Beyond the Numbers: Medical Schools Try Holistic Approach

With previous standards often leaving significant gaps in admissions, the Association of American Medical Colleges' Holistic Review Project is helping to improve diversity on medical campuses by moving beyond standardized test scores.

For many colleges, especially medical schools, diversity in admissions is a key issue.

But when older standards for choosing admissions showed problematic results, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) stepped up, helping its members improve diversity by focusing as much on student experiences as test scores. More details:

The problem: Traditionally, medical schools have relied on a combination of GPAs and scores on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) to admit students. As noted by The New York Times blogger Dr. Pauline Chen, however, MCAT scores can leave some students at a significant disadvantage, as the tuition costs and time needed to gain high scores with the standardized test leave certain socioeconomic classes at a disadvantage. When Chen was in school, she notes, the issue was clear among her classmates. “While our genders might have been mixed,” she says, “it hadn’t taken us long to realize that on paper we were remarkably alike.”

The solution: In recent years, some medical schools have started to revamp admissions standards, led by AAMC’s Holistic Review Project. Instead of choosing students specifically based on standardized test scores, enrollees are instead picked based on a number of factors, including experiences. “Holistic review is a flexible, individualized way of assessing an applicant’s capabilities by which balanced consideration is given to experiences, attributes, and academic metrics, and when considered in combination, how the individual might contribute value as a medical student and future physician,” the association’s site explains. The association launched its own official tools in 2008 and helped launch pilot programs at the Drexel University College of Medicine and the University of Arizona College of Medicine in 2010.

The results: The project, with the goal of improving diversity in the medical industry and improving the admissions process, is thus far showing signs of success. The Boston University School of Medicine, which started working with this approach in 2003 and fully implemented it in 2008, found that their students were “more collegial, more supportive of one another, more engaged in the curriculum, and more open to new ideas and to perspectives different from their own,” according to a New England Journal of Medicine study.

The weaknesses: While the solution has proven useful for increasing diversity at medical schools, it has some weaknesses—particularly how it could affect schools’ national rankings, as well as the amount of time it takes to choose admissions. “You could sort every female applicant in Wyoming by MCAT score with three keystrokes,” the association’s Dr. Henry M. Sondheimer told The Times, “It takes more time to get to know the students.”

Even so, 43 of the nation’s 141 medical schools are looking into AAMC’s program and testing the holistic approach, with the association researching results and finding how they work in practice.

When dealing with issues such as diversity, how has your association sought to lead the way for your industry? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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