Medical School Rankings: How Are They Calculated and How Much Do They Matter?


Doctors are human just like everyone else. They each have their own strengths, life experiences, and personal qualities. They travel different paths to their eventual careers as well. Even though future MDs like you understand this, it’s easy to become overly fixated on targeting the best medical schools. You want a great education, after all.

As you’ve researched programs, you’ve probably come across numerous medical school rankings. Perhaps you’ve even pondered only sending applications to the institutions that appear at the top of these lists. You’re not alone in considering this strategy, but it might be more of a mistake than you realize.

Medical school rankings are hardly the gold standard many assume they are. Lists often fail to mention many reputable medical schools that produce excellent physicians. Part of the problem has to do with the varying ways rankings are compiled. Join us as we explore some of the methods publications use to craft their top medical school lists.

How are medical school rankings determined?

When browsing these lists of medical schools, have you ever wondered how exactly these rankings are calculated? What factors are being evaluated? Keep reading to gain a better understanding of the different types of lists and what actually goes into ranking them.

1. Comparing using weighted indicators

Perhaps the most widely recognized publication to rate programs, US News & World Report releases its medical school rankings annually. There are actually two lists: one for research-focused institutions and one for schools that prioritize primary care.

While programs are evaluated differently depending on which category they fall under, there are several criteria that overlap. These include average student GPA, average student MCAT score, acceptance rate, faculty-to-student ratio, and assessments from both fellow medical schools and residency programs. These assessments are weighted heavily in both cases.

The primary care list also considers the percentage of students who pursue primary care residencies following medical school. The research list weighs research activity based on total dollar value by funding source and average dollar value per instructor by funding source.

2. A limited number of expert opinions

While it doesn’t regularly release medical school rankings, Business Insider did compile its own iteration in 2015. This list was created by simply asking 15 physicians to list the medical school they thought produced the best primary care physicians. Any ties were broken using the schools’ average MCAT scores and acceptance rates to create the final 25-school list.

3. Voter opinion

Ranker features polls on everything from entertainment to sports. They also have a top medical schools list. This particular list is determined entirely by the voting community. Anyone can participate in the poll and add his or her opinion to the mix.

Do medical school rankings really matter? 4 things to consider

You can see that medical school rankings vary quite a bit from one list to the next. Even if each school featured in these roundups is excellent, there’s a lot more you need to take into account. Here are a few things to keep in mind when perusing rankings.

1. Your needs might not align with rankings

Regardless of the methodology a publication uses when ranking medical schools, you probably won’t gain any real advantages by attending the top school on any list. Dr. Charles Tullius, anesthesiologist and founder of Pre Med Assistance, says attending such a school really only matters if you plan to stay in academics or have your sights set on a competitive chief resident position in the future.

It’s also hard to deny that rankings of any sort tend to favor research institutions over ones that emphasize a different academic focus. That doesn’t necessarily mean those are the best schools for you.

"It depends on what the student is looking for."

“It depends on what the student is looking for,” Dr. Tullius offers. “Let’s face it, most medical students are not doing research while they’re in med school.” He suggests learning as much as possible about the programs by talking to students and alumni, and reading forums and blogs. Just be mindful that students who’ve just had a bad experience tend to vent online. Take everything you read with a grain of salt.

2. High-ranking programs are incredibly selective

Programs at the top of various medical school rankings are typically the most competitive. Targeting only those medical schools when applying could be a huge mistake, because they have very strict standards for academic metrics. Let’s say, for example, you decide to apply to only the top 16 schools from a certain ranking.

"That might be a fool’s errand, because you might not get into any of the top 16 schools."

“That might be a fool’s errand,” Dr. Tullius warns, “because you might not get into any of the top 16 schools.”

3. Residency programs prioritize performance over school

Remember that your journey isn’t over once you complete medical school. Obtaining a postgraduate residency is arguably the most critical step on your path to becoming a doctor. The National Resident Matching Program’s biennial program director survey indicates which school you attend matters very little in obtaining a residency. Securing your seat is much more dependent on your United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) Step 1 scores, letters of recommendation, and performance evaluations.

"As a general rule, people who do well in medical school will get into good programs for training."

“As a general rule, people who do well in medical school will get into good programs for training,” says Dr. Glenn Englander, Gastroenterologist at Gastro Group of the Palm Beaches.

4. Future patients and colleagues care more about you being a good physician

It’s pretty unlikely your future patients will care whether you attended a high-ranking program. Research suggests patient satisfaction is more related to a physician’s communication skills and willingness to relinquish some control. Dr. Tullius says patients usually don’t even think to inquire.

“I’m almost never asked where I went to medical school.”

“Patients don’t care—I can tell you that,” Dr. Tullius says. “I’m almost never asked where I went to medical school.” Your future colleagues will probably also feel indifferent to whether you attended a ranking list’s top program. If anything, they’ll be more curious about where you completed your residency.

“Fellow physicians might be interested in where you trained, but what school you went to is of lesser importance and rarely asked about,” Dr. Englander notes.

Follow your own path

As popular as medical school rankings have become, they just don’t provide enough information to thoroughly assess programs. Excellent schools can be passed over in rankings simply because they don’t respond to a survey, their lack of name recognition, or they failed to meet a publication’s specific criteria. Also consider that rankings are general and may not align with your wants and needs.

So, how should you determine whether a medical school is right for you? You’re better off comparing graduate outcomes and looking into available support services. Learn even more pointers for making a smart decision in our article, “How to Choose a Medical School: 9 Things to Evaluate Before Accepting.”

See yourself as a medical student?

Learn More

TAGS: , ,