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How Increasing Medical School Enrollment Affects M.D. Hopefuls

More accredited medical schools means more students can become doctors.

Medical school enrollment has increased to accommodate the growing number of physicians needed to care for baby boomers.

Medical school enrollment has increased to accommodate the growing number of physicians needed to care for baby boomers.

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Getting into medical school has always been competitive, but there may be more available seats for prospective students in the coming years.

In May, the Association of American Medical Colleges announced that U.S. medical schools are on track to increase enrollment by 30 percent from 2002 to 2017, according to the association's Medical School Enrollment Survey. There were 16,488 first-year students in 2002, and AAMC anticipates having 21,434 first-year students by 2017.

Some schools have increased class sizes, but much of the projected growth is expected to come from more than a dozen new schools that have been accredited in the last few years. Typically, these schools gradually increase enrollment from year to year.

In 2009, the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine at Texas Tech University started with a class of 40 first-year students. In July, 100 first-year students will start. The Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University graduated its first class of 33 students in April. The class starting in August will have about 120 students.

These increases are driven by the demand for and the demands of medical professionals.

[Learn which private medical schools are least costly.]

"There's 10,000 more baby boomers every single day in the U.S. and those individuals tend to require additional care," says John Prescott, the organization's chief academic officer. New doctors are also going against the old standard of working 60 hours or more a week, he says.

"There's a better work-life balance among the newer generation of physicians, and that requires an additional number of physicians."

Prospective students shouldn't expect an increase in class size to also make their chances of getting into school easier, experts say.

"The competition is not so much in the total number, but as to the quality of the medical student," says Eneida Roldan, an assistant dean for student affairs at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. Many schools are starting to take a more holistic approach when selecting students.

[Find out which medical schools are most selective.]

"It's not just the medical student that comes in with good grades in the sciences, which is how it was before," says Roldan. Schools are placing more emphasis on a candidate's community service and commitment to social justice.

"It is hard to get into medical school," says Nida Degesys, president of the American Medical Student Association. "Less than 50 percent of applicants actually matriculate to an allopathic medical school."

To strengthen a candidate's holistic profile, she suggests prospective students carefully consider how they serve their communities and research the medical field.

"A lot of people do random volunteer activities, and I think that when you show that you are committed to service through a more long-term project instead of several single days, I do think that that is looked at very highly," she says. "For students wanting to go to medical school, I do think it's important to show that you are actually interested in medicine by either shadowing or volunteering or working in a hospital setting."

[Learn how to save money on MCAT preparation.]

While shadowing a doctor seems most practical, following other people in medicine can also be helpful.

"The roles and responsibilities of nurses and physician assistants are different than a physician, but that doesn't mean that you can't gain very good experiences by shadowing those individuals," she says.

Getting into school may not be an M.D. candidate's biggest hurdle. Prospective students should be aware that life after medical school can still be uncertain for many.

"We are increasing the number of students, and we need a proportional increase in the number of residency positions to ensure that we have more physicians to provide medical care in the future in our nation," says Prescott. Medicare, the federal government health care program that largely influences the number of residency positions, has kept the number of slots about the same since 1997, he says.