Overview: A New Study About Selection Criteria at South African Medical Schools

So many questions on this blog pertain to admission to medical school in South Africa. I’ve written a few posts about it, but at least once a week I get a question I can’t really answer.

Stethoscope, compass and blank notebook

The difficulty in answering these questions lies with the fact that every medical school has different admission-criteria; and I, of course, only attended one of them. Furthermore, even within each institution there are special groups and “Dean’s Admissions” and so forth; so the process for admission really is about one hundred shades of grey.

samj16jan.jpgI was happy to see an abstract for this article in the January 2016 issue of the South African Medical Journal. South African Medical Schools: Current State of Selection Criteria and Medical Students’ Demographic Profile is available to read online – and I suggest that you do.

A quick overview to whet your appetite:

The study encompasses information (and authors!) from all eight South African medical schools (sidebar, MEDUNSA recently changed its name, and somehow I did not know this).

Although there is certainly a gap for this kind of research, this particular study is far from comprehensive. It leaves one dissatisfied and it is clear that a lot is being withheld by medical schools (be it well-intentioned, unintentional, or neither).


“Selection procedures at SA medical schools currently employ pooled data from academic performance tests indicating cognitive ability, comprising a combination of the National Senior Certificate (NSC) results in compulsory subjects and the National Benchmark Tests (NBT), and non-academic performance indicators. The latter include performance in extracurricular activities (leadership, sport, cultural, community engagement and service), measures of disadvantage such as family income, schooling and rural origin, personal reports (biographical questionnaires) and interviews. Each medical school employs a particular
combination of these admission criteria, but currently there is no
uniformity in how they are applied across the medical schools.”

Although this is only in the introduction, it does not become any clearer than that. From experience I know that prospective medical students want to know HOW MUCH their background counts; and HOW MUCH their various co-curricular activities are weighted.

Even this may be pathognomonic of the system at medical schools, rather than an outright fault on the part of the authors.

[If you want to know more about how random the selections process to universities can be at times, read this article by Ben Orlin on his blog, Math With Bad Drawings. Ben is an American blogger but I bet it is applicable here too.]

As for the cold, hard, numbers: enter Table 2, which illustrates the academic selection criteria at medical schools. (I’m not pasting it in this post because it’s big and boring – see for yourself!) Notice how even these are far from standardised. Actually, this table is very confusing and could probably do with some simplification, given that not all readers serve on admissions boards. But as you will see, there are about as many ways to accept a candidate academically as there are medical schools, and each may benefit a different prospective student.

Figures 1 and 2 are where it becomes really interesting. These figures show how black students in South Africa make up the majority of medical students in South Africa in numbers – HOWEVER, relative to national demographics, these students are under-represented. If you live in South Africa, your response to this will be, “Duh, that’s glaringly obvious,” but now we have the research to back it up.

fig2 samj16

(Also, interestingly, females outweigh males in medical school admissions – something I also noticed at my own medical school, but it remains interesting to see it on paper.)

This paper has room for improvement, but also successfully highlights the challenges in medical school admissions in South Africa. The recommendations do lack concrete, actionable suggestions, but all the same, it is a good step in the direction of redress of the admissions processes in South African medical schools.

 * * *


VAN DER MERWE, L J et al. South African medical schools: Current state of selection criteria and medical students’ demographic profile.South African Medical Journal, [S.l.], v. 106, n. 1, p. 76-81, dec. 2015. ISSN 2078-5135. Available at: <http://www.samj.org.za/index.php/samj/article/view/9913/7096>. Date accessed: 20 Jan. 2016. doi:10.7196/SAMJ.2016.v106i1.9913.


  1. Kat says:

    Hey love your blog in Oz I’ve been told both at uni and in jobs it’s not what you know it’s who you know that affects the outcomes both in uni acceptance and future job prospects!

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