New program offers help to aspiring MDs from low-income and Indigenous backgrounds

Free student-led MCAT course supports applicants from diverse backgrounds.


Medical students at the University of Alberta launched a new initiative to increase diversity in health professions by reducing obstacles to applying to medical school.

The MD Admissions Initiative for Diversity & Equity (MD AIDE) will make it easier for post-secondary students from low-income and Indigenous backgrounds to prepare for the infamously difficult Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

“MCAT preparation can be a barrier to medical school,” said Alexander Wong, a second-year MD student and co-lead of the initiative. “Registering for the exam itself costs a few hundred dollars, and that doesn’t include the cost of books and purchasing online practice questions.”

There are private courses that provide tutoring for the MCAT, but they can cost upwards of thousands of dollars, which can be a financial burden. It is not just the up-front cost that is prohibitive; attending a private course is not always feasible due to the time it can take away from work.

“One of the most concerning issues with regard to medical education is when only those who can afford it can access it. Traditionally our system has always favoured those coming from higher socioeconomic background,” said Emily Fong, a second-year MD student and the other co-lead of MD AIDE. “We hope that this initiative can help level out some of these inequities.”

The program will be offered for the first time this spring, from May to July.

Wong said he and his colleagues wanted to build on existing initiatives to make medical education more socially accountable, such as Venture Healthcare—a new health-care job shadowing program giving access and support for underrepresented students seeking careers in health care.

They created the initiative to help produce future physicians that will best serve the needs of the population.

“We thought one way to do this is to have a physician population that fits what the actual Canadian population looks like. It’s really important that we get students from backgrounds that are underrepresented, and it goes towards helping achieve health equity,” said Wong. “We talk about providing culturally safe care, especially for Indigenous communities, and one of the best ways we can do this is to have care providers that come from Indigenous backgrounds.”

The medical students are working in partnership with the Undergraduate Medical Education Office, the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the Indigenous Health Initiatives Office within the Division of Community Engagement to run the MD AIDE program. The student group is also collaborating with Communities United, an initiative under EndPoverty Edmonton. Communities United will provide funding for students from five communities in northeast Edmonton who face systemic barriers to applying for medical school: Clareview Town Centre, Bannerman, Hairsine, Kirkness and Fraser.

The program will provide guidance and free practice questions for participants. Medical students who have already taken the test and are familiar with the format and types of questions will equip participants with strategies for answering the questions and guidelines for managing time, since the exam has four sections and takes about seven hours to complete.

Participants may not have networks of family members or people they know who are in the medical profession. To help alleviate these social barriers, the program will pair each participant with a medical student or physician from a similar background to provide career guidance and let him or her know what medical school is like. Wong hopes the relationship will extend beyond the three-month program as a resource when participants apply to medical schools in the future.