If you’ve been planning on becoming a doctor for a long time, you may have already determined your dream medical school. But it’s important not to put all your eggs in one basket. There are a number of important considerations that follow the all-too-important question: “How many medical schools should I apply to?”
Deciding which medical school you want to go to is no easy task. You’ve got to consider where you have the best chance of acceptance, the wide range of tuition costs and application fees, and where you want to live during the four tumultuous, exhausting, and exhilarating years of your life.
While having a dream school is great, it’s important to remember that there are many exemplary and prestigious programs in the US and Canada to choose from. How do you decide which is the best fit for you?
After this article, read our Guide to Understanding the Medical School Application Process, which includes an application timeline, what you need to include in your application, mistakes to avoid, and what happens next.
How Many Medical Schools Are Applied to On Average?
Keep in mind that this is only an average, and while averages are an important consideration, what matters most is how you feel about your specific chances of acceptance, where you want to live, and the kind of specialties, extracurriculars, and research opportunities offered.
Considering the amount of work and costs that come with secondary applications, as well as the travel that may be required to attend interviews, it’s important to apply to the programs that you’re most excited to be a part of.
How Many Medical Schools Should I Apply to?
There’s no perfect number when it comes to how many schools you should apply to, but it usually depends on how you feel about your application. How confident are you in your MCAT and GPA score, letters of recommendation, personal statement, etc.? If you feel extremely confident, you may want to apply to fewer schools. If you feel your application is lacking in one or more respects, you should consider applying to more schools to maximize your chance of acceptance.
We recommend you apply to around 20 schools. 20 is a safe number, as applying to too few programs may result in receiving too few interviews, and vice versa. Another important consideration is that while applying to 20 or more schools won’t make a difference in the workload for your primary application, it will make a significant difference when it comes time to complete your secondary applications. Plus, there’s the added cost.
Many medical schools collect fees for the secondaries they receive, so while getting a secondary application used to be a sign the program was interested in you, it doesn’t quite work that way anymore. Not only will schools collect extra fees by sending out secondaries to every applicant, but admissions committees will be able to better ascertain which applicants are sincerely interested in joining their program.
Learn the ins and outs of secondaries in our Medical School Secondary Application Guide.
Since sending out secondaries is a win-win for many medical school programs, it’s very likely you’ll receive several of them. Considering we seriously recommend responding to secondary applications within 7-14 days of receiving them, if you apply to 30 programs at once, you could be looking at a very grueling workload when it comes time to write secondaries.
Deeply consider the strength of your application and reach out to med students, mentors, and tutors who have been through the process before to gain their insight.
Target vs. Reach vs. Safety Schools
You should spread your applications across target, reach, and safety schools. It’s another important consideration when deciding how many and which med schools to apply to, and the strength of your application is a major determining factor here.
Target schools: These are the programs you’re suitably qualified for—where your GPA, MCAT, and general application are an ideal match.
Safety schools: These are the programs you’re technically over-qualified for. Your application exceeds the expectations of these programs, so you’re likely to be accepted.
Reach schools: These are the prestigious programs that have average metrics that exceed your application. But shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you’ll still land among the stars, right? You never know for sure how your application will be received by an admissions committee, and you may have the exact background and experience they’re looking for.
We recommend you devote 50% of your applications to target schools, 25% to safety schools, and 25% to reach schools. So if you apply to 20 programs, that’s ten for target schools and five each for reach and safety schools, respectively.
Like we said, the strength of your application will factor heavily into your decision. It’s important to make intelligent decisions that give you the best chance of acceptance.
How to Decide Which Medical Schools to Apply to
There are several important considerations that must factor into this decision beyond where you have the best chance of acceptance. Choosing which medical schools to apply to is a time-consuming, meticulous, and difficult process—and it’s important to start looking into as soon as possible.
Start researching schools long before you begin your application process in order to give yourself enough time to fully assess your options. Ideally, you should make time to reach out to people in the programs you’re interested in and actually visit your top schools in person to get a feel of the campus, people, and city.
- Where you have the best chance of acceptance: While this certainly isn’t the only thing to consider when choosing the schools to apply to, it is pretty darn important. Research the statistics of recently matriculated medical school students for all of the schools you are considering applying to using AAMC’s MSAR database.
- School tuition and fees: The average student debt for medical students is over $200,000, and tuition and fees range considerably across medical schools. Tuition ranges from free to $20,000 to over $90,000 a year. Many schools also charge out-of-state students more (sometimes double) than in-state students.
- The cost of living: While the mind boggles at the amount of money you’ll be expected to pay just on tuition, it’s only a piece of your considerable expenses. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of living, which hugely varies from state to state. You could be spending anywhere from several hundred to a couple thousand per month on rent alone. And you’ll need to eat, too.
- School location: Considering the two previous points, the location of the school is going to be a major determining factor, and not only because of the wide range in tuition and cost of living. For example, medical schools in Texas only accept about 10% of out-of-state applicants. Plus, you need to decide where you’ll feel most comfortable living for four years of your life (i.e., how far away from your parents are you willing—or trying—to get?)
- Osteopathic medicine(?): DO schools require lower GPA averages and MCAT scores for acceptance. Are you considering becoming an osteopath (DO)? If so, applying to osteopathic programs requires you to apply through the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS), which has a few subtle—but key—differences from AMCAS that you must be aware of.
- Personal special interests in medicine: Do you know what specialty you want to pursue? While most strong medical schools offer a nicely balanced range of opportunities for students, there are some schools better known for certain specialties, such as surgery or family medicine.
- Reputation and ranking of the school: A school’s ranking gives you a sense of its funding, technology, available resources, and quality of training, and it gives you an idea of how competitive the application process will be. Be sure to research current medical school rankings.
- Gut feeling: Which schools tantalize you most and feel like the best fit? While considering all of the above points is critical, it’s just as critical that you feel excited and comfortable with the program, the physicians and fellow students you’ll be working with, and the city where you’ll be spending four years of your life.
For more information, read our guide on How to Decide Which Medical Schools to Apply to (12 Important Factors).
Tailored Application With Med School Insiders
Med School Insiders will help you choose the medical schools that are best for you. We can also help you improve your application in order to get noticed by your top choice schools. Our team of doctors has years of experience serving on admissions committees, so you’ll receive key insights from people who have been intimately involved with the selection process.
Learn more about our Comprehensive Medical School Admissions Packages, which are tailored to your needs and the specific schools you are applying to.