT scores among applicants from specific racial backgrounds at specific schools. Without this data, we can’t know whether students from group X get into school Y with lower stats relative to peers from other groups.
Keep in mind that some schools admit a far larger number of students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in medicine (URM) than others, whether that’s due to various race-based initiatives (e.g., historically black college or university [HBCU]; diversity initiatives), geography (i.e., certain states have relatively few individuals from URM backgrounds and prefer in-state students), or some other reason.
There is one other major source of complication. It’s well documented that race is strongly associated with socioeconomic status (SES; i.e., educational attainment, income) and academic opportunity in the United States. Specifically, individuals from URM backgrounds tend to also have lower SES and fewer academic opportunities.
Unfortunately, I’m also unaware of any data demonstrating the percentage of students accepted to medical schools by race, over and above socioeconomic status. Perhaps students who get in with lower stats—whether from URM or ORM backgrounds—tend to also have lower SES. Having access to this information would give us a more definitive answer.
The Role of Diversity in Medical School Admissions
Medical schools widely publicize their goal of admitting a diverse applicant pool and their practice of holistic admissions, that is, they consider all factors—stats, experiences, personal background, etc.—when making admissions decisions.
A diverse physician population can better serve the diverse patient population we have in the United States. Of course, race/ethnicity is an integral aspect of diversity. Therefore, it’s understandable why admissions committees go to such great lengths to practice “race-conscious admissions” and recruit students from various backgrounds and walks of life.
Does Race Matter When Applying to Medical School?
In short: yes. While the impact of race when considering admissions statistics leans us toward answering “yes” but is ultimately inconclusive, the fact that schools are so transparent about their diversity initiatives gives us confidence that this is indeed the case.
This isn’t very surprising. The question is how this information impacts your application. Should you do anything differently when applying to medical school?
Yes and no.
If you’re part of an ORM group, don’t throw your hands up in defeat before you apply. Just because Asian or White applicants apply with higher stats on average, doesn’t mean that you won’t get in. If you don’t believe you’ll get in due to your background or some other reason, you simply won’t try as hard, increasing the odds of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Instead of asking, “Are admissions committees going to be tougher on my application because of my background?” ask yourself, “How can I discuss my personal background and professional journey—in my personal statement, Work and Activities section, and secondaries—in a way that will lead me to be viewed as an attractive candidate?” and, “How can I contribute to the school’s mission, diversity or otherwise?” Last I checked, there were many students from ORM backgrounds in medical schools. Consider how you can join them.
Likewise, if you’re a URM medical school applicant, consider how you can contribute to each school’s diversity, how your personal and professional insights will make you a good doctor, and so on.
In other words, your medical school admissions strategy should not change based on your personal background. “Lean in” to what makes you a compelling candidate so that medical schools can clearly distinguish you from the applicant pool.