The best students are often those who ask questions. Instead of assuming they fully understand a concept after it’s presented, they consider the bigger picture and seek additional information. You have this type of inquisitive mind, which is encouraging given your plans to attend medical school.
Now that you’re getting close to completing your applications, the wheels are starting to turn. You know you need to have a well-rounded list of medical schools to give yourself the best odds of becoming a doctor. Figuring out what a balanced list looks like is a little tricky, though. You can’t help but feel as though you have countless questions.
What medical schools should I apply to? How many programs is enough? Will I be able to further my specific interests?
Before you get too concerned, know that many practicing physicians once felt this way. They were able to find success by being thoughtful and strategic. The graphic below can help you start compiling your final list.
‘What medical schools should I apply to?’ 9 important factors to consider
This visual lays out what sorts of things you need to take into account when determining your final list of medical schools. For even more detailed information, scroll past this infographic.
1. Is there a tradition of residency placement success?
You’re probably well-aware that postgraduate training is an essential part of becoming a doctor, so make sure you only apply to medical schools with a good track record for residency placements. You might start by asking programs what percentage of their students obtain a position. Note that 89 percent of students and graduates from US schools who pursued a first-year residency position secured one through the Main Residency Match in 2019.
It’s also a good idea to find out which residency programs—both specialty and location—students match into to find out whether that school can help you achieve your goals. For example, aspiring surgeons should verify that graduates from a given program have successfully secured surgery residencies in locations where they could see themselves.
2. What percentage of students pass the USMLE Step 1?
Performing well on the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 is essential for eventually obtaining a medical license, but it’s also important for securing a residency. In fact, a recent program director survey shows USMLE Step 1 scores are the most important factor for residency candidates.
To find out whether a program is adequately preparing students for licensing exams, consider how their pass rate compares to the overall landscape. The most recent performance data shows 96 percent of US and Canadian students taking the USMLE Step 1 for the first time passed. The mean score for these students was 229.
3. How strict are the academic standards?
Every physician needs to have a sharp mind and good problem-solving skills to effectively treat patients. This is why good medical schools look for candidates with strong academic metrics.
You can gain a sense of how high a school’s standards are by comparing its average GPA and MCAT score to the bigger picture. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports students beginning medical school at a US program in 2018 had a mean GPA of 3.7 and a mean MCAT score of 511.
4. Is the school appropriately accredited?
If you’re applying to any international schools, which is a great idea for many students, you’ll need to investigate the accreditation status. If you ever hear a program outside the US and Canada stating to have the same accreditation as those countries, be wary. The Liaison Committee on Medical Education clearly states it doesn’t accredit any programs outside the US and Canada.
Instead, you should be checking to see whether the programs you’re considering are accredited by an agency approved by the World Federation for Medical Education (WFME). Starting in 2023, the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) will only allow certification for graduates who’ve attended a school that meets those standards. And international grads must obtain ECFMG certification to practice medicine in the US.
5. Where is the location relative to you?
If there are public medical schools located in your state, you should apply to those institutions. These types of medical schools receive funding from taxpayers, so they reserve a larger portion of their seats for in-state students. The AAMC reports that 61 percent of accepted medical students attend a program in their home state.
Even if there are numerous medical schools in your area, you should consider other locations. And it goes without saying that you should apply broadly if your state isn’t home to a medical school at all. Because of the advantage in-state students have for public schools, it may be a good idea to focus on private institutions when looking at other locations.
6. What kinds of support services are available?
Though every medical school wants students to succeed, institutions vary on the breadth of support they provide. Some programs offer learning strategies assessments, organized study groups, tutoring, career guidance, assistance navigating the residency application process, and more. Other medical schools will have leaner offerings.
It’s obviously up to you to determine how much additional support you want in a medical school. But it’s also worth noting medical school is rigorous. It’s not uncommon to run into some challenges along the way. There’s a reason physicians say attending medical school is like trying to drink from a fire hose.
7. How diverse is the student body?
Experts have long called for medical schools to diversify, and for good reason. Research has shown that patients develop stronger relationships with their physicians when they perceive similarities like race and communication style. That can result in better care in the long run.
Some medical schools hope to address care gaps by educating a diverse student body. Using a holistic review process can help. And those budding MDs notice the difference. In fact, medical students report they feel better prepared to treat a diverse patient population when they attend a school that has a higher proportion of minority students.
If attending a diverse medical school is important to you, dig a little deeper. Does the program make any mention of diversity in its mission statement? Does it review applicants in a holistic manner? Have you asked any graduates or students whether they think different backgrounds are well-represented?
8. Do you want to pursue specific professional interests?
While you don’t need to know exactly what type of doctor you want to be, it’s a good idea to think about some broader interests you might want to pursue. Most medical schools wrap these types of pursuits into their mission. When talking to admissions officers, you might hear mention of a dedication to research, primary care, public health, or something else.
Think about what you’d like to emphasize in your career. It’s also worth considering whether you may want to pursue another degree while working toward your MD. You could, for example, pursue a master of public health (MPH) degree at certain medical schools.
9. Is it a good fit?
Some elements that go into your final school selections are a little harder to quantify. You want to choose programs where you could see yourself excelling. Exactly what determines that may be different for everyone. A few things you might consider: Does the teaching philosophy align with how you learn? Do the students seem happy? Do you value access to a large professional network?
A few final considerations
There are a number of other things you need to keep in mind when compiling your final list. The applicant pool is obviously competitive, so applying to enough schools gives you a better chance of acceptance purely from a statistical standpoint. According to the AAMC, each student submitted an average of 16 applications for the 2018-2019 school year.
Students with slightly lower grades and test scores often apply to more schools, but you also need to make sure you’re targeting an appropriate mix. It would be a mistake to apply only to medical schools that have noticeably higher average grades or MCAT scores than you do. You can include some reach schools, but the majority of your list should be populated with programs that closely match your academic profile.
Lastly, it’s essential that you get your timing right. That means being as early as possible. Most experts will recommend that you submit applications in June, which will be more than a year ahead of when you plan to start medical school. This actually makes a lot of sense, because interviews are offered on a rolling basis. If you get your applications in later than everyone else, you’ll have missed out on many of those interview spots before anyone has even reviewed your materials. Getting in the habit of being early will also serve you well when it comes time to apply to residency programs.
Find your MD footing
What medical schools should I apply to?
You can see it’s a complex question. Aside from some clear must-haves for you medical degree, it comes down to your personal preferences and applying to all the schools that might be a really good fit for you. Your best odds of gaining an acceptance letter may even be to think outside the US.
There are many international programs you might consider, including those located in the Caribbean. But perhaps you’ve heard some negative comments about these medical schools that give you pause. In reality, most of those comments are just rumors. See for yourself by reading our article “The Truth About Caribbean Medical Schools: Debunking the Myths.”
Find out if medical school is right for you.Learn More