As a parent, you’ve been able to guide your child through a lot of firsts. It was pretty easy teaching them things like how to write a thank-you note and how to fold their laundry. But as your child has grown into an adult looking to attend medical school, their new endeavors are becoming more complicated. You might not be able to offer much help when your child needs to start studying for the MCAT or gaining physician shadowing experience.
You’re certainly not alone. Many parents have found themselves navigating the medical school application and selection process right alongside their pre-med children. For many of them, comparing medical schools can be especially intimidating.
While students are the ones who ultimately need to do the legwork and decide which programs would be the best fit for them, it’s a good idea for you to get up to speed as well. Educating yourself on how to compare programs can help you better understand what your student is going through and give you a frame of reference for when they want to discuss something specific. Get started with this overview.
Elements your child should consider when comparing medical schools
These are considerations you and your child will need to think through when comparing medical schools. Just be careful you don’t overstep. Your job is to offer support and help empower your student to make their own educated decision.
1. USMLE Step 1 performance
Most physicians will tell you the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) Step 1 is the most important test they took during medical school. The other two USMLE portions are also important. This is why it’s essential that pre-meds verify the programs they’re considering adequately prepare students for this exam series.
It’s wise to look into pass rates and average scores across different programs. Keep in mind that 97 percent of examinees from US and Canadian schools taking Step 1 for the first time in 2019 passed. That’s a quality standard you would want to see from international schools as well. It’s also good to know that scoring higher than 220 is a common characteristic among students who successfully match for a residency—and that’s true for students from US schools and those from international programs.
Judy Skwiersky, mother of St. George’s University (SGU) graduate Dr. Samara Skwiersky, was particularly aware of the importance of Step 1 and Step 2 performance when comparing medical schools outside the US.
"You want to make sure their students do well on their boards."
“You want to make sure their students do well on their boards, which enables them to increase the number of interviews they receive and ultimately match,” she explains. “That’s the bottom line.”
2. Graduate success
You’ve probably known of several great medical schools for most of your life. Programs create that name recognition by developing a history of educating successful graduates.
“It means that year after year, they have produced physicians who have matched and are employed in competitive specialties and have a documented reputation of producing high-impact physicians,” explains Dr. Alex Spinoso, SGU graduate and founder of Genesis Lifestyle Medicine.
When Skwiersky’s family was researching St. George’s University, they were quick to study residency placements—both in terms of specialty and location. Her husband is a cardiologist, so he already knew just how important it is to secure a postgraduate position.
“He had been looking online for who had matched from St. George’s University and into which residency programs,” Skwiersky says, “and that told him a lot.”
3. The location
No aspiring medial student should be too picky when it comes to location. Gaining acceptance to a quality medical school is tough. That said, your child can certainly keep location in the back of their minds if they find themselves with multiple options. Dr. Spinoso mentions that in this case, geographic preference could be a consideration.
Location also comes into play later on. Some medical students, and perhaps your child, already know where they want to practice one day. Dr. Spinoso mentions your son or daughter may have a better chance of securing a residency in that area if they’re able to meet physicians through volunteer work or clinical rotations. This means it’s also important to look into where a schools’ clinical rotations take place—some programs offer a variety of options for students.
Consider that going farther away from home can sometimes be a positive aspect for medical students as well. Skwiersky says her daughter found it was easier to focus on her studies without the temptation to go out with friends who weren’t facing the rigors of medical school.
"If she had been in New York, she would have had to hibernate."
“If she had been in New York, she would have had to hibernate, and that’s really hard,” she explains. “Instead, she studied alongside friends studying for the same exam.”
4. Appropriate accreditation
While any school in the US and Canada will be appropriately accredited, you’ll want to verify this for programs in other locations. But be skeptical of an international medical school that states they have “US accreditation,” because that claim is deceptive at best. The Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) does not accredit programs outside the US and Canada.
Instead, you should verify that an international program is accredited by an agency recognized by the World Federation for Medical Education (WFME). Starting in 2024, international medical graduates will only be eligible for the necessary certification to complete residency and practice in the US if they attended a school that meets this requirement.
“There would be nothing worse than going through medical school and finding out that you do not qualify for residencies nor licensing within the United States,” Dr. Spinoso cautions.
"There would be nothing worse than going through medical school and finding out that you do not qualify for residencies"
5. Ability to pursue personal interests
It’s easy to get overly focused on Step 1 scores and residency placements when comparing medical schools. While those are important factors to consider, students shouldn’t forget about their personal interests. Some schools offer opportunities to further certain passions through organizations, events, and more. Those can be valuable for students.
“If we all studied the same books and learned the same materials without any weight placed on different personal interests, we would never grow as humans,” Dr. Spinoso offers.
6. Financial feasibility
Tuition and fees are probably on your mind—and possibly your child’s as well. While cost alone shouldn’t determine where your student attends school, it’s certainly worth considering. Dr. Spinoso points out a slightly less expensive school could mean less student debt.
And keep in mind that evaluating the cost of any program should include numerous factors. When it comes to medical school, you really do get what you pay for.
Additional pointers for parents
While you can obviously benefit from knowing how to compare medical schools, remember that deciding where to go to school is ultimately up to your child. Bear in mind that the selection process may naturally take care of itself—it’s not unusual to only receive one acceptance letter. Parents should do their best to keep an open mind about where their student ends up attending medical school.
"It’s not like a regular college where there are a ton of different schools students have the opportunity to go to."
“It’s not like a regular college where there are a ton of different schools students have the opportunity to go to,” Skwiersky reminds.
If you have any concerns or questions about a particular program, it’s certainly worth looking into. Skwiersky suggests speaking to other parents. They’ll be able to offer perspective on what their child’s experience at that school was like. It can also be immensely beneficial to visit campus—it’s the best way to get a feel for a particular school.
And don’t forget to give yourself some credit as your child goes through the application and admissions processes. You’ve played a valuable role in shaping your child into a future physician.
“To even be eligible to apply for medical school, children need to have had immense help and support from their parents,” Dr. Spinoso says.
Start the journey with your student
Hopefully, you now feel like you have a better handle on which elements matter most when comparing medical schools. It can come in handy if your child needs some help talking through their decisions. While you should be careful about inserting yourself too much, many pre-med students rely on their parents for support during applications and even throughout their education.
If your child receives the good news they’ll be starting medical school, be sure to celebrate. It’s a huge accomplishment. Taking time to enjoy moments like this is important during the rigorous process of becoming a doctor.
It’s also important to keep in mind that medical school itself is sure to bring some new challenges. Make sure you and your child know what it takes to excel by checking out our video, “Recent Grads Share Words of Wisdom for Succeeding in Medical School.”
This article has been updated from a previous version to include current facts and figures.
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