McMaster University to use lottery to decide fate of about 430 medical school applicants

The top 100 pre-interview ranked applicants will receive an offer into the doctor of medicine program. Most others who were slated to do interviews will have to rely on randomization.

Students furious despite school insisting random selection isn't 'open lottery' and is the fairest option

McMaster university building
Medical school applicants are furious after McMaster revealed it will use a lottery system to decide the fate of some prospective students. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

McMaster University's medical school is using a lottery system to determine the fate of some 430 applicants amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a message sent to interviewees and posted online on Friday, the school said the alternative plan came after it realized a virtual version of the standard interviewing process couldn't take place.

More than 5,000 people applied to the program at Michael G. DeGroote medical school. That number was cut to 552 applicants who would get an interview.

Now, the top 100 pre-interview ranked applicants will receive an offer into the doctor of medicine program (MD). Between about five and 20 Indigenous applicants will also receive offers through a separate stream, though it's unclear what the exact number is.

For the roughly 430 remaining applicants, chance will determine if they get an offer, as the school will randomly select students.

Applicants and students channeled their collective rage online after learning of the random selection. Hundreds of comments on Facebook and Reddit criticized the decision and empathized with this year's pool of candidates.

One Reddit user wrote "I am INFURIATED they had literally SO MANY OTHER OPTIONS. " Another said they felt as if they were "flipping a coin for heads and tails to say if 4+ years of my life were worth it." A user on Facebook wrote "Is this reasonable? definitely. Is this the best course of action they could come up with especially knowing the disparities in representation of medical students? Definitely not."

Not an 'open lottery'

A message to students stressed it was not an "open lottery" and that the remaining applicants awaiting interviews were all roughly equally qualified.

Dr. Rob Whyte, the associate dean of undergraduate medical education at McMaster's Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, said while he understands some may be frustrated, it is the fairest approach.

"There's a loss of a personal sense of agency, that the interview was a chance to have some control in the selection process as a candidate and that losing that opportunity, understandably, makes people feel uncertainty about the process," he explained.

"We have to balance that against the fact that people probably do not have quite as much agency and impact from the interview as they normally think. Of course people are going prepare as well as they can, but a number of things come up that make their performance less than they would have wanted."

He said this may help those who would have performed poorly in the interview and may hinder those who would have excelled, but reiterated all candidates at this stage are virtually equal in terms of qualifications.

Whyte notes the wait list for those who don't win the lottery will also be randomized.

Why couldn't they do virtual interviews?

The regular process, called the Multiple Mini-Interview, has candidates visit eight to 10 different stations where they must answer a question at each station. Their score from the interview is tallied and used to determine if they get an offer. Unsuccessful applicants would be given a score based on their MMI results, GPA and MCAT results, with emphasis on the MMI. That new score serves as their rank on the wait list.

Whyte said the decision to try the lottery and randomized wait list this year instead of another option was based on the following:

  • Fears of technical issues by introducing a virtual process on short notice.
  • Ensuring all applicants have internet access.
  • Most of the interviewers are busy working with public health during the pandemic.
  • The lottery reduces potential bias and will select the most diverse group.

"Those concerns were considered in the context of other pieces of evidence and other things we know about how to conduct a fair process," he emphasized.

"We didn't want to choose an option we had concerns about in the past."

Anyone who qualified for an interview but didn't get an offer will be automatically invited to the interview process for next year's application cycle if they re-apply.  The notice said more details about this process will be provided at a later date.

Whyte said the main priority looking ahead is returning to the standard MMI test but added that the school is considering how it will approach the test next year if restrictions are still in place.


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.