Medical school in Israel: Why is it so difficult for Israelis to get in?

60% of Israeli medical students do a paid mechina program before studying abroad. Only 2,000 study domestically, despite Israel's shortage of doctors.

 Medical students protest outside Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov) last year. (photo credit: JONATHAN SHAUL)
Medical students protest outside Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov) last year.
(photo credit: JONATHAN SHAUL)

Every year, thousands of Israeli students aim to take the psychometric [matriculation] exam for entry into the studies of their dreams, many looking to study medicine at one of Israel’s four universities with such programs. Though this may sound simple, it is continuing to be a growing pain – and cost – to those Israelis who take the test.

The psychometric is a standard exam for all students, offered in Hebrew, English, French, Russian, and Arabic. Hebrew and Arabic are offered four times a year, while the rest are offered twice a year. Scored out of 800, it consists of a math section; verbal reasoning in the test taker’s native language; and English comprehension.

The first issue that arises for test takers is that results are weighted. For example, if the highest score is someone who gets 20 wrong, they will get the highest score, and the ones below will be ranked accordingly. The problem with this is that scores for entry into Israeli medical schools are very high, sometimes more than 700.

Because of this, most students are forced to take the exam many times. Of course, some students score well enough for entry on the first few tries, but some students The Jerusalem Report spoke to took the test 10 times over the course of five years.

A second-year student at Hebrew University, Anaelle Sayada, took the exam seven times over four years. She questioned the value of the exam as a means to adequately measure a student’s ability, saying, “After several attempts, you learn that the main difficulty is time, so you have to practice with a timer…This raises the question of whether testing in such a short time frame really shows the ability of candidates. I believe that this does not indicate intelligence or lack of it.”

 The Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University. (credit: AVISHAI TEICHER/WIKIPEDIA)
The Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University. (credit: AVISHAI TEICHER/WIKIPEDIA)

She also lamented the fact that the test is offered only twice a year in languages other than Hebrew, putting foreign-born students at a disadvantage in terms of time. She also said the test preparation courses in Hebrew are much less expensive than those in foreign languages. Another point, which seems to be a serious issue, is that “there are poor translations of the test” from Hebrew to other languages. She has submitted appeals regarding this aspect, but they were rejected.

Barriers facing Israelis hoping to study at medical schools locally

The psychometric exam is not the only step toward gaining entry. After scoring in the necessary range, there are two more steps – three for foreign-born students – that are required. If the students are lucky enough to pass all the steps, they can enter the medical school program.

For those who feel that the psychometric test and the other steps are not within their reach, there is the option to do a paid mechina program that prepares them for medical studies outside the country. This is the case for 60% of Israeli medical students, with the country having only 2,000 studying domestically, despite a well-documented shortage of doctors. The government has attempted to open more spaces by cutting international programs, but it is still not enough.

A mechina may cost more than NIS 20,000 for a four-month, five-day-a-week program that includes courses in chemistry, biology, physics, and anatomy – all in English. At the end of the program, students can apply to medical schools abroad. If they are accepted, they must live and study abroad for six years. Certain programs offer the option to do three years abroad and finish the last three years in Israel, though still paying the international fee, which is more expensive than Israeli medical programs –  on average, 5,000 to 6,000 euros more per year.

One student, Liat Zerbib, emigrated from France a year and a half ago and is now being forced to leave the country she dreamed about moving to. Having not scored the standard required on her first try, she decided to go the abroad route rather than potentially waiting years to begin medical studies in Israel. She said, “It is unfair how the system works.” Commenting on her sadness at having to leave Israel, she said, “I was studying in medical school in France but really wanted to start a life in Israel. Now, less than two years after moving here and making friends and starting a new life, I have to leave for three years.”

She said that her mechina class alone had more than 120 students in it, and that was only in her daily time slot.

The Education Ministry responded to requests for comment through the Council of Higher Education. The chair said, “It should be emphasized that the conditions for admission to medical faculties are not determined by the MLA [Modern Language Association] but by the institutions themselves… The bottleneck in this matter is the lack of clinical fields that are used as a central and critical component in medical training, and this is an issue facing the Ministry of Health and [Ministry of] Finance regarding increasing the number of clinicals and expanding additional departments. Today, there are departments in hospitals that have reached complete saturation in this regard.”

Continuing, the chair pointed to the cancellation of international studies, saying, “In the last year, the Council has taken significant steps to expand the number of students in the existing faculties in Israel, and next year two additional courses will be opened in existing faculties: the four-year course at Ben-Gurion University, and the six-year course at Bar-Ilan University.

“In addition to this, we will mention the closing of the programs for foreign students; starting next year, 120 additional Israeli students will be able to be admitted in their place. These moves are accompanied by a significant redirection of resources to the faculties of medicine that will take in those students. In cooperation with the various government ministries, we will continue to work in order to increase the number of medical students in Israel.”

The issues plaguing Israel’s pool of doctors can have grave a impact on the future of the field in this country. As students study abroad, many of them remain there, meaning that we could be losing a great number of excellent medics.

Some of the students proposed getting rid of the psychometric altogether. A similar call has been heeded in places like the United States, where the SAT and ACT exams, the equivalents, are no longer being required for entry to medical school. In Israel, the number of students seeking to study medicine is much larger than the number of slots open, so it may be in the country’s best interest to invest in opening new medical schools. Either way, as it stands, Israeli students are being forced out of their country for no reason other than a test score.  ■