Deciding Where to Apply to Medical School

We’re at the beginning of another medical school application cycle so today’s post is all about deciding where to apply! It’s a personal, stressful, and expensive process but I hope my thoughts can help guide you if you’re struggling to start or just don’t know how to narrow down your list! And a quick caveat to start — everyone has their own priorities when deciding where to apply to school. These were mine and it’s ok if yours are different.

The moment I submitted my AMCAS!

The MSAR

The Medical School Admission Requirements from the AAMC was my touchstone when I made the initial list of schools I wanted to apply to. I think that initial list had upwards of 50 schools — different locations, MCAT score ranges, allopathic and osteopathic, patient populations, and curriculum approaches. When you purchase the MSAR, you can have access to data from every medical school in the U.S. and Canada. It will show you tuition costs, median GPAs and MCAT scores, class size, pre-requisites specific to each school, and a host of other information. You can also save your favorites and compare them side-by-side if you are a subscriber.

Narrowing Down My List

After a lot of conversations with my family, close friends, post bac advisors, and personal introspection, I narrowed my list down to about 30 schools, contingent on my MCAT score. There were 12 schools I planned to apply to no matter my score, and then a few schools on the top and bottom ends of my predicted MCAT score range. This was the real value of the MSAR — it allowed me to see the average MCAT score and score range of the most recent class at each school. I also had an additional three “reach” schools that were going to be out of my MCAT range short of a miracle but that I loved and wanted to apply to no matter what.

The MCAT is not the end-all be-all when schools look at your application, but some schools do sort by score and only send secondary applications to those with a score above a certain cutoff. And it’s one of the only objective measures (along with GPA) that allow schools to sort applicants as they decide on who to interview. So yes, I won’t lie, your MCAT score is important and it’s good to be mindful of how your score fits in with the schools on your list.

For those who are new to this world, read this great post from my friend and fellow career changer (and almost doctor!!) Clare with details on the application process!

Checking All the Boxes

  • Location

I lived in D.C. and Philadelphia for a combined seven years after undergrad and loved (and still love!) both of those cities very much! I had schools in both on my list, but I was also ready to consider moving closer to my family and added quite a few Florida schools to the list. I wanted to maximize my chances of being in or near a large city, so there were also schools in the Northeast and a few in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. Moving to the West Coast was simply just too far.

  • Patient Population and Clinical Opportunities

To make the most of the four years of medical school, I wanted to attend someplace with a high-volume, diverse patient population with broad clinical needs. I was also seeking out different types of practice that I would get to cycle through during my rotations: public, private, a VA facility, student run clinics, etc. It was important that schools at the top of my list had faculty with a range of clinical specialties and sub-specialties for students to explore. I have a gut feeling about what type of medicine I will practice, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed in — I want to interact with as many different physicians, patients, and clinical presentations as possible before I formally decide on a specialty!  

  • Academic Opportunities

My long initial list included allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) medical schools. I was interested in both, and honestly, I was very drawn to the idea of an osteopathic school because of it’s founding focus on holistic care of patients. Ultimately, I only applied to allopathic schools for one reason: I wanted access to academic opportunities outside of the medical school. While some DO schools may be part of a larger system, I was really looking for a medical school that was part a university system that could offer inter-disciplinary collaboration. Knowing that many schools I applied to had extra academic offerings (dual master’s degrees, minors/pathways to explore areas like genetics, health law, community health, etc.) gave me a sense that I was not sacrificing my non-medical school academic interests. Let me reiterate — this is not to knock DO schools! And truth be told, I really only considered one DO school and only for a few months, so I can’t speak to this very well.

  • Health Policy Opportunities

Coursework in health policy wasn’t a huge priority for me when making my list. Why? There is a serious lack of formal health policy education in most medical school curricula, plus I already had my MPH in health policy. What I did want in a school was the opportunity for engagement in public health and health policy in the community. I specifically referenced a student organization or academic offering related to health policy or public health in nearly every single one of my secondary applications. I spent a lot of time on medical schools websites reading about elective courses, research opportunities, and student groups involved in public health. No matter where you apply and attend, there is a chance to be involved in advocacy and policy.

  • Curriculum

Since we all have to learn the same material for our board exams, the information presented is the same at every medical school. It might be taught differently, but the heart is the heart no matter where you go to school. I was most interested in getting anatomy over with at the beginning of the year — some schools drag it out for so long and I just wanted to be done as soon as possible. I was also interested in some case-based learning but didn’t want the majority of my education to be that style. I was comfortable with lectures. Looking back, I wish I had considered more schools with an emphasis on case-based learning — it’s so helpful to talk though cases and problems solve as a team.

  • School-Life Balance

With the exception of two schools, I had a good friend or family member living close to or in the location of the school. A support system is crucial in medical school and I wanted to take advantage of my already developed relationships. In addition to having the ability to see non-school friends and family, I wanted to apply to schools where I could take advantage of cultural events and have access to great food. I love to cook and eat and didn’t want to be someplace for four years where I could exhaust all the food options by the end of year one.

Less Important Priorities

  • Class Size: I had schools on my list that ranged from 60 to 250+ students per year. It didn’t really matter to me.
  • Step Scores: While I lived for the MCAT ranges in the MSAR, the thought of checking out Step 1 scores didn’t even cross my mind. While some schools teach very much to-the-test, my score is ultimately my responsibility.
  • Pass/Fail Grading System: This is something I only vaguely knew about because I had a friend in medical school. Up until medical school, I’d been graded (like most people…) with numerical scores and letter grades. I didn’t know medical school operated any differently. Nearly all medical schools are pass/fail or transitioning to pass/fail, so I don’t think this is a huge issue now.
  • Facilities: I’m not saying I’d go to school in a total dump, but here’s how I see it: I’ll be in pre-clinical classes for two years and then I’m in the hospital seeing patients. I’d much rather have outstanding clinical opportunities than a sleek new building I’ll only spend time in for the first two years. But, to each their own.

This post is already much longer than I anticipated but I hope you gained something from reading it! I’m going to write up a bit more about my post-application journey — including getting those secondary applications done, interviews, and ultimately how I chose my school. If there’s anything you want to know, leave a comment or send me an email!

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