How to Choose Where to Apply to Medical School

How to Choose Where to Apply to Medical School

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Posted in: Applying to Medical School

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Choosing a medical school doesn’t have to be difficult. There are a lot of options, but not every school is a good fit for you. You can narrow down your choices based on your competitiveness, school culture, cost of tuition, location, and many other considerations.

You should apply to 15-30 medical schools. Only apply where you would be willing to attend, and don’t apply to more than 1-2 longshot schools where your application probably isn’t competitive enough. Here’s a list of our top-rated US medical schools, for your reference.

I’m Dr. Renee Marinelli, the Director of Admissions Advising at MedSchoolCoach. From my experience, I recommend narrowing the list of 200+ medical schools down to 30 programs, based on what’s the best fit for you. 

Factors to consider when creating your school list include your MCAT, GPA, whether you’re out of state, and how many out-of-state students your chosen schools accept. Also, consider the stated mission of your schools – are they research-oriented or focused on primary care? Pick schools whose mission aligns with your experience and interests. 

School location preference is another thing to keep in mind, though this should be a secondary consideration given the competitiveness of the application process. 

Need help narrowing down your list? Learn which schools are a perfect fit for your scores and unique student profile with MedSchoolExplorer. It’s 100% free!

1. Your Chances of Acceptance

It’s fine to have one or two “longshot” schools, but you should focus your time and money on med schools that you like where your chances of getting accepted are high. How well does the school match up with your GPA and MCAT scores? How impressive are your extracurriculars? Be honest about your competitiveness as an applicant.

Find out your Med School Competitiveness Score here.

I recommend that you apply where you’re competitive. Sure, Harvard is great, but is your application competitive enough to be considered? If not, don’t waste time and money by adding them to your list. 

At the end of the day, even the easiest schools to get into are accredited and offer a great medical education. School prestige plays a very minor role in your future as a physician.

Statistically speaking, it is easier to get into DO schools than MD programs. A DO (doctorate of osteopathic medicine) is equivalent to an MD and offers the same residency opportunities. Consider whether DO is a better fit for you.

2. Location (In-State Vs Out-of-State)

In most cases, premed students have to apply to many different school locations to successfully get into a program. However, some students have locational preferences that greatly impact their decisions to apply to certain med schools. The cost of living in a given area is important.

A key location factor is in-state versus out-of-state. Check tuition differences and the acceptance rates of out-of-state students compared to in-state students, as some programs accept only a very small number of out-of-state students.

Caribbean medical schools are also an option, depending on your situation. If you pursue this route, only go to the MD-granting ones we recommend for a good shot at residency placement down the line.

3. Cost

Medical education is almost always expensive, though many applicants are eligible for some scholarships. Figure out what financial aid you’re eligible for and what loans you’re willing to take out. Subtract that number from the cost of attendance at each school, and try to limit your applications to schools that fit your comfort range.

There are certain medical schools that offer so much financial assistance that tuition is literally — or effectively — $0. If cost is a major barrier for you, it might be worth looking into how you can attend medical school for free by joining the US military.

Read more: How to Pay for Medical School

4. Cultural Fit

Cultural fit is a big deal for many students on the healthcare career path. Some may seek out a religiously affiliated school, while others may avoid it. Dedication to social justice may be a must for many medical students, so do your research about which schools on your list best suit your needs.

For students of color, historically Black medical schools (HBMSs) may be a good cultural fit. Studies show that HBMSs are characterized as “more supportive for Black students,” leading to better student outcomes.

There are other schools with extensive and purposeful support for underserved populations, such as differently abled individuals, people from underprivileged economic backgrounds, or LGBTQ+ individuals.

Because of how competitive this process is, I recommend applying to a broad array of medical schools initially. You can then consider school culture when deciding which interview invites to accept and what schools to attend. Cultural fit is an important consideration for applicants with options, but you don’t want to pigeonhole yourself early on by limiting your applications to schools with a “perfect” cultural fit.

5. Research vs. Primary Care

Medical schools typically emphasize either a research or primary care angle to their education. This is one of the more important factors to think about when creating your initial list. 

If you’re an applicant with little or no research experience, you won’t get into a research-oriented institution like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, or Washington University in St Louis, etc. Alternatively, if your application makes it clear you value and practice research, you may not want to attend primary care-oriented schools (which are often state schools).

Dr. Aneja is a former Yale School of Medicine admissions officer and MedSchoolCoach advisor. He says that applicants should be “able to discern whether they feel like their career will be more academically focused; whether they’re more interested in research and teaching; or more interested in being clinicians, either in community practice or private practice.”

6. Competitiveness After Acceptance

Do you want your med school years to feel like a competition, or do you prefer a more laid-back environment? 

The atmosphere at many top medical schools is quite intense, with students competing academically and for research/extracurricular opportunities. Johns Hopkins, for example, is highly competitive among its med students and has earned a reputation for its cut-throat environment.

Other medical schools (especially those with a primary care or community health focus) advertise being more relaxed. Many Caribbean medical schools emphasize this relaxed environment as part of a more approachable medical education. Yale’s MD program doesn’t use class rankings or grades during the pre-clerkship period to help students avoid too much focus on this type of data.

7. Student Support Services

Depending on your unique needs, you may want to prioritize programs that offer mental health support, extensive career counseling, lenient attendance policies, generous grading practices, accessible tutoring, or other services that make student life less stressful.

Maybe you are someone who needs individualized support and is looking for a low student-to-faculty ratio. Student support is a broad term, but you should research what different med schools are offering.

Like the cultural fit I discuss above, this is something I generally urge students to consider after getting multiple acceptances. Rather than using this to narrow your list down to around 30 programs, think about it if you need to decide between more than one medical school.

8. USMLE Prep Support

The USMLE is a vital part of applying for residencies. Certain schools provide special support for residency match assistance and USMLE prep.

Below are partners that work with MedSchoolCoach to provide their students with complementary tutoring and coaching for the USMLE and residency program applications:

  • Meharry Medical College
  • Charles R. Drew University
  • Wayne State University

During the interview process, don’t be afraid to ask questions about the USMLE support a school may provide to learn more about how they support students through this process.

9. Student Satisfaction

Hop on Instagram or Reddit, connect with current students, and find out what it’s actually like on campus. Get a feel for the quality of student life at a given med school, as well as the student satisfaction during and after going there.

10. Future Goals & Opportunities

When choosing between medical schools that have accepted you, research the success rate of a given school’s alumni — particularly success in the areas that you hope to succeed in. You could look into residency placement by field, average salary after graduation, how many graduates went into research, etc.

If you have your eyes set on a competitive career specialty, make sure the schools you apply to have high residency placement rates for those specialties.

Research schools’ access to clinical rotations and how much the faculty helps students gain access to clinical opportunities.

Some programs offer discounted or free tuition for those willing to work in primary care in the school’s state. Others have extensive career placement options in inner-city or rural areas. Ask yourself if these future opportunities line up with your medical career goals.

Dr. Aneja adds, “When we think about students in the admissions committee, it’s very easy if we see that the student has a plan and he needs to come to this school to achieve that plan and our school can provide the resources for him.”

“It’s a lot more difficult to project students who are very unsure of what their future is and have not really thought about it so they just know that they would like to become a doctor or something in that context.”

FAQs

A letter of intent lets you declare that you will accept an admissions offer if one is made to you. This letter of intent is how you communicate to a medical school that they are your top choice. It is highly inappropriate to send a letter of intent and then reject an admission offer, so only send one.

NOTE: This is really for when you’re on a waitlist or have multiple acceptances. You can write a letter later in the application process; this isn’t something you would communicate on your primary or secondary application.

A medical school’s curriculum may include different key factors you may prefer, such as the traditional 2 years of lecture learning followed by 2 years of clinical work or more holistic clinical work from day one. You may look for programs that focus on: 

  • Research projects
  • Clerkships
  • Alternative teaching styles
  • Advanced technology learning
  • Pass/fail grading systems

I advise students not to base their school list on their preferred curriculum style. Apply broadly at first; once you have options (multiple interview invites or acceptance letters), then you can consider curricula when choosing where to attend.

Most medical programs are looking for the following in their ideal applicants: 

  • Excellent GPA (3.5 or higher)
  • High MCAT scores (511 or higher)
  • Research experience
  • Clinical experience
  • Electives exhibiting leadership
  • Volunteering activities that benefit underserved communities
  • Physician shadowing

Medical School Application Resources

When applying to medical school, you can increase your chances by doing your research, preparing well in advance, and simply asking for help. 

Below are some powerful resources for med school applications:

Need help creating your school list and crafting your med school application? MedSchoolCoach offers 1-on-1 application advising so you can maximize your acceptance letters. Pair up with a former admissions committee member to craft an application that stands out from the rest.
Picture of Renee Marinelli, MD

Renee Marinelli, MD

Dr. Marinelli has practiced family medicine, served on the University of California Admissions Committee, and has helped hundreds of students get into medical school. She spearheads a team of physician advisors who guide MedSchoolCoach students.

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