Variety of blue cubes with one yellow highlighted cube representing choosing a medical school.

How to Choose a Medical School: A Guide for Applicants

April 5, 2021

Introduction

You have decided you want to go to medical school but aren’t sure where to start in your search. Medical school will require at least four years of commitment, plus three to eight years in residency, so you want to be sure you attend a school where you will excel. With a number of prestigious schools in the country, it is difficult to choose which one you wish to attend. There are a number of factors to consider, such as location, tuition, and MD programs offered. We must prioritize what is important. This guide will provide you with the information you should consider when choosing a medical school. 

Knowledge of Top Medical Schools

Having some knowledge of the top medical schools in the country is a great place to start in your search. Because each medical school is different, you want to make sure you have an overall idea about the schools. It is important to understand what the school believes in or what it stands for, and how those ideals fit in with your goal. Here are a some things to consider when researching medical schools:

About the Institution. Read through the history of each medical school, specifically regarding its founding and achievements in the medical field. Potential students find that understanding the university’s accomplishments and how it shaped history gives them a better idea of how they wish to shape their career path. 

Mission Statements. Mission statements allow potential students to understand the main goal of each medical school. You will know what their goal is when educating their students, and the learning outcomes that will become a part of your everyday life. Having knowledge of the medical school’s mission statement helps prospective students figure out if the university is right for them. For example, if a student wishes to become a doctor who provides care to lower-income, diverse communities, they can look to medical schools that have emphasized healthcare in impoverished communities. In short, the university’s goals should align with yours. 

Acceptance rates. Top medical schools are not easy to get into. Many have an acceptance rate of less than 4%. While this seems daunting, don’t let that deter you. Understanding the criteria the admissions committee sets for medical school admissions allows students to have a better advantage at getting accepted. 

Programs Offered. Each school offers different programs apart from the general MD. This is the most important factor to consider when choosing a medical school. All medical schools offer different programs, and not all programs lead towards the same path. Research programs that cater to your interests, then look for universities that offer those programs. This narrows this list of medical schools down significantly.

Admissions Criteria. Medical schools generally require a primary application and a supplemental application. You will want to research what each medical school requires of its prospective students to make sure you meet the basic requirements to apply. 

Learn Which Programs are Offered

Knowing which program you wish to enter helps narrow down which medical school to choose. Remember, not every program is the same, so you will want to research each program at every  medical school you’re interested in to find which one is the right fit for your career path. Consider the following when you are looking at medical school programs:

How many programs are offered?

How does each program differ from one another?

How many students are accepted into each program?

How does this program at Medical School A differ from the same program at Medical School B?

How long does the program take to complete?

Does the program align with what you want to do in the medical field?

Let’s say you want to go to a top medical school that offers a combined MD/Masters program. UCSF Medical School and the Perelman School of Medicine are both top-ranked medical schools in the United States. They both offer combined MD/Masters programs, but they each offer different combinations of this degree option. UCSF only offers a MD/Masters in Public Health while Perelman offers several MD/Masters combinations such as MD/ Masters in Bioethics and MD/Masters in Business Administration. As you can see, UCSF and Perelman have some similarities and quite a few differences, so it is important to research which program fits more into your goals. This will help you narrow your list when choosing a medical school.  

Understand the Teaching Style at Each Medical School

Medical schools require a lot of pre-clinical and clinical work to prepare students for when they enter the medical field. However, not every school has the same teaching style. There are approximately five teaching styles medical schools provide.

Traditional

The traditional teaching method requires students to complete two years of pre-clinical work followed by three years of clinical work. Pre-clinical work is generally conducted in a classroom setting where students are required to learn principles of the medical sciences. Once the two years have passed, students move to the clinical work where they will work in clinics or hospitals under direct supervision.

Students are still required to attend lectures during the clinical period. The goal is to keep students educated in all medical practices while they get the hands-on experience and apply their pre-clinical knowledge in practical situations. Oxford University and Cambridge University are two institutions that have adapted the traditional teaching style. 

Integrated

This style is becoming more and more prominent in medical schools. Integrated courses combine pre-clinical and clinical education in one. This includes teaching methods such as problem-based learning and practical clinical skills. 

For example, classes such as biology and physiology that are originally taught separately are taught together when examining the body as a whole. You will look at the nervous system and consider its anatomy, pathology, and physiology all at once. Much of the work is self-directed despite the teaching method being based in lectures. This also encourages early patient contact.

Problem-Based

This teaching style involves students working with patients at the very beginning of their medical school education. Students are given medical cases to learn from and resolve, with little assistance from faculty members. Group work is also provided on top of clinical work to develop students’ communication, teamwork, and problem-solving abilities. This method is performed on a larger scale compared with  the other teaching methods mentioned. 

Case-Based

The case-based teaching style is similar to that of problem-based learning in that students  will work with cases from the beginning of their education. However, unlike problem-based methods, case-based learning involves specific types of cases meant to direct interest into specific fields. Case-based learning involves working in small groups for short periods of time in order to get students to think about what knowledge and skills are needed and why. 

Enquiry-Based

Enquiry-based learning involves scenarios and problems rather than actual cases. Students are in charge of their own education, rather than the teachers lectures. Unlike problem-based and case-based learning, enquiry-based learning does not provide you with all the facts to come to  a clear answer. Rather, the student is required to solve the problems or scenarios by asking questions, researching and identifying the issues, and using their knowledge to come to a conclusion. While this method sounds very similar to problem-based learning, enquiry-based learning is on a much smaller scale and is used for smaller projects and research.

When choosing a medical school, you will want to consider what teaching style each institution offers and if that method works for you. Oftentimes, medical students struggle because the teaching method just doesn’t work for them or they are not accustomed to it. For this reason, it’s best to choose a medical school that best matches your learning style.

Evaluate the Admissions Criteria

When applying to medical school, you will complete a primary application through the American Medical College Application Services (AMCAS). However, you must meet the university’s minimum requirements to be considered eligible to apply. 

Medical schools often require students to complete a breadth of courses, but with a specific concentration in the sciences..  For example, Perelman School of Medicine requires not only courses such as biology and chemistry, but also competencies in behavioral disciplines, English, and mathematics. Make sure you research which courses you should have in your records.

Potential students are also required to take the MCAT, and must include their scores  in the application. Medical schools vary when it comes to the minimum MCAT score requirement. For example, Perelman School of Medicine matriculants have an average MCAT score of 521, while UCSF Medical School requires applicants to be within the 75th percentile. Research what the institution is specifically looking for in terms of MCAT scores when choosing a medical school.

Specialized programs may also have additional requirements that you must meet. Combined MD/Masters programs will ask you to apply to medical school and graduate school; this will result in additional application fees, requirements, and other criteria of which you must be aware. Take the time to research what the minimum requirements are when applying to medical school and what you will need if the program requires another application process. 

Always be aware of deadlines for medical school. Every university has different admission deadlines for their applications, so you need to know which materials are due and when. It is highly recommended that you have all your application materials ready at least a year in advance as to prevent any last-minute delays that could affect your application being processed.

General coursework requirements vary for each medical school, so you want to be sure to check each institution’s criteria. Below is a list of coursework many medical schools expect prospective students to have acquired prior to applying:

Biology - Students should have a basic understanding of biological principles, such as basic molecular and cellular function and basic biological concepts shared by all living organisms.

Chemistry - Multiple chemistry courses should be taken in a student’s undergraduate years. Colleges such as Perelman School of Medicine require students to have a fundamental understanding of thermodynamics, chemical equilibria, and organic chemistry. 

Physics - Students should have at least one physics course. If a student wishes to pursue a career in the biomedical sciences, they should take multiple physics courses.

Mathematics - Math courses such as Algebra and Statistics are mandatory at some medical schools. 

Humanities - Taking courses in the humanities, such as English and Communications, are great courses to take as well. Applicants should be able to deliver oral presentations and demonstrate strong interpersonal skills, and taking these courses emphasizes that.

Location, Location, Location

When choosing a medical school, you must consider its location. You could be living in Los Angeles, California but want to go to Harvard School of Medicine – even though the David Geffen School of Medicine is nearby. If the medical school is close to you, then you may not worry too much about housing and cost of living. If you choose to go to medical school far away, you will have to consider the cost of living, housing, and out-of-state tuition costs. Here is what you should think about when considering the location of medical schools:

If in-state, would I still need to move?

If out-of-state, how much would on-campus housing cost? How much would off-campus housing cost?

What is the difference in costs for in-state versus out-of-state tuition? Will it cost about the same or is there a vast difference?

Is the location a good place to start my career?

Will this location fit with my personality?

Other factors to consider when thinking about the location of the medical school is how the lifestyle works with your personality. For example, an introverted person who doesn’t like change may have a very hard time moving to a new school in a new city, whereas someone who is more extroverted may enjoy that challenge. Consider who you are and how you feel about the location. Will this location fit with your personality? You are going to be spending a great deal of your time in that city or state, so you will have time to explore. However, you want to find a place that has things of interest for you to do. If you have hobbies, will there be places available for you to continue to pursue those activities? 

Medical school is very hard, and many people rely on family and friends for support during these times. It is important to have an emotional support system, and that can be difficult if you are in another city or state. Flying home to visit your family and friends would also cost money, so that is something you must factor in when looking at the location of medical schools. Are you willing to be away from your support system? What will you do when you need emotional support?

It’s also a good idea to consider the weather and climate. People have a preference as to the weather, and many prospective students choose medical schools because of the climate. For example, a student who loves cold temperatures would not go to medical school in Arizona. Likewise, someone who loves warmer weather would not go to Harvard Medical School because of the snowy winters. If you have health issues pertaining to the weather, you will also have to factor that in. For example, if you have a bad reaction to heat, you are more likely to choose a medical school in a cooler area where temperatures don’t exceed a certain degree. 

The location of the medical school is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing which one to attend. However, if you are aware of the pros and cons you must consider, you will have a better chance at narrowing down which medical school you wish to attend.

Consider the Tuition and Costs of Medical School

No matter which medical school you choose, tuition will not be cheap. There are additional costs and service fees on top of your tuition that you will need to understand. . Medical schools do offer financial aid and scholarships to their students, so applying for them will help alleviate some of the stress when it comes time to pay. Below is a chart comparing the average in-state and out-of-state tuition for a few of the top medical schools in the United States.


As you can see, in-state versus out-of-state tuition varies greatly and can accumulate over time. For example, the University of Utah has an average yearly in-state tuition of $40,538 and an average yearly out-of-state tuition of $76,745. If an in-state student is pursuing a general, four-year MD program, that student will pay an average of $162,152 for their medical school education. If an out-of-state student wishes to attend the University of Utah, and they follow a general four-year MD program, they will spend an average of $306,980 for their entire education. That is a stark contrast as the out-of-state student pays almost $200,000 more than an in-state student. When choosing a medical school, consider the pros and cons of in-state and out-of-state tuition and whether it is financially worth it for you.

Shortlist Medical Schools

Once you have researched the medical schools that have sparked your interest, you will want to narrow down your list of schools. Take into account everything we have covered so far– programs, requirements, location, tuition – and create a shortlist of medical schools you are considering. You should have around twenty medical schools on your shortlist, and this will eventually be narrowed down to sixteen medical schools to which you will apply.

Visit Medical Schools on Shortlist

Take the time to visit the medical schools on your shortlist. Institutions offer guided tours of the campus and facilities, and those interested are highly encouraged to attend. You not only get a sense of the lifestyle on campus, but also have a chance to ask questions to those who actually attend. This is your chance to get information that you cannot find online. 

Get Feedback from Current Medical Students

If you are still unsure if a medical school is right for you, then reach out to current medical students at that university. Medical schools often have testimonials from current students or alumni about their institution, but they almost always only include the positive aspects. Talk to current medical students and ask about the pros and cons of  attending a particular  medical school. Not everyone has a positive experience, so you should know about the negatives of attending certain universities such as the faculty-to-student ratio or the difficulty of finding research opportunities. Getting feedback from current medical students is more beneficial than just reading about the medical school online.

Finalize List of Chosen Medical Schools

You have done your research and now it is time to choose the medical schools to which you will apply. Your shortlist should be even shorter now, with an average of sixteen medical schools on it. You should meet the criteria for these schools, have an idea of the application materials you will need to compile, and be aware of the location and costs. You can always change your mind about the medical schools on your final list; however, you want to have a concrete list ready at least six months before applying. 

Conclusion

It is always difficult to choose a medical school. With the level of commitment it takes, you want to be sure you are selecting a school where you will excel and grow into your career. By using this guide, you will be one step closer to attending the school of your dreams. 

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