How Hard Is It to Get into Medical School? Depends on Your Ethnicity

A common question many medical school applicants ask is, “How hard is it to get into medical school?”

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), there were 42,742 applicants vying for a spot in the entering class of 2010 – 2011. Each applicant sent out an average of 14 applications. And even with all that work, only 40-something percent of the applicants were accepted into medical school.

So my answer is that getting into medical school is pretty darn difficult.

If you take a look at the medical school requirements page, you can see that I recommend a GPA of at least 3.5 and a MCAT score of at least 30. With these scores, you should have a chance to get into medical school.

However, your chance for getting in also depends on the color of your skin.

Medical School Looks at Your GPA, MCAT Score, and … Ethnicity?!

I have always had a suspicion that the standards are not universal, but instead, adjusted to which group or ethnicity an applicant fits into. I do not expect medical schools to blatantly say, “If you are a minority, we make it easier for you to get in. If you are not a minority, we make it tougher for you to get in.” That would not be very good for public relations. But never in my life would I have expected the data to be out in the open. But it is!

AAMC has provided data on medical school applicants’ GPA, MCAT score, and ethnicity. (As of May 2012, the data are for 2009 – 2011. If you access the link at the later date, the years and the subsequent data may have changed.) AAMC did not right-out say that minorities have lower standards for admissions (it does not have one table comparing all the different ethnicities), but it gives data to arrive at that conclusion.

What Are Your Chances with a GPA of 3.5 and a MCAT Score of 30?

The very first thing I did was to compare the acceptance rates of each ethnicity with a GPA of 3.5 and a MCAT score of 30. I am recommending these as the minimum acceptable numbers, but how effective are they? The results are actually quite shocking.

how hard is it to get into medical school - table 1

Various minorities are American Indian, Alaska Native, Black, or Hispanic.

Table 1 – Acceptance Rate by Ethnicity for Applicants with GPA of 3.40 – 3.59 and MCAT of 30 – 32 for 2009 – 2011

If you are black, you are pretty much guaranteed a spot in medical school. But if you are Asian, your chance of getting in could very well be based on the flip of a coin. Heads, you are accepted. Tails, you are rejected.

For some reason, Asians have a slightly worse probably of getting in compared to Whites. My guess is that a disproportionally large amount of Asians (compared to its makeup of the general population) is applying to medical school. So if Asians make up 10% of the total US population, maybe 20% of the total applications come from Asians.

So I quickly jumped to the US Census Bureau and found the percentage each ethnicity makes up in the total US population in 2010. I then compared that to the percentage each ethnicity makes up in medical school applications.

how hard is it to get into medical school - table 2

Table 2 – Percent of Population vs Percent of Applicants by Ethnicity

As I suspected, a disproportionate amount of Asians are applying to medical schools. They make up less than 5% of the population and yet comprises of more than 20% of the medical school applicants! Hispanics are very under-represented in terms of medical school applicants.

Are Medical Schools Reluctant to Accept Asians?

Since so many Asians are applying, medical schools are in a quandary. Should they make it very hard for Asians to get in, so the percentage of Asian US medical students reflects that of the US population? Or should they take the applicants regardless of color?

To determine the answer to the question, I looked at the acceptance rate of each group, which is shown below:

how hard is it to get into medical school - table 3

Table 3 – Acceptance Rate by Ethnicity for 2009 – 2011

It seems that the acceptance rate of each ethnicity is roughly the same, 40-something percent. Medical schools are not reluctant to accept Asians. If medical schools wanted the student population to reflect the US population, Asian acceptance rates would be a lot lower than 40%. What is quite unexpected is that the lowest acceptance rate does not go to Asians, but to the Blacks.

Why Are Blacks Less Likely to Get into Medical School?

So far, it makes no sense. There is a disproportionately large amount of Asians applying to medical school. There is a disproportionately small amount of Blacks applying to medical school. And yet, Asians have a higher acceptance rate than blacks. Why?

I decided to look at the average (mode and median) GPA and MCAT score of each ethnicity. Maybe that will explain why.

how hard is it to get into medical school - table 4

Table 4 – Average (Mode) and Its Acceptance Rate by Ethnicity for 2009 – 2011

The mode is basically the largest group. So if there are three groups (A, B, and C), and if group A has 5 people, group B has 6 people, group C has 10 people, the mode is group C.

Based on the mode, Whites have the best scores and Blacks have the worst scores.

how hard is it to get into medical school - table 5

Table 5 – Average (Median) and Its Acceptance Rate by Ethnicity for 2009 – 2011

The median is basically the middle person. If one guy is 5 years old, another guy is 10 years old, and the last guy is 100 years old, the median age is 10 years old.

Based on the median, Asians and Whites have the best scores and again, Blacks have the worst scores.

If you take a look at the acceptance rates for both Table 4 and Table 5, you will see that on average, Blacks have a lower acceptance rate because of their poor scores.

This means that GPA and MCAT scores matter a lot. You cannot make up for it just by being a minority.

GPA and MCAT Score that Guarantees Acceptance

In Table 1, I have established that the acceptance rate depends not only on GPA and MCAT score but also on your ethnicity. Therefore, I am not satisfied with a 3.5 GPA and 30 MCAT as a baseline goal to get into medical school.

I want to give you a targeted goal, based upon which group you fall into. This goal will practically guarantee a spot in medical school. If you can hit these numbers, you have around 80% of getting accepted.

how hard is it to get into medical school - table 6

Table 6 – GPA and MCAT Goals (~ 80% Acceptance) by Ethnicity for 2009 – 2011

Based on this table, it is equally difficult for an Asian person and a White person to get into medical school. They need almost perfect scores if they want a guaranteed spot in medical school. Hispanics have it a little easier. And Blacks have the easiest standards of getting into medical school.

Affirmative Action at Play

In summary, getting into medical school depends on your GPA, MCAT score, and ethnicity. When you apply, you are not competing against everyone else. You are competing against your ethnic group. Asians compete against Asians. Blacks compete against Blacks. Hispanics compete against Hispanics. Whites compete against Whites.

Asians and White need higher grades to get in, while Blacks need lower grades to get in. However, grades cannot be too low or else the medical schools admissions committee will doubt the person can pass medical school. Hence, the overall acceptance rate for Blacks is lower than the others because their scores are much lower than the others.

In each group, medical schools will admit the top 40-something percent of the applicants. As long as you are within the top 40% of your ethnic group, you should get into medical school.

How hard is it to get into medical school? It depends.

This article is part of the Get into Medical School series. Click on the link if you want more tips and hints about getting accepted into medical school.

Comments

  1. Affirmative action needs to go away. Applications should not have the race, religion or gender. When I want a doctor I want the best people possible. I do not want someone who got in because standards were lower for them.
    I don’t care if this means if there are a disproportionate number of Asians and whites. Diversity for diversity sake is bad. Let the best candidate for the job get the job.
    Also the moral of this article is; Have an Asian Doctor!
    It is hardest for them to become doctors meaning they will be the most competent.

    • Alex Ding says:

      Hey Charles,

      I understand your point. But these days, everything is political. Affirmative action is a way for politicians to appease the masses. It sucks, but I doubt it’ll get changed.

      On the other hand, what is competency? Does high a MCAT score and GPA mean you’re going to be competent as a doctor? Not necessarily. To choose the best doctor, you’ll have to see how much passion he has for what he is doing. Does he treat it as a job or a life calling?

      • Not necessarily, but I feel it’s a great indicator! The interview process of the application attempts to seek into the intentions of the candidate.
        So, yes, I’d agree with Charles in that the moral of this article is to have an Asian Doctor. As a student at a respectable public university, it’s tough to see these numbers so incredibly skewed as they are…. I’d like to know more about how they (politicians) feel that this is fair.

      • Passion cannot replace competence. If it could, I would be playing second base in the major leagues.

      • I hope that my physician is competent, not simply enthusiastic

      • I understand the comment. However, what many people don’t understand is that we all have different life experiences. Most (not all) white students have their parents paying for college. Most minoroties have to work full time to pay for school, on top of the other med school related activities. If a minoroty person had a 3.6 GPA, and a good MCAT score, and good extracurriculars, they should be able to get into led school. Not everyone has the privilege of just having to go to college, study and worry about nothing more. Maybe that’s what should be taking into account, the individual’s students circumstances.

        • I’m not sure where you are getting the facts to back up your claims, Stefanie, but they couldn’t be reliable. Your interpretation that whites have the privilege of a carefree path shows a lack of insight and maturity. Life can be difficult whether you are black or white for many different reasons.

          As far as finances, I see most minorities getting much more financial aid and graduating with far less debt than their counterparts. I also know that most of my white friends graduated with huge debt so obviously their parents aren’t paying. How about all students graduate with the same debt burden since once they are out they will be making close to the same amount of money?

          • Brian,

            It seems like you are attacking her for having false information, but you have no clue what you are talking about. In 2012, and this was consistent in the previous years, 42% of students taking out debt was white, while almost 53% were black. Your friends do not account for America. Furthermore, without getting into the statistics, for I am not going out on a limb to say you are not a social scientist, the average white and black human male, while sharing the same mental facets, do not share the same social (family) support. This is profound. Thus, what affirmative action does is adjusts for this discrepancy. And, for everyone’s information. When two people enter medical school, they will have the same support, book and classes. Therefore, they will do the same. And, if you look at the statistics, blacks and white do the same in higher level college programs.

          • Gary Gunter says:

            If income and family background are the cause of lower test scores then do not allow affirmative action by ethnic group but by low income and family situation. I for one do not want a doctor (or lawyer, or physicist, or biologist, etc.) who is a mediocre to low scoring student.

            Affirmative action has been tried for decades and does not work – except for penalizing some excellent students and some unlucky patients.

          • Thank u. I was one of those white students who put myself thru college! I agree with you whole heartedly!

          • This counsels for taking into account a person’s relatively wealth and family financial background, not ethnicity, I would think.

      • Scores are objective data, so the only thing we can rely on. Unfortunately can’t measure dedication and compassion.

      • Gary Gunter says:

        Passion will show up in the test scores. If you want a good doctor choose the highest scorers (Asian or White). If you want a doctor from the group that got accepted with approximately 20% less knowledge/skill then choose from the appropriate group.

        It is an unfair system to the medical students not getting in with excellent scores, and to the patients who do not receive the best care.

        Political correctness is not correct!

        • Shamoi Douglas says:

          Yeah Gunter those generalizations are the improper generalizations alot of people tend to make. In actuality, one would be able to render better treatment to conditions he/her is familiar with. Genetically you can read in 10 different books the proposed treatment for conditions but people who have seen this condition in person tend to have a better treatment for it regardless of his/her test score pre-med school. So i’m pretty sure an African American doctor diagnose and treat something like GOUT better than any other race. I’m sure a white doctor would be able to treat cancer/ psychotic disorders a lot better. Get out of your head of test scores being the key indicator its not. That just verifies you read the material.

    • Shamoi Douglas says:

      There is other factors that factor into changing existence into things that one may not realize. Although test scores are a good indicator it does not matter due to the fact that it does not identify all aspects of being a complete doctor. Other things that test scores does not influence are interpersonal skills with patients. Reputability and trust from doctor to patient. The open mindedness to understanding certain conditions that are heredity and more popular in one ethnicity and a passion to find a cure due to how it may have affected ones personal life. Come on people life isn’t black and white and we all know there is a different amount of guidance in a field for each ethnicity. Although test scores are extremely important it isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is to know how to do your job exceptionally, test scores just says that you know to solve a problem theoretically.

      • Anna Mullen says:

        Exactly – I work in the inner city with patients who have low trust with medical professionals in general.
        Many times in medicine, it doesn’t come down to who knows the most intricate information (except in med school), it comes down to who can relate to and listen to patients best, who can figure out what are complicating matters in their lives, and who the patient trusts enough to open up to. White people have a horrible track record with black people, and sometimes even having someone who looks like the patient is a help for connecting and figuring out how to beat a disease like DM.
        So really, a culturally mismatched white doctor whose parents were able to help her get through undergrad and the MCATs, even though did put in a lot of hard work and got good scores might be less effective than a doctor whose patients trust him because his race has not systematically experimented on, oppressed, and taken advantage of them.

    • Sharon Mulé says:

      One thing all these grades do not measure is dexterity if you are a surgeon, or empathy, or good intuitions for diagnosis. I have read stories about great doctors that have pioneered a new technique or found a cure for a rare disease that had great difficulties getting into and getting through medical school. Without passion and drive, you are just going through the motions.

    • Tyrone Slothrop says:

      Competent, cold, constipated and forgetful.

  2. Thanks for the research, It’s very helpful. I would love to know the breakdown of the schools. Which schools you sampled and which schools for each race to apply.

  3. Hi Alex,

    I am Active Duty Air Force, GPA 3.00 and under 20 on MCAT. I want to go to DO school. I have to meet the AF Board in November but prior to that I need an acceptance letter. I am currently working hard on my volunteer work, shadowing and research; but debating if I should apply for schools since I am trying to meet the board this year. I am also planning on retaking the MCAT in August.
    What do you recommend I do?

    Joe

  4. Asains might have a harder time getting into medical school becuase English sometimes isn’t their first language.

    • Alex Ding says:

      Maybe. Maybe not. But even if an Asian person was fluent in English, he’ll still have a harder time … just because the standards for admission are higher.

    • Yes, that makes perfect sense. Their English is good enough to get a high grade on the MCAT and attain a high GPA in college but they might not speak well enough to communicate. Brilliant! Maybe you should try taking the MCAT equivalent in Chinese or Japanese or English and see how you do. I think we can dismiss that line of reasoning.

  5. Benjamin Rinxy says:

    I have 3.5 gpa and 34 in mcat. I am an asian. Whats the chance for me to get in to university of Illinois at chicago medical school

  6. llama is my mama says:

    I would like to be a doc too

  7. Suiteisho says:

    Well if they actually get into med school wouldn’t their med-school GPA and match be a better indication of how competent they are? College GPA and MCAT scores only tell you how well they might do in med school, like how your high school GPA only tells you how well you might do in college (if you go).

  8. I’m a white Hispanic in which categorie would I be put?

  9. This is an interesting article but there there are some gaping holes is your stance. Here’s the actual way things are and you can search the data anywhere across the vast landscape of the internet to confirm it.

    1) Affirmative Action has historically benefitted Non-Hispanic White Females far greater than racial/ethnic minorities.

    It is interesting how you speak about the differential break down of medical school acceptances based on race, and then just throw affirmative action in at the end. Funny how ethnic minorities always become the scapegoat when the topic of affirmative action is discussed. Especially when they are not the groups that benefit the most from it at all. Please check your facts.

    2) You forget to mention how many of those med school acceptances for black students are due to historically black medical schools (e.g. Howard, Meharry, Morehouse)

    You mentioned that black students can have lower stats and then get accepted to medical school, but you never mention where the majority of black medical school enrollees are found. According to 2014 data from the AAMC, the total number of black medical school enrollees is 1,412. Additionally, the number of black medical school enrollees at all three historically black medical school combined (all of whom 95-99% of enrollees are black) is 1,174. If you do the math, that means that 83% of black medical students are found at historically black institutions (this takes into account your median and mode analysis), which have historically taken students with lower average GPAs and MCAT scores, and also of which the majority of applicants to these schools are black. So they’re not not even displacing asian or white students who don’t even apply to these school by and large.

    3) You never disaggregated Asians into East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, Filipino, and Pacific Islanders.

    Many of these groups, beside East Asian and South Asian are also very underrepresented in medical schools and higher education, and medical schools often disaggregated the term Asian American/Pacific Islander in the admissions process. Moreover, banning affirmative action harms these underrepresented asian groups as well rather than helping them: http://www.advancingjustice-la.org/sites/default/files/Advancing%20Justice%20-%20AAPI%20Higher%20Ed%20Diversity.pdf

    4) Holistic Review by Medical Schools (which means doing interviews and secondaries) takes many forms of merit into account, and thus attenuates the affect of race in admission.

    All medical schools use numbers (i.e. GPA and MCAT) as screeners for who they’re going to send secondary applications and eventually interviews to. However all schools, as is laid out on their respective websites, identify specific forms of merit they are looking for in their students when deciding who gets in. For example, The University of Washington prides itself of being a heavy primary care and research institution, and thus it lays out clearly that it sends its students to Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska during clinical years because it’s a heavy proponent of rural primary care. Therefore, if you have no interest in rural medicine or primary care, they may scratch their heads as to why you would apply. The same is true of institutions like Duke, which prides itself on research and commits all students to an independent research year before they graduate. So again, if you have no interest in research, or you don’t have it at all on your CV, you should think about this when you put a place like Duke on your list. And finally, the research has shown that there is a limit to how well GPA and MCAT can predict success as a physician; it all plateaus after a certain point.

    All in all, I love your website Alex, but I am disappointed in this page, as it is more opinion-based than data-driven and evidence-based.

    • Again, I have found this entire site incredibly helpful and it is only this one page in particular that I am in disagreement with.

  10. This article was given to me just today. I have been a witness to black students who had initially been a couple of tenths off by test or g.p.a., and barely made it in, but once they got in exceeded most of the students who were enrolled. There is a lot to be said about a strong, basic foundation for education (e.g. better schools, socio-economic status) and an equal jumping off point (and a society that tends to give preference to one group over another). But then, it is human nature to want to be “better than” someone else.

  11. I just think that there is a lot of work to be done on educating ourselves as students ad medical professionals about the value of life experiences as a black or brown person and what that means to your competence as a physician and health outcomes of patients. No one group is more competent even with the best MCAT prep or undergrad grades. Nor does race alone make you more competent. I think the things that I have had to cultivate to get to medical school as a black person are extremely relevant to my competence in care for patients and it matters. I didnt put my ethnicity on any of my application materials. I also got a 38 on my MCAT. However, I don’t think that race alone is representative of diversity or cultural competence. I think as an educational system, we have a lot of work to do. Hopefully as physicians, we can work together to change it.

  12. All great stuff, especially D’s comments. I cannot add anything more eloquent except if one can prove that there is an “Affirmative Action” USMLE and board certification testing then dispose of any effort by society to right some wrongs of the past & present? The Bar exam doesn’t set aside a special testing for Blacks or other people who others may think doesn’t deserve opportunities. I don’t believe any system is absolutely perfect especially large social initiatives.

    • Grammar Correction: The Bar exam doesn’t set aside a special testing for Blacks or other people who others may think don’t deserve opportunities. (My apologies, I was typing too fast.)

  13. the truth says:

    affirmative action is racist toward asian and whites. if you cant cut it you cant cut it. certain races should not get special treatment

  14. it feel like the VA chooses doctors who don’t speak English and have little experience to work on Veterans… and the VA is even happier if the doctor thinks the veterans are not sick and faking it…

  15. Disenfranchised White Man says:

    Your findings also happen to coincide with the average IQ brackets of various races.
    Whites hold an average IQ of around 103, while Asians (East Asian specifically, ie Korean/Chinese/Japanese) are around 110 on average. These groups are very close on average, and hold the highest average IQs on the planet, along with Ashkenazim Jews (though the data on that can be spotty and vary widely due to population).
    Central Americans are typically rather low (around 85-90), and Blacks make up the bottom of the list (80-85 in African Americans; Sub-Saharan Africans are as low as 75), and as you can see in your findings, they also have the lowest entry standards and requirements.
    IQ and GPA are also correlated strongly, as are SAT and other standardized test scores, along with military exams (Stanford Binet, etc. It changes every few decades).
    Whites and Asians make up the overwhelming majority of 3.8 GPA and above students, and these med school statistics not only confirm the racial implications of Affirmative Action (discrimination against White and, to a lesser extent, Asian applicants not just in med school but MANY other areas), but also highlight the very… “politically insensitive” foundation it is built upon:
    A merit-based system of hiring the best doctor / lawyer / engineer / etc will inevitably and invariably favor Whites and Asians and crush all other minorities. That’s why we’re not allowed to have such systems in America and Europe.
    Add in the fact of indirect minority quotas, and Whites are actually shoved out by Asians. As you’ve mentioned, they make up less than 5% of the US population but are disproportionately over-represented not just in applicants, but actual, working doctors and nurses. No law enforces literal quotas of course, but a hospital / any business exceeding ~100 employees (small business firms, liek your local family restaurant, are exempt from AA, fun fact) will be sued, brutally, if it is believed to be hiring too many Whites in relation to any non-White group. A hypothetical, merit-based hiring hospital would be over 75% White, with the remaining minority being heavily East Asian. Because the US is currently less than 65% White, you will likely be sued for racist hiring practices and be forced to hire more non-Whites than Whites for the next few years. You’re already heavy on Asians, so you have to hire Black, Central American, or Indian (India, not Native American) doctors at a higher priority than White applicants. If you are a newly graduated White person with a medical degree, you’re not getting a job because the White population is rapidly declining, which means the amount of Whites a business can safely hire is diminishing, and the Black/Hispanic populations are absolutely soaring, which demands that employers hire more and more of them instead of you.
    My advice? If you’re White and you don’t have a 4.0 GPA and an MCAT of 32 or higher, get a backup plan. Same if you’re Asian. More importantly, speak up and get this anti-performance legislation repealed before we lower the bar to the point of collapse.

  16. Very interesting comments and commentary. I attended a “foreign med school”, for my first 2 years and was able to transfer to a U.S. domestic medical school. I’ve been a board certified practicing physician for now, almost 30 years. I’ve practiced side by side with physicians from ALL walks of life who’ve attended medical schools both in the US and abroad. I can say, quite factually having been on BOTH sides of the aisle that, intellect ( not necessarily test scores) as well as a deep passion for medicine and patients are equally important. As a patient, there are some med school honor society and triple boarded docs that I’d prefer not to care for me or my family. I chronicled my medical school experiences in the book: My Dominican Experience.

  17. James Murphy says:

    Well this is interesting and anylitical . IN MY generation blacks didnt have to worry much about attending main stream medical school, they were not welcome in general except for the rare very rare exception ,a negro in the woodpile so to speak one who snuck in under the fence,but rare as hens teeth ,no suprise comming out of the dumps of communities most crawled out of and inferior colleges they managed to attend when they attended at all as most were relegated to elervator operation or broom use. Of course there were always the race institutions such as meherry ,Howard ,and Spellman where seldom a white face wss spotted,they graduated most physicians of dark shade and they joined the NMA as the AMA wasnt into dark skin. Later on this chang ed reluctantly of course.. Now tbere was another group who snuck by passers who also made it in all over bypassing gate keepers.Thankfully all this is over now and evaluations are more merrit based. Even though society is still contaminated with bias. And economic privilege but were working on it someday there will be fairness

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