What Is the Dropout Rate for Medical School?

Before embarking on the daunting journey of medical school, it’s natural to wonder what the odds are of completing the program and building a satisfying career.

Becoming a physician can seem highly-esteemed and lucrative, yet it does take hard work and a lot of endurance to get through an entire MD or DO program.

What percentage of medical students graduate? What percentage of medical students drop out? Find out in our comprehensive guide now!

Graduation Rates and Attrition Rates of Medical Students

What is the graduation rate of medical school? Findings vary depending on circumstance, but overall, roughly 81.6 to 84.3 percent of four-year medical program students graduate, explains the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). In contrast, around 95.9 percent of medical students in six-year programs graduated.

So, how long is medical school? Taking on too much work at once can burn out some students. Conversely, remaining in school for too many years will take its toll on others. Let’s explore the options.

Photo by Jessie Orrico via Unsplash

The Four-Year Graduation Rate

Those entering medical schools who are committed to completing the program are 81.6 percent to 84.3 percent. So, what is the dropout rate for medical school? In a standard, single four-year program, that would put the medical school dropout rate at between 15.7 percent and 18.4 percent, confirms the AAMC.

While those who enter medical school mainly end up in the majority of students graduating, this rate is notably lower than those who take an extra year or an additional four or five years in the case of combined majors. Well over 90 percent of medical students in five-year programs graduate.

The Five-Year Graduation Rate

Aside from those in combined MD-PhD majors, taking five years instead of four had a significant boost in graduation rates—roughly 45 percent to around 92 percent in the case of MD-MBA combined majors.

Even in the case of single majors, a notable boost happens around the five-year mark. There is roughly a 20 percent increase (consistently) between graduation rates of four-year graduation rates and five-year graduation rates, according to AAMC data.

Six Years After Matriculation

It may surprise many people to learn that taking a couple of extra years seems to dramatically increase a student’s chances of completing medical school.

Compared to students who went through a four-year medical school program and graduated at a rate between 81.6 percent and 84.3 percent, the AAMC found that 95.9 percent of those who graduated medical school six years after enrolling graduated.

These findings were of students who did not participate in combined degree programs.

Combined Degree Programs

Medical school dropout rates vary quite a bit for students in combined degree programs, such as a combined MD-PhD. Between 1999 and 2009, only 63 percent of combined-program students graduated within eight years of matriculation.

However, when students in combined programs took ten years, the medical school graduation rate went up to 93.5 percent.

The type of program matters when it comes to the length of school for successful medical students. Just over 40 percent of students who earned an MD-MBA graduate within four years, but that number jumped to around 98 percent at eight years.

Conversely, less than 5 percent of students earning an MD-PhD graduated within four or five years. That number went up to just over 60 percent at eight years and around 94 percent at ten years.

Why Do Medical Students Drop Out?

As intimidating as medical school can sound, surprisingly, most students drop out for non-academic reasons. Between 1993 and 2013, the motive for medical students dropping out came close to an even split between academic and non-academic reasons.

Still, in every single year, the majority of dropout causes were non-academic.

With such a consistent majority of non-academic attrition, it is smart to know many of the causes for this before beginning medical school.

Unprepared or Overconfident

Academics might be the issue for some medical school dropouts, but most who make it into medical school have enough intelligence to manage the program’s academia. It’s not only about questions like, “how many hours should a medical student study?”

Managing medical school is hugely about the life commitment it is during your time getting through the program.

This preparedness involves researching the best housing to get to lectures on time as soon as you are accepting into the program. It also means sacrificing some of your free time, nightlife, or previous time management habits.

Family Stress

There is no doubt that family stress can play a significant role in medical school dropout rates. Whether you have to deal with a sick parent, you have an unsupportive spouse, or children enter the picture with a student who chooses family life as their priority, personal lives factor into graduation rates.

Make sure everyone involved knows the challenges ahead before you begin medical school.

Burned Bridges

One potentially very overlooked area to consider is your relationship with others in the medical community. If an issue arises during medical school, a committee will often handle the case.

Getting on the wrong side of people who can influence your schooling, residency, or future career is a misstep to avoid.

Another set of people to stay friendly with is medical staff, such as nurses, medical assistants, and sanitation. You never know the interpersonal connections of those around you, and assuming someone has no influence can be a mistake.

Remember this idea when it comes to your online presence, as well. You never know who might stumble upon your profiles throughout medical school.

Illness

Medical student syndrome is a known-term for a reason: many students experience bouts of hypochondria as they learn about the slew of diseases that can harm the body.

While some students may only have anxiety about getting sick, unfortunately, the stress, lack of sleep, and mental exhaustion take a genuine toll on others.

One study found that up to 73.5 percent of medical school students can suffer depression or depressive symptoms during their program. Unfortunately, illness is part of life for many people at some point, and occasionally that occurs during medical school for some students as they are exposed to unique bugs, long hours, and an abundance of stress.

Keep your finger on the pulse of your health—both mental and physical—as you begin and proceed through medical school.

Wrong Career Choice

It can be challenging to truly accept that becoming a doctor is not for you if you had the status or expectation ingrained thoroughly enough.

Some medical students are expected to follow in their parents’ footsteps, or at least their expectations. While other students imagined the prestige of being a doctor, only to realize they had a chronic case of squeamishness when dissecting cadavers.

Before you spend a lot of money, time, and effort on medical school, do some soul-searching to make sure it is you who wants this. Even if you’re the most logical, scientific person, spend some time in quiet contemplation pondering why you want to become a doctor. The why is crucial.

What Percentage of Medical Students Become Doctors?

There is no exact number of medical students that become actively practicing physicians, as each student has their own path.

Some studying medicine will pursue MD degrees, while others will earn DOs. Some physicians will work in a single-doctor private practice, while others will end up as the Chief Physician at a hospital.

If graduation rates are a rough estimate, somewhere between 65 percent and 93 percent of medical school students will become actively practicing doctors, depending on personal circumstances, years in school, combined majors, and factors such as health.

Conclusion

So, what percentage of medical students fail out? The variations are massive—between 7 and 35 percent—depending on years in school, single or combined programs, and personal issues.

The good news is that, regardless, the majority of those who get accepted and enroll in medical school will graduate and become physicians. The better prepared you are for the road ahead, and any potential obstacles, the more likely your chances are of ending up as a successful, practicing doctor.

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