So You Think Getting Into Med School is Hard?

I hate thinking about the probability of getting into medical school, particularly for the non-traditional style like myself that have been out of school for a few years and decided later in life that they wanted to pursue a life in medicine. That said, it’s pretty common to hear premeds whine about how hard it is to get into medical school. After being inundated with it for the past year or so, I decided to do some research on other professions to see just how hard others have it, relative to medical students. Here are some of my findings, in no particular order:

Special Agent for the FBI

Requirements for application to the FBI academy:

  • Between ages of 23 and 37 in good physical health
  • 4-year Bachelor’s degree and 3 years of work history (five different fields of interest)
  • Obtain a TS/SCI, which requires completion of an SSBI and a polygraph

That’s just to qualify for the academy. In practice, most applicants have some form of law enforcement experience or extensive experience in a field which is highly desirable at the time they’re applying, like middle eastern linguistics or corporate accounting. Once you’ve been accepted, you’re sent to the FBI Academy at Quantico Marine Base for six months and then after that transferred to wherever your particular skill set is needed. I’d imagine it varies, but special agents probably have some say over where they get transferred, but at the end of the day, you’re a government asset and they can deploy you wherever they like. I should also mention that the polygraph one gets after completion of the SSBI will be one of the most stressful days of your life. I was required to have an identical kind for work and it was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I haven’t taken the MCAT yet, but I’m pretty sure that it won’t be as bad as my polygraph was. It was the suck.

Now let’s talk chances – government employment has become exceedingly coveted, since it’s largely immune to economic effects. Statistics weren’t all that available, but I’ve been able to collect the following information. In 2009, the FBI posted around 3,000 open spots, 850 of which were special agent positions. They received 250,000 applications. Let’s assume that the ratio of applicants for non-special agent positions is the same as that for special agent spots. That works out to be about 70,000 applicants for 850 spots, or an acceptance rate of around 1.2%.

Special Agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)

Requirements for application to the academy:

  • Rather strict age and fitness requirements, similar to the FBI
  • 4-year Bachelor’s degree, also similar to the FBI, and usually a minimum of four years of law enforcement experience
  • Ability to obtain a TS/SCI, which requires completion of an SSBI and a polygraph

Becoming an ATF agent is really hard – I was only able to find limited statistics since successful ATF applicants sign an NDI concerning the hiring and training process, but according to Wikipedia, only about 5% of qualified applicants are accepted. This seems to agree pretty well with the acceptance rate I estimated for the FBI. I should mention that there is an additional constraint for virtually all applicants to federal agencies – affirmative action. Medical schools preach the virtues of diversity, but in most cases it isn’t a hard and fast rule like it is with the government. The acceptance rates for white male applicants to just about any federal office are going to be substantially less than the average. Applicants to medical school should be glad that racial quotas don’t govern admissions committees they way they govern federal hiring practices. My intent isn’t to get into a discussion of affirmative action and how or when it’s involved – I simply wanted to point out that, for federal agencies, it can be a significant hurdle for many and there’s no way to make up for it.

After acceptance, applicants spend six months in a training program and then invest another three years in a probationary role before becoming full-fledged members of the ATF community. Interestingly, the amount of time required to become an ATF agent is not that much different than a physician. An undergraduate degree, then at least 4 years of law enforcement, followed by application, training, and a 3 year probationary role that sounds a lot like residency.

So, what’s the job like for the elite 5%…? Well, you will get shot at, possibly targeted for assassination by a murderous band of outlaw bikers, have dangerous working conditions, and possibly be away from family and friends for extended periods of time. Let’s face it – anyone that has to put on body armor to go to work has it a lot worse than doctors.

Juris Doctor

I’m not going to go into this very much, since getting accepted into law school isn’t all that difficult.  An undergraduate degree, a good LSAT score, and you’re chances are pretty good.  However, that slightly belies the problem faced by those aspiring to practice law.  For the most part, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much where a person goes to medical school at.  The story for law students is quite a bit different.  A lawyer with a JD from a school like Georgetown or Yale shouldn’t have a problem finding a job after graduation.  On the other hand, a graduate of a lower tier university may very well wind up being screwed when it comes time to find a job.

I ran into a girl a couple of months ago that had graduated from a lower-ranked, private law school a couple of years ago.  She’s got about $150,000 in loans and is making about $45,000 as general council for a local newspaper.  Not exactly what she was expecting when mom and dad convinced her to go to law school.

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
Requirements for application to veterinary school are similar to medical school, but tend to vary a bit, particularly when it comes to entrance exams. The usual coursework includes:

  • English (2 semesters)
  • Biology (2 semesters w/lab)
  • Chemistry (2 semesters w/lab)
  • Organic Chemistry – This one seems to vary the most. Some schools require a year, others only a semester but with biochemistry as well.
  • Physics (2 semesters, but may or may not require the lab)
  • Calculus (1 semester)
  • Statistics (1 semester)
  • Genetics, microbiology, and physiology are recommended by many schools.

As far as grades go, it’s the same game as medical school application where the mean GPA is about 3.5 or so. Competitive applicants usually have a GPA anywhere in the 3.0 to 4.0 range, but acceptance hinges on many factors. The real academic variability shows up in the tests required. There seem to be three primary exams which applicants may take, depending upon the schools they are applying to. Many schools require the GRE, but some have moved towards requiring the MCAT and/or the biology GRE since the VCAT has been discontinued. Since most applicants apply widely, it is not difficult to imagine some students having to take two or possibly all three of these exams. Yep. That means studying for the MCAT, the GRE, and the biology GRE all at the same time. Not cheap.

Letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, work experience are all fairly similar to medical school, although it looks like a lack of real substantive work experience is an absolute game-ender. Altogether, it appears that, prima facie, application to veterinary school is significantly more of a hassle than application to medical school, particularly if applicants are casting a wide net (and most probably do, considering the odds).

There are 28 veterinary schools in the US, most of which are public. The VMCAS is rather tight-lipped about the application statistics, but the information they have chosen to release isn’t too encouraging. In 2010, it looks like the number of applicants was 23,422 with only 6143 matriculating. This yields an acceptance rate of around 26%, which is about half of what allopathic applicants will see. Compared to federal agencies, the odds are good, but it still sucks.

Doctor of Dental Surgery

One of my buddies that I worked with at the bike shop applied to dental school three times and was finally accepted (way to go Aaron!).  His situation sounded quite a bit like medical school.  And looking at grades and DAT scores, it appears that the story is more or less like it is for medical school applicants.  Coursework seems to be about the same anyway, along with the usual pattern for volunteer work and clinical experience.

Average GPA for dental school matriculants is about 3.5, with a DAT score of 19.3.  Relatively competitive.  I couldn’t find any statistics for applicants relative to matriculants, but the field has apparently become quite competitive.  Applications have risen something like 7-10% every year for the last ten years.  And, since the ADA has gone to great lengths to restrict the size and number of dental programs, the difficulty of getting accepted to dental school has only increased.

I’m glad that my buddy was finally able to get in.  Hopefully, I’m as lucky.

Physicians Assistant

The general impression seems to be that PA school is harder to get into than medical school.  The required coursework seems to be quite a bit worse – all the same requirements as medical school applicants, along with a full sequence of anatomy, physiology, some statistics, and a few other higher-level biology courses like biochemistry, pharmacology, and a few others.  Plus, an interesting trend seems to have emerged over the past few years – people that would have applied to nursing school are switching to PA programs because of the increased responsibility and greater compensation.  Average PA salaries are quite a bit higher than nursing students.  I looked for some PA school acceptance statistics, but I couldn’t find any.  Word on the street is that PA programs have a lower acceptance rate than medical schools do.

I include this topic primarily as a teaser, since this has to be the absolute hardest field to break into on earth and pretty much requires you to have spent your entire life working towards it. One mistake, and you’re toast.

Requirements depend upon whether you want to become a mission specialist, payload specialist, or a pilot, but they include:

  • Bachelor’s degree in engineering, physical science, or mathematics (in practice, the requirement is a PhD in one of these fields as well, given the enormity of the applicant pool, particularly for specialists)
  • 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command of jet aircraft
  • Flight test experience highly desirable (given the number of military personnel applying to the program, this pretty much requires you to have come up through the Air Force or Navy, both of which are highly selective about choosing jet pilots)
  • Pass NASA physical and psychological evaluations
  • For specialists, industrial or academic research and development leadership positions with significant academic contributions – this isn’t the same as getting your name on a couple of papers, which a lot of premed students equate with research.

This explains why the average application age is 36 – it takes the bulk of a persons professional career to meet all of these requirements and competition is rather fierce. Plus, the training program to become an astronaut is something like 20-months and washing out is common. NASA estimates that the chances of a person becoming an astronaut are around 12 million to one, making it probably the hardest profession to get into. This totally omits the politically transient nature of your profession – you might spend your entire life working to become an astronaut, only to wind up having the program cancelled due to a shift in NASA’s mandate.

Oh. And then, on your way to work, the Russian spacecraft you’re flying in might explode.


7 Responses

  1. Quick comment on the PA programs. My original plan was PA school, however if you look closely all but a handful of programs (think x<10) DON'T have a stiff work experience requirement. Those that don't require it still "strongly recommend" having it. As a non-traditional student taking a heavy science class load with labs, plus a qualified medical job, plus the day job that pays for all of the fore-mentioned means it just was not possible.

  2. PA school acceptance rates vary but they can be as low as 10% or less

    • I think it tends to vary a lot for both programs. For example, Stanford gets 7,000 applicants, interviews 450, accepts 180 and matriculated 86. That’s extreme and it doesn’t surprise me at all to learn that PA programs are just as selective.

      The restriction on the training of healthcare providers really makes me angry. But that’s probably a rant for another day.

  3. To hell with stats. The balls in your court. 3.1 gpa… veteran… accepted into vet school

  4. You’re comparing apples to oranges my friend. Anyone knuckle-head can (and does) apply to the mentioned jobs (excluding medical school). Having said that, there are some naive people who are unqualified but still choose to apply to medical school. Needless to say they do not get an interview.

    The majority of people who apply to medical school are highly competitive applicants because the minimum GPA & MCAT requirements are posted on every medical school’s website (3.5 & 30 usually). Note that these are the bare-minimum and you will not get an interview with these stats unless your parents went to the school or you are a “URM”.

    If getting into medical school was a breeze compared to the real world, and if practicing medicine was such a “get rich quick” bang for your buck, then trust me when I write that the average Joe Schmo would surely be attending medical school. Fortunately for the sake of the general public, those who get into medical school are the cream of the crop. So all in all, you argument is terrible.

    Don’t try to bash medicine just because you couldn’t cut it.

  5. I’m really loving the theme/design of your site. Do you
    ever run into any web browser compatibility problems? A handful of my blog readers have complained about my site not working correctly in Explorer but looks great in Opera.
    Do you have any ideas to help fix this problem?

    • No idea, I don’t actually write any of the HTML on the site myself, except for occasionally hacking it to get the formatting correct. I haven’t used Opera in a couple of years and the reason was largely because it didn’t render a lot of sites accurately. I switched from Opera to Chrome and couldn’t be happier. I’ll never use Firefox or Internet Explorer again.

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