The Right and Wrong Ways to Choose Which Medical Schools to Apply to

Success or failure at choosing medical schools

By: Kelly Feldman

We’ve all been there (or at least I have): my car battery has died once again.

The hoods go up. I have the cables, and now I’m staring at the car batteries, knowing that if I attach them incorrectly I can damage both batteries severely, or worse, electrocute myself.

It’s a simple task that I’ve “definitely done before!” But does black go to black first on the running car or was it the dead car? Which is the grounding cable? How long do I leave the cars connected for? I’m too proud to ask for help because I want to be able to “take care of myself,” so I sit and pretend I know what I’m doing while I secretly Google everything to make sure nobody (mainly me) dies.

If I had asked for help, or acknowledged that I didn’t know everything, maybe I wouldn’t have been stranded at 1am. Or even better, if I had remembered not to leave my lights on for the millionth time, I wouldn’t have repeated this frustrating situation.

Choosing medical schools is like changing a car battery: there’s a lot on the line, and if you screw up, you might hurt yourself. Many pre-meds fail to learn from their mistakes in applying to college: they often rely on hearsay and rankings more than taking the time to figure out what’s right for them. In the end, they leave the lights on again and find themselves stuck trying to get out of a mess, again.

I’ve reviewed countless applications as an admissions officer at the Miami Miller School of Medicine, and I’ve had many more informal conversations with friends who are now in residency. Just from reading an application, it’s clear who’s done their research for the schools they’re applying to and who hasn’t. And that search process matters for whether the admissions office invites you in for an interview, since medical schools want students who are actually excited about their school and who have done the homework to learn about the school BEFORE they apply.

So, how do you avoid the most common mistakes in picking which medical schools to apply to?  

The WRONG Ways to choose your medical schools:

1. Not taking the time to be introspective or do your research.

Unless you routinely practice mindfulness, the idea of getting quiet and looking inward is absolutely terrifying. What are we going to find when we look inward? Will we disappoint ourselves? Will we scare ourselves? Although scary to some, this is the most important first step when picking the best schools to apply to. You have to know YOU. You have to have an objective view of where your skill sets and metrics lie, in addition to an objective and accepting view of who you are as an individual and what you want.

2. Soley picking schools to apply to based upon metrics and “credibility.”

Students will suffer if they only apply to ivy league or “reach” schools. Refer back to point #1. You have to know where you stand and choose a breadth of institutions: “reach,” “competitive,” and “safety” (although let’s be real, there is absolutely nothing safe about applying to medical school). Also, you want to make sure that YOUR personality, passion, and purpose align with the individual school’s culture, programs, and mission.

A quick tip: the US News and World Report typically ranks schools by their research dollars, primary care, or competitiveness of outgoing residents. This information has little to no bearing on what your didactic and clinical education are going to look like. For example, Harvard is ranked #1 for Research by the US News and World Report for 2019, and their #1 ranking is based on NIH dollars and faculty research activity. That doesn’t give you any information about how active students are with research during medical school, nor does it tell you whether your physiology lectures are going to be comprehensible.

3. Not listening to those that have gone before you.

Many have walked this road before you, and it would be foolish not to consider their view. MS1 students may have a different view from MS4 students, but all of the input is valuable. Most of medical school is learning to work smarter, not harder. Do not reinvent the wheel by ignoring the input of medical students that are already in those schools. The only sticking point would be to ensure that they’ll be objective and give you the good, the bad, and the ugly of their programs. As much as you want to believe there is the Holy Grail of institutions, I can safely say, there is not.   

4. Only listening to those that have gone before you.

Not everyone’s values are the same. For some, attending a program that is very research heavy is their primary value. For others, they would prefer to be in a specific geographic area, or closer to family. Peer pressure still exists in medical school, and will probably exist for the rest of your life. Do not allow yourself to be convinced to apply to schools that don’t fit the values that YOU hold to be important.

So we’ve established the bad reasons to pick medical schools to apply to. I know what you’re thinking, “Duh! I know that it’s my decision and only my decision.” Well, it never hurts to hear it again. Here are some other things to consider when picking your list.

The RIGHT Ways to choose your medical schools:

1. Stick to a reasonable number.

In this situation, quantity is not better than quality. Applying to medical school is expensive! Simply adding on schools doesn’t necessarily increase your chances of interview or acceptance. Each primary costs more money, and then each secondary costs money. All of those things start to add up, often for very little return. Try to keep your number between 15-30.

Should you apply to 68 medical schools?

2. Still consider your metrics.

While you should never choose schools based solely on metrics, it is imperative that you take your personal metrics into account. There is no problem in applying to a few reach schools. However, that should not be the composition of your entire school list. The general rule of thumb is that if your MCAT is less than the 10th percentile for that institution, don’t apply. Everyone wants to think that he or she is the exception to the rule, but unless you truly have a “crazy” life story, I hate to break it to you, you’re the rule, not the exception.

3. Determine what kind of doctor you want to be.

This is a little bit hard to conceptualize prior to medical school, but if you have strong ideas about the kind of doctor you want to be, this is important to take into consideration.

Let’s say you want to be a very research-focused physician. If that is the case, you need to attend a strong research institution with many opportunities to get plugged into a lab. Research is a bit of an “old boys club” in the sense that networking can seriously help you, and the prestige of where you do your research matters.

However, if you know that you want to be a primary care physician, then a program that requires research to graduate may not be for you. If primary care is your jam, you want a program that will expose you to absolutely everything, where the number of students matching to primary care is above the national average. If you are the kind of student that learns best by doing, look for clinical rotations that are at a county hospital with a large proportion of the population lacking insurance. Typically in these locations, students are forced to get their hands dirty because there is a massive need for labor.

If you have a strong passion for public health, you want to ensure that the program has numerous public health opportunities. If you desperately want to learn Spanish, consider choosing a school in a location with a large Spanish-speaking population. Other students want the opportunity to practice teaching, and not all institutions have this built into the curriculum.

Consider the types of undergraduate or extracurricular activities that you would like to continue in medical school. Keep those things in mind when you’re doing your school research.

Red Hot Ways to Show Your Medical School Fit

4. Consider your personal preferences.

This topic is the most subjective of them all, and that’s what drives pre-meds nuts. You HAVE to consider what is important to you. Is it important to you to be in a location than doesn’t reach -10F? If so, you may need to apply to schools in warmer climates to avoid colder locations. The same principle applies to being close to family, being in a rural versus urban area, etc. This list is personal and requires a bit of introspection to determine what you are and are not willing to compromise on when it comes to your education.  

5. Make the decision for YOU and ONLY you.

This point cannot be emphasized enough. At the end of the day, this is your decision. If    you’re paying for it yourself, you are entitled to apply to the schools that you want. If your gut says, “Eh, I don’t know about this program,” then don’t apply to it. The opposite is true as well. If there is something about the program that you find in your research that makes you say, “I don’t know why, but I think this could be a good fit,” add it to your list.

At the end of the day, the decision is yours and yours alone.