An Updated Mathematical Model for How Many Schools to Apply to.

Woo! More Math!

Last week, we looked at a probability-based model for how many med schools to apply to. We learned that because each medical school accepts so few students, you should apply to enough schools to give yourself a good enough chance of getting into at least one school.   To recap, here was our chart:

But last week's chart had a flaw: it treated all med schools equally, implying that each school is just as likely to accept you. Because of this flaw, it's tempting to look at the chart from last week and say, "well, every additional school I apply to marginally increases my chances of getting in, so I should apply to 50 schools." You, my friend, would be very rational for thinking this way, but of course, real life doesn't work just like our charts suggest.  

In reality, you are much more likely to get into some med schools than others (based on your stats, whether they take in-state students, and the unique qualities of the schools themselves). If you factor in statistics, in-state preferences, and a variety of other school-related characteristics, we can slash the 141 allopathic schools down to only about 20 that would be most likely to accept you (this 20 number is a little arbitrary, but I think it's accurate for most pre-meds).  

Let's modify our probability model to account for some of the variance in how different med schools are likely to see your application. This is still a vastly simplified mathematical model, but it's a little closer to how this process works, so it should yield a more accurate answer about how many schools to apply to.  

Let's divide med schools into three groups:  

Group A - 20 schools - schools that are most likely to accept you These are schools where your numbers fit and where the focus of the med school aligns with your goals (e.g. you want to do research for the rest of your career, which aligns with the research-orientation of the school). Let's say these schools are more likely than average to accept you - giving you a 9% chance of getting in.  

Group B - 20 schools - schools you have a shot at: These are schools where you can get in and that have programs you're interested in, but they aren't quite as good of a fit as the schools in Group A. Still, you have a decent shot of getting into these schools (assuming you do your homework about why you want to go to each one). These schools have an equal chance of accepting you as they do of everyone else on your list - a 6% acceptance rate  

Group C - the rest (101 schools) - schools where you don't have much of a shot These schools are either too hard for you to get in, don't accept many out-of-state students, or (most likely) are places where you have no compelling reason to attend. You don't have any family in the area, you don't know anyone who goes there, and you can't find much that appeals to you on the school's website. These schools should not be on your list, so if you apply, you only have a 1% chance of getting in.  

To recap:

  • Group A - more likely to accept you - 9%

  • Group B - somewhat likely - 6%

  • Group C - not likely at all - 1%

  • A - 20 schools

  • B - 20 schools

  • C - 101 schools

That makes our chances of getting into at least 1 school if we apply to:

  • 10 schools = 65%

  • 20 schools = 88%

  • 25 schools = 91%

  • 30 schools = 93%

Or to put that in chart form:  


Now we can see the law of diminishing returns even more in effect. The first 20 schools you apply to, assuming they are schools where you are a good fit, matter a lot. Applying to additional schools above 20 only marginally affects our chances of getting in, and schools above 30 adds very little value, since we already have a 93% chance of getting in somewhere.  

The takeaway for you: A good number of schools is between 20 and 30. You should probably not apply to fewer than 15 (unless you have unusually strong numbers), and you should probably not apply to more than 30 schools unless your numbers are really weak (and even then, it won't help you much, since you have already exhausted your highest yield options in the first 20 schools).  

This blog post could probably have just been summarized in one sentence, but then, we wouldn't have had quite so much fun with charts and graphs, would we? Now that you know how many schools to apply to, it's time to get picking! Go get your MSAR and get to work.