If Regis Philbin needs a million-dollar question for Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? I’ve got one: Which of the following medical school admissions is the most competitive? (a) Tulane (b) George Washington (c) University of Utah (d) Dartmouth. If you chose the University of Utah as your final answer, you’re a millionaire.

A little-understood fact is that admission to the University of Utah School of Medicine is competitive—extremely competitive. It is as difficult to gain admittance to Utah’s medical school as it is to many top private medical schools in the country. The reason is simple—the caliber of our applicants. Each year approximately 1,200 people apply for 102 slots. Of the 1,200 applicants, 500-600 are qualified. However, due to the medical school’s space constraints, only 17-20 percent of those qualified can be admitted; the rest are nearly always accepted at other good medical schools in the country.

Because the School of Medicine is so competitive, serious misconceptions have developed regarding the admissions process. These misunderstandings were at the heart of a recent legislative audit of the process. From the outset, the School of Medicine welcomed the audit, hoping it could educate legislators and Utah citizens about the complexities of the process and clear up false impressions. While the audit does dispel many misconceptions, these have been overshadowed by other erroneous claims and implications that have fueled unfounded suspicions that white male applicants experience reverse discrimination, despite the fact that the medical school is 87 percent white and 65 percent male.

Before addressing the audit’s inaccurate—but widely reported—assertions, I would like to emphasize the findings that are less well known. Ironically, they challenge the audit’s ultimate conclusions. The audit found:

  1. The School of Medicine’s admissions process shows no bias for or against religious affiliation, undergraduate college, age, or geographic location.
  2. The School of Medicine has not enrolled applicants who are not qualified for medical school.
  3. The School of Medicine does not have an affirmative action quota system for women and minorities.
  4. The School of Medicine admissions process is not unique. The same process is recommended by the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) and used by most medical schools in the country.

It is unfortunate that the auditors set aside those findings and instead drew three incorrect conclusions. Contrary to these conclusions, the School of Medicine admissions process does not have a two-tiered system based on race; academic standards have not been lowered to achieve greater diversity; and it does not have “diversity-related” selection criteria. To be admitted to the medical school, all applicants must meet a threshold grade-point average (GPA) and Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) score. Applicants who have a 3.5 GPA and an MCAT score of 30 are interviewed. Applicants whose scores are below the benchmark are reviewed. In this process, disadvantaged and advantaged status indicators (measures of extenuating circumstances such as working full time as an undergraduate, supporting a family, being ill for a year, etc.) are used as a way of evaluating the raw GPA score. However, the auditors incorrectly limited the definition of “disadvantaged” to include only minority applicants. The data shows that the definition has nothing to do with race. A white male can be considered disadvantaged as easily as a Hispanic woman. Further, the auditors state that there is a lower academic standard for “disadvantaged” (meaning “minority”) applicants. Again, this is incorrect. All applicants must meet the same minimum standard. This is evidenced by the fact that in 2001, nine students had a GPA below a 3.24. Of the nine, five were white males.

The average GPA of applicants who have been offered a position in the medical school is between 3.75 and 3.78. Clearly, academic standards have not been lowered to gain greater diversity. Furthermore, our medical students continue to be accepted to top residency programs throughout the country.

Finally, the School of Medicine does not have “diversity-related” selection criteria. Like all other medical schools, the School of Medicine uses seven criteria to evaluate applicants: GPA, MCAT score, leadership skills, physician shadowing experience, exposure to patient care, community service, and research experience. GPA and MCAT scores are used as a measure of the applicant’s ability to manage the course work in the first two years of medical school. Substantial research shows that the other criteria are better predictors of an applicant’s ultimate success as a student and a physician.

Despite evidence that challenges the incorrect assertions made by the audit, the School of Medicine has had difficulty refuting its claims publicly. The heft of the audit is great; it carries with it an “official” status and seals in people’s minds misconceptions that are long held. Unfortunately, those who are most affected are our female and minority medical students. While they earned their acceptance, they are now put in the unfair position of defending it. In this way, the audit does real harm.

Admission to the U’s School of Medicine is as competitive as anywhere in the country. And this puts us in the enviable but difficult position of selecting from among the best—a position of which the state can be proud.

—A. Lorris Betz is dean of the University’s School of Medicine and senior vice president for the health sciences.