Your natural curiosity always leaves you with more questions than answers. When someone breaks their arm, you want to know which bone was damaged and how long it will take to heal. Your inquisitive nature is one of the reasons you know you would make a fantastic physician. That same curious mind can also come in handy long before you slip into your white coat, because it can help you make important and informed decisions about medical schools during the admission process.
If you’re like most medical school applicants, you probably applied to a long list of schools. Those seeking acceptance in the US for the 2019–20 school year submitted an average of 17 applications, and initial choices were probably based on answers to some high-level questions.
But now it’s time to start thinking even more critically about how to choose a medical school. We’re here to help you get started.
9 Questions to ask when comparing medical schools
Instead of spending hours figuring out on your own which criteria matter most, we put together this list to help guide your evaluation. Asking these questions can help you make the right choice to achieve your career goals.
1. What percentage of students pass the USMLE, and what do they typically score?
Earning a medical degree doesn’t matter much if it isn’t accompanied by passing scores on the licensing exams needed to secure a residency and to practice medicine. According to Dr. David Norris, a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist and author of The Financially Intelligent Physician, applicants should look into how well a school’s students perform on these tests.
“What is their average score on the exam? This is a reflection of how well they prepare for the exam and teach you the necessary material,” he says.
The United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) series has three steps, and medical students take the first two while in medical school. The most recent data shows 96 percent of American and Canadian students from US med schools taking the first step for the first time passed with an average score of 230.
Be sure to ask admissions departments about how students perform on the first two exams to make sure the school is competitive.
2. How well do graduates fare when it comes to residency placement?
Without a medical residency on your resume, it’s nearly impossible to become a practicing physician. Take a look at each school’s rate of students who’ve successfully matched into a residency program. This knowledge will give you a better sense of whether the school provides a quality education.
Additionally, Dr. Norris recommends looking into the specialties students end up matching into for residency. This indicates whether the school is the right fit for a particular area of study.
3. How strict are admission requirements?
Students apply to most medical schools using some sort of application service, such as AMCAS or OMSAS. But every school has slightly different expectations aside from the basics. The highest-quality institutions typically spell out a minimum number of credits they expect for biology, chemistry, physics, and English. The science requirements usually include lab experience, and schools also tend to have math expectations.
Though most medical schools do not have specific cutoffs for acceptable GPA and MCAT scores, it’s still smart to research individual school averages for accepted students. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) releases the US average for both metrics every year, so consider using that information as a benchmark.
4. What sorts of accreditations does the school have?
Most people don’t give any thought to accreditation when choosing medical schools, because all schools in the US and Canada are required to meet this criteria. Students attending medical schools in other countries, on the other hand, need to carefully look into school accreditation if they have plans to practice in the US.
Beginning in 2023, the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) will only certify international grads to practice in America if they attend a school accredited by an agency approved by the World Federation of Medical Education (WFME).
5. What percentage of students graduate from the program?
There is no guarantee getting into a program will result in a medical degree. Because of this, Dr. Norris suggests asking how many of their students finish medical school.
The average four-year graduation rate for US medical schools has been around 83 percent for the last few decades, so you may want to be skeptical of programs that don’t meet this benchmark.
6. Are there opportunities to develop personal interests?
Not every school will offer the same types of research projects, leadership positions, or opportunities to enter a highly specialized field. You should consider taking some time to think about the goals you would like to achieve, and then see which schools offer options to help you pursue your interests.
“If [you] want to do research, I would suggest a school that provides [you] ample opportunity to experience the research side of medicine,” Dr. Norris says.
7. Does the program provide support services for students?
The coursework students manage during medical school demands a significant amount of time. Even those who are hungry for the challenge can find it overwhelming. Student support services can make a big difference, so look into what different medical schools offer. You might want to look into mental health resources, student organizations, and support for spouses.
8. What is the learning environment like?
Everyone has a different idea of what makes a great learning environment. The ideal makeup will be different for each student, but it matters whether you feel positively about your education setting and other specifics. Research suggests that being satisfied with your learning environment promotes well-being and may lead to better academic outcomes.
"As a student, I was treated as a junior intern and expected to participate in the care of the patient."
For many medical students, hands-on experience is the way to go. “As a student, I was treated as a junior intern and expected to participate in the care of the patient,” Dr. Norris shares. “They held the bar up high, and it was fun reaching it.” When he compares his clinical learning experience to that of his peers, he feels fortunate to have had such a great learning environment.
9. Is the program financially feasible?
You should be thinking about medical school as an investment rather than a purchase. Still, the cost shouldn’t be ignored. For those deciding between a few qualified programs, Dr. Norris recommends avoiding unnecessary debt.
“I’ve yet to meet a resident who entered practice and said, ‘I wish I borrowed more money during medical school and residency,’” he explains.
Tuition is also less daunting when you consider all the ways to finance your education, so be sure to look into what assistance is available. Loans are an obvious option, but also veterans’ benefits and scholarships. There are a lot of medical school-specific scholarships, and some even pay partial or full cost of tuition for students who commit to serve as a primary care physician in a particular area. (See <a href="https://citydoctors.com/" target="_blank"St. George's University's CityDoctors Scholarship Program.)
The road ahead
Now that you have a better idea of how to choose a medical school, you can begin evaluating your options and narrowing your focus. You can start to get an idea of what to expect from a medical school.
But when it comes to preparing, there are some things that can only be learned through experience. Get some inside insight in our article, “Doctors Reveal: 12 Things No One Tells You About Pursuing a Career in Medicine.”
* This article has been updated from a previous version to include current facts and figures.
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