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Why It's Easier to Get Into Medical School Than the Marines

Updated on June 19, 2013

Every wanted to be a doctor on actual human people? Does the fast paced thrill of filling in insurance paperwork, or discussing a child’s cold on the phone at 2 in the morning sound like your kind of thing? Sure it is! But you thought only super smart super geeks could get in the door. The numbers the would-be applicant faces are scary enough –in 2012 there were 636,309 applications and 20,448 people admitted.

But, don’t despair! The reality is a lot better than that, and it is actually easier to get to study to be a doctor than it is to be a Marine. Don’t think so? Follow along and we’ll walk you through it….

Firstly there aren’t 636,309 applicants--each applicant puts in a bunch of applications- the average is about 13, so the number of actual people applying to US MD schools then was 45,260. OK, but that still leaves 25,743 disappointed people, right? We’re not done yet! First you can--


Notice we said “MD” schools. Turns out there is a whole ‘nother set of medical schools, the “DO” schools or “doctors of osteopathic medicine.”The DO degree has the same privileges and jobs and payment schemes as the MD. Osteopathy started out as a kind of chiropractry in the late 19th century, but then went mainstream—although they still pretend an interest in “manipulation.” DOs historically have been less well-known/accepted than MDs, but this has changed a lot over the past 20 years or so. The main advantage for you is that there are another 31 US medical schools you can apply to. Here are some stats (for all but 2 of the schools, in Texas), in 2012 14,945people applied for 5,788 seats. Since 2010 the organization that controls DO applications (AACOM, the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine) has tried to figure out how much overlap they have with other types of medical education, such as MD schools. It’s a complicated question, but basically the overlap is about 70%. So you haven’t added 14,945 new applicants but just about 4,483.

So let’s add 4,483 to our 45269 for 49,752 total applicants. And let’s add 5788 to 20448 for a total of 26,276 places. That works out to an acceptance rate of 53%.

Really that’s not so tough. Better than half. And remember, it’s like the old joke about two guys running from a bear-you don’t have to be faster than the bear, just faster than your buddy. That is, you just have to be good enough to be a little worse than half the applicants.

All well and good, but it’s not a random selection, is it? In order to get into the mix, you have to attend college and not leave, take and pass several science courses, take the MCATs and figure out the whole application process. That’s enough to weed out the gene pool’s bottom feeders. You might be thinking, “I know I’m not better, in terms of test scores and grades than 47% of the applicants!”

Wait, we’re not done yet. Because the number of spots in US medical schools is so tightly controlled, many well qualified individuals, such as putatively yourself, are left crying into their wallets, all prepped up and nowhere to go. But don’t worry, capitalism is coming to your rescue! Because you can--


You can go to medical school somewhere else. The smartest and next best option may be to go to a well-established, accredited and recognized “Caribbean” medical school. These are usually identified as the “Big 4”- St Georges, Saba, Ross and American University of the Caribbean. St Georges especially is the king daddy of off shore schools and is comparable to a lower echelon US school. These are for-profit schools that are designed to teach an American curriculum and prepare you for American licensing exams. There are many, many physicians practicing and training in the US who graduated from these schools, and as a group they do not stand out as any less successful or knowledgeable than their peers who trained in the US. These schools admit two classes a year, and big ones (remember, capitalism) so as a ballpark figure-let’s say 2700 spaces a year are available. Let’s add that to our total seats making it 28,976. There is no overlap, in that no one who got into a US mainland school would go to the Caribbean, so it is now an “acceptance rate” of 58% overall. Really that’s not bad—you wouldn’t call an undergraduate college that accepted 58% of their applicants all that selective, would you? And we haven’t even gotten weird yet-all of the above “off-shore” schools offer licensing exam pass rates and residency matching comparable with schools in the US.

Let’s stop here for a minute. What kind of competition are we looking at? Well, the average GPA and MCAT scores for people getting in allopathic (MD) schools are 28 and 3.5 . The averages for osteopathic (DO) schools are 3.4 and 26. For the off-shore schools above these are about 3.2-3.3 and 24-26. Another good option…


A different direction, if you are not keen on going to school in a shed on an island might be the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara. Reportedly they are looking for a 3.0 GPA or better and completing the prerequisite classwork. This school is located in an actual university and clinical year opportunities are bountiful. They have been around for years and will not be going away suddenly. They have about 14,000 graduates practicing medicine in the US and are acceptable to state medical boards. They have a program for English speakers, and lectures are in English. You will need to know Spanish however, as the patients you will see have mostly rudely neglected to learn English for your benefit. We should point out that all these options located outside the US make you an “FMG” of “foreign medical graduate,” so you don’t change anything by going to Mexico versus the Caribbean. However, since it’s a Mexican school, they are not focused on preparing for American licensing exams, so you’ll have to be motivated to prep for these on your own, in terms of learning to the test and knowing what’s on it. It’s not such a bad option, IF you already know a pretty good amount of Spanish. There are some other colleges that take US students as well.

But I have a 2.8 and a 21! And I’m an Asian or Caucasian, so nobody wants me for myself either.

This might be a good time to stop and ask yourself what you really should be doing. Why do you have bad grades/scores? Underprepared for college work? Too much partying before you grew up and got serious about what you wanted to do? Are you a non-traditional student who has, for example, been working in the medical field and got interested after half-stepping through college years ago? Did you have a concussion in the months prior to the MCAT, or terrible grades that semester mom killed herself--or are you just stupid-uh, excuse me, not academically oriented? You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be a doctor, but medical school does involve studying. A lot of studying, as in study until you pass out at your desk, then get up and do it again. Medical school, no matter where you go, is exponentially harder than undergraduate school. It doesn’t require creative or original thought so much, but there is a huge amount of information that you will be expected to master.

Let’s move on. And--


Let’s say that you took a searching inventory of yourself and decided that whatever had happened in the past you DO have the smarts, the drive, and the interest to finish a medical degree and you feel you’d be a darn fine doctor, given the chance.

Your next best bet would most likely be one of the less well known/less well regarded off shore schools. Caveat emptor. Don’t go to one that hasn’t been around for about 10 years. You have to a smart shopper- making sure that the school will be accepted as a medical school by your state(s) of choice, so the state will give you a license, and being ready to basically set up your own third and fourth years. (The first two years of medical school are traditionally spent taking classes, and the last two are spent observing/working in hospital and clinics with actual patients. It is a whole lot easier, if you are running a for-profit school, to set up a lecture hall or two and hire a few teachers, than it is to arrange agreements with umpteen different hospitals to allow your students to “rotate”, i.e. visit there for clinical experiences.) There are about 20+ of these schools located in the Central America/Caribbean area.. Overall, though, even if these are a less prestigious option, most students report that if you actually do the work, and maybe a licensing prep course (as do a lot of US students) you can get licensed and you can be a doctor (after the required 3-7 further years of training).

It’s hard to get numbers on the spaces available at these schools- let’s say 200 per school /per year to be conservative (some are very small but these schools will tend to admit twice a year ,as do the better known ones, and as for class size, the more the merrier.) Times 20 equals 4,000 spaces to add to our previous total, making accepted students about 33000 out of 50000 (with rounding). That’s 66%. There are community colleges that are harder to get into than that.

How “selective” are these lesser known schools? They may require MCATs (or your country’s equivalent-there are people from other countries in your situation as well), the usual science courses, three years of college completed by the application and so on. And your checkbook. Based on a scientific survey of internet message boards over 20 on the MCAT and around 3.0 for a GPA should be fine, and in some cases/places somewhat lower grades/scores would be welcomed.

At this point too, the less committed or less flexible have dropped out of the race, making the competition even less stiff.

Remember, the “worst” basketball player in the NBA is better than 99.99% of the basketball players in the world, and the “least well qualified” medical school applicant may still be a better student that a large proportion of his or her non-applicant peers. Just in case anyone reading this was feeling bad.

Still looking…


Are you still there? Nothing above accepted you or meets your needs? Well hold on, there’s more. A few years ago several Eastern European medical schools noticed the problem of well-qualified applicants sitting home alone with their damp, tear-soaked dollars and decided to give this capitalism thing a whirl and solve the problem. They figured, they have a medical school, and a lot of the faculty speak English, it being the universal language of science and all, so why not set up an English language medical program and help both you and them at the same time?

European universities tend to be more like urban commuter schools than our typical undergraduate campus. You’ll get the same level of (non) service from the administration as the other students do. When you add in the fact that these are Polish, or Czech or Romanian or whatever schools and do not teach to American licensing exams, the variable quality of instruction, and the hassle of moving to Europe for a few years, I would place this option below the others mentioned above. In addition, state licensing boards are getting hip to this option and putting up barriers such as not accepting the English language curriculum students along with the native language students. Apparently a biology lecture is only worthwhile if it is delivered in Romanian.

How selective are these programs? Most likely some are not very- European universities, especially when they are filling up a money making program, can tend to see themselves more as facilitators than gatekeepers. Probably a pulse, a checkbook, completing the prerequisite courses, and being sharp enough to negotiate the visa, the move and all the other registration hassles will do it-at least somewhere.

Remember, even if the lectures are read in English, the people of the country, including your patients, will persist in speaking their native tongue, so you will have to learn it.

What we still haven’t found something?


If Eastern Europe seems too wintery, there are a number of Philippines’ medical schools that, well, recruit is perhaps too strong a word, but do welcome/facilitate US student’s attendance. Many Filipino doctors practice in the US and the quality of education is thought to be good. Classes are taught in English. I’m not going to go into too much detail, just making you aware that it’s an option. Once again, it’s not the US, so they don’t teach the US licensing exams.

And let’s not spend any time on French medical schools, Italian schools, or schools in other countries. In these cases you’ll need to speak the language fluently, or compete with the actual citizens for places, so we won’t concern ourselves with them. However, for some they may be an option.

Let’s add in some more spaces or “seats” as they are known. We’re in WAG (“wild-ass guess”) territory now, but let’s say, UAG-rolling admissions, no set limits-say 250 a year(possibly more), 15 Eastern European programs averaging 100 per class, the Philippines…say 250 and you have another 2000 “seats” waiting for you.

Add it up again and we have about 35000 slots and 50000 applicants (all numbers guaranteed not verified) for a success rate of 70%. Given that 40-50% of people who reapply another year end up getting into some place, we can make your overall success rate at least 80%-if you are prepared to stay the course and do what it takes. And we have tried to err on the side of underestimating the number of places available.

How does this compare with the US Marine Corps? Well, about 29% of recruits will fail the medical screening (about half of these will get “waivers” and join anyway), 12% don’t make it through the first few weeks and are sent home, and a certain number are excluded because they can’t score high enough on an IQ test or have too much of a criminal record-let’s say 10% more. So if you walk into a USMC recruiting station and say you want to be a Marine- you statistically have a 63% chance of being successful. Compare that with your 80% or more chance of getting into medical school. Different life goals, different (but not necessarily less valuable) population, but statistically, yes, it’s easier to get into a medical school than become a marine.

And you don’t have to do all those push-ups.


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      You are only counting the students who made it so far such that they were actually able to apply to medical school. What about all of the students who could not pass the pre-requisites or those that chose not to apply due to a low MCAT score? You selectively changed the population when you did the statistics.

    • Doodlehead profile image


      5 years ago from Northern California

      Super article. I went to school with a lot of pre-meds and they were pretty resourceful but this is tops. Very interesting. I used some of these ideas to go to grad school in science.


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