How Do I Choose Which Medical Schools to Apply to?

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One of the practical steps which is crucial to consider when crafting your medical school application is, “Where am I going to apply?” Choosing wisely, as many of you know, is intimately tied to your odds of being accepted. And perhaps more importantly, it is the direct determinant of where you will actually attend medical school. Therefore, it is imperative to be thoughtful and intelligent about how many schools and what type of schools you apply to. So how does one choose? I recommend you consider the following key components when making this decision.   

Am I going to apply to Allopathic (MD), Osteopathic (DO), or both?

Many of you that are close to the application process may have already made this decision. If you have yet to decide, a few factors may sway your decision. First, how strong is your application? Allopathic (MD) programs have higher average GPA and MCAT scores, so their admissions process is considered more competitive. The AAMC (AMCAS) and AACOM (AACOMAS) govern the applications for MD and DO schools, respectively. As reported by these bodies in 2015-2016, the average GPA and MCAT score for allopathic (MD) schools was 28.3 and 3.55, compared to 26.4 and 3.44 for osteopathic (DO) programs. Be realistic about your prior achievements and your goals. It may be helpful to seek the advice of professors, academic counselors, medical students, or others who have been through this process. Second, evaluate whether any aspects of MD or DO degrees are more attractive to you. Perhaps you are interested in osteopathic medicine and want to pursue a degree with a focus in this. The third point to consider is that traditionally, competitive specialties have been less likely to take DO applicants for residency programs. Therefore, this may be a limiting factor in future career plans. Evaluate the differences between the MD and DO programs and let them guide your decision, if relevant. Look out for a future post which delves deeper into this topic.   

How many medical schools do I apply to? 

Unfortunately, there is no magic number or exact answer to this question. If only it was that easy. When I applied about 7 years ago, I recall most of my peers applying to around 20 programs. As reported by the AAMC, in 2015-2016 the average number of programs per applicant was 16. Generally, around 20 programs is a considered a safe number. Much lower would run the risk of too few applications resulting in too few interviews. Many more would lead to a huge number of secondaries, perhaps too many interviews to attend, and higher cost. With that said, the strength of your application and your comfort level with your application will be a large determinant of this decision. You might notice a recurring theme in this post. No surprises here. I personally was over-cautious, applying to more than 30 programs and sending around 25 secondaries. This was a huge amount of work, and in the end was likely unnecessary. But I did have peace of mind in the primary application process. It will ultimately depend on your personal comfort and preference. If your application is lacking in some regards, casting a wider net may give you a better chance of acceptance.   

Which specific medical schools do I apply to?

This again is a personalized decision, heavily influenced by the quality of your application. This is where you must be intelligent with your choices. Ideally, you should apply to programs in the following 3 categories:
  • “Reach schools” – strong programs that have average metrics above your scores. 
  • “Target schools” – programs that match your MCAT, GPA, and other metrics, which you are appropriately qualified for. 
  • “Safety schools” – programs for which you exceed the average qualifications. 
My general recommendation would be to apply to 25% reach schools, 50% target schools and 25% safety schools. For example, if you decided to apply to 20 programs, you might choose 5 reach schools, 10 target schools, and 5 safety schools. In general, this would be an intelligent approach which creates a safe spread of program quality well-matched to your application.   

What characteristics should I be looking for in medical schools?

This will depend on what you value and what you are targeting in your training. Common factors that will be important to consider include:
  • Quality and reputation of the medical school – it is no secret that this is important to consider, as it may affect the quality of your training and your future professional opportunities.
  • Geography – this is very important as well, but not quite as crucial as in the residency application process. Often people complete residency close to where they plan to practice in the future. For medical school, you have more freedom and will not be bound to that location for future educational or professional experiences. Therefore, consider geography, but know that you will have freedom and flexibility going forward. 
  • Clinical/Research/Professional opportunities – if you have a specific interest or specialty you wish to explore, it may be beneficial to look at programs that excel in this field. With that said, most strong university programs are well-balanced and diverse in the opportunities they provide. 
  • Tuition/finances – schools will vary in their tuition based primarily on private versus public and in-state versus out-of-state (relative to your location of residence).
It is extremely helpful to consult MSAR (Medical School Admissions Requirements), which is a resource from AAMC that provides information on class size, average scores, tuition, and other characteristics of each MD program in the US. This is a great place to explore the specifics of programs you are interested in.  Consider these factors when making your decision. It should simplify the process and help your craft a smart, strategic set of schools. Good luck!
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