From Indigenous students to military applicants, there are several special application categories related to identity, descent and status

By Christine Fader

Do you have students who are interested in medical school in Canada? Many advisors are excited to learn that there are special application categories that can benefit particular demographics. These include categories related to identity or descent (e.g. applicants of Indigenous descent) as well as categories related to status (e.g. graduate student applicants).

There are two general types of categories that your students may need to consider.

Optional categories

Medical schools are actively trying to address critical shortages of physicians from under-represented groups, in part to help address the health-care needs of these populations in Canada. Because of this, they have created optional “special categories” for these applicants and sometimes reserve spots for a few candidates from this pool.

It is a personal decision whether your students decide to apply under this category. They may wish to think through the elements of this decision before they apply or seek your advice on how to pursue additional documentation. In my experience as a career counsellor at Queen’s University and in private practice, many students also need reminding that applying under a special category does not mean they are “cheating” the system somehow or being given a free pass; they must still meet the basic criteria for medical school.

Currently, your students may decide to apply under the following optional categories as:

1) An Indigenous applicant or

2) An applicant of African descent (most medical schools call this the Black applicant category).

In addition to the usual application materials, a student I worked with who identified as an Indigenous applicant also submitted a letter in which he cited his ancestry and specific affiliation, requested consideration under the special category, provided biographical information and described his reasons for wanting to become a physician. He also needed a letter of support from an individual representing his Indigenous community.

A student I worked with who was applying under the Black applicant category (he didn’t immediately identify as “of African descent,” since his family hailed from Jamaica) wrote a compelling personal essay highlighting why he had chosen to apply as a special-category candidate, which was then reviewed by faculty of African descent at the universities to which he had applied.

“Many students also need reminding that applying under a special category does not mean they are ‘cheating’ the system somehow or being given a free pass; they must still meet the basic criteria for medical school.”

Compulsory categories

If your student meets one of these criteria, they must apply under this category and submit any required supplementary documentation. These compulsory categories include:

1)  Graduate students

2)  Students pursuing combined programs

3) International students

4)  Military applicants

Graduate students

I have worked with applicants who were PhD graduates from Canada and elsewhere, master’s students in research programs and students completing course-based graduate degrees. Required supplementary documentation usually includes a CV, additional letters of reference (e.g. from a graduate supervisor or program director) and a letter confirming expected completion date of the degree, if they are currently enrolled in a graduate program.

One STEM graduate I worked with went on to complete a master’s degree in a professional program.  She had unsuccessfully applied to medical school after her undergraduate degree but was accepted after her master’s. She attributed this not to additional GPA benefit (most medical schools do not afford graduate students much, if any, GPA boost), but rather to the unique scrutiny given to graduate students.

Students pursuing combined programs

Some programs integrate professional or scientific training with medical school. Examples include:  MD/PhD and MD/MSc programs, MD/MBA and MD/MPH programs. Some programs are formally combined, while others are not.

Students need to meet the minimum criteria for each program separately. They also submit documents that may include a letter of intent, information about personal or research experience, an academic CV and additional letters of reference. I worked with a student who successfully applied to both law and medicine programs and was “braiding” them (two years in law school, then two years in medical school, etc.). He hoped to one day become a forensics specialist.

International students

These students face significant challenges with medical school admissions since there are often no spots or spots numbering only in the single digits that are allocated for international students. Admission for them is not impossible but realistically, it is incredibly competitive and success can be limited. The University of Toronto is one of the few schools that currently accepts international students, but you should encourage your students to check updates on admissions at each school during their year of application. You may also discuss foreign medical schools with these students (a topic for a whole other article!).

Military applicants

You may have regular forces (full-time) or reservists (part-time) who are applying under this category. If the student is currently employed (and wishes to remain) as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, they need to check with their commanding officer and possibly their military career manager about pursuing a medical degree. These applicants are only accepted to medical school when the Canadian Armed Forces decides it needs more doctors. However, I know of people who have retired from or left the military to apply to medical school, which means they would no longer have to be considered as part of this category.

I hope that knowing more about these special categories will help you in your daily work, as you encounter students thinking about medical school.

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Christine Fader is the author of Just What the Doctor Ordered: The Insider’s Guide to Getting into Medical School in Canada (Brush Education, September 2018) and was a career counsellor at Queen’s University from 1998-2018. Fader was a medical school application reader and interviewer for eight years, a physician recruiter and is currently an instructor at Queen’s for fourth-year medical students applying to residency. Meet her at