How to Choose Which Medical Schools to Apply to

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This post was written by Hänel Eberly, a third-year medical student at Penn State College of Medicine. She is originally from Southern California and attended Brigham Young University, where she received my degree in Neuroscience. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, embroidery, surfing, and skiing.

Choosing which medical schools to apply to is a daunting task, especially as a pre-med starting out in the application cycle. I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer number of programs, not to mention the cost associated with applying. Even though the focus right now may seem like just getting in anywhere, careful research and consideration of a school can not only streamline the application process, it can help you stand out as an applicant. As a student interviewer for my school, I’ve conducted numerous reviews and reviewed many applications. It’s very clear when an applicant has done their research and was mindful when applying to schools.

This post is intended to help you make an informed decision when choosing medical schools to apply to! I’ll be sharing some lessons I’ve learned while in medical school that I wouldn’t have known to look for when applying. 

Some general considerations

  •  AMCAS (U.S. MD), AACOMAS (U.S. DO), and TMDSAS (U.S. Texas MD) applications all have different school lists. 
  • Each application program has its own version of a fee-assistance program. Applying to multiple schools can add up quickly, so I would advise you to investigate this if possible.
  • Early admission is an option for some schools.
  • Quality > quantity. Although tempting to cast a wide net, adding a bunch of random schools won’t help your application.
  • A reasonable number of schools to apply to is probably around 15-30, but this number depends on the person.
  • Try to apply early, but it’s not the end of the world if you add a school later. I ended up at a school I added months after I submitted my AMCAS application.

Location

Location is much more than where you want to spend the next 4+ years of your life. The setting of your school (urban, rural, etc.) can determine your cost of living, distance from family, tuition, and the patient population you will work with. 

For example, an urban location might offer a greater number of extracurricular opportunities and a more diverse patient population but living costs can be prohibitively expensive. You might be able to get much more hands-on experience at a rural program that services a large area. Tuition itself can differ depending on your status as an in-state vs. out-of-state student (in-state tuition is often less expensive). Another important factor is the number of academic hospitals that share your area. A hospital in a more rural location that serves a large area might mean you get to see more unique cases vs. a hospital surrounded by other academic medical centers. 

You shouldn’t put the cart before the horse, but considering where you might want to do your residency is also a factor. Many students remain at their home institution for residency, and it’s generally accepted that the odds are slightly higher for matching at your home program. Institutions close to your school may be more likely to accept students from your school as well. 

Finally, you might choose to stay close to your family or friends. Medical school is hard enough without seeing your loved ones! Once third year hits the number of vacation days drops dramatically and it’s nice to be able to see family without having to spend a lot of time and money to travel. 

Interests

Think about what you’re passionate about. How do you like to spend your time? What kinds of organizations would you be interested in joining? Examples of activities you could get involved with in medical school include volunteering at student-run free clinics, participating in specialty interest groups, working with student-run research or humanities journals, getting involved in patient advocacy work, and mentoring college or high school students. It’s well worth your time to research a school’s student-run organizations, as you can bring this up in your interviews and show your interest. 

Another big category here is research vs. primary care. If you’re considering a research-heavy career you should think about applying to schools that have a high research output, well-established labs, and research requirements for graduation. If you’re more interested in primary care, you might want to consider a school where you will get a very hands-on education and exposure to a variety of cases. 

Finally, even if you don’t know what specialty you’re interested in, consider what specialties schools have to offer. For example, let’s say you find yourself interested in pursuing ophthalmology. If your school doesn’t have an ophthalmology department, it will be harder to find research opportunities and letters of recommendation from attendings in the field. You want to be able to explore all specialties without limiting yourself. Try to look at the match list for schools you’re interested in to get a feel for which schools send students to the institutions or specialties you might be interested in.

Curriculum

Not all medical school curricula are created equal. The curriculum was something I glossed over during my application cycle as I assumed all medical schools would be similar. Don’t make this mistake! Curriculum can have a huge impact on your medical school experience. 

Many medical schools start out with two years of science courses such as biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, etc. Some schools teach these subjects separately, where you have two months of anatomy of the whole body, then you start physiology of the whole body, then pharmacology, etc. Other schools split up the body into organ blocks where you learn the anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology of a single organ system (e.g., the heart) before moving on to the next. Some schools are solely lecture and lab-based, and some use problem-based learning (PBL). Some schools include humanities and ethics courses in addition to scientific and clinical learning.

Another thing that differs between schools is the timing of your USMLE exams. Most schools have students take USMLE Step 1 after two years of science courses, whereas some schools have students take it after they complete rotations in their third year. 

Furthermore, some schools have a different model of clerkships called a longitudinal integrated clerkship (LIC) model, where you rotate among different specialties every day (and sometimes several times during the day) vs. a traditional block rotation schedule.

One important thing to consider is the method of grading a school uses. Are students given letter grades? Are science courses pass/fail? What about clerkships? What is the format of the tests? Are students ranked? These are all important questions to ask, as they impact your future residency goals. Finally, some schools offer special curriculum tracks you might consider, such as a global health track or dual degrees (MD/MBA, MD/JD, MD/MPH, MD/PhD, etc). 

Stats

It would be remiss if I didn’t mention stats in this article. Test scores and GPA are still important metrics schools use to screen prospective students. While you shouldn’t pick a school only based on metrics, understand that scores will always be important to an extent. Make sure you check a school’s average entering MCAT score and GPA to guide your decision. This can be done using the MSAR, available through the AAMC website. There’s nothing wrong with adding schools with higher averages, but make sure you have plenty of schools with stats that match yours and some with lower averages.

Resources

Finally, some other things to consider include the school’s resources available to you. After all, you will likely end up spending tens of thousands of dollars to attend. What are the facilities like? Does the school provide healthcare and insurance? What about for a spouse or child? Are there childcare services available? Is there on-campus housing? Does the school give out need-based aid or scholarships? Are there any USMLE study resources provided by the school (e.g Uworld, Boards and Beyond, etc.)? What is the policy for parental leave? 

Some helpful links:

Although I’m happy where I ended up, I wish I had known to consider these factors more thoughtfully before sending my application out and before interviews. Regardless of where you apply and are eventually accepted, remember why YOU wanted to go into medicine and continue to chase your purpose! 

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