Medical School Acceptance Rates: How Much Do They Really Matter?


01.14.2021

Starting to act on a plan is always a little intimidating, especially when your intention is to attend medical school. You’re finally getting ready to apply. This means you need to start making some decisions about the programs that will make your final list. It’s hard to determine which schools to include, though.

You wonder if you should start comparing medical school acceptance rates since the best schools have high expectations. Or perhaps you simply want to compare rates to see where you stand the best chance of acceptance. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

While you can gather some information about schools by looking into acceptance rates, you won’t get the full picture. These percentages aren’t always as straightforward as they seem. You’re about to find out why.

Why you should think beyond med school acceptance rates

It’s not that reviewing acceptance rates is completely useless—you just shouldn’t read into them too much. “Overall, acceptance rates provide a helpful general landscape of competitiveness but should not influence your application decisions too strongly,” explains Dr. Andrea Paul, co-founder and chief medical officer for BoardVitals. There are a couple of reasons why this is the case.

Acceptance rates don’t reflect your odds

One thing to remember about medical school acceptance rates is that they make sweeping generalizations. Think about a program that has a 10 percent acceptance rate. Each applicant would have to be essentially the same for everyone to truly have a 10 percent chance of being admitted. But every student’s odds differ depending on numerous factors.

"Some schools have to accept certain numbers from some geographic areas."

“Some schools have to accept certain numbers from some geographic areas, some weigh extracurricular and volunteer activities more heavily, and some receive a greater number of ‘dream’ or ‘stretch’ applicants just based on their name,” Dr. Paul offers.

It’s worth singling out how US schools’ acceptance rates can differ for in-state versus out-of-state students. Many programs reserve a substantial number of seats for students within the state. For some schools, applicants from farther away face a significant disadvantage.

While not related to your odds of gaining an acceptance letter, there’s another thing you should keep in mind when considering schools outside your home state: cost. “It's also important to keep tuition in mind, as it can be much higher as an out-of-state student,” Dr. Paul notes.

You could pass over schools that would be a great fit

Let’s say you apply to an incredibly selective program and gain acceptance. While that sounds great, it could actually be detrimental.

"Low rates generally mean more competitive schools, not necessarily the best schools."

“Low rates generally mean more competitive schools, not necessarily the best schools,” Dr. Paul clarifies. She adds that it really depends on what you’re looking for as an individual. “For example, if you are interested in rural health, then a better school for you will be one that emphasizes that area.”

If you’re too focused on medical school acceptance rates, you could miss out on an ideal program for you.

What should you consider when evaluating schools?

Clearly, medical school acceptance rates shouldn’t influence your application decisions too much. While there are numerous factors to consider, there are two overarching categories that can help guide your choices.

How you compare to a program’s typical student

Since acceptance rate alone doesn’t reflect your personal odds of getting into any given med school, you’d be wise to think about how you compare to admitted students. You can start with your academic record. Medical schools’ websites include information about their average GPA and MCAT scores. Some have minimums as well. It’s also worth evaluating how your entire application compares to a given school’s students.

“Do your research,” Dr. Paul advises. “Look at the admissions websites for all the schools you are interested in and see which fit your application best.” Dr. Paul adds that if you have a lot of volunteer experience, it would be smart to see which schools put more emphasis on those activities. Some schools are committed to holistic reviews and really care about the things you’ve done outside the classroom.

"Look at the admissions websites for all the schools you are interested in and see which fit your application best."

Quality standards

This might go without saying, but it’s also important to ensure each program you apply to meets some specific benchmarks. You should make sure the vast majority of any program’s students pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1. Keep in mind that 97 percent of US and Canadian allopathic students taking it for the first time in 2019 passed.

You should also seek information about residency placement rates. What percentage of a school’s students obtain postgraduate positions? A high number indicates students receive a great education and are well prepared for life after medical school.

And be sure to dig into accreditations if you’re considering any international medical schools. Beginning in 2024, the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) will only certify international grads to practice in the US if they attended a program accredited by an agency the World Federation of Medical Education has approved. ECFMG certification is required for all international graduates seeking a residency in the US.

It doesn’t hurt to investigate what student support services are available, either. Medical school is incredibly rigorous, even for the best students. It could be incredibly beneficial to have an extra layer of support should you find yourself struggling.

Plan your path

Comparing medical school acceptance rates might be useful to a point, but you clearly need to think about a lot of other factors when determining which programs could be right for you. It won’t do you any good to attend a research-oriented program that’s incredibly selective if you’re interested in clinical primary care. You’ll be better off if you maintain an open mind as you continue your research. You may even find that certain Caribbean schools align with your needs and interests.

But perhaps you’ve heard some rumors that make you a little hesitant about going abroad for medical school. Separate fact from fiction by reading our article, “The Truth About Caribbean Medical Schools: Debunking the Myths.”

This article has been updated from a previous version to include current facts and figures.

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