What Probability Teaches Us About the Right Number of Medical Schools to Apply to

Getting into a top med school is roughly equivalent to your chances of rolling snake eyes. Not impossible, but not easy.

You already know this, but it's, like, HARD to get into med school, y'know? I don't want to dwell on the obvious, but looking at the percentages can help us learn lessons about how many schools you should apply to.

  • Average acceptance rate for any given MD school: 7.23%
  • Average acceptance rate only for MD schools where out-of-state residents realistically have a shot: 6.27%

And just to give you a sense for the ranges in that data:

  • Highest acceptance rate in the country (UMass - accepts mostly in-state students): 18.80%
  • Lowest acceptance rate in the country (Mayo): 2.10%

First, given these low acceptance rates, you should choose med schools differently from how you chose colleges to apply to. The average med school (6.27%) is harder to get into than Princeton undergrad (7.28%), about the same as Yale undergrad (6.26%), and not quite as hard as Harvard (5.9%). Unlike applying to college, every med school is a "reach," and there are very few sure bets when choosing schools for your list. What this means is that you should apply to a lot more med schools than you did colleges.  

Second, probability can show us the sweet spot for how many schools you should apply to. Warning: the next bit gets a bit heavy on the math, so bear with me.   We want to know our chances of getting into AT LEAST ONE med school. To find that, we have to figure out the probability that we will not be rejected at all of our schools.  

If you apply to 2 med schools, each with an average acceptance rate of 6%, then your probability of being rejected from both would be:   P(rejected) = 94% * 94% = 88.36%   The probability of being accepted to at least one school, then, would be the opposite (so to speak) of the probability of being rejected everywhere. You could write this equation like so: P(at least 1 acceptance) = 100% - 88.36% = 11.64%   So, by applying to 2 schools, our chances of getting in somewhere would be 11.64%. Those obviously aren't great chances, but we're not going to apply to just 2 schools.  

Let's look at how the P(at least 1 acceptance) plays out when you apply to more schools. If you apply to:

  • 5 schools = 27%
  • 10 schools = 46%
  • 15 schools = 60%
  • 20 schools = 71%
  • 25 schools = 79%
  • 30 schools = 84%
  • 35 schools = 89%
  • 40 schools = 92%
  • 45 schools = 94%
  • 50 schools = 95%  

Or to put that in the form of a chart:

The sweet spot looks like it's between 20 and 30 schools. That would put our chances of getting in somewhere between 71% and 84%.   You can also see the law of diminishing returns in action here. The first 5 schools are worth an increase of 27%. The next 5 worth 19%. The next 5 worth 14%, and so on. After you apply to 35 schools, 5 additional schools only yields a 3% increase in acceptance, and schools beyond that barely increase your chances at all.  

A few takeaways from this discussion:  

1. There's no such thing as "reach, match and safety" schools when applying to med school, because each school has such a low acceptance rate. Instead, you should apply to enough schools to cover your bases.  

2. A good number of schools to apply to is between 20 and 30. It's enough to give you a good chance of getting in somewhere without overly taxing your time and your wallet (secondaries are long and expensive).  

3. The law of diminishing returns means applying to each additional school after the first 30 does not significantly increase your chances of getting in. Find the schools where you're most likely to get in, and you will give yourself a better chance of getting accepted. More on that point during our blog post next week.