Should Medical School Admissions Requirements Change?

Anyone with even a basic interest in medical school knows that the requirements for pursuing an MD are substantial. Pre-med courses, the MCAT, multiple stages of the application process, interview days — there are a ton of pieces to the puzzle and it all adds up to a tremendous amount of work. Everyone knows it is a grind. But is it the right grind? This is a question that is rarely posed, but that was both asked and answered recently in an important report called Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians, which was described in detail today on the Stanford News Service. This report makes a series of recommendations that call for subtle-yet-important changes in the way medical school candidates prepare for their graduate work.

The report was produced by a 22-person committee, which was tasked jointly by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 2007. The committee was headed by Sharon Long, a Stanford biology professor and a former dean at the university, and calls for the following changes to the existing medical school requirements:

  • Replacing a list of required pre-med courses with a series of “competencies” (knowledge, skill, and attitude).

  • Adding competencies to the med school education as well, to account for increasing reliance on math and physical sciences in everyday medical practices.
  • One example of swapping in competencies for required courses is changing the pre-med requirement of taking calculus with a demonstrated ability to “apply quantitative reasoning and appropriate mathematics to describe or explain phenomena in the natural world.”
  • The goal of the new framework is to push development of undergraduate science coursework and create flexibility for pre-med students to take classes outside of the requirements. (Specifically, the hope is that more pre-med students will take courses like Biochem or Stats, without having to add units of coursework, and that more pre-med students will seek out liberal arts majors.)

Long provided a salient quote that speaks to the overall philosophy behind these recommendations:

“Think about it this way. You can get from the first floor to the second by going up a ramp or by taking the steps. Right now the medical school entrance exam assumes the only way is the steps, and it tests you on each one. We want the exam to test whether you can get to the second floor, not how you got there